Have you ever wanted to dive into the brain of a personal trainer?  How do they design their workout programs for their clients?  Why is a particular exercise included in the workout?

I’m going to let you in on my thinking.  There is a method to the madness!  Here is a sample strength workout template.


The warmup is the perfect time to include corrective exercises to prepare the body for the workout.  This will include foam rolling, stretching, and/or mobility exercises to release overactive muscles.  Followed by low intensity strength/activation exercises for the underactive muscles.

Typical areas to foam roll include the chest, upper traps, lats, and calves.  Activation exercises are usually used for the abs and glutes.  Depending on what the assessment reveals or how my client feels that particular day determines which areas we address.

Then one light intensity set of each of the major muscle groups (chest, back, legs) to prepare the body for the upcoming exercises.  The warmup is typically 5-10 minutes.

strength heart

Strength Training

I choose resistance training over cardio training because I advise my clients to walk, run, swim, bike on their own.  That doesn’t mean that the workouts don’t have a cardio component because most do.  Hello circuit training!  Keeping the intensity up and minimizing rest results in elevated heart rates.  And voila…..cardio training!

For sets, my novice clients are typically assigned 2 sets of each exercise.  We start off with 2 sets for three reasons:  1) to minimize muscle soreness, 2) to monitor the intensity of the workout and, 3) you can get stronger with two sets because starting an exercise program is all about improving the muscle to brain connection.  My more advanced clients get up to 5 sets of each exercise.  The length of the session also determines how many sets we’re doing.


10-15.  I like this range because my clients usually want to get more “toned.”  This rep range allows for improvement in strength with moderately-heavy weight.


The amount of weight we use must be challenging.  I consistently ask my clients if the weight feels “challenging.”  They should be able to complete the assigned amount of reps, but not do more than 2-3 reps more.  Fatigue must be setting in for the last couple reps.

While the workout format may change each time I meet with my clients, the exercises don’t.  Exercises are repeated so that technique can improve and so adaptations can happen.  If you always do something new, you have a hard time improving your strength.  Think about the guys you see in the gym who constantly bench press.  They are working on getting stronger and adding weight to the bar.


There’s also the matter of order of exercises.  After the warmup, we hit the major muscle group with compound/multi-joint exercises.  My personal exercise order preference by muscle group is Chest, Back, Quad-Dominant Leg, Glute-Dominant Leg, Abs.

We almost always begin with pushups.  We do them first because they are typically the hardest exercise, the client’s energy level is high, and because pushups work a lot of muscles at once.  Chest Press with dumbbells works well for chest too.

After chest comes the back.  I will often program two back exercises into a workout.  This is to improve posture and to balance out the extra work we tend to do for the “mirror muscles.”  You know…the muscles on the front that you can see in the mirror.  I like pull-aparts for the traps/mid-back.

Also for the back, I like any variation of a row.  Straight arm pulldowns with a cable or pullups provide a vertical direction of pull.

Now legs.  I often choose a quad-dominant and a glute/hamstring-dominant exercise.  Examples of quad-dominant exercises are step-ups, lunges and squats.  Glute-dominant exercises include bridges, hip thrusts, and pull thrus.  Training the posterior side of the body is so important for posture and for balancing out everything we do to train the front.

Sometimes if time allows, we’ll do the secondary muscles such as biceps, triceps, shoulders, outer thigh.  Then, we finish up with core.  Notice I didn’t say abs.  Yes, we train the abs….just not with hundreds of crunches.  I’ve found that the majority of people need core stability.  So, planks, side planks, bird dogs, dead bugs, farmer’s carry, and pallof press are usually my go to choices.

I hope that gives you some insight and direction for your next workout!