How To Develop A Workout Plan

How To Develop A Workout Plan | EMAC Certifications

How To Develop A Workout Plan

Regardless of your fitness goal, if you want to know how to develop a workout plan, the same fitness principles apply. To develop your own workout plan you really only need to know three things:

  1. What causes the body to make a change
  2. How to adjust strength training and cardio variables for specific goals
  3. Systems to arrange your weight training workout session

These concepts of fitness program design are simple to understand. And, once you know them, it’s easy to make educated decisions for your workout plan. Further, as fitness trends come and go, these scientific principles do not. Therefore, it helps you maintain your physical activity and achieve different goals. 

Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on muscle mass, one thing in fitness remains the same. Consistency and compliance overrule every exercise science principle. This means, you can create a workout plan like a fitness pro. But, if you’re inconsistent in following through, then knowing how to develop a workout plan doesn’t matter. Yes, your workouts should be safe and effective, they should also be something a person can stick to. Therefore, as you build the workout program, consider how you can stick to it even when outside stressors distract you from your routine.

For example, self efficacy is correlated with exercise adherence. Self efficacy is simply the belief that an individual has about their ability to do something. So, it makes sense that you’ll stick to a workout if it involves exercises you feel confidently about. Further, additional research shows several factors impacting exercise adherence. These factors include:

  • Self monitoring
  • Education on expectations
  • Progress information and feedback
  • Goal setting

Therefore, as you learn how to develop a workout, keep in mind the overriding and more powerful force in fitness success. 

Principles Of Fitness Program Design

Principles of program design are foundational concepts on how the body responds to exercise, or lack thereof. They are the same regardless of whether you want to develop a weight loss program or one to build muscle. 

Principle Of Individual Differences

This principle acknowledges that each person has a different genetic makeup and, therefore, will have different responses to diet and exercise. But, don’t assume genetics limit your ability to achieve a fitness goal. While each person is different, the laws that govern how a body responds to movement do not.

You should know, the principle of individual differences only becomes more apparent as some gets closer to their outcome goal. Therefore, it shouldn’t be thought of as a reason why someone can’t get to their goal. In fact, it helps personal trainers set expectations and develop realistic goals when building a fitness program. 

General Adaptation Syndrome

This is one of the most important concepts to grasp when you think of how a body makes change. The human body, and most organisms, strive for balance. Therefore, when some stressor occurs, the body will find ways to adapt to the stressor to restore balance. The General adaptation syndrome (GAS) is the term to describe how the body experiences and responds to training stress. There are three stages:

  • Alarm Stage. This is where the previously balanced body experiences a stress or stimulus. It’s the initial reaction to a stressor and triggers changes in the body to respond.
  • Resistance Stage. Here the body is working to deal with the stressor. It’s making changes and adapting so it can continue to function even under the new stress.
  • Exhaustion Stage. When the stress continues over time and to the point where the body’s system can’t handle it, it breaks down. This can begin on a microscopic level of damage and increase into joint pain, soft tissue damage, and even emotional fatigue.

This concept is important because a workout program should push the body into the resistance stage, but avoid the exhaustion stage. This means, you want to induce enough stress, and for long enough, to see change. But, you don’t want it to be so intense or for so long that the individual can no longer manage it.

Overload Principle

The overload principle simply states that the training has to be greater than that what the body normally encounters. It perfectly fits in with the GAS and means if you want to see change from your workout, you have to expose your body to change. This is important because individuals only need to do enough work for their body to have a need to adapt. For some, this can be exercising as little as two or three times per week. However, keep in mind that the harder and more intense one trains, the harder and more intense the workouts need to become to continue seeing a difference. 

SAID Principle

This stands for specific adaptations to imposed demands. Simply put, it means the body will adapt based on what you are asking of it. It’s another straightforward program design principle. If you want to get stronger, you need to lift heavier weight. If you want to improve your cardiorespiratory endurance, your cardio workout session needs to be longer. There are key types of adaptations. Knowing these helps you realize the variables in the fitness program you can change in order to see specific outcomes. Adaptations in exercise include:

  • Mechanical Adaptations. This refers to the motions of an exercise and the amount of resistance placed on it. For example, if you want to develop upper body muscle endurance, your routine should have upper body exercises with low to moderately intense amounts of weight.
  • Metabolic Adaptations. These are the changes the body makes in response to the energy pathway in use. Therefore it is associated most closely with how long you do an exercise or activity. For example, if you want to be great at sprinting, your cardio training should not focus on long, sustained runs, but short bursts of fast runs.
  • Neuromuscular Adaptations. This is the ability of the nervous system to communicate to the muscular system to produce change. It’s common in balance training and power training because these forms of exercise target the nervous system specifically.

Use/Disuse Principle

The Use/Disuse Principle means “use it or lose it”. Just as your body adapts to stressors that you place on it, it will also adapt to inactivity. This means, if you achieve the gains you’re looking for, you have to continue training at least to the extent that you got you there in the first place to make sure the body doesn’t revert to where it was before. 

Acute Variables

The most fundamental element of designing effective workouts are the acute variables. These are the adjustable components of a training session to achieve a specific result. Together, these acute variables are like ingredients in a recipe. They must be used in consideration of one another to get the outcome you’re looking for.

Repetitions Or Reps

A repetition is one complete movement of an exercise and includes the eccentric, isometric, and concentric contraction phases of a muscle group surrounding a joint. In an example of a squat, one rep would be flexing at the knees and the hips to descend toward the ground, then pausing (isometric), and then extending through the knees and hips to return to the starting position.


This refers to how quickly a repetition occurs. To be exact, the tempo includes the amount of time (in seconds) the muscle is under tension for the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases of a contraction. For example, a “Slow” tempo can be three seconds during the descent of a squat, two seconds isometrically holding the flexed position, and then one second returning to the starting position. 


The completion of a grouping of reps is a set. One set will include the repetitions of a single exercise before resting or moving onto a different exercise.


Completing a circuit involves finishing all the rounds of the selected exercises. For example, if you’re doing a squat, pushup, and then cable row for three sets, then completing the circuit would be after all three sets of each exercise (or round) are finished.

Rest Intervals

The amount of time taken in between sets or rounds is a rest. Because alternating body part sets are often grouped together, it’s important to differentiate a set rest, round rest, or circuit rest. We’ll use the squat, pushup, row example. The set rest might be zero, whereas the round rest is 30 seconds, and the circuit rest is one minute. It’s important to closely observe rest intervals in between sets using the same muscle groups. This is because changes in the body adapt based on rest. For example, if you’re trying to achieve a 90% intensity, you won’t be able to do this if you aren’t resting in between using the same muscle group.


This is the cumulative work performed within a time period, usually a training session. It is sets times reps. However, you can also calculate volume over the course of a week. This will help determine recovery to avoid overtraining and let adaptations take place.


This is sometimes called load or weight. However, it is the amount of effort given for one set. In resistance training, intensity is usually based on an individual’s one rep max (1RM). For example, if you are doing a bench press with a 90% intensity, the amount of weight is equal to one percent of your 1RM.

Exercise Selection

The type of exercise you choose is just as important as any other of the acute variables. Exercise selection is the common motion to activate a specific muscle group. For example, a chest press can be done many ways. It can be a bench press, pushup, stability ball chest press and more. Therefore, use exercise selection to identify the muscles and joint motions. Then, use “modality” to identify equipment or modifies of the exercise.


A modality is how the exercise is expressed. For example, a workout program may include a chest press. The modality could be performing a dumbbell chest press on a stability ball. Typically, the exercise selection and the modality will combine to be the naming convention of the exercise. In our example, the name of the exercise would be “Stability ball dumbbell chest press”. Common modalities include a resistance band, kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell, stability ball, sandbag, battle ropes, and cable machines.

Resistance Training Systems

There are different ways to structure the strength training portion of a workout. They all have research supporting different gains. The following are different ways to structure a muscular development resistance training program.

  • Vertical loading- This is where each exercise of the workout or circuit is completed first, before beginning the second set. For example, if you have nine exercises planned for your workout, you would complete one set of all the exercises before moving onto the next set.
  • Horizontal loading- This is where one exercise is performed for all of the sets before moving onto the next exercise. Because rest is so important to see changes, it doesn’t make good use of time in the gym for most people unless they are only training one specific body part at a time.
  • Single set- In this type of workout, the client performs one set per exercise. This type of structure works well for a new or deconditioned client.
  • Multiple set system- The multiple set system can be structured in different ways. However, it includes more than just the one set of an exercise and helps to induce stress for the body to adapt to, especially in the case of increasing muscle size
  • Superset- This type of training alternates between two different exercises which repeat one after another. It’s common to, and research shows, that opposing muscle groups for supersets are great to reduce injury and increase time efficiency during a workout.
  • Drop set- This type of system where the set continues past the normal rep range of heavy weight until failure occurs. Then, the load lessens and the set continues until failure again. These steps repeat several times and should be reserved for more advanced bodybuilders.
  • Split routine- Here, body parts are broken up and trained on different days. More than one exercise is used for the body part and this form of training is common with bodybuilders who are trying to build muscle.
  • Peripheral heart action- Also known as PHA, this is where upper body and lower body exercises are alternately performed after one another as part of a round. It helps increase the heart rate similarly to a cardio workout and therefore is good for endurance and caloric burn. It’s a perfect system for developing a weight loss program.
  • Pre-exhaustion- In this system, the prime mover is isolated and exhausted before doing the compound movement (more than one joint). For example, performing chest flys immediately prior to doing a bench press.
  • Post-exhaustion. This is the reverse of pre-exhaustion. Here, the compound movement is performed first and then the isolated exercise is after. For example performing squats first and then leg extensions.
  • Pyramid training. Here the first set begins with a higher repetition range and lower weight. As the client progresses through the set, the rep range lowers and the intensity, or resistance increases.
  • Reverse pyramid. This structure includes higher intensity, lower sets first. The client continues through the sets (after appropriate rest) and then ends with lower intensity and higher rep ranges. 

Putting It All Together To Develop A Workout Plan

Even though the information going into building a workout seems excessive, it’s applications can remain simple. To develop a workout plan, you should ask these questions:

  • What is the goal of working out?
  • How do I modify the acute variables to achieve the goals?
  • What equipment do I have available to me?
  • How much time do I have?
  • How many times per week will I be doing weight training?
  • What resistance training system works the best to achieve the goal?
  • What type of resistance training system will I enjoy the most and keep me engaged?

Once you nail how to develop a workout plan, you might be ready to help others with their fitness goals too. It can be for fun, a side job, or a new career. Becoming an EMAC Certified Personal Trainer is the most engaging way to learn concepts about what you already love- fitness. Enroll today and learn at your own pace to be a personal trainer. 


Dalle Grave, R., Calugi, S., Centis, E., El Ghoch, M., & Marchesini, G. (2011). Cognitive-behavioral strategies to increase the adherence to exercise in the management of obesity. Journal of obesity, 2011, 348293.

Collado-Mateo, D., Lavín-Pérez, A. M., Peñacoba, C., Del Coso, J., Leyton-Román, M., Luque-Casado, A., Gasque, P., Fernández-Del-Olmo, M. Á., & Amado-Alonso, D. (2021). Key Factors Associated with Adherence to Physical Exercise in Patients with Chronic Diseases and Older Adults: An Umbrella Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(4), 2023.

Krieger J. W. (2010). Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(4), 1150–1159.

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