What’s the perfect workout schedule?

Planning a workout schedule will tell you exactly what you need to do each week to stay in shape

Woman working out
(Image credit: Getty)

Pilates, weightlifting, HIIT workouts, running—with so many options out there, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what your weekly routine should be, how often you should exercise and how long each session should last. Although your perfect workout schedule depends on your goals and abilities, there are some general principles that you can follow.

How often should you work out?

While some people live for the gym, many of us want to achieve results while doing as little exercise as possible. So, what’s an ideal workout schedule?

“If you’re starting out, you don’t want to go overboard, so begin with a moderate amount of exercise—I’d recommend around two to three times per week, ideally every other day so you can have a recovery day in between. It’s all about consistency, so you want to commit to something you can sustain,” says Noelle McKenzie, New York-based fitness Instagrammer, personal trainer and co-founder of Leading Edge Personal Trainers.

Those who have been working out for a while can do more training sessions per week (McKenzie recommends four or five), but there are other ways to advance your workouts without increasing frequency. “You can increase the number of reps and sets you’re doing or the weight you’re moving to make it more taxing on your body,” says McKenzie. “Another way to ramp up your program is to slow down the movement, increasing the time under tension.”

Women doing press-ups

(Image credit: Getty)

What type of workouts should you do?

There are so many forms of exercise out there, from boxing and circuits to yoga and pole fitness, that even just thinking about all of them is exhausting. Moving your body in any way is beneficial, but McKenzie recommends strength training as the most effective method. “I don’t usually recommend HIIT or steady state cardio for staying in shape. You can burn fat and build lean muscle just through strength training. Moving a load that’s taxing will elevate your heart rate as well as help promote muscle growth and prevent bone density loss, so strength training is a win-win,” she explains.  

McKenzie also suggests incorporating mobility training into your schedule, so break out the best yoga mats you've got. “With mobility work, you’re also building strength while improving your flexibility and range of motion. This can be very beneficial for improving your workouts in general.”

Alongside dedicated workouts, it’s also a good idea to fit in at least 10,000 steps per day. “Getting in your steps is definitely important—there have been studies that show it literally adds years to your life, so you don’t want to forget the value in basic movement as well. Your workouts are only a few hours out of your week. What really counts is what you’re doing for those other hours.”

Woman stretching

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Should you train different muscle groups on different days?

You’ve probably heard people talking about how they’re struggling to walk after “leg day” or that they’re going to hit the gym up later for “arms”, but isolating muscle groups isn’t strictly necessary in a workout schedule. 

“With most of our clients, we do total body workouts to make sure we hit each body part as many times as possible during the week in order to promote more hypertrophy (muscle growth). If you’re trying to change your whole physique, it’s not just about how hard you train, it’s about repetition and hitting each muscle group consistently,” says McKenzie.

If, however, you’re trying to balance out your body and focus on building one specific part, then you might want to split your workouts. “Someone wanting more muscular arms, for example, might do total body twice a week and then an upper body workout.”

How long should your workout last?

The length of a workout depends on what you're doing and what you're looking to achieve from it. Happily, according to McKenzie, you can have an effective workout in as little as 10 minutes. “A good 10-minute mobility workout, for example, would be to do three rounds of windmill, prone cobra and traveling bear plank. The key is making sure you execute excellent form and range of motion, and intensify each exercise through good mind and body connection,” she explains. "A lengthier workout is also effective if you are doing, for instance, circuit training."

For strength training, you will likely do a longer session. "If you're trying to add volume to your workout, which you need to do for hypertrophy,  you would ideally go through 3-4 sets of your workout. On average this should take between 30-60 minutes to complete." 

The takeaway

For those wanting to stay in shape, the perfect workout schedule should include around three full-body strength training sessions per week, with rest days in between, plus one mobility session. Advance your training by increasing reps, sets or weight, but do it steadily. Consistency is key for seeing results!