If you can build a muscle, you can build a mindset.
Are you at the beginning of your fitness journey and want to design your own workouts? Then you’re in the right place. Read this article and learn to apply basic principles of exercise science to create your own full-body training sessions.
First of all, I’ll be completely honest with you: A single blog article is no substitute for a personal trainer or coach, who can teach you correct form and draw upon their expertise and experience to craft a training program suited to your current fitness level, skills, and individual body.
But not everyone has access to a coach, and some training is better than no training.
As a beginner, what you need the most are consistency and practice, so you can get great results for months with a simple, well-structured full-body workout.
I trained this way three days a week for six months when I started bodybuilding. I have clients who do the same, even if they’re not beginners anymore, and still get incredible results.
Now that I’ve spent long enough singing the praises of full-body training, let’s get into the basics.
In order to create a science-based muscle-building workout, you need to understand:
Ready? Strap in.
1. Exercise selection:
Training full-body two or three times per week means that each session is going to target every major muscle group in your body:
Compound exercises – like squats, deadlifts, and bench press – train multiple joints and muscles at once, so they build muscle in the most time-efficient way possible. Compounds will therefore be the staple of your training.
If you have the time, you can include exercises for smaller muscles, like biceps, triceps, and lateral delts. These are called isolation exercises because they target a single joint and muscle, like biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises.
However, compound exercises for bigger muscle groups will also train your smaller ones in an indirect way. So, if you’re short on time, make sure you do your compounds and don’t worry about biceps curls!
To choose your exercises, you can consult online databases like ExRx.net.
Lastly, ensure your exercises tick the following boxes:
As a last piece of advice, you can design two full-body workouts, with different exercises to train the same muscles, and alternate them in an ABAB fashion. For example, on Day 1 you could do leg press for your quads, then on Day 2 you could do Bulgarian split squats instead.
This way, you won’t get bored, you’ll learn a variety of lifts, and you’ll train your muscles in a variety of ways across the week.
2. Exercise order:
The two main questions to ask yourself about exercise order are:
At the beginning of a training session, you have the most amount of energy, so you’ll perform better than fifty minutes into it.
That’s why your first exercises should be:
As a beginner, you want to develop each muscle for a well-rounded physique, and you’re still learning proper technique, so your priority is to keep injury risk to a minimum. Therefore, your first exercises should be the most complex.
When you’re more experienced, you can switch up the exercise order from most important to least important in order to bring up your weakest body parts.
In general, compound lifts are more challenging than isolation moves, and lower body compound exercises are more difficult than upper body ones.
Isolation exercises for smaller muscles are best suited to the end of a session as they don’t require much technical ability or effort.
For example, if you’re doing a dumbbell press, a lat pull-down, a barbell back squat, and a cable triceps extension, a smart way to set up your exercise order would be as follows:
The role each muscle plays during a lift can influence exercise order, too.
For instance, the agonists are the muscles at work during an exercise, whereas the antagonists oppose the agonists and are therefore at rest when the agonists are engaged.
In other words, your muscles can be “paired” into agonists and antagonists as follows:
To create a well-structured workout, you can follow up an exercise for one muscle group with another for the “opposing” muscle group, for example a bent-over row (for the upper back) and a flat dumbbell press (for the chest).
This way, your fatigued upper back gets a chance to rest during the flat dumbbell press, whereas your chest will still be fresh for pressing because it was at rest during the row.
The number of sets you do will affect the rate at which you build muscle. In simple terms, doing more sets can build more muscle, but only to a point. Moreover, as a beginner, you’ll be able to grow a lot from fewer sets than you’ll need as a more advanced lifter.
So you don’t have to worry about doing too many sets too soon, a big mistake a lot of people make (including me!).
At this stage, focus on quality over quantity: Start with two sets per exercise and work up to three or four over time, as you get stronger and more proficient with each exercise.
When you have at least six months to a year of solid training under your belt, you may need to do more sets to continue making progress. Until then, instead of trying to do as many sets as possible, make sure your form is the best it can be on every single rep.
As a rule of thumb, you can do more reps with a lighter load and fewer reps with a heavier load, relative to the maximum you can lift for one rep (1-rep max or 1RM).
Lower reps done with heavier loads are better for the first exercises in your session for two main reasons:
On the other hand, higher reps with lower loads are less risky and can give your smaller muscles a nasty pump, so they’re generally better for isolation exercises.
5. Rest intervals:
You don’t need to overcomplicate this. As a rule of thumb, when your heart rate and breathing rate return to normal, and you feel mentally ready for another set, you’re golden.
In general, you’ll need around two to five minutes between lower-rep sets of compound lifts, particularly for the lower body, and one to two minutes between higher-rep sets of isolation exercises.
This is another aspect of training that many people (again, me included!) can get way too anal about.
Make sure you lift the weight explosively, then lower it under control, without letting gravity or momentum help you out, as this would take some tension away from your target muscles – and you need all the tension you can get to grow!
Putting It All Together
This is an example of a basic full-body workout with some isolation work for arms, based on everything I’ve talked about so far:
Comment your training session below and I’ll give you some feedback on it!
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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