Whether it’s to lose that beer gut, win some gains, or up your performance at your amateur sports league, getting started on a program that you’ve designed yourself could be the best thing you’ve done for your health.

Having a fitness program is the key to maintaining physical fitness and good health. It means hitting the gym and actually getting results—whether it’s getting stronger, gaining, or losing weight. Many people exercise regularly but don’t really follow a program, and end up puttering around the gym and wasting time and energy. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a regular exercise routine that includes cardio, resistance, flexibility, and functional training is essential to most adults. By planning out and following a program, you can make the most out of your time spent at the gym. Maybe you’ll even get that elusive six-pack! We’ve talked to some experts to help you optimize your workouts. Read on.

1. Decide on your goal.

The kind of workouts you do will all depend on what your goal is. Getting started on any kind of fitness program or routine is pretty useless if you don’t have a specific goal. Are you trying to bulk up? Lose fat? Get more lean muscle mass? According to ACSM’s recommendation, your exercise program should be modified according to your habitual physical activity, physical function, health status, exercise responses, and stated goals.

2. Set the parameters.

Once you’ve set your goal, map out your plan of action realistically. If, for example, you want to lose weight, that means you have to be burning more calories than you consume. Think of it as a simple equation: calories out > calories in. The Center for Disease Prevention in the U.S. recommends losing one to two pounds per week. Boyet Trinidad, fitness manager, running coach, power lifter, and head personal trainer at Gold’s Gym New Manila, stresses the importance of understanding where the calories go. “A pound is equal to 3500 calories, so that means you have to be burning at least that amount of calories every week. Divide the 3,500 into the number of times you can work out in seven days. If you work out five times a week, for example, that means you’ll have to burn 700 calories each workout day so that at the end of the week, you’ll have a deficit of 700 times 5 or 3,500.”

3. Figure out your workout equation and what your capacity is.

Map out the time you’ll set aside for your workouts. Depending on how much time you will have, remember that a good workout program should include cardio, resistance, flexibility, and functional training, so factor these in when you distribute your workouts. The National Health Service in the U.K. recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week — or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, aside from two or more days of strength training.

4. Focus on the big muscle groups.

Think Olympic barbell squats, deadlifts, and shoulder presses. Bok Santos, celebrity trainer and head coach at Platinum Fitness recommends a program that focuses on exercises that use large muscles. “Exercises like these will burn more calories, boost your metabolism, and maintain muscle mass,” says Santos. Stick to strength training workouts that focus on exercises that target the main muscle groups to prevent muscular imbalances. Santos recommends making sure you include exercises that involve each major muscle group every time you work out.

5. Don’t forget the cardio!

People who want to bulk up often disregard cardio. However, performing cardio while working on your muscle mass speeds up your metabolism and helps your body build new, stronger muscles in the place of fat at a stronger rate.

6. Get some R&R.

Many people have a tendency to overwork their bodies when on a program. However, according to a paper published by the American College of Sports medicine, “Rest is a period of 48 to 72 hours between workout sessions and is needed to optimally promote the cellular/molecular adaptations that stimulate muscle hypertrophy and the associated gains in strength.”

7. Pick up the progress

To avoid plateauing, make sure you’re constantly challenging your muscles. Experts recommend increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting progressively by 10 percent every week, add repetitions, or lessen rest periods, depending on your goals.

Before you start a program, do your research! Try out different types of exercises, consult professional trainers, and read up on the different varieties of exercise. Think of it as an investment so that when you do begin a program, you don’t end up wasting your time and energy. Check out different programs and try them out, so that you can mix and match or even pattern your own after the ones that match your workout intensity, schedule, and personal preference.

Sources:

Foundations of Professional Personal Training by Canadian Fitness Professionals Inc.; The US Army Pocket Physical Training Guide; Human Kinetics, Canada; trinkfitness.com; Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise by Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults by Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Trisha Bautista is a freelance writer, food and product stylist, social media manager, and violin teacher. She was formerly editorial assistant and social media editor for Women’s Health Philippines, and the assistant lifestyle editor and social media editor for Cosmopolitan Philippines. She enjoys discovering easy recipe hacks, working out by herself and trying out DIY workout programs, traveling outdoors, and enjoying wine and whiskey.

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