Routine Design for Dummies: Build Your Own Custom Workout

Eric Knight
Written By: Eric Knight
September 10th, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
26.9K Reads
Routine Design for Dummies: Build Your Own Custom Workout
Last time you designed your own workout routine you ended up curling 7 days a week. It's time to program the smart way using these tips and template.

Hey dummy.

Yeah, you.

Don’t get mad, bro. You know that there are dozens of great workout routines out there written by the experts.

Starting Strength, 5/3/1, Cube, Westside, PHAT, etc were all created by people with tons of experience and knowledge.

I generally recommend following a routine over creating your own, but if you simply HAVE to reinvent the wheel, you may as well be smart about it. Here are my suggestions for creating a solid lifting routine.

The Anatomy of Designing Your Own Routine

These are based on human kinesiology and common sense. I can't teach anyone a decade's worth of anatomy and kinesiology, but I can help point you in the right direction. As for the common sense, if you don't have that, blame your parents and the genetics they passed on to you. Nothing I can do there.

Routine Design for Dummies - Studying a New Routine

1. Train All Body Parts Twice Weekly

For natural athletes, we want to take advantage of muscle protein synthesis rates which remain elevated 48-72 hours post-workout. Training everything around twice weekly is optimal.

2. Train With 10-12 Working Sets

For larger muscle groups like chest, back, and legs, 10-12 working sets per workout is plenty for growth. I know some people love to do high volume routines. Good for them. The average athlete doesn't need 20-25 sets for chest twice a week. That's nonsense.

Smaller muscle groups can be trained with great results with 6-8 sets twice a week. Hammering your muscles into submission will not make them grow more. Once muscle protein synthesis is peaked, adding more reps or sets isn't going to create more growth. It may increase muscular endurance.

3. Train Movements, Not Muscles

Routine Design for Dummies - Train For Movements, like Rowing

I guarantee you the guy that works up to a 500 pound squat or 350 pound bench press is going to have better CSA (cross-sectional area of a muscle) than the guy who toils away trying to work his inner-outer-upper-lower-medial-lateral insertional gooftoralis major muscle. Get better at movements and you'll get stronger. Get stronger and you'll build muscle if your nutrition is correct.

4. Ratios Matter

No, not macro ratios, but push:pull and ham:quad. If you value your shoulder health, and understand anatomy, you already know why I advise twice as much pulling volume as pushing. You have only a few major "pushers" on the torso (pec major, anterior deltoid, serratus anterior, subscapularis), but you have a ton of "pullers" (lats, posterior delts, traps, rhomboids, and three of the four rotator cuff muscles). Training should be set up accordingly.

For the knee flexors and extensors, I advise a 1:1 ratio for males and 3:2 ratio for females of hamstrings:quads. Deadlifts alone don't count - they do not actively flex the knee joint and don't recruit the entire hamstring complex. The literature shows that the greatest modifiable factor to ACL injuries is from a poor ham:quad strength ratio.

5. Biceps and Triceps

I advise at least one "extension" type of movement for triceps each time you train them. The long head of the tris originates on the scapula and assists in shoulder extension. Movements such as French presses, rolling dumbbellextensions, and rolling cable pressdowns are good choices. Likewise, each time you train biceps, I advise either an incline curl type of movement or a movement that ends with 20-30 degrees of shoulder flexion like the standing barbell curl.

Routine Design for Dummies - Train your Arms Twice per Week

6. Core Work

Train your core twice a week just like everything else. 3 sets of each of the following or something similar: Hyperextensions (or reverse hypers), planks (or body saws), oblique work (static or active), or trunk flexion/weighted trunk flexion.

7. Mobility Work

It's not difficult and it's not time consuming. Look on YouTube for "Limber 11" and do it 3-4 times per week.

8. Back to Common Sense

Don't forget common sense when you're training. Squats deeper than 100 degree knee flexion are of no greater benefit to strength or hypertrophy. Seated leg extensions are pointless. Same goes for any shoulder press or lat pull behind your head.

Create your own Workout Template

Day 1
Exercise Type Sets Reps
Pushing Movement 4 3-6
Different Push 3 8-10
Different Push 3 8-10
Vertical Pull 3 8-10
Horizontal Pull 3 8-10
Different Pull 3 8-10
Shoulder Horizontal Abduction or External Rotation (face pulls, band pull-aparts, DB or band external rotation movements) 3 8-10
Scapular Retraction (shrugs, Y or W raises, prone trap raises) 2-3 8-10
Biceps 4-6 8-10
Triceps 4-6 8-10
Day 2
Exercise Type Sets Reps
Compound Lower Body Movement 4 3-6
Second Lower Body Movement (unilateral) 3 8-10
Hip Extension 3 8-10
Direct Knee Flexion 3 8-10
Calf 3 sets straight leg, 3 sets knee bent 8-10 each
Abs 3 8-10

Repeat template for days 3 and 4, substituting exercises as needed

Pick Your Own Exercises

Drawing a blank on which exercises to choose?

To keep it from getting too overwhelming, I've narrowed down the exercise selection to 11 main body parts: chest, lats, traps, shoulders, superficial and deep trunk, elbow flexors, elbow extensors, quads, glutes, hams, calves. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it a "best exercises" list, necessarily, but it's the group of movements that I feel (based on EMG data and the risk vs. reward of each) are the optimal movements for the average healthy person with no limitations.

  1. Chest: barbell bench press, cable cross-over, incline press (around 45 degrees), band chest press
  2. Lats: pronated chin ups, dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns, cable rows
  3. Shoulders:
  4. Superficial/Deep Trunk: posterior pelvic tilts, ab wheel, bird-dogs, planks and side panks, body saws, reverse hypers, deadlifts, kneeling cable crunches
  5. Elbow Flexors: incline dumbbell curls into slight shoulder flexion, barbell curls, hammer curls
  6. Elbow Extensors: rolling dumbbell extensions, lying triceps extensions, cable pushdowns with various handles, bench dips
  7. Traps: dumbbell shrugs, Y or W raises with either dumbbells or cable attachment, reverse flyes, deadlifts
  8. Quads: squats to 90-100 degrees, TKE with a band, hack squats, lunges/split squats, deadlifts
  9. Glutes: squats, deadlifts, glute bridges, hip thrusts
  10. Hamstrings: seated leg curls, lying leg curls, glute-ham raises, Nordic eccentric hamstring curls, deadlifts
  11. Calves: donkey calf raises, toe presses on the leg press, seated leg press

Have you had success with creating your own workout routines? Share your results in the comments!

Posted on: Wed, 01/27/2016 - 01:43

For core work it say to do hyperextensions or something similar is that already listed in the template? Wpull planks, trunk flexion, and oblique work be it for abs or does that include the hyperextension. I made a workout with one of each exercise and I am unsure if that mean I need to still add hyperextension or if one of the other exercises is all I need.

Posted on: Sat, 01/30/2016 - 22:02

The core work- 3 sets of EACH of those choices listed- is separate from, and addition to, anything else in the template.

Posted on: Fri, 09/11/2015 - 04:46

Great article, one question though
The first two points are "train twice a week" and "use 10-12 working sets" so when you are setting it up, is it 10-12 sets per week or per workout? So if it was per workout you would do 20-24 sets per week?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Fri, 09/11/2015 - 09:25

10-12 per session, so 20-24 per week.

Posted on: Fri, 09/11/2015 - 18:15

The article actually says 10-12 per workout.