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July 13, 2023

How To Write A Workout Program

“How to write a workout program?” was the question that single-handedly stumped me in college. This question alone landed me in my professor’s office frustrated and paralyzed. 

You’ll hear more about that shortly…

So if you’re a trainer or trainee looking for a clean outline for your training programs, I’ve been where you are (maybe deeper and darker). I hope this blog gives you the clarity and insight you need to create a workout program that works for you or your clients. 

You can also watch this content in video form here:

My name is Annie Miller, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts again. This blog will give you both! The skeleton of your training programs, the components you’ll need to include, AND how you might make some of those decisions with more clarity.

How To Write A Workout Program: Lay The Foundation 


First, we need to lay out the components of the program, and determine what our constraints are. Programming is an endless box of tools and possibilities. 

  • WHO the program is for. 
  • WHAT the goal of the program is. 

Now, I am not necessarily doing that here, but that is what you’ll need to do in order to fill in the blanks and aspects of the program that we’re gonna go over today. 

Your program might include all of these or only a few of them. There’s no right or wrong. The best program is the one that fits the needs and the goals that you are trying to achieve through that program. 

That’s what drew me to my initial love for program design in the first place. I just think that it is amazing that we can write something on paper, execute it, and that through that execution over time, we cause muscular and metabolic adaptations.

But what I found really frustrating when starting out with program design was the fact that there was not one single A+B=C equation for program design. 

So I went to my professor when I was in my first program design class with this frustration, and he said…

“There’s no one way to get this right. All 25 of you are going to turn in a program that can possibly increase someone’s vertical jump, and they will all work.” 

At first this answer was even more frustrating to me. But then through practice, I was able to see that because of what my professor said we really do have the freedom to take what we know about program design and pick and choose from the following components to create combinations that get us the results we want. 

So if you’re overwhelmed by program design, or feel that it is overly complicated; and you are paralyzed by all of the options…I hope today’s blog helps to simplify the process for you.

I’m framing this program skeleton from the perspective of someone who wants to BOTH:

  • Increase strength
  • And put on some muscle size (Hypertrophy)

You first must know what you want out of a program before writing it. This is key.

These are five to six components that you could possibly include. Try not to view this as black-and-white. Like I said, you can include all of these or half of them. 

1. General Blood Flow/Warm Up 

(You’ll get more details below on the timeframe of this below)

2. Movement Prep 

What I consider movement prep – this would likely include pre-fatigue if you are doing more of a hypertrophy based program. 

3. Power Work 

Power work comes next since this will be a high nervous system demand. That’s why you’ll want to get this in early.

4. Your Main Lift 

Power work is followed by your main lift, or the most important and demanding piece of training. This is not limited to squat, bench, deadlift, or overhead press. It’s whatever you need, and want to be most fresh for during your workout. 

5. Accessory Work 

Any conditioning that you would like to include is best to happen at the end of your workout program. 

This could be Metcon style, or more traditional forms of cardio. 

Metcon Style is short for metabolic conditioning. Metcon describes a type of workout that most commonly combines strength and cardio conditioning, as well as both anaerobic and aerobic exercises. During a metcon workout, you moderately to intensely exert yourself for a prolonged amount of time.

We put the cardio at the end because if this person’s goal we’re designing this workout program for is strength or hypertrophy… We do not want to enter weightlifting in a fatigue state from doing cardio beforehand. 

Be sure to check out my blog HERE to learn more about if cardio ruins strength gains if that’s a concern you have.

So these 5 steps are the skeleton of your workout. 

Meaning every day this is the order in which you are going to plug the following into the program. 

1. General Blood Flow/Warm Up 

2. Movement Prep 

3. Power Work 

4. Your Main Lift 

5. Accessory Work 

Now that we have the skeleton of this workout plan established, we can now add in: 

1. Exercise Selection

2. Sets and Reps

3. Tempo

4. Rest

5. Load/Intensity

All of these pieces work together and it’s hard to say that one of them is most important. However, if strength, or putting on muscle is the goal, Load/Intensity is going to be extremely important, with Exercise Selection as a close contender. 

Before we dive into Exercise Selection, you will need to first determine what type of Training Split you’re going to use on top of the skeleton.

Selecting A Training Split: 

Your Training Split refers to what the focus of each day is within your program. Some common ones that maybe you’ve heard of are: 

  • Upper or Lower Split 
  • Full Body Every Day 
  • Push Pull Leg Day
  • Or a classic bodybuilding style split like, bis/tris, back and shoulder, legs, and then it repeats for 3 days on, 1 day off.

None of these are confined to the frequencies you see here, but these are just examples of training splits.

Fitting Exercise Selection Into Your Workout Skeleton

So after you have your workout skeleton, go ahead and start with the Exercise Selection. Remember, we’re plugging these into our skeleton.

For your Blood Flow Warm-Up, that’s going to be any form of cardio for 5 to 7 minutes. 

This is just to transition us from a secondary state into an active one. Get blood flow circulating, and the heart rate up.

Your Movement Prep or pre-fatigue is going to both prep the JOINTS and the MUSCLES that are being used that day. 

This is going to depend on the type of program you are designing, but this might be more movement pattern-based. For instance, prepping a squatting pattern is going to involve things like a Cossack squat, or a Bulgarian split squat rock back. Exercises that mimic the joint movements of the main lift for the day. 

If you’re writing them for a hypertrophy-based program, this might look like more isolation work. Like lateral raises on the shoulder day, with prone Y raises to prep the shoulders through flexion, or quad extensions before a quad focused day. 

Make sure whatever you choose matches the goal of the program.

Moving onto your Main Lift – this will likely be a compound movement – meaning that multiple joints and muscle groups are being used. This exercise could be the highest demand exercise of the day

NOTE: That is why we commonly see squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, and variations of these movements being used as the main lift. 

But this could also be something like hip thrusts, if the main goal is Glute growth. 

OR it could be pull ups, if that is the main movement pattern being trained. 

This is also open to be a superset. It does not have to be a single exercise, but wherever you need the most energy and function, that’s what goes here as your Main Lift.

As far as Accessory Work, this is where that endless toolbox can get overwhelming. 

At the time of this blog, I created something called the Exercise Matrix for my Pure Programming Course. It’s over 350 exercises, categorized by movement family, as well as the prime mover – the main muscles worked. Synergists – being other muscles that are helping the main muscle group, as well as whether the exercise is open chain or closed chain. 

This resource helps you be able to pick and choose exercises when and if you do get overwhelmed by that process of program design. 

Each day of your program will have a focus, and that will be determined by the training split that you chose.

Your Accessory Work should support whatever that goal is. 

You will commonly see supersets, and tri-sets in accessory work. This can be a protagonist antagonist, or working all the same muscle group, but from different angles and ranges of motion. 

Or it could be a completely different area of the body. Refer to your Training Split for what makes the most sense. 

Generally speaking you do want to make sure that in your week you have included horizontal pushing and pulling, vertical pushing and pulling, squatting patterns, and hinging patterns, as well as some level of core work.

Once you have your exercises plugged in, and you can see your weekly spread, we can start plugging in the following sets and reps, tempo, load, and rest periods.

Before we continue: I actually have a blog HERE on how to progress your accessory exercises – so be sure to check that out as well after you’re finished here..

The Specifics Will Wildly Depend On Your Particular Program Goals

Generally speaking, if Strength or Hypertrophy is the goal, the Intensity is going to be challenging. So whether you are using Percentages, Rate of Perceived Exertion, Reps in Reserve, or some other loading method, it needs to be challenging.

In regards to Tempo, stick with a slower down then up or controlled tempo. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. 

Unless you are specifically trying to do something like Oxidative Training, working long eccentrics, using one and a quarter reps, or extended pauses, just stick with 2 to 3 seconds down, and 1 to 2 seconds up.

Rest Periods, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes will fit the bill for most training methods when it comes to Strength and Hypertrophy. 

The main goal of Rest is to be recovered enough to perform the next set as prescribed. 

For instance, if you are doing back squats for three sets of six, and you can perform your next set of six 30 seconds after you finish the previous set… You need to increase load because you should need that full one to two minutes of rest.

Now To Wrap This Up: 

Alright, that was your crash course in workout program design. 

Those are the main aspects you need to consider when it comes to writing a workout program for yourself or your clients. If you can learn to put on those bumpers, and stay focused on the goal of the actual program that you are writing, I think you’ll find it less overwhelming. 

Remember, there’s no single equation for success in program design, but with practice and perseverance, you can craft a personalized workout program that brings you closer to your fitness aspirations. Happy lifting!

Join The Discussion:

I’m curious to know, do you find writing workout programs overwhelming or fun? Drop your answer in the comments below.

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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