The Basic Principles for Building an Exercise Program

Have you ever wondered how personal trainers build exercise programs?
Workout programs built by certified trainers and exercise physiologists are based on science (anatomy, exercise physiology) and evidence based research.

Building a program is extremely individualized. It is dependent on multiple factors including:

  • Age, family history, medical conditions
  • Physical and training status
  • Goals
  • Exercise frequency, intensity, time, type and rest periods
  • Resources like time, money, facilities and equipment
  • Social support
  • Personality type, self-esteem, self-efficacy

Personal trainers complete a very thorough screening and fitness assessment of their clients. This is because they require all the above information and more to prescribe the best exercise program possible for that particular individual. Therefore, the following information is to be used to help you understand the basic components of the exercise planning process.

Before participating in any physical activity, personal trainers provide their clients with the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire-Plus (PAR-Q+). This form pre-screens people to tell them whether they need to seek further advice from a doctor or qualified exercise professional.

Next, it is very helpful to set a few short-term goals to achieve your long-term goals. Goal setting can be a powerful strategy to motivate you to be more physically active to achieve results. The research based elements of goal setting are specific, measurable, attainable/action oriented, realistic/relevant and time bound, also known as SMART. For help with setting SMART goals, visit

Let’s get started with the basic elements of a workout. This includes 3 phases: warm-up, conditioning and cool-down.

Warm-up Phase

The warm-up phase is extremely important and should never be skipped. A warm-up and stretching are not the same thing. Stretching should never be used as a method of warming up because it increases the risk of connective tissue damage when tissue temperature is relatively low. A warm-up prepares the body to perform physical activity by raising total body temperature including the muscle temperature. During exercise, it allows muscles to contract and relax faster. It improves force, reaction time, muscle strength and power. The nervous system becomes more alert and the muscle fibres and tendons become more elastic. It can also reduce the risk of heart attacks and injury to the muscles.

The most common types of warm-up include general warm-up and specific warm-up. The general warm-up involves basic activities that require movement from the major muscle groups. For example, this includes jogging and cycling. The specific warm-up includes doing movements that are part of the actual activity that you’ll be doing in the conditioning phase. For example, slow jogging (specific warm-up) before going for a run (planned workout). A specific warm-up is the most desirable method because it increases the temperature of the muscle that you will be using during the conditioning phase. In general, the warm-up should be approximately 5 to 15 minutes long. As training improves, the intensity and time of the warm-up will need to increase to achieve an optimal body temperature prior to the workout.

Conditioning Phase

The conditioning phase is the main activity that you choose to perform for your workout. This can be aerobic or resistance exercise. Aerobic exercise is also referred to as aerobic endurance training, cardiovascular exercise or cardiorespiratory exercise. They all refer to exercise that involves the cardiovascular and respiratory systems including the heart, blood vessels and lungs. Resistance exercise is also referred to as strength training and weight training. Resistance training produces muscular contractions (muscle lengthens, shortens, or remains the same length) which build muscle strength, endurance, power and muscle size.

Cool-down Phase

The cool-down phase returns the body to resting levels. It helps overcome fatigue, speeds up the recovery process and prevents the pooling of blood in veins. It can include low intensity aerobic training or stretching. Post workout flexibility training has a regenerative effect which brings muscles back to their resting length, stimulates blood flow and reduces muscle spasm. In general, the cool-down should be approximately 5 to 15 minutes long.

We will now go further into the 3 types of activity recommended for overall physical fitness. They are flexibility, aerobic and resistance training. Doing each on a regular basis will achieve balanced fitness.

Flexibility Training

Flexibility training allows joints to move more freely through a full, normal range of motion. It may also provide an increased resistance to muscle injury. The main types of flexibility training are static, ballistic and dynamic. Static stretching is when a slow, constant speed is used and the stretched position is held for 30 seconds. For those who find it difficult to hold a stretch for 30 seconds, start with 15 or 20 seconds and work your way to 30 seconds. You should not go past 30 seconds to hold a stretch because it does not result in improved flexibility. An example of a static stretch is the sit and reach. It is not recommended to perform static stretching before doing a dynamic activity such as running, jumping or throwing because it may have a negative effect on performance. Ballistic stretching is a rapid, jerky and uncontrolled movement. It was used widely in the past but it is no longer considered an acceptable method of increasing the range of motion in any joint therefore, it should be avoided. Dynamic stretching exercises are based on movements that occur both in sport and in everyday life. An example of a dynamic stretch is arm circles. Dynamic stretching may be the most appropriate type of flexibility training for improving movement capability before a workout. You should begin with low intensity and low volume because dynamic stretching requires balance and coordination. Volume refers to the amount of work performed such as the number of repetitions and sets. In general, flexibility exercises can be performed 2 to 5 times per week. If your training goal is to improve range of motion, a combination of dynamic and static stretching is recommended.

Aerobic Training

The next component of fitness is aerobic training. The variables for safe aerobic activities include proper hydration, appropriate clothing and shoes, warm-up and cool-down and proper breathing techniques. The key principles for aerobic training are frequency, intensity, time and type, also known as FITT.


For general fitness goals, the frequency of aerobic training should be 2 to 5 times per week. Less than 2 times per week is not enough to develop and maintain fitness.
Here is a sample of options for exercise frequency:
Beginner: 2 days exercise, 5 days rest OR 3 days exercise, 4 days rest
Intermediate: 4 days exercise, 3 days rest OR 5 days exercise, 2 days rest
Advanced: 6 days exercise, 1 day rest


The most common and simplest way to determine intensity is using the percent of age-predicted maximum heart rate (APMHR). Keep in mind that using the APMHR method is only an estimate. The formula for calculating your APMHR is 220 – age. For example, 220 – 20 (age) = 200. Next, we want to determine the target heart rate range which is the exercise intensity “training zone”. If you are just getting started with your cardio training, you may want to start at 55-65% of your APMHR. However, to achieve improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, it is required to work at 70-85% of your APMHR. This is considered vigorous-intensity activity for the general population. If we take the previous APMHR of 200 and apply the 70-85% range, we get 200 x 70% = 140 beats per minute (bpm) and 200 x 85% = 170 bpm. Therefore, a 20 year old will need to work out within a target heart rate range of 140-170 bpm to achieve improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness. 


The duration (how long an exercise session lasts) is dependent on the intensity. For beginners, you may want to start off with 10 minute bouts. As you advance, you can aim for 20 to 60 minute sessions.


Aerobic exercise can be performed on a machine such as a treadmill, stair climber or elliptical. It can also be performed without a machine (referred to as non-machine) such as walking, running or swimming.

Resistance Training

The last component of fitness is resistance training. Before you begin resistance exercise, you should establish a primary resistance training goal. Goals can include: muscular endurance (you want to improve stamina), hypertrophy (you want increases in muscle size, fat-free mass and/or toned muscle), muscular strength (you want to be stronger such as being able to climb stairs easier), and muscular power (you want to jump higher, improve speed and agility). It is recommended that people start with the goals of muscular endurance or hypertrophy first before progressing to muscular strength and power. This is because muscular power programs have the best results when a muscular strength program is first used. However, muscular strength programs use heavier loads therefore muscular endurance or hypertrophy programs are best for beginners.

The FITT principle discussed in aerobic training can also be applied to resistance training.


The frequency refers to the number of workouts per week.
The general guidelines are:
Beginner: 2-3 sessions/week
Intermediate: 3 if using total body training, 4 if using split routine
Advanced: 4-6 sessions/week

It is suggested that all muscle groups have a minimum of 2 days per week to attain benefits. For example, on Monday the focus is upper body (split routine), Wednesday the focus is lower body (split routine) and Friday the focus is upper and lower body (total body training).


The training load (amount of weight to be used) is one of the most important factors to consider when designing a training program. Before the training load and repetitions are determined, it is required to do testing to determine your abilities to handle specific loads. Personal trainers perform testing using the 1-repetition maximum (1-RM). This is the maximum amount of weight that you can handle for a specific exercise, meaning that the weight is so heavy that you are only able to lift the weight once (one repetition). You might be thinking that it sounds dangerous for someone to try to lift a weight so heavy that they are only able to lift it once. Personal trainers do not perform testing in this way. The client goes through a series of testing and then a calculation by the personal trainer is completed to determine the client’s 1-RM. I do not recommend performing 1-RM testing by yourself. It should always be done with a qualified exercise professional.


The time for resistance training refers to the number of repetitions, sets and length of rest intervals. A repetition is the number of complete muscular contractions performed during an exercise set. A set is a grouping of muscle contractions that are performed consecutively. The rest interval is the rest time between a training set, training session or training phase. For general guidelines on the repetitions, sets and rest times in strength training, see the table below.

Training goal Repetitions
Novice Intermediate Advanced
Muscular endurance 10-15 10-15 10-25
Hypertrophy 8-12 6-12 6-12
Muscular strength 6 or less 6 or less 6 or less
Muscular power N/A 3-6 1-6
Novice Intermediate Advanced
Muscular endurance 1-3 3 or less 3 or more
Hypertrophy 1-3 3 or less 3 or more
Muscular strength 1-3 3 or less 3 or more
Muscular power N/A 1-3 3-6
  Rest Interval Length
Muscular endurance 30 s or less
Hypertrophy 30 s to 1.5 min
Muscular strength 2 to 5 min
Muscular power 2 to 5 min



The type refers to the method used for resistance training such as using machines, body weight or free weights (dumbbells). Exercises can be described as core and assistance exercises. Core exercises should make up the most of the program as they engage large muscle groups and involve two or more primary joints (multijoint exercise). For example, bench press involves movement at the shoulder and elbow joint while engaging the chest muscles, deltoid and triceps. Assistance exercises are supplementary to maintain muscular balance across a joint. They engage only one primary joint (single-joint exercise) and engage a small muscle group or area. For example, a bicep curl uses only the elbow joint and engages a small area of muscles.
Without getting into too much detail, the order in which exercises are performed is important. In general, core exercises should be done before assistance exercises and multijoint before single-joint. There are other ways of arranging exercises such as by “push” and “pull” exercises and alternating upper and lower body exercises.

A workout program consists of 3 basic elements which are warm-up, conditioning and cool-down. The 3 components for balanced fitness are aerobic, resistance and flexibility training. An exercise program built by a qualified exercise professional is a comprehensive process that is very individualized. Hopefully you have gained some understanding of the basic components of the exercise planning process.