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How to design a workout program

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

I get a lot of questions about how to design the perfect workout program from rehabbers to wellness seekers.

The truth is there’s no perfect program.  In fact, the perfect program is probably best defined as the one that you will actually DO!

If you have a program you’ve been using and you feel like it keeps making YOU better, and you’re healthy and strong, by all means keep doing it!! 

But if you aren’t satisfied with your current routine (or lack there of), let’s talk about this.

Why do we even exercise in the first place?  Especially if it’s time-consuming, inconvenient, and maybe even boring or painful!

Many of us exercise for weight loss, but I’d like to steer you away from the whole notion of needing to “burn calories.” 

At a fundamental level, I think we exercise because ultimately we want to get better, right?

We aim to be stronger, faster, fitter, leaner, have less pain, have more balance, and ultimately have more options with less slowing down.

In the end, for me anyway, it’s about longevity

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, whatever keeps me OUT of the nursing home!!  I’m going to hold onto physical independence for as long as possible.

I did a social media post a few weeks ago on skill acquisition…how to teach an old dog new tricks.  In this case, the old dog is me and the new trick is trying to master handstand WITHOUT the wall.  This has been a project of mine for a year or so…#nowallby40 was my motto.

You see I find that when exercise has a goal, it’s more tolerable, and maybe even fun!

And so this is where we start with program design and any other facet of our lives…we need a goal!

Whether it’s a marathon, a full fitness program like P90X, 20 minutes on the elliptical or simply getting up off the floor with your own strength, having a goal in mind give a program its basic structure.

Now that we have a goal, we also have to consider your current state of physical health.

If you were joining a high school athletic team they’d make you get a pre-season physical right? 

As adults we don’t get musculoskeletal physicals in order to participate in an exercise program.  We’re just told to exercise!

Of you’re over 20 years old, you’ve had some life happen to you by now and it’s a good idea to stop and really analyze your physical body.

Do you have pain?  Are there movements you cannot do or can’t do as easily as you once could?  Do you feel like you don’t have the energy to work out?  Or maybe you feel great and want to push yourself to the next level (handstands anyone??!), but you’re not quite sure how.

In my handstand example I broke down the components of mobility and strength that are needed to build up to this pose. 

I need to make sure my body meets the baseline requirements to even attempt this move.

Here are the overall components of movement I would want to evaluate on you:

  1. Mobility

  2. Stability

  3. Controlled Mobility

  4. Skill


Mobility simply refers to the motion available at a joint, or the ability to move a joint through its range of motion.  If your shoulder joint doesn’t 180-degrees of overhead mobility it’s not likely you’re going to get into a handstand.  I just ain’t happening, at least not without compensation strategies that will lead to further problems down the road.  (Incidentally how sooooo many injuries occur!) Mobility always has to come first on the continuum.  Period.


Stability is being able to hold still.  It refers to the co-contraction of muscles all around a particular joint that work together to hold it in place against a force.  Think of the simple act sitting upright without gravity pushing you down.   Stability is about  not allowing unwanted mobility, therefore another big component of injury prevention.

Controlled Mobility

Now we’re getting more sophisticated as we find that sweet spot between mobility and stability.  Controlled mobility basically means being able to move a fixed posture from one position to another while staying stable.  Sit to stand, or me shifting my shoulders from a 90-degree position in plank to more like a 180-degree position in handstand without hyperextending or buckling.


Once we’ve established successful mobility, stability, and controlled mobility, then we can move forward with advancing your skill.  We can progress towards things like plyometrics, running programs, or handstands.  Mastering a skill means mastering the ability to perform highly coordinated functional movements.  It’s the ability to manipulate the environment with while maintaining stability – like my handstand in the middle of the room.  

Once you have the results of a a PT evaluation you can pair them with your personal goals to put together a meaningful and intelligently designed exercise program.

Here are a few more guidelines I suggest following:

*Life is your sport, so train for life!  This means move and strengthen your body in the ways we move in life.  Work in level changes (squats), locomotion (run/walk/cycle), pushing & pulling, pressing/reaching, and twisting.  Whether you do these moves in a cardio class or with weights, this is smart training that keeps you healthy, strong, and safe in your life.

*Variety is the spice of life!  I encourage at least one day of resistance training, whether body weight or added weight, it’s so so necessary for so many reasons.  I also encourage at least one day of recovery.  Whether foam rolling, yoga, or basic stretching, the body craves this balance.

*Steady state cardio doesn’t do much for you.  If you are one that’s been hammering it out on the treadmill or elliptical I encourage you to add in some intervals and make your training time more efficient.  The benefits of interval training are well documented.

*Make a schedule that’s realistic with your lifestyle…then actually schedule it!  Fitness has to be treated like an appointment with yourself.  Time has to be carved out.  None of us will openly admit we have more time to add in something else.  I suggest getting a pen and paper calendar or using google calendar to actually schedule out your day.  When you look at it objectively you can see  where you can fit in 15-60 minutes of exercise.

*Sets, reps, frequency, etc…  Start with body weight or lighter weight and higher repetition.  If you can get through 15-20 reps of an exercise and feel like you could do more, it’s time to up the weights (or intensity if you’re doing intervals).  3 sets of 8-15 is a general guideline for body weight or resistance training, and 3 sets of 45 second intervals per 5 minute stretch is a very basic guideline for intervals.  Frequency?  As close to daily as you can manage

*Don’t forget to warm up and cool down.  Mobility work to warm up, static stretching to cool down.

I hope this inspires you to take a step back and examine what you are doing with your precious time.

Exercise should be purposeful and productive, not just something we hammer through for the sake of burning calories

You can accomplish so much more if you put a little thought into it.

I have a ton of resources I can point you to if you’re looking for a new exercise routine, so feel free to reach out if you need any guidance.

To recap:

1.   Have a personal goal for your exercise program (ie weight loss, 5k, handstand, stand up without pain)

2.  Have an evaluation that shines a light on weak links (ie restricted shoulder mobility, weak core, tight R hip vs L)

3.  Put together an exercise program that simultaneously addresses weak links, trains functional movement,  challenges the body with variety, gives the body a chance to recover, and is something enjoyable enough to be done more often than not.

4.  Schedule at least 4 days of 15-60+ minute exercise.

Off you go!

*fist bump*


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