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How to write your own workouts

Building your own workouts doesn’t have to be super complex or time-consuming. While there are TONS of different ways to exercise, there are some general considerations that carry over to many training styles.

For most of us, the main concern is simply being consistent and getting a mix of strength-based and cardio-based exercise. Depending on your goals and preferences, your mix may look a little different than what somebody else is doing.

Whether you go to a fully equipped gym or full-time a nomadic life in an RV, you can get stronger and fitter building your own workouts. By distilling your workouts into a few key variables, you can create simple, effective workouts in minutes. With practice, you’ll be able to craft effective workouts using just a pair of dumbbells, set of resistance bands, or just your own bodyweight and a bit of space.

First, a quick note: if you’re reading this article, you’re probably trying to understand how to write better strength workouts, whether you consider it strength training or not.

Strength workouts aren’t just for jacked dudes lifting weights equivalent to a small elephant.

If you’re using weights, dumbbells, cable machines, and other equipment at home or a gym, you’re doing some version of strength training already.

Whether you want to take on the gnarliest adventures or just want to keep up with your grandkids, strength training will help.

The main difference in your training is usually just the frequency and difficulty of your workouts. Regardless of your goals, the considerations in this guide will help you write better, more effective workouts.

Your Goals

Before we go through all the trouble of crafting the “perfect” workout, take stock of your goals to determine what you really need. Don’t let me should on you, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.

If you don’t like running and will never like running, don’t think making a plan to run will change that. Start with things you enjoy.

You’ll be much more likely to stick with your workouts for the long haul if it’s something you actually like doing.

You also need to determine what you need to develop in order to reach your goals. This is known as specificity.

For example, if you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime backcountry hunt, you’ll need good endurance to help you trek long distances, adapt to altitude, recover quickly, and then haul back your kill. You’d also need a decent level of strength to carry your gear and safely navigate challenging terrain while under load. You would likely do well with at least three dedicated cardio workouts and three strength days a week.

On the other hand, if your goals are simply to feel good during daily tasks and day-long adventures, your needs would be more modest. Three or four days of dedicated or mixed strength and cardio training a week is often sufficient for most people.

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Sets & Reps

Let’s start with the basics. A ‘set’ is the number of times you repeat a group of repetitions of an exercise. ‘Rep’ is short for repetitions, or the number of times you perform a movement in a row. For example, doing 10 squats in a row would equal one set of 10 reps.

You might see this written a few different ways, but here’s how I write it:

4 x 8 Bench Press = 4 sets of 8 reps of bench press

The number of sets and reps you do for an exercise helps your body adapt to exercise in different ways. While almost any number of repetitions, if it’s challenging enough, will develop some level of strength and muscle growth, here are a few general rep and set ranges for different goals:

Power/Skill: 5-8 sets | 1-3 reps | 8-15 total
Strength: 4-6 sets | 3-5 reps | 12-20 total
Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth): 3-5 sets | 8-12 reps | 24-30 total
Muscle Endurance: 2-4 sets | 15+ reps | 40+ total

These ranges are not set in stone, but it’s a good general guideline. Some people or goals may need more work, some may need less. But, for the practical purposes of this guide, we won’t worry about getting further into the weeds here. There are a LOT of different set/rep schemes out there, but this is a great place to start.

Adding Load

Now that we have some good general set and rep schemes, let’s review the weights you will probably use for each of those ranges.

Using the proper loads for each scheme is just as important as the number of reps and sets you do. If you don’t go heavy enough, you won’t challenge your body enough for it to adapt to the weight, which is how you get fitter. On the other hand, going heavier is not always better.

Progress is about finding the balance between too heavy, too light, too much, and too little.

Without worrying about weight percentages or anything too technical here, here’s how heavy/challenging weights would feel for each scheme:

Power/Skill: moderate weight/difficulty, possible to perform for 2 to 4 more reps per set before fatiguing; note that speed is necessary to develop power
Strength: relatively heavy, could typically only do 1 to 3 more reps per set, but not more
Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth): moderate weight, possible to do 2 or 3 more reps per set
Muscle Endurance: light weight, working up to the point of fatigue

For most goals, you typically want to finish a set feeling like you still have a few reps left in the tank. If you’re pushing to the point of fatigue every single time, you’re putting a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on your body.

The point is to expose your body to a stimulus it can adapt to. If the stimulus is too great, it can actually delay progress.

If in doubt, you typically want to feel like you’re somewhere between a 5 and 6 out of 10 at the end of your last set of the priority exercise. If you feel lower than that, it may have been too much. Higher than that and you may need to challenge yourself a bit more.

The great thing about this approach, known as autoregulation, is that it accommodates for natural fluctuations in how you feel day-to-day. This allows you to push harder when you feel capable of pushing while letting you back off when you need it. Either way, you’re going to be challenging yourself and will see progress as a result.

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Basic Movement Patterns

Our bodies can move in a huge number of ways. But, to keep things simple, we’re going to narrow movement down to six fundamental patterns: squat, hinge, lunge, upper body push and pull, and carry.

By focusing on a handful of fundamental patterns, you can continue to enjoy variety in your training while making your workouts more focused and effective.

Here’s a few quick examples of each pattern:
Squat: air squat, single-leg squat, goblet squat, barbell back squat
Hinge: glute bridge, hip thrust, kettlebell swing, deadlift
Lunge: reverse lunge, walking lunge, split squat, weighted step-up
Upper push: push-up, dip, dumbbell strict press, barbell bench press
Upper pull: pull-up, chin-up, inverted row, three-point row
Carry: rucking, suitcase carry, bear hug carry, double kettlebell rack carry

Ideally, you’d perform each movement pattern at least twice a week. Here’s three ways you could implement this each week:

2x per week: workouts include each pattern
3x per week: a lower body day, upper body day, and full-body day
4x per week: two lower body workouts and upper body workouts each

Read more about the 6 fundamental movement patterns here.

It helps to have a particular focus for each workout. For example, for a 4-workout week, one lower body workout might start with heavy squats then use a hinge and lunge pattern as accessory work. The next lower body workout might then start with heavy lunges, then use lighter hinge and squat patterns as accessory work.

Which leads me to my next point…

Exercise Order

The sequence in which you perform different exercises can make a significant impact on the effectiveness of your workouts and the results you achieve. Exercise order goes beyond simple organization; it plays a crucial role in optimizing muscle engagement and maximizing overall performance.

It’s also one of the most common mistakes I see people make when writing their own workouts.

Dynamic, heavy, and multi-joint (or compound) exercises demand more from our bodies. In general, you want to put the most difficult, most complex exercises at the beginning of your workouts. As you progress through your workout, movements would ideally become less dynamic, less complex, and lighter.

Since more complex exercises are more fatiguing, putting them first helps ensure you get the most out of each movement as you fatigue. It also helps you stay more engaged mentally, not just physically.

Think of it as training large muscle groups first, then moving on to smaller muscle groups. For example, you’d want to do pull-ups before doing bicep curls, since pull-ups are more demanding than curls.

Typical Flow

After warming up, most strength sessions are going to be more effective following this flow:

Stability: unstable or therapeutic exercises meant to improve movement quality via better joint and core integrity, such as side planks or bottoms-up kettlebell presses
Power or Practice
: dynamic and quick exercises, such as Olympic lifts or plyometrics; alternatively, movements you want to practice, such as single-leg squats or muscle-ups
Strength: relatively heavy compound movements, such as barbell deadlifts or double dumbbell front squats, or challenging movements you can only do for a few reps, like pull-ups or dips
Hypertrophy & Muscle Endurance: moderate- to light-weight movements, such as tricep extensions or weighted hip thrusts
Monostructural Conditioning: sustained, repetitive movement done at moderate to low intensity, such as running, rucking, or loaded carries
Core: exercises targeting trunk integrity, such as hollow rocks, planks, or tuck-ups
Mobility: stretches and soft-tissue work

(Note: a good workout may not feature all of these movement goals. Most will feature 1 to 4.)

Good exercise order is still important even if doing WODs or metcon-style workouts. While haphazard ordering can yield results in the short-term, it can easily lead to cranky joints and burnout over time. For this style of exercise, you might do well to start off with more dynamic and heavy exercises, then combine moderate and light loads with conditioning. This can be a more sustainable approach to training than trying to train everything at once all the time.

Now, if conditioning is your primary concern, you might start your workouts with your run, bike ride, etc. You would then follow the outlined exercise sequence from there.

Example Workouts

Now that we have the main ingredients, let’s put together a few example workouts!

Look at the first workout: it features a different priority for each exercise and three basic movement patterns, yet the session would be very effective at developing functional strength for most goals. Note the set/rep schemes and sequencing used for different schemes and movements over the course of the week.

Monday: Lower Body Strength Focus
4 x :20/:20 – Side Planks
5 x 3 – Box Jumps
5 x 4 – Barbell Back Squats
3 x 10/10 – Goblet Bulgarian Split Squats
2 x 20 – Hip Thrusts

Tuesday: Upper Body Hypertrophy Focus
4 x 8 – Barbell Strict Press
4 x 8 – Pull-ups
3 x 12 – Three-point Rows
3 x 12 – Dips
3 x 15 – Overhead Tricep Extensions

Wednesday: Conditioning Focus
45-minute Easy Run
Then, 5 Rounds
10 Tuck-ups
10 Sit-ups
:30 Front Plank

Thursday: Lower Body Hypertrophy Focus
3 x :20 – Plank Shoulder Taps
4 x 6/6 – Double Dumbbell Rack Reverse Lunges
3 x 10 – Double Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts
3 x 15 – Goblet Squats
2 x 25 – Band Sumo Deadlifts

Friday: Upper Body Strength
2 x 5/5 – Bottoms-up Kettlebell Press
5 x 3 – Clapping Push-ups
4 x 3 – Weighted Chin-ups
4 x 5 – Floor Press
5 x 1:00 – Farmer’s Carry

Saturday: Conditioning Focus
6 x 2/2 – Pistol Squat Practice
45-minute Ruck

Sunday: Rest

Next Steps

This may be enough for some people. Others may need a little more guidance. You want to know what to do, when to do it, and how to progress from where you are now to where you want to be.

That’s exactly how we help people just like you.

For those who want step-by-step guidance and a coach to keep you accountable, check out our awesome Trained For Adventure remote coaching program:

Thanks for reading! We hope this resource is helpful. Feel free to bookmark it to keep it handy.

And, if you are looking for something to make the difference in your fitness, keep this in mind while shopping around:

Fitness should empower you to do the things that excite you.​

You deserve a program that helps you become confident, strong, and capable in the outdoors (and in life). That’s exactly what we do.

All the best,

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