How to Build Your First Workout Program (In Three Steps)

One of the more exciting aspects of being a strength coach is programming. There are infinite options and training styles, techniques, exercises, and methods to get an athlete where they need to be. This leaves a lot of room for creativity, but with that creativity there must be logic, which is where programming gets blurry.

For the sake of brevity, at the end of the article we’ll create a linear styled month long program focused on strength and hypertrophy. Each workout will contain a compound movement, then have complimenting accessory lifts. I go into more detail on each step after the “How To” list below.

How to Build Your First Workout Program

A good program should have a flow to it and a centralized goal behind each movement. Haphazardly plugging in exercises in no strategic order can be counterproductive to your time and energy. This article will aim to teach you about a few of the aspects that make a good program, how to select exercises, and other variables to achieve a your goals.

The first step to creating a program is to decide on a timeline and a periodization scheme. A timeline will be your road map, it contains the route you’ll be taking to reach the goal you desire. Your periodization scheme will act as the details and stops within the road map, and the scheme you choose will function as the calculated checkpoints for your journey.

Step 1: Choose a Timeline & Periodization Scheme

The first step to creating a program is to decide on a timeline and a periodization scheme. A timeline will be your road map, and it contains the route you’ll be taking to reach the goal you desire.

Step 2: Select Frequency

Now that you’ve selected a timeline and periodization model, which will serve as a means to progressively overload, we have to figure out how often we should work out. For the recreational lifter, then I’d recommend going off of broader recommendations for training frequency.

Step 3: Choose a Mix of Combination and Accessory Exercises

The general rule of thumb is to begin workout sessions with compound movements and then progress to more specific accessory exercises as you become fatigued.

1. Understanding Movements

Compound Movements

Compound movements are things like your squats, deadlifts, and presses. These movements are multi-joint and require ample neural drive, mental focus, coordination, technique, and muscle recruitment. For these reasons, we’ll be programming these movements at the beginning of the workout, which many programs also do.

Compound movements are what give you the most bang for your buck in training, so it’s essential we put most of our energy and focus into strengthening them. Not to mention, if you’re a competitive or prospective competitive strength athlete, then these movements need to be strong because they’re your competition movements.

Powerlifting CompoundsWeightlifting Compounds
Back SquatClean & Jerk
DeadliftSnatch
Bench Press

Accessory Movements

Accessory lifts are your smaller, or less demanding movements that help create balance in the body and compliment the compounds. Athletes use accessories to improve upon weaknesses, imbalances, and extra volume on targeted muscle areas. Below are a couple examples of upper and lower body accessory movements.

Upper AccessoriesLower Accessories
Incline/Decline DB PressesLunges
Pull-UpsLeg Extensions / Curls
Face PullsCalve Raises
DB Shoulder PressHip Thrusts
Tricep PushdownsRomanian Deadlift


[Learn the DO’s and DONT’s of accessory lifts and assistance work.]

Different athletes and strength sports will require different accessory lifts, but for this article we’re going to cover broader accessory example exercises that could be used in a variety of settings with benefit.

2. Understanding Training Variables

We’ll cover five primary training variables that can be accounted for when creating a program. These five variables listed below in no particular order will weigh the heaviest in terms of programming and moving you towards your goals.

Primary Training Variables

Rest In-Between Sets

Rest is an important factor in a well-made workout program, and can also be used as a training tool. Additionally, you can use rest as a tool to track progressive overload when working towards a goal. For example, if your goal is to progress your muscular endurance, then using a set rest time to hit a certain weight in a certain time frame could help you track gains in a calculated way.

[For more information, check out this guide to rest and what the science suggests about optimal in-between set rest times.]

There are multiple ways to assess how long you should rest, but for the sake of argument and for this program, we’ll use the below timelines for each type of movement. The below ranges will coincide with how the body’s energy systems will respond to various movements and intensities, along with giving them adequate time to recover.

  • Compound Movements: 3-6 minutes rest
  • Accessory Movements: 60 seconds-2 minutes rest

For the beginner, and for this program, the goal is to hit all of your reps and sets. In terms of rest, use the above time frames, and lift when you feel mentally/physically ready to achieve the reps in your next set. If you need an extra minute for your final set to hit the required reps, then take it.

Reps

It’s generally agreed upon that different rep allotments will equate to different training adaptations. This first program will focus on keeping the compound movement in the general and functional strength range, and the accessory work in the general strength and hypertrophy rep range.

AdaptationRep Scheme
Power & Maximal Strength1-3
General & Functional Strength4-6
Hypertrophy & General Strength7-10
Muscular Endurance11+

Intensity

Exercise intensity will have a correlation with rep schemes, and the lower reps will often contain heavier, more demanding weights. On the flip side, higher reps will be performed with lighter weights. We’ll break down three ways to find your exercise intensity for the prescribed reps and sets within the workout.

1. Beginner: Let the reps dictate the weight. A beginner won’t have the best idea of their true 1-rep max, and most likely won’t know what 80% intensity feels like, or 80% of their 1-RM. As a lifter progresses in the sport, they’ll gain a better understanding of this, but for the beginner, the focus should be hitting the prescribed reps and sets without missing reps. True beginners can aim to slowly add weight each workout, as long as they can hit their written reps and sets.

2. Intermediate/Advanced: Try to program training intensities. Intermediate and advanced athletes can both benefit from using a prescribed training intensities. This intensity will shadow the workout’s micro, meso, and macrocycle, which will correlate to the periodization scheme you’re using. Below is a basic table of rep ranges with often prescribed intensities (these can vary slightly between athletes & coaches). 

Rep RangeTraining Intensity
1-390-100% 1-RM
4-675-85%
7-1060-75%
11+<60%

 

[Check out this guide to build your 1-RM calculator in Excel, of if you’re interested in testing your 1-RM, check out these three methods.]

3. Advanced: Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale. This is an awesome tool for athletes and coaches, but it takes a lot of experience and understanding to use. The only issue that comes along with RPE is that athletes need a basic understanding of what their body can handle under certain loads, and must have an idea of what autoregulation is, which isn’t a realistic ask for beginners.

[Learn the in’s and out’s of two useful RPE scales you can start implementing.]

Exercise Selection and Order

The exercises you choose for your program are an important factor and should reflect what your primary goals are. For example, if you’re a powerlifter who wants to improve their squat, then it would make more sense to program back squats a little more frequently, as this will have direct carry over to your sport. This stands true for other strength sports and the order of exercises should reflect your focus and energy allotment.

For example, every workout your goal should be progress in your compound movement, then follow it with less demanding exercises to create balance and remedy possibly weaknesses/imbalances.

Back Workout

  • Barbell Deadlift or Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Back Accessory
  • Back Accessory

Leg Workout

  • Squat
  • RDL
  • Leg Accessory
  • Core Accessory

Outside of your sport specific movements, it’s also wise to account for the ordering of exercises you choose, as mentioned above. A general rule of thumb is to program compound movements, ones that entail more strength, power, and mental focus, at the beginning of a workout. These are the movements that are giving you the most bang for your buck, so it makes sense to expend the most amount of energy on them.

Although, there may be occasions when you program multiple compound movements in a day, and that’s okay as well. If you plan to do so, then I’d recommend programming the highest intensity movement first, then proceeding as you see fit per your capabilities.

For example, if I’m squatting and deadlifting in the same day, but my squats are at a higher intensity (3 x 3 @ 88%) and my deadlifts are something like 3 x 6 @75%, then I’d put the squats first. Then again, there could be occasions when this doesn’t ring true when specific adaptations are being sought out like fatigue accumulation, but for the sake of this article we’ll use that general program logic as our main reference.

Frequency

Another important variable to account for when creating your own workout program is frequency. For frequency, you could look at how often you’re working out in a week, or even approach it with how often you’re hitting a certain lift or muscle group a week. What’s most important is that you’re choosing a frequency that’s realistic for your energy and time allotments.

Another way to look at frequency is from a balance point of view. Are you training everything equally, or are you leaning towards your strengths? This is a good thought to keep in mind to avoid creating excessive imbalance in things like the pushing and pulling musculatures of the body (think over developed chest guy).

3. Building Your Workout Plan

Once you understand different types of movements and variables that construct a sound program, it’s time to begin building, aka the fun part. Full disclosure, this article is intended to help an athlete build a basic workout template, and will most likely not be the best bet for those heavily involved in a specific sport like powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, and strongman.

Choosing a Timeline & Periodization Scheme

In periodization, there are three cycles (also called blocks) to breakdown training timelines: Microcycle (smallest), Mesocycle (middle), and Macrocycle (overview). Coaches will use these timelines, cycles, or blocks to help dictate their workouts per an athlete’s needs, goals, and sport. Check out the visual example below.

There are multiple types of periodization programs, but for the beginner I’d recommend using a linear model. This model will support consistent calculated growth over a gradual period of time. If you’re interested in learning about the other periodization models and when to use them, check out this article I wrote in 2017.

For this article, we’re going to create a month long mesocycle and program accordingly to a linear periodization. Basically, we’re going to build a month long workout with each workout containing a slight progressive overload on movements.

Selecting Frequency

Now that you’ve selected a timeline and periodization model, which will serve as a means to progressively overload, we have to figure out how often we should work out. For the recreational lifter, then I’d recommend going off of broader recommendations for training frequency. A jumping off point could be the recommendations below from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

  • Novice: 2-3x/Week
  • Intermediate: 3 for total body training, 4 for split-routines
  • Advanced: 4-6x/Week

The above ranges will work for a majority of casual lifters, but if you’re interested in specific training adaptations that accompany different work out frequencies, then I’d recommend giving this article a read.

So, now we’ve selected a month long workout with a linear periodization. For this article, we’re going to to create a program that takes place 3x a week. You can add a day if you’d like, and if you choose to do so, then I’d recommend looking into working with an upper/lower split.

Choosing Exercises

One of the final parts of creating your workout could be considered the nuts and bolts. This is when you select the exercises you’d like to use, along with their reps and sets. These will all coincide with the above two factors and should be constructed in a thoughtful way.

Compounds

Below I’ve made a few lists of a few upper and lower body compounds movements you can select to use in your program. I’ve also linked relevant guides we’ve written on each exercise. Note, I didn’t include the Olympic lifting movements for this program. 

Lower CompoundsUpper Compounds
Back SquatBench Press
Front SquatPull-Up
Leg PressPush Press
Deadlift
Trap Bar Deadlift

 

Accessories 

Similar to the compound movements, I’ve made a list of a few lower and upper body accessory movements. There are way more accessory movement than listed below, so I’d recommend using these as jumping off points, then catering movements towards your needs.

Lower + Back AccessoriesUpper Accessories
LungesDumbbell Bench
RDLOverhead Press
Glute Ham RaiseFloor Press
Hip ThrustTricep Movements
Good Morning Bicep Movements

 

Core

The last list of movements below contain core exercises. For the month long, three days a week workout, we’re going to program a core movement on each day. Below are a couple good options to get you started.

Sets, Reps, and Starting Points

Okay, so now we’ve selected a time frame, a periodization model, have an idea of exercises we want to include, now it’s time to account for reps, sets, and where to start our weights.

Sets 

Sets in this workout will be set with static numbers to simplify things. For example, our compounds and accessories won’t contain ranges for sets.

Reps

In compound movements we’ll use set reps because it will be slightly easier to track progress, then for accessories we’ll use ranges to track progress.

For example in accessory movements, if the range is 3 sets for 10-12 reps and you’re able to hit a weight for 3 sets and 10 reps one week, then your goal would be increase the amount of reps you do with that weight until you can perform it for 12 reps all 3 sets. This allows for a slower progression without missing reps due to premature jumps.

Starting Point

This point was mentioned above in the intensity section, but before beginning, you should have an idea of how you plan to program your progressive overload. Below are a couple recommendations a novice and intermediate athlete could use.

  • Novice: Let the reps dictate the weight, then make small jumps. Your goal will be to simply hit a consistent weight for the given sets and reps without missing reps. Once you can hit a weight for your sets and reps increase the weight by 2.5-10 lbs the next week depending on how easy it was.
  • Intermediate: If you have an okay understanding of your 1-RM maxes, or rough estimates, then you’ll use percentages to dictate your compound sets. In the program below, I’ll make some jumping off percentages for you to follow. Each week the percentage will go up 2.5%.

Your Workout

Now from what was learned above and the information provided, it’s time to fill in your template. I only wanted to do one month because it allows you to gain a feel of programming and it isn’t incredibly time consuming, so you can make adjustments if you need them after 4-weeks.

When selecting your exercises, you can account for your rest time in-between sets if you would like. If you prefer not to set rest times, then rest until you feel equipped to hit your full sets and reps without missing (within reason, of course).

Quick notes: All exercises are to be performed one at a time unless you read something like C1 & C2. This will then mean you’re creating a superset, which you can then decide to perform right after one another, or with a scheduled amount of rest in-between. Once again, your goal is to hit the sets and reps.

Last thing to keep in mind, take rest days in-between workouts. Since this program is three days a week, then you can adjust your days as you feel fit.

Week 1

Day 1: Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets x 6 reps / 70% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets x 10-12 reps / time allotment (planks etc)

Day 2: Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets x 5 reps / 70% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets x 10-15 reps

Day 3: Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets x 5 reps / 75% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (back focus: pull-ups, DB rows, etc): 3 sets 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory:  4 sets x 8-10 reps / time allotment (planks, etc)

Week 2

Day 4: Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets x 6 reps / 72.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets x 10-12 reps / time allotment (for planks)

Day 5: Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets x 5 reps / 72.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets x 10-15 reps

Day 6: Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets x 5 reps / 77.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (back focus: pull-ups, DB rows, etc): 3 sets 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory:  4 sets x 8-10 reps / time allotment (planks, etc)

Week 3

Day 7: Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets x 6 reps / 75% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets x 10-12 reps / time allotment (for planks)

Day 8: Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets x 5 reps / 75% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets x 10-15 reps

Day 9: Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets x 5 reps / 80% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (back focus: pull-ups, DB rows, etc): 3 sets 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory:  4 sets x 8-10 reps / time allotment (planks, etc)

Week 4

Day 10: Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets x 6 reps / 77.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets x 10-12 reps / time allotment (for planks)

Day 11: Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets x 5 reps / 77.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets x 10-15 reps

Day 12: Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets x 5 reps / 82.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (back focus: pull-ups, DB rows, etc): 3 sets 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory:  4 sets x 8-10 reps / time allotment (planks, etc)

The Big Picture

In the world of strength training, there are a million ways to get from point A to point B. There’s never a one-size-fits-all methodology, so you may find this workout isn’t conducive to your needs, which is okay. What’s most important is understanding the “why” when you’re in the gym. Why are you doing what you’re doing, and is there a sound reason behind it?

If you’re a newer strength athlete and want to get serious about lifting, then I’d recommend seeking out a knowledgeable coach, as this will often be the best route to learn quickly. Although, if you want to take a swing at programming and learning how your body responds to different stimuli, then hopefully this article was able to help in some way.

TL;DR: Choose exercise, do exercise, get gains.

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Jake holds a Master's in Sports Science and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Jake serves as one of the full time writers and editors at BarBend. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has spoken at state conferences on the topics of writing in the fitness industry and building a brand. As of right now, Jake has published over 1,000 articles related to strength athletes and sports. On the side of writing, Jake works as a part-time strength coach and works with clients through his personal business Concrete Athletics in Hoboken and New York City.