Everything you need to know about building a strength training routine that’ll help you meet your goals — plus sample workouts to get you started.
So you wanna get stronger. But how do you build a workout program that’s not going to ruin your life, waste your time, or injure your entire body?
Also, how many reps and sets should you be doing? WTF are all those strappy contraptions at the gym? And why is that person grunting like that? (Should *you* be making noises like you’re trying to pull the sword from the stone?)
Anyone who has started weightlifting gets it — it’s hard to know where to start.
That’s why we got in touch with Ideen Chelengar, NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist, creator of Vices Fitness, and trusted TikTok fitfluencer. He has your back (and your triceps, biceps, quads, hams, etc.).
He filled us in on his foolproof “algorithm” for creating a strength training routine at various experience levels.
Here’s how it works.
First things first: You gotta set a goal. Whether you’re trying to accomplish something out in the world or in the gym, you need to dream it to achieve it.
“I would definitely say the first thing I ask someone before writing their strength program is just, what is their goal?” Chelengar says.
Common goals include:
- improving general health
- getting stronger in general
- building muscle mass
- losing weight
- getting leaner or more toned
- getting better at some task (i.e., powerlifting)
Based on that goal, Chelengar creates individualized programs for clients.
If you just want to get healthier, you won’t necessarily need to be doing super heavy lifting. But if you want to gain a bunch of muscle, you’ll want to consistently add volume (volume = weight x reps x sets) to your workouts.
If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to keep your calorie burn rate high. That might mean adding cardio to your routine or doing circuits to keep your heart rate up.
If you want to get leaner or more toned, you’ll want to increase the intensity of your workouts over time (either by increasing the speed of your reps, increasing the complexity of the movement, or adding volume) while also keeping your calorie burn rate high.
If you’re looking to powerlift, you’ll need to boost your raw strength and focus on lifting a lot of weight in repetitive movements like squats or deadlifts.
Next, it’s time to realistically assess your experience level with strength training.
Chelengar says that even if you’re a seasoned marathon runner or pro yogi, you’re still a beginner when it comes to strength training if you’ve never gotten intimate with a dumbbell set or comparable equipment.
So, you might be super fit, but building muscle is a whole ’nother thing.
Here’s how he broke it down for us:
- Beginner. No matter how fit you are, if you’ve never gotten down with a bench press or other strength exercises, “your skill level with strength training is beginner, because you’ve never done strength training,” he says.
- Intermediate. Obvi, a step up from beginner. “If you’ve done strength training a few months in a row and are pretty comfortable around the gym, that’s somewhere in the middle,” he says.
- Advanced. Another step up. You’re advanced if you’ve “done multiple years [of strength training] in a row with 3+ strength training days a week” and are super comfortable around all the equipment, Chelengar says.
- Super advanced. Like, athlete or pro level. “You’re at the level of a fitness instructor, you’re powerlifting for fun, or you used to play sports or something like that. That’s beyond just being comfortable in the gym — you know how to combine biometrics and strength training and how to condition at the upper-upper level,” he says.
If you’re a beginner, Chelengar explains, you’re not necessarily going to need to do as many days or go as hard as someone who’s more advanced.
When you’ve been in the strength training game for a while, you’re more likely to plateau and will need to shake things up more often and push to a higher intensity to reap results.
The next thing to determine is whether you’ll be working out at the gym, at home, or maybe a combo of both.
If you’re working out FH, here’s the equipment Chelengar recommends:
- Adjustable dumbbell set. “If you have the means [and space] for it, an adjustable dumbbell set is probably the most versatile thing,” he explains. “You can find programs online for free that apply to it.” But if you don’t want to shell out for heavy weights, you’ll just need to get a little more creative with your programming.
- Resistance bands. If you don’t go with an adjustable dumbbell set, he recommends getting some bands to add to your arsenal.
- Mixing dumbbells + bands. Once you’ve been training for a bit, Chelengar recommends either complementing your dumbbell set with bands or, if you purchased bands, the reverse. “Some things you can do better with bands, some with dumbbells, and vice versa,” he explains.
- A barbell and kettlebells are other really useful tools to pick up. But these are more of an add-on for down the road.
- Medicine balls can be helpful for some exercises, but since dumbbells get most of the job done, they’re not required, Chelengar says.
If you’re hitting the gym, get familiar with what the following gym machines look like and where they’re located at your gym:
- leg press
- lat pulldown
- cable biceps or triceps bar
- chest press
- rowing machine
As your comfort level increases, you can always get fancier with more complicated equipment.
The dreaded question that plays a huge role in what your plan looks like: How often should you be hitting the gym?
Truth is, research suggests that workout volume matters more than workout frequency. That means you can expect similar gains whether you’re doing 3 sets of squats in 1 day or 3 sets of squats over the course of 3 days.
But still, you can use workout frequency as a way to track your volume each week.
“Beginners, if you’re brand-new, you can get away with starting for the first 2 to 4 weeks with just 2 full-body sessions a week.” (A deep exhale for everyone who struggles to make it to the gym before work, y’all.)
After you’ve been sticking to your routine for at least a month, Chelengar might recommend these adjustments based on your goals:
If you’re a newb (present!) who just wants general fitness
You may want to bump up your 2-day-a-week regimen to 3 days a week and eventually even 4 days — especially if you want to incorporate strength training *and* cardio into your routine.
If you want to keep progressing your strength
Instead of adjusting your exercise program, the first thing Chelengar recommends is adding a fourth day. This is when you can start creating workout splits based on muscle groups.
“Maybe we do some lower pushes and upper pulls on Monday, then flip those on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday,” he says.
If you really care about building muscle
You’re going to have to keep increasing your intensity over time.
“Eventually, you’ll probably have to get to the point where you do 5 or 6 days a week once you start plateauing from 4 days a week,” he says.
“When we get in the 5- or 6-day-a-week category, programming has to get pretty technical in terms of either heavier and lighter days or adjusting muscle groups per day … That’s where a little more finessing is required.”
And regardless of your goal, remember to take breaks — you deserve it, and your muscles need it to recover. Chelengar recommends giving any muscles you work 48-72 hours of rest before workin’ them again. (So if you devote a day to your back and biceps, give them at least that long to recover before doing another day focused on back and biceps.)
A note on workout splits
Lots of peeps prefer workout splits that focus different days on different muscle groups — like push and pull days, upper body days, lower body days, etc.
But according to Chelengar, most of the general pop doesn’t need to be splitting up their strength training by body part. It’s only really necessary if you’re hitting a plateau.
“[Requiring] an entire day dedicated to each muscle group, you must have gone through at least a year, if not longer, of pretty aggressive strength training to the point where you’re getting a plateau from doing multiple groups in one day,” he explains.
For reference, Chelengar didn’t even do a single-muscle-group day until 5 or 6 years into training — and he definitely still got a lot stronger (just peep his TikTok 😳).
For most of his clients who haven’t done at least a year of consistent strength training, he recommends sticking to full-body days.
So, you’ve figured out how many times per week you should be working out. But what should your actual workouts look like?
First, focus on your compound exercises — those heavy-duty moves that work multiple muscle groups at once (like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses). Chelengar recommends taking these on first because that’s when you’ll be the most mentally and physically ~fresh~.
“[The] compound ones, like goblet squats, which are pretty heavy, are typically the hardest thing you’ll do all day if you’re doing them well,” he says. “So you want to get this done when you’re not exhausted.”
Next thing: Get to your isolation movements (moves that target one muscle group) and accessory or auxiliary movements (the ones that basically support everything else).
“If you’re doing biceps and triceps later, there’s no reason to get them in early in the workout if you’re doing a full-body day,” he says. “That should be one of the last things you do because they’re super simple movements [that are also] easy on the joints and lightweight.”
New to strength training? Congrats on your honeymoon phase! According to Chelengar, “Anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks [into strength training], you’re gonna get stronger and in better shape with almost any weight.” Sounds amazing.
Ultimately, your goal is to make sure your last rep feels at least like a 6 out of 10 in terms of difficulty. “Otherwise, you’re probably not getting any response, no matter if you’re beginner or advanced,” he says.
This is called a rate of perceived exertion (RPE), and it’s a widely accepted way to monitor the intensity of exercise.
The biggest difference between beginner, intermediate, and advanced is what threshold you have to hit on your last rep to get a response. Chelengar breaks it down like this, based on your experience level:
- Beginner. Aim for a 6 or 7 out of 10 in terms of difficulty.
- Intermediate. Shoot for an 8 to 9 out of 10 for each set.
- Advanced. By now, you can push to a 9 or 10 out of 10.
Eventually, you can get into progressive overload or percentage training. But using RPE is a super easy and basic way to figure out how much weight to lift.
If you’re trying to increase general strength and endurance, any number of sets and reps will help you see improvement. In fact, a small 2019 study found that people saw similar increases in strength and endurance whether they did 1, 3, or 5 sets of an exercise 3 times a week.
If you’re trying to get bigger muscles, it’s all about increasing volume. A 2022 research review focusing on young men concluded that doing 12–20 weekly sets per muscle group is ideal for achieving hypertrophy (aka increasing muscle size). So, if you’re working out 3 times a week, shoot for at least 4 sets of an exercise during each workout.
Increasing your sets is also a really great way to break through a plateau. Chelengar says people often overlook this technique. Rather than add more reps or different exercises, you can just add sets of an exercise you’re already doing.
“You’ll typically get a really good response from that,” he says, “because you’re comfortable doing it already. You’re just adding volume, and that volume will get you the response to breaking that plateau.”
Research suggests that you can perform anywhere from 6 to 40 reps of an exercise and see muscle gains. But that’s a pretty big range, huh?
If you want to increase muscle endurance, experts (including Chelengar) typically recommend doing more reps and lifting less weight.
If you want to improve strength and muscle size, you’ll want to add more weight and do fewer reps (aka high load or moderate load resistance training).
Multiple studies have found that high load training (lifting more weight for 8 or fewer reps) and moderate load training (lifting less weight for 9–15 reps) lead to the biggest muscle gains — with high load training leading to the most gains.
Unless you’re taking longer rest periods between sets, high load training has the advantage of taking less time to do. But moderate load training is better for newbies who can’t lift a ton of weight yet or don’t tolerate high intensity exercise.
Here’s the role they play in your strength training routine:
Are circuits and supersets even necessary?
You technically don’t have to do ’em, but they can help you maximize your time at the gym.
Circuits typically have anywhere from two to five exercises. They can help you knock out a bunch of exercises while keeping your calorie and burn rate high, according to Chelengar. He also says that circuits are great for basically anyone. The only exception is powerlifters, who focus on improving specific lifts and need more rest between each set.
Supersets are great for building muscle because you can alternate between two exercises — working one while resting the other. Chelengar recommends reserving supersets until you’re at least at an intermediate or advanced level.
How to incorporate circuits and supersets into your routine
Typically, Chelengar recommends doing 2–4 exercises in a circuit, depending on how much equipment is at the gym and how busy it is. And based on those sets, here’s what exercises he might suggest:
- If you’re doing 2 exercises in a circuit, do a lower body + an upper body exercise.
- If you’re doing 3 exercises in a circuit, try lower body + upper body + core.
- If you’re doing 4 exercises in a circuit, perform a lower body + upper body + core + a mobility exercise.
Chelengar also has a detailed post on his blog about how he structures circuits.
If you want to give supersets a try, start by pairing two exercises together that work different muscles — like bench press and rows. This type of setup allows one muscle group to rest while you work the other. (Pairing two exercises together that work diff muscles is technically called a “compound set,” but the terms are often used interchangeably.)
Once you’re more advanced, you can take it up a notch by pairing exercises of the same muscle group together. (This is a true superset.)
A note on grip strength
Chelengar adds that “the biggest thing for beginners is that you don’t want two exercises that are limiting your grip strength.”
So, for example, if you just did a lower bod exercise, he probably wouldn’t recommend doing an upper body pulling exercise in the same circuit, because your grip’s already gonna be fatigued. “Grip is a surprisingly common limiter.”
Examples of this include:
- pairing a grip-dominant exercise with some sort of press, like a chest press or shoulder press
- combining a lower body pushing exercise, like a squat, with a grip-heavy upper body exercise
Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule (since, for instance, some lower body push exercises can still be grip-heavy). “It’s not just this push-pull system where [you can avoid] these muscles by working other ones. The biggest thing that it comes down to is saving your grip.”
Progress is personal, and your metric of success doesn’t have to look like someone else’s. Maybe you just want to feel better — or maybe you want to look like Hulk Hogan. The strength training world really is your oyster.
To make sure you’re always progressing in your own way, reassess your goals periodically and always note the amount of effort you’re putting in.
For instance, Chelengar says, if you’re a beginner, you won’t need to push up to 100 percent effort to see results (phew) — even 80 percent might do the trick. But advanced folks will likely need to consistently increase intensity (by adding volume, changing the speed of your reps, or increasing the complexity of the movement) to progress.
As you put in the work, keep track of it so you can see how far you’ve come (RIP, spaghetti arms). Chelengar often sees people use:
- Good ol’ handwritten notebooks. Some people really like analog — if that’s you, go for the classic pen and paper.
- Spreadsheets. Is Excel your strong suit, or is color-coding basically your passion? Try making a spreadsheet that you can also edit on your phone as soon as you hop off the bench or head out the gym doors.
- Apps. There are lots of apps that can help you track your progress (Psst: The Greatist team has compiled a big list of them). You may want to try Sweat, JEFIT, or StrongLifts 5×5. Many of these have built-in workout programs and other useful features.
Chelengar has also worked with Bridge Athletics to create an 8-week guided fitness plan for various fitness levels. While this plan was previously mainly marketed to NBA and NFL pros, the company recently started expanding its focus to everyday fitness enthusiasts.
It tracks your progress and also adjusts it if you hit your target, telling you when you should be upping weight and when you should be upping rest, for example.
But whatever route you choose, “We typically recommend at least having a digital or hard-copy program when working out at first, so you know what to follow when you get to the gym,” he says. And either way, “you should have some slots for what weights you did and what rep counts. And then update them as you go through.”
You might get into bulking and cutting if you get super into your strength training regimen, but before we overcomplicate nutrition, Chelengar says there are two big nutrition probs he often sees with new clients:
Sure, you might associate protein with bro culture, Chelengar says, but everyone needs this vital fuel! (And no, you won’t turn into a member of the “Jersey Shore” cast … unless, of course, you want to — then GTL away.)
He says the general rule of getting 1/2 gram to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is a pretty good guideline.
It might take some trial and error (and maybe some help from a nutritionist or trainer) to figure out your protein “sweet spot,” but, according to Chelengar, not getting enough is the biggest prob he sees among clients.
Chelengar created a few workouts to cycle through for a couple of weeks of your strength training routine.
He also says foam rolling is a good option to get blood flowing to your muscles.
Now, here’s what to do: