How To Build Your Own Workout Routine

I get this email at least once a day, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the perfect answer for everybody.  Considering that a program should be developed around a person’s biology, age, goals, diet, free time, etc, there’s a lot of factors I can’t get in ten minutes through email.

I can certainly offer up suggestions, but there’s one person that knows what’s best for you: YOU.  Developing a workout routine for yourself can be scary, but it’s really not too difficult and kind of fun once you understand the basics.

First of all, what are you doing now. Is it working?  Are you safe and is it making you healthier?  If so, keep doing it!  However, if you’re JUST getting started, you want to mix things up, or you’re ready to start lifting weights (after reading that weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor), it’s good to understand what goes into a program so you can build one for yourself.

Determine Your Situation

How much time can you devote to exercise?

If you can do an hour a day, that’s awesome.  If you have a wife, three kids, and two jobs, then maybe you can only do thirty minutes every other day.  That’s fine too.  Whatever your time commitment is, developing the most efficient workout is crucial.  Why spend two hours in a gym when you can get just as much accomplished in 30 minutes?

What Exercises Should I Do?

  • Quads – squats, lunges, one legged squats, box jumps.
  • Butt and Hamstrings – hip raises, deadlifts, straight leg deadlifts, good mornings, step ups.
  • Push (chest, shoulders, and triceps) – overhead press, bench press, incline dumbbell press, push ups, dips.
  • Pull (back, biceps, and forearms) – chin ups, pull ups, inverse body weight rows, dumbbell rows.
  • Core (abs and lower back) – planks, side planks, exercise ball crunches, mountain climbers, jumping knee tucks, hanging leg raises.

Pick one exercise from each category above for a workout, and you’ll work almost every single muscle in your body. These are just a few examples for what you can do, but you really don’t need to make things more complicated than this.

Add some variety – If you do the same routine, three days a week, for months and months both you and your muscles will get bored.  If you do bench presses on Monday, go with shoulder presses on Wednesday and dips on Friday.  Squats on Monday? Try lunges on Wednesday and box jumps on Friday.  Pick a different exercise each time and your muscles will stay excited (and so will you).

Lastly, your muscles don’t get built in the gym, they get built when you’re resting. Give your muscles 48-72 hours to recover between workouts.  A Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout works well to ensure enough time to recover.


How Many Repetitions Should I Do?

If you’re looking to burn fat while building some muscle, keep your number of repetitions per set in the 8-15 range.  If you can do more than 15 without much of a challenge, it’s not difficult enough for you.  Add weight or change the exercise so that it’s tougher.

If you’re looking to build size and strength, you should vary your rep ranges depending on the workout.  Although I’m currently following a variation of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength (2nd edition) routine (heavy weight at five reps per set),  I’ll be switching to this type of routine in the next few weeks:

  • Low reps (5-8) and heavy weight on Mondays.
  • High reps (12-15) and lower weight on Wednesdays.
  • Medium reps (8-12) and medium weight on Fridays.

If you can keep your muscles guessing by constantly forcing them to adapt to different routines, they’re more likely to get harder, better, faster, stronger (thanks Daft Punk!).

What’s the significance of the different number of repetitions?

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength (called myofibrillar hypertrophy).
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build a somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular endurance.
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance and size (this is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).

By doing rep ranges at each of these different increments, you’re building well-rounded, balanced muscles – full of endurance, explosive power, and strength.

You can even mix up your amount of weight and reps within a single exercise.  Here’s an example of what I’d do for a dumbbell chest press on a Friday:

  • 12 reps at 65 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 10 reps at 70 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 8 reps at 75 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 6 reps at 80 pound dumbbells, done!

How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?

I purchased The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises, which is a great book LOADED with exercises, tons of pictures, and routines.  They have a very basic formula for how long to wait between your sets based on how many reps you’re doing for the exercise:

  • 1-3 Reps: Rest for 3 to 5 minutes
  • 4-7 Reps: Rest for 2 to 3 minutes
  • 8-12 Reps: Rest for 1 to 2 minutes
  • 13 Reps+: Rest for 1 minute or less

This one is easy: lift enough so that you can get through the set, but not too much that you have NO fuel left in the tank at the end.  How do you determine how much that is?  Trial and error.  When just starting out, or if you’re doing a new exercise for the first time, always err on the side of caution.

Now, if you’re doing exercises with just your body weight, you need to find a way to make each exercise more difficult as you get in shape – once you get past 20 reps for a particular exercise and you’re not gassed, it’s time to mix things up.

  • Can you do 20 push ups no problem? It’s time to start mixing them up to be more challenging.  Pick a variation from the Art of Manliness Push Up Article and make yourself work for it!
  • 20 bodyweight squats too easy? Hold some weights high above your head as you do the next set.  Try one-squats.  Always be challenging yourself.

How Long Should I Exercise?

If you’re doing 15-25 sets of total exercise, you should be able to get everything done within that 45 minute block.  Now, factor in a five or ten minute warm-up, and then stretching afterwards, and the workout can go a little bit longer.  If you can go for over an hour and you’re not completely worn out, you’re simply not pushing yourself hard enough.

Alternating Sets

Let’s say you’re doing four sets of squats and you plan on doing four sets of dumbbell bench presses after that.  If you wait two minutes between each set, this will take you around twenty minutes or so (factoring in the time to get set and actually do the set).

Because you’re exercising two completely different muscle groups, you can exercise one while the other is “resting.”  You’re now getting the same workout done in half the time.  Also, because you’re resting less, your body has to work harder so your heart is getting a workout too.  Jackpot.

Let’s see how this would play out in a sample workout:

  • Lunges alternating with incline dumbbell presses, four sets each, one minute between sets.
  • Wait a few minutes to catch your breath and get set for your next two exercises.
  • Straight leg deadlifts alternating with wide-grip pull ups, four sets each, one minute between sets.
  • 3 Sets of planks, stretch, and get the hell out of there!


A circuit requires you to do one set for EVERY exercise, one after the other, without stopping.  After you’ve done one set of each exercise in succession, you then repeat the process two, or three, or four more times. I’ve written about two body weight circuits here on the site:

Keep Track Of Everything

Keep a workout journal! You should be getting stronger, faster, or more fit with each day of exercise.  Maybe you can lift more weight, lift the same amount of weight more times than before, or you can finish the same routine faster than before.

Recap: Building a Workout Routine

Okay, so I realize that’s a ridiculous amount of info, but it’s all very important stuff.  Let’s break it down into easy chunks right here:

  • ALWAYS warm up – 5-10 minutes on a bike, rowing machine, jumping jacks, run up and down your stairs, etc.
  • Pick one exercise for each big muscle group – quads, butt and hamstrings, push, pull, and core.
  • Do 3-5 sets for each exercise.
  • Determine how many reps and how long you’ll wait between sets for each exercise.
  • Mix it up! Vary your reps, sets, and exercises.  Keep it interesting.
  • Increase your efficiency and work your heart by doing alternating sets or circuits.
  • Keep your workout to under and hour.
  • Stretch AFTER your workout.
  • Write everything down.

Best places to meet mythical beasts


You don’t need to brandish a wand to meet creatures of legend. Beyond JK Rowling’s fantastic beasts is a menagerie of real-life animals with a mythical pedigree.

On this magical world tour you’ll meet mermaids and marine unicorns, see bloodthirsty squid and the king of serpents – and perhaps even spot the elusive yeti; we just can’t guarantee that your friends will believe your tall traveller’s tales when you get home.

Dragons, Slovenia

When translucent newt-like creatures were first seen darting throughSlovenia’s caverns, they were rumoured to be baby dragons. Locals imagined dragons born in the sea could be swept among the rock pools of Slovenia’s cave systems. Now we know these blind amphibians as olm, and their remarkable properties are worthy of the legends. They navigate via electrical signals, they can last a decade without feeding, and their surprisingly long lifespan is keenly researched in the hope of shedding light on the ageing process.

Mermaids, the Philippines

DugongUnlikely as it seems, dugongs have often been mistaken for Merfolk. 

When Christopher Columbus first squinted out at a manatee, he sniffed that mermaids were not as attractive as he’d hoped. Columbus may not have been impressed by these cavorting sea creatures but dugongs and manatees take the scientific name ‘Sirenia’ after the comely Sirens that lured sailors to their doom in ancient Greek myth. Before you chortle that sailors could mistake an ungainly looking dugong – whose closest relative is the elephant – for a mermaid, observe how gracefully they somersault and nose through sea grasses in the Philippines.

Werewolf, Romania

Pointy-toothed counts emblazon souvenirs in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. But it’s the vârcolac, or werewolf, that truly caused peasants of old to secure their shutters at sundown. The sight of a grey wolf elicits primal fear in many, so it’s no wonder that old superstitions surrounded this fearsome predator. And while modern Romanians would sniff at thevârcolac, an uneasy relationship with wolves remains. Few wolf attacks on humans have ever been verified, but nonetheless, media hype puts these mostly elusive canines at risk from hunters eager to cull the threat.

Thunderbird, USA

Bald eagle in flight. A bald eagle – the closest you’ll get to a thunderbird.

Claps of thunder across the Midwest’s plains aren’t simply an omen of rain. Native American legend tells of the thunderbird, whose beating wings conjure a storm. The bald eagle is the thunderbird’s natural relative, and rich with its own meaning. Native American folklore tells that eagles were created from the offspring of a slain monster, transformed into a bird. The soul-stirring sight of a soaring eagle makes it easy to believe the myths.

Kraken, Mexico

Tales of the kraken – a colossal squid with a taste for human flesh – spread from Norway across the seafaring world (getting larger and gorier with each telling). Central and South America have the most vicious real-life kraken. Numerous fishermen have been injured by the saw-sharp beak of the diabolo rojo (red devil) or Humboldt squid. These carnivorous cephalopods move at 25km/h, form shoals of up to 1000, and flicker red when furious. They can bulge as big as 2m long – not island-sized, as described in the old Norse tales, but certainly large enough to sink your dinghy.

Yeti, Nepal

Himalayan Peaks In The Ganesh Himal, Nepal Himalaya.The Himalayas… reputed haunt of the humanoid Yeti.

Blame thin air and exhaustion-induced hallucination if you must; but the yeti myth is backed by numerous sightings in Nepal’s high passes. Mountaineer Reinhold Messner claims to have had an encounter of his own with the hirsute humanoid – he decided it was most likely a type of bear. Himalayan brown bears, which rear up on their hind legs, could certainly be mistaken for yeti, which are rumoured to stagger on two legs through the Himalayan mists. But that hasn’t stopped countless yeti hunters from keeping their camera lenses ready, just in case…

Marine unicorns, Greenland

Compared with their prancing, land-based counterparts, unicorns of the sea have a deliciously dark myth of origin. Inuit lore says that the narwhal came from a woman catapulted into the ocean, attached to a harpoon launched by her son. Brooding on the sea floor, her long hair became twisted into a single horn, and she swam the waves as a narwhal ever after. In the Middle Ages, Greenlanders peddled these tusks – which can grow to 3m long – to Norse settlers as unicorn horn. Whether this was in homage to their mythical origins, or simply to make a tidy profit, we can’t be sure.

Kappa, Japan

Don’t say a word about this pizza-eating ninjas. The original humanoid turtles are Japanese kappa. These forlorn turtle-people play childish pranks or (if you’re unlucky) wreak misfortune. Fortunately Japanese folklore describes the kappa as easily bribed with soba noodles or cucumber. Kappa statues grace shrines around Japan, depicting them as gnomes with shells, suggesting these sea spirits are inspired by loggerhead turtles. These real-life kappa inhabit the coasts of Japan’s subtropical islands, where the sight of them spreads more delight than mischief.

Basilisk, India

A cobraA cobra – not a man-eater, but you still wouldn’t want to rub one up the wrong way.

The King of Serpents is more than one of Harry Potter’s foes. Storytellers and naturalists told of this baleful man-eating snake, including Pliny the Elder, Chaucer and Leonardo da Vinci. This millennia-old monster may have been originally inspired by the king cobra, an aggressive snake known for its high-arching attack pattern and unsettling, roaring hiss. Steer clear of snake charmers and seek the endangered king cobra in its natural habitat, on a wildlife-watching trip to India’s steamy jungles. But keep a safe distance – it’s not the time to discover if you, like the bespectacled wizard, can commune with reptiles.


Bunyip, Australia

Monsters, spirits and mythological creatures are widespread in Aboriginal Australian lore but one that entered the popular imaginationDown Under is the bunyip, a terrifying monster with a bellowing cry that was said to inhabit inland swamps and waterholes called billabongs. When the colonisers fanned across the land from the first settlers in Sydney they found variations to the bunyip, but they all described a rare bearded, seal-like creature that hid in the water and occasionally lured people to their death.