To reap the benefits of regular exercise—like decreasing your risk of heart disease, boosting your mood, and helping with sleep—you'll want to find a well-balanced workout routine you can stick to. But how do you do that?
The key is to keep your body challenged and mind engaged by adding various forms of movement like weight lifting, cardio, and stretching, Courtney Wyckoff, CPT, a corrective exercise specialist and founder of MommaStrong.com, an online fitness program geared towards mothers, tells Health.
While exercise should be tailored to your personal fitness level and goals, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends people get at least 30 minutes of moderate cardio five days a week or at least 20 minutes of vigorous cardio activity three days per week. Additionally, the ACSM's guidelines state you should aim for two full-body strength-training workouts a week.
Don't worry if you're not sure how to break that down exactly—we've got you covered. Here's a sample weekly workout schedule that hits all of ACSM's criteria designed by Jacklyn Romano, CPT, a personal trainer with her own studio in Oceanview, New Jersey, and Sharon Gam, Ph.D., CSCS, an exercise, and health coach in Lake Mary, Florida.
Romano and Gam designed this seven-day workout schedule that will help you develop a regular exercise routine. Here's what each day on the schedule entails:
- Monday: Cardio
- Tuesday: Lower body
- Wednesday: Upper body and core
- Thursday: Active rest and recovery
- Friday: Lower body with a focus on glutes
- Saturday: Upper body
- Sunday: Rest and recovery
What better way to kick off the week than with a blood-pumping cardio workout? Aim for 45 minutes of aerobic activity like jogging, biking, or walking, Gam says. This should be done at a comfortable pace, meaning you can talk during the exercise, but you're still working up a sweat.
To be more exact, your heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A good rule of thumb for finding your maximum heart rate is subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you are 40 years old your maximum heart rate would be 175 beats per minute (bpm). Therefore, during this workout, you should aim for a heart rate between 112 bpm and 133 bpm.
However, if you don't own a heart rate monitoring device, Romano recommends working out at a pace that feels challenging for you: "Push yourself to your full potential or try to go as fast as the person next to you [on the treadmill]. You know your body better than anyone else so just keep sweating and moving."
Steady-state cardio—also known as an endurance workout—improves the stamina of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, Gam says. How? By training your body to move oxygen and nutrients into working muscles more efficiently while transporting waste out, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). As a result, these exercises will become easier over time (which is why you'll want to gradually up your pace) and reduce the risk of several diseases like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, per the American Heart Association (AHA).
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Many people—especially women—avoid lifting weights out of fear it will make them look bulky, Romano says. Not only is this untrue (it takes years of training and following a strict nutrition plan to achieve bodybuilder status), but it also discredits all the crucial health benefits of strength training; According to the American Cancer Society building muscle increases bone density and keeps joints flexible. It can even manage and treat conditions like depression, obesity, and low back pain, per the ACSM's website.
Because strength training is so important to overall health Romano recommends all her clients do four weekly sessions whether they're fitness newbies or avid gym-goers. She breaks these sessions down by muscle groups: two upper-body and two lower-body days a week. For each of these four workouts stick to the same exercises week over week.
"It's called progressive overload where every week you're doing the same lifts but are challenging yourself with heavier weights or higher reps," Romano says. "That is essentially how you build muscle and shape the body."
Your first session of the week will target the muscles in your lower body—like your hamstrings, glutes, and quads—with four compound lifts. Compound lifts are exercises that use multiple muscle groups. "So a deadlift is one of the best lifts for the body since it works the lower body, the upper body, and the abdomen," Romano explains. "It gives you more bang for your buck."
She suggests doing 10 reps for three sets (with a minute of rest between each set) of the following exercises:
- Squats: Lower yourself like you're sitting in a chair. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and keep your feet flat on the floor. Push back up to standing.
- Deadlifts: With your feet shoulder-width apart, push your butt back, bend your knees slightly, and bend forward (keeping your back straight) to grasp a barbell or pair of dumbbells with your hands. Lift the weights by driving your hips forward while keeping your back flat. Slowly lower the weights back to the floor.
- Hip thrusts: Sit on the ground with your shoulders on a bench or stable chair behind you. Keeping your feet planted on the ground, push your hips up, squeezing the butt, until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Lower your hips back to the ground.
- Lunges: Stand in a split stance, so one foot is a few feet in front of the other. Keeping your torso straight, bend your knees until your back knee is a few inches from the floor and your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Push through your heels to return to the starting position. Do this move on both sides.
Beginners should perfect their form before adding weights that way they can avoid injury. But, whenever you feel comfortable with the moves, add just enough weight so your last couple of reps leave your muscles burning and your heart pumping.
A quick note: Before beginning any strength training workout it's crucial you spend 10 to 15 minutes warming up to prevent injury. Romano suggests doing dynamic stretches (think high knees and butt kicks) to get the blood flowing to your muscles and move joints through their full range of motion.
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Wednesday: Upper Body and Core
The best part about divvying workouts by muscle group? Your legs—which are likely feeling it—will get a break since we're focusing on arms today.
After you've finished warming up, you'll target your biceps, triceps, and chest muscles with three different moves:
- Bicep curl: Holding a dumbbell in each hand (or grasping a barbell with both hands), let your elbows rest at your side with your forearms extended out parallel to the floor. Bend your elbows to bring the weight to your shoulders, and then return to the start position.
- Tricep dip: While sitting on a chair or bench, grip the edge next to your hips. Slide your butt off the chair and lower yourself so your elbows are bent at 45- or 90-degree angles. Push yourself back to the starting position.
- Chest press: Lie back on a bench with feet flat on the floor and a dumbbell in each hand (or hold a barbell with both). With arms perpendicular to your body and palms facing forward, extend your elbows, pushing the weight up. Lower the weight to return to the starting position.
Perform 10 reps of each exercise for three sets with one minute of rest in between each set.
Romano recommends finishing this session with a quick core circuit. She likes to choose a handful of her favorite core moves—like planks, crunches, or Russian twists—and hold each one for 30 seconds with 10 to 15 seconds off. Repeat the exercises until you hit 10 or 15 minutes.
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Odds are you'll be waking up sore, so take a rest day and give your body a chance to recover and recharge, Gam says. The reason your muscles are aching is that strength workouts cause tiny microtears in your muscle fibers, according to the ACSM. While that may sound alarming, it's actually a good thing—it means your muscles will grow back stronger than before.
"Without [a rest day] you'll damage muscle tissue and connective tissue like tendons and ligaments," Erin Mahoney, a certified personal trainer and founder of EMAC Certifications, tells Health. This heightens your risk of injury and will also prevent your muscles from building strength.
If you're not too sore or tired, Gam recommends you get some form of movement in even on off days. This could be an activity like walking or stretching, which will relieve post-workout muscle tightness.
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Friday: Lower Body With a Focus on Glutes
After your day off, get ready to flex your leg muscles again—this time with a focus on your glutes (aka your butt). To start this workout, Romano recommends warming up your behind with five resistance band exercises—like squats, glue bridges, and clamshells—for three rounds.
"If you're just getting into fitness, you're going to be using muscle you probably haven't activated or used in a long time," she says. "So, starting with bands or walking or dynamic stretching will help wake these muscles up and reduce injury."
Once your booty is feeling the burn, you'll move into your weighted exercises. Romano recommends doing 10 reps for three sets of hinge movements—like deadlifts, hip thrusts, and single-legged hip thrusts—which target your glutes and hamstrings.
Though gaining strength is an obvious bonus of weight training, strength workouts offer many benefits beyond your backside.
For example, a 2020 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease followed over 70,000 people free of major chronic diseases for 13 years and found that engaging in muscle-strengthening activity for two or more hours a week was associated with a lower risk of dying from all causes—independent of aerobic activity.
Plus, shoring up your strength makes daily tasks easier, like walking up the stairs or opening a pickle jar. "When you start your fitness journey, it's great to see results, but it's really those little things that make you feel good," Romano says. "It's not always about appearance."
For your final workout of the week, Romano recommends focusing on your back and shoulders. Just like the day before, you'll want to fire up your muscles before jumping into the weights. Romano suggests completing three sets of 10 reps each of pushups and pull-ups (incline push-ups and assisted pull-ups are good options until you build more strength).
Next, you'll complete five weighted exercises for—you guessed it—10 reps and three sets. These exercises include:
- Shoulder press: Either seated or standing, hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height with your palms facing away and elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Press the weights up until your arms are straight and the weights touch overhead. Slowly lower to starting position.
- Lateral raise: Standing or sitting with a dumbbell in each hand and arms at your sides, engage your core, and slowly lift the weights out to the side until your arms are parallel to the floor. Slowly return to the starting position.
- Reverse fly: With your feet shoulder-width apart, bend slightly at your waist, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Raise both arms out to the side, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Return to the starting position
- Dumbbell single-arm row: Place one hand under your shoulder, arm straight, on a bench. Rest your corresponding knee on the bench, keep your other leg out to the side, and your foot flat on the floor. With a dumbbell in your other hand, row your elbow up to your side until it's parallel with the floor. Lower and repeat on the other side.
- Lat pull down: Using a cable machine, grab the bar with your palms facing away and shoulder width apart. Make sure you're seated on a bench or kneeling on the floor. Then, pull the bar down to your chest before returning slowly to the starting position.
Wondering why Romano sticks to 10 reps for each of these exercises? According to her, it's the ideal range for a beginner: if you go over, you're likely to compromise your form and if you go under you won't become as familiar with the move. The key though is to increase your weights if an exercise ever feels too easy so you'll continue to challenge your muscles.
Sunday: Rest and Recovery Day
Celebrate your week of hard work by giving your body time to recover. Like before, you can do some light yoga or stretching to prevent muscles from getting too stiff and sore. Even though flexibility is crucial for preventing injuries, staving off back pain, and maintaining range of motion in the joints, many people often skimp on their stretching routines, according to the CDC.
However, it's also okay to take a complete rest day, too! Whether that's reading a book on the couch or catching up on Netflix, both active and completely relaxed days off have a place in our weekly routine. What matters most is that you listen to your body.
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While this sample weekly workout schedule can be a good starting point for how to vary your workouts, the best way to make exercise a consistent habit is to find something you enjoy.
"If you get too caught up in the 'recipe' then you run the risk of not even liking what you cook, so to speak," Mahoney says. "People need to develop long-term habits that they enjoy, otherwise, they'll develop a problematic relationship with health, exercise, and diet."