How to Set Up a Complete Exercise Program

Sports woman lifting weights at the gym
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If you're a new exerciser or you're trying to get back to exercise, where do you start? That's one of the most challenging questions to answer because it depends on a variety of factors like your age, fitness level, how long it's been since you've worked out, your goals, any physical issues you may have...the list goes on.

With all that in mind, how do you set up an exercise program that includes all the things you need to do to make your body strong, fit and flexible while losing weight?

First, start with the basics about exercise. Whether your goal is to lose weight, get healthy, get in better shape or all of the above, there are three main components to your program:

  • Cardio exercise - This can be any activity that gets your heart rate up from walking or jogging to cycling or taking a fitness class.
  • Weight training - You don't have to lift very heavy weights or even spend a lot of time on weight training at first, but you do need to lift. Your muscles will get stronger and the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn overall. That helps with losing weight.
  • Flexibility training - You also need to have the flexibility to go through a full range of motion of each exercise. Stretching increases your flexibility and helps your body recover after exercise.

Okay, that makes sense, but how do you put all of these together without taking up half your day? Should you do cardio and strength training on the same day?

Which one should you do first?

Those are just some of the common questions many of us have when it comes to setting up an exercise program and the answers to those questions usually depend on your schedule and what your body can handle, for the most part.

Where to Start

No one workout program is going to fit everyone, but it may help to see a sample workout schedule that would include all the workouts you need, from beginning exercisers to more advanced exercisers.

These sample workouts give you a place to start, but they're only suggestions. If you're not sure where you fall in that continuum, start here: What's Your Fitness Level?

Guidelines For Beginners

If you're new to exercise, here's where to start. First, there are a few things to remember about exercise and to think about it before you start:

  • Ease into exercise with a simple cardio program and a total body strength training routine. If that's too much, just start with cardio and let that be enough.
  • You may need extra recovery days to allow your body to rest and heal. It's normal to be sore when you try new activities, but if you can't move the next day, that means you overdid it and may need to back off your next workout.
  • A typical beginner program will include about 2-3 days of cardio and 2 days of strength training.
  • Learn how to monitor your intensity - Most beginners will start working out at a moderate intensity. That means you're at about a Level 5 on this Perceived Exertion Scale or you can use the Talk Test. If you can carry on a  somewhat breathy conversation while you're working out, that's usually a moderate intensity. 

Sample Workout for Beginners

Below is a sample program that gives you an idea of what a typical schedule would look like for someone just getting started, or getting back to, exercise.

MondayCardio - 10-30 minutes. You can choose from one of the following Sample Cardio Workouts:
TuesdayTotal Body Strength and core training. You can choose from one of the following Sample Strength Workouts:
WednesdayRest or gentle yoga/stretching
ThursdayCardio -10-30 minutes. You can do the same workout you did on Monday or a new one.
FridayTotal Body Strength and core training. It's a great idea to do the same workout you did on Tuesday so you can practice the exercises and build the strength and endurance to do more.
SaturdayRest or, optional, cardio -This is a great time to do something less structured like take a walk or a leisurely bike ride.


Guidelines for Intermediate Exercisers

  • If you've been exercising for at least 3 months consistently, you typically fall into this category.
  • If your goal is to lose weight, you want to work your way up to 20-60 minutes of cardio about 5 or more times a week. This is a great time to try interval training once or twice a week which will give you more bang for your buck.
  • Your strength training schedule will depend on what type of workouts you're doing (e.g., total body training or a split routine).
  • You can do cardio and weight training on the same day, depending on your time constraints. It doesn't matter which one you do first, so vary your routine and try different combinations to find the one that is right for you.

The following schedule includes a split routine for your upper and lower body, allowing you to focus more attention on each muscle group. This will help you increase your lean muscle tissue and strength.

Sample Intermediate Split Routine for Upper and Lower Body

ThursdayRest or gentle yoga/stretching
FridayTotal Body Strength or Circuit Training
SaturdayCardio Endurance Workout


Guidelines For Advanced Exercisers

  • If you've been exercising regularly for several months and do a variety of activities, you fall into this category.
  • As an advanced exerciser, you have lots of options for scheduling your workouts. If you want to focus on strength and muscle, you can split your strength routine even further, doing push exercises one day and pull exercises the next.
  • You can also make your cardio more intense by, incorporating high intensity interval training, high intensity circuit training, or other advanced techniques to burn calories and build endurance. 
  • The real focus should be on allowing your body to rest between high intensity workouts. Too much intensity can cause injury, overtraining, and burnout.

Sample Split Routing for Advanced Exercisers


Lower Body and Core

ThursdayRest or gentle yoga/stretching
FridayTotal Body Blast - Supersets
SaturdayHIIT Tabata Cardio Workout


These are just examples and won't fit every exerciser, but the most important thing to keep in mind is to start easy.

Start where you are, not where you want to be. It often takes weeks, even months, of experimenting with different types of exercise and schedules to find something that fits your goals, schedule, and fitness level.

And, keep in mind, you don't have to follow the same schedule every week. In fact, most of us have to change each week depending on how we're feeling or what's going on in our lives. The best thing you can do for yourself is to stay flexible and remember there's no perfect workout program for everyone.

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