How to Develop a Physical Fitness Program

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So, you've decided to take up a regular exercise routine. Good for you!

Only now that you've taken that first step, you may be wondering: Where do I go from here?

Your next move is to create a blueprint for your fitness journey; a physical fitness program that's geared specifically toward you. Here's how to do it.

Identify Your Goal(s)

Before you can create a physical fitness program, determine your goals. That is, what do you hope to achieve through your commitment to exercise? Taking the time to answer this question will help you decide how to best structure your fitness program.

Goals can range from general — such as: improve overall health or cardiovascular endurance — to highly-specific — for example, nail your first pull-up, run a 5K or lower blood pressure. In fact, once you start thinking about what you would like to change or improve about yourself through regular exercise, you may find you have both general and highly-specific goals.

Create a Routine

Once you've defined your goals, you're ready to design your physical fitness program.

There are a several components of your physical fitness program you need to consider, including:

  • How many days per week you plan to exercise; 
  • How long those exercise sessions will last;
  • What you'll do on recovery days; 
  • What modes of exercise (i.e. yoga, strength training, running, HIIT) are best suited to your goals. 

For some goals, such as running a marathon, the appropriate exercise modes are obvious, while other goals, such as weight loss, may have several suitable exercise modes from which to choose. In cases where you have many different exercise options available, your best bet will be to choose the kinds of exercise you enjoy and are most likely to stick with in the long-term.

Keep in mind that some fitness goals call for highly-specific training methods. For example, if your goal is to maximize muscle growth, you'll want to perform sets of six to 12 reps with a moderate weight. Moderate weight is equal to 70 to 85 percent of your one-repetition maximum or 1RM, or the most weight you can lift with control for a single rep. Building muscular strength, on the other hand, takes a slightly different approach: You'll want to emphasize sets of one to six reps with a heavy weight, equal to 80 to 100 percent of 1RM.

How often you exercise largely depends on your current level of fitness and experience with a given form of exercise. For example, if your goal is to build muscle size, but you're new to strength training, start with two to three strength sessions per week, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. Once you've been consistently strength training for six months, add an extra weekly session. After a year, increase your training frequency to four or five days per week.

If you're completely new to most forms of exercise — or returning after a long hiatus — consider easing into things by using the physical activity guidelines set by the American Heart Association (AHA) as a starting point. Then, once you've been consistently active for a few months, set a more ambitious goal.

The AHA recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise — such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming — five days per week, as well as two full-body strength training sessions per week. Strength sessions should include eight to 10 different exercises to target all the major muscle groups. Feel free to use resistance bands, weight machines, dumbbells or even your body weight.

Note: According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), moderate-intensity aerobic activity means you're working hard enough to break a sweat, but you can still carry on a conversation.

Increase Difficulty Over Time

Any smart fitness program will regularly and systematically increase the physical demands placed on your body. This training method, known as progressive overload, entails switching up training variables such as intensity, volume or weight to keep your body guessing. If you make the mistake of doing the same routine over and over without ever adding challenge, your fitness results will stall.

For strength-training beginners — defined as people with less than six months' experience — progressive overload will likely mean working to improve exercise form session after session, only adding weight, repetitions or sets when the correct movement patterns have been ingrained. For new runners or cyclists, progressive overload may mean gradually decreasing walk or rest breaks week by week as you gain cardiovascular endurance.

Track Progress

The only way you'll be able to gauge the effectiveness of your fitness program is to record your training sessions. So grab a notebook or open up a computer spreadsheet and start keeping an activity log. Be sure to include the following information, when applicable: session duration, type(s) of activity performed, sets, reps, weight lifted and distance. You may also find it helpful to note observations related to mood, hunger, stress, sleep, as well as your rating of perceived exertion.

By tracking your sessions, you'll be able to identify patterns that are either keeping you on track or derailing your efforts. For example, if you notice that you're struggling to complete your workouts one week, a peek at your training notes from previous weeks may reveal that you've been pushing yourself too hard, and it may be time to back off for a bit.

While this article outlines basic recommendations for apparently healthy individuals, it is not a substitute for the guidance of a fitness professional. Do not begin a physical fitness training program without obtaining medical clearance from your physician.