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How to Structure a Gym Workout for Optimal Results

Reading Time: 5 minutes 2 seconds


Date: 2022-03-04T00:00:00-05:00

Knowing how to structure a gym workout helps produce optimal results. Planning your workouts helps you to achieve your fitness goal quickly and effectively. It also helps you avoid overtraining or training incorrectly, which can result in muscle imbalances or injury.

If you’re new to working out, or just not sure how to craft an effective workout routine, this article is for you.

5 Elements to Consider for an Effective Workout

Building fitness autonomy and having structure for your gym workouts are vital. If you’re not sure how to structure a gym workout, here are five steps to help you get started. It requires making a workout plan and putting that plan into action.

#1. Frequency of Training

First, determine the number of workouts you should complete each week. Are you starting for the first time? There are a few different workout schedules that you can choose from.

  • Three days: A 3-day full-body workout split is good if you want to be in the gym less frequently.

  • Four days: An upper and lower body 4-day split is an excellent middle ground.

  • Five days: If you plan to be in the gym at least five days per week, train each muscle group independently.

It’s essential to choose the correct schedule based on training frequency. This will ensure you don’t overtrain and achieve sufficient muscle recovery.

At the same time, you don’t want to rest too much. This may limit your growth. Check out these tips for better workout recovery on your rest day.

#2. Duration of Workout

Next, determine how long each of your workouts should last. If you are working out for the first time, try starting with 30 minutes. You can increase your frequency and duration of training over time. You may eventually build up to 45-minute or 60-minute sessions.

If you do not have 60 minutes to complete a workout, don’t worry. There are alternatives to make the most of your time in the gym. Aim to get the same amount of work done in the time you have. This will help drive up the intensity and volume of the workout.

If you are working out for less time, workout more frequently. If you are working out for more time, workout less frequently. Though, you must find balance. Just because you are working out fewer days for more time, it doesn’t mean the volume and intensity of the workouts are the same.

#3. Target Areas

Once you establish your workout frequency and duration, choose target areas. For example, schedule four 45-minute upper and lower body workouts each week. On Monday and Thursday, complete a lower body workout. On Tuesday and Friday, complete an upper body workout. Your rest days are Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Since you are working out lower and upper body twice per week, target all muscle groups. You can also split it up within each workout. This means for your lower body workout, you can choose to target the entire lower body musculature. This would include the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Or you can target just the anterior portion of the legs on Monday and the posterior chain on Thursday.

For your upper body workout, you can target all muscle groups on both days. This includes the chest, shoulders, backs, arms, and core. Or, on Tuesday, you can target the chest, shoulders, and triceps, and Friday, you can target the back and biceps.

So, instead of targeting all muscles at once, you start by targeting movement patterns. You’re probably wondering which is best? It depends. Novice gym-goers can benefit from splitting the target areas into movement patterns. Over time, transition into targeting all muscle groups each workout. This will promote optimal intensity and volume of training.

#4. Exercise Intensity

Exercise intensity is often misinterpreted. It’s not just a measure of how hard a workout is or based on perceived exertion. It also determines how much weight you lift. If your one-rep max of a barbell bench press is 100 pounds and you lift 60 pounds, the intensity is 60%. This number is crucial to structure your workout. Your goal should never be to lift as heavy as you can every workout.

Therefore, you must understand the max weight you can lift. Then determine your weights or intensity based on that number. When starting for the first time, use a moderate intensity for a higher rep range. Avoid lifting too heavy and find a balance between intensity and volume.

#5. Exercise Volume

Let’s say you perform the bench press of 60 pounds for three sets of 5 reps. After a few weeks, you end up performing 10 reps. You have increased the volume. If you take your weight and multiply it by your sets and reps, you will have total volume.

60 pounds x 3 sets x 5 reps = 900 total volume.

60 pounds x 3 sets x 10 reps = 1,800 total volume.

The total volume will induce muscle hypertrophy. The greater your training volume, the greater your results. It’s important to train with as high of an intensity level as you can. Start with a moderate intensity level and increase intensity and volume over time.

Learn more: How to choose the right frequency and volume for your workouts.

How to Structure a Gym Workout

Now it's time to take those five elements of structuring a workout and put them into action.


Warm-ups can last anywhere from five to 15 minutes. Want to start with a 30-minute workout? Aim for an effective five-minute warm-up. Typically, the shorter the workout, the shorter the warm-up. With short, high-intensity workouts, use a cardio machine of choice for five minutes. This will prime the body for the workout. You should also perform warm-up sets of each exercise within the workout.

Want to complete a 60-minute workout? Take a bit more time to warm up, like 10-15 minutes. You can jump on a cardio machine for five minutes and take the additional 5-10 minutes to warm up appropriate muscle groups using dynamic movements.

Strength Training

Complete strength or resistance training exercises for the remaining bulk of the workout. Choose 4-6 exercises and perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. Start with moderate intensity and volume. No matter the day, begin with compound movement lifts first. These are the exercises that involve the most muscle groups.

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise can be completed at the end of the strength training segment. Use either LISS (low-intensity steady-state) or HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio.

Cooldown Stretch

Lastly, it is crucial to cool down and stretch at the end. You must take advantage of static stretching since your muscles are warm. This promotes muscle recovery and repair to prepare you for the next workout.

Sample Gym Workout


  • Treadmill Walking

  • Glute Bridges

  • Air Squats

  • Walking Lunges

Complete 3-5 minutes of walking and 20 reps of each dynamic movement.


  • Barbell Back Squats

  • Dumbbell Single-Leg RDLs

  • Barbell Deadlifts

  • Leg Extensions

  • Hamstring Curls

  • Seated Calf Raises


Complete three sets of 8-12 reps of each exercise.

Cooldown Stretch:

  • Standing Hamstring Stretch

  • Standing Quad Stretch

  • Child's Pose

  • Cobra

Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds.

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