Creating your own training program can seem like a daunting task. But with a little insider knowledge, you can get started on a new exercise routine without much outside help. Here’s how to structure your weekly workouts based on your goals and ensure you keep progressing — plus how to know when it’s time to call in a trainer for an expert opinion.

The first step to creating your own workout program is to decide how many times per week you want to work out, plus what types of workouts you’ll be doing. While each person is different, here are some general guidelines based on common goals.

1. FIGURE OUT YOUR WORKOUT SCHEDULE

  • Fat Loss
    More muscle mass equals faster metabolism which equals more calorie and fat burn,” says Heather Heberling, a certified personal trainer and run coach. “To increase muscle mass and encourage fat loss, strength training three times per week is a good start, depending on age and ability level. Beginners should master bodyweight movements prior to adding load.”
  • Muscle Gain
    “I would recommend 1–2 sessions of cardio (or interval training) and three sessions of strength training,” says Kate Ligler, a certified personal trainer and wellness specialist for Mindbody. If you’re more advanced, you could go as high as four days a week with your strength training, she adds. And if muscle gain is your goal, heavier weights are a must, Heberling says.
  • Maximum Strength
    Provided you’re not a beginner, Ligler recommends dedicated strength training 3–4 times a week for the biggest gains. If you’re advanced, you could up that to 4–6 times a week, using a split strength-training regimen, where you focus on different body parts on different days.

2. TRY DIFFERENT TRAINING METHODS

  • Progressive Overload
    No matter your goal, if you want to make progress, you’ll need to implement something called progressive overload. It sounds complicated, but it’s simpler than it seems: “In order for your body to become more fit in any way (fat loss, muscle gain, increased aerobic capacity, etc.), you must continually challenge it in a manner that creates enough stress to force an adaptation,” Ligler explains.

Basically, this means you want your workouts to get harder — in some way — over time. “For those creating their own training programs, it’s important to understand that progressive overload can be applied in several ways: increased resistance, increased reps, increased volume and/or increased frequency,” Ligler adds. So, no matter your goal, be sure to implement this principle for the best results.

  • Periodization and Deloading
    Most people can also benefit from periodization, which means changing up your workout routine over a set period of time. Some may also refer to this as training cycles.“If you consistently give your body the same stimulus, it will adapt and become more efficient, therefore slowing your progress,” says Sarah Smulligan, a certified personal trainer. “While there are many different phases you can cycle through, the main three in order are hypertrophy, or muscle gain, (high-rep/high-volume), strength (lower rep/high-load) and power (medium-rep range, controlling tempo of the exercise to be slow on the eccentric and quick on the concentric).” Smulligan recommends spending about 4–6 weeks in each cycle before moving on to the next.

During each cycle, you may also want to incorporate what’s known as a deload phase. “A deload is a strategic backing off from weight training,” says Elliott Upton, a certified personal trainer at Ultimate Performance and Head of LiveUP Online Coaching. “It would usually happen every four weeks or so on a hard program — but only if someone is genuinely training hard enough.” In other words, you want to purposely back off periodically if you’re really pushing yourself in the gym to give your muscles a chance to recover and help prevent injuries from creeping in, Upton says. “The easiest way to do it is every fourth week, just to back off by about 25–30% of the weights you’re currently lifting.”

There’s no doubt that when it comes to creating a program, trainers know best. If the option is available, it’s definitely advisable to enlist expert help in establishing your workout routine. But, if your budget doesn’t allow for regular sessions with a trainer, you still have options.

Do one session. “For anyone new to strength training, even one focused session with a trainer can be immensely beneficial for learning to do ‘the basics’ correctly,” Ligler says. “Talk to the trainer in advance and make sure they know what you are hoping to gain from your time in order to maximize the session: a training schedule, basic knowledge of the equipment, the right body position to improve your form, and so on.”

Go online. “Online personal training can be a more cost-effective option, especially for people who have a good base knowledge of training,” Upton points out. Many online trainers can even work with you on an ongoing basis, checking in and providing advice as you work through a customized program.

Use apps. Ligler also frequently recommends workout apps for those on a budget who are looking for a little oversight, accountability or access to resources. While the workout programs on apps might not be totally customized, they can still provide a useful framework for getting started.