Designing a Workout for Your Dream Body

One of the most common problems I hear is, “I don’t know how to meet my goals. I’m no longer getting good results with my workouts.” Fortunately, it’s not as overwhelming as you might think to tweak the variables in a strength-training workout. And the reward is the body that you want instead of working hard with no results.

Envision Your Ideal Body

How do you see yourself benefiting from your beautiful, fit body? Do you want get into shape for a vacation? Knock out physically challenging tasks without injuring yourself? Be comfortable playing sports with your kids? Play beach volleyball in a bikini? (Now that is ambitious, haha – but doable!)

The first step is to identify the exact changes you’d like to see in your body. Visualizing your results will guide you in how to train and eat. If you want to be stronger in daily life and don’t care about a sculpted physique, you’ll train differently than someone who does.

Choose Your Gains

Build muscle (hypertrophy). Muscle building requires both training a certain way and eating for muscle growth. That means eating a few more calories than it takes to maintain your weight and more proteinand lifting heavy.

Develop muscle definition. The main difference between building muscle and developing a lean, sculpted look is having lower body fat. This means clean eating. You’ll also need to lift hard and heavy with the right volume.

Increase strength. You may’ve heard it before: You need to be strong to lift heavy, and you can’t build muscle unless you lift heavy. Or maybe you simply want to be stronger. Regardless, you need to train for this adaptation.

Increase muscle endurance. I talk more about achieving this goal here.

Lose Body Fat. In addition to eating clean and incorporating high-intensity interval training (HIIT), you should strength train for weight loss by using circuits and supersets. Also see my 12-week plan for increasing muscle and losing fat.

Now that you’ve pinpointed your goals, you need to lift weights based on your goals. Keep in mind that the more specific your goals (“I want a bubble butt”), the more specifically you should train. However, you need to balance your training intelligently. Even if you want to build your glutes, you can’t neglect your quadriceps (the opposing muscle to your glutes) or you’ll end up with a muscle imbalance that can cause a nagging injury.

Weightlifting Variables to Manipulate

In weightlifting, you can manipulate different variables to get results. As you become more experienced, you need to be concerned with a few additional components, such as cycling your workouts. Also keep in mind that how you train will depend on your fitness level.


Strength Endurance











Rest intervals

0-60 sec

0-60 sec

3-5 min


2-4x week

3-6x week

2-4x week

Tip: Also see this article about reps and sets.

  • Repetition: A complete movement of an exercise. Often referred to as a “rep.” How many reps you perform during each session depends on your goals.
  • Set: A group of consecutive repetitions.
  • Rest intervals: The amount of recovery time between each set. How long you rest has a dramatic effect on the results of your training [1]. In order to replenish your energy reserves you need to rest adequately between sets; however, you don’t want to rest too long or you negate the energy expended.
  • Intensity. Your level of effort. You can change the intensity by adjusting the resistance.

    Intensity can be measured against your maximal effort (your one-rep max, or 1RM), but many beginning to intermediate lifters simply use this rule: Lift as much as you can lift for the target number of reps, ensuring that your muscles are fatigued by the last rep. If you can do more reps than your target range, increase the weight. If you cannot complete the target number of reps, decrease the weight. The body’s job is to adapt, and your job is to stay ahead of your body’s adaptations.

  • Frequency: How many times per week you train. Again, this variable has a big impact on your success. Learn which training split is right for you and remember that more is not always better. As a general guideline, you need to leave 48 hours between training muscle groups, depending on your level and how hard you train.
  • Duration. How long you spend exercising during one session. This will depend on your fitness level and time constraints; anything beyond 60 to 90 minutes results in rapidly decreasing energy levels. Keeping your workouts below this range will allow you to maintain strength and energy needed to perform well.
  • Tempo. The speed with which each repetition is performed. Each rep has three phases – eccentric (lowering the weight and lengthening the muscle), isometric (holding the weight in a static position), and concentric (lifting the weight and shortening the muscle). These tempos are expressed like this: x/x/x or eccentric/isometric/concentric (for example, 2/0/2). Changing the time under tension can be used to help break through a plateau.
  • Exercises. Which weightlifting movements you choose will have a big impact on your progress. For each workout, concentrate on doing several compound movements (those using more than one joint) and only one or two isolation exercises. A good rule of thumb for muscle growth is 12-20 sets per week per muscle group (fewer for small muscles). So if you do 4 exercises for legs at 4 sets each, that’s 16 sets. That’s more than plenty for the entire week. However,  some people don’t respond well to once-a-week training, so understand which training split is right for you.

Effective Strength-Training Exercises

Which exercises you choose will depend on your goals. But here are a few of my favorites:

  • Glutes and hamstrings: Back squat, Bulgarian split squat, Romanian deadlift, barbell hip thrust, hyperextension, lunge, hip extension)
  • Quads: Squat, leg press, leg extension, lunge
  • Calves: Seated calf raise, standing calf raise, calf press
  • Back: Pull-up, deadlift, lat pull down, seated cable row, chest-supported row
  • Chest: Incline chest press, flat bench press, dumbbell flye, push-up, dip
  • Shoulders: Push press, Arnold press, military press, rear delt varieties
  • Triceps: Triceps pushdown, lying triceps extension, overhead triceps extension, dips, diamond push-ups
  • Biceps: Concentration curl, barbell or dumbbell curl, cross-body curl, hammer curl

Keep Progressing

Variables are important, but so is cycling your training. Even if you simply want to perform better and be stronger in daily life, you still need to change your workouts on a regular basis to avoid plateauing.

Mix up the rest, intensity, tempo, reps, and/or sets on a session-by-session or weekly basis to keep your body adapting. You can also rotate two or three workouts.

Perform your newly created workout for four to six weeks. Be patient – one of the biggest reason people don’t see results is because of “program hopping.”

In general, between each training phase you should back off the volume (sets and reps) by about 40% and let your body recover for about a week. This is called a deload.

Remember that the basic principle of weightlifting is progressive overload, so continue to increase the weight any time it’s possible to do so with good form.

Enjoy your workouts!

This article originally appeared on

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  1. AWeSOMe article!
    thank you for helping to keep me inspired and on track.
    keepin’ it real,
    gene @boutdrz recently posted..JULY DIY5KMy Profile

  2. i love is suzanne! so useful helpful and inspiring!
    lindsay recently posted..Reminders and RecipesMy Profile

  3. great article. I am a beginner and I started a full body routine a few weeks ago….I am already seeing changes.
    Doing It My Weigh recently posted..8 Weeks and 13 PoundsMy Profile

  4. You are awesome! I can’t WAIT to get home and explore this a little more in depth..but as I am at work…
    ragemichelle recently posted..Great ExpectationsMy Profile

  5. very helpful, I love it.

  6. Great post.good chart to help people with there goals.

  7. The bomb! Well written. 🙂
    Jeannie recently posted..Sometimes I Just Need Some YogaMy Profile

    • @Gene- You’re welcome :). You help me too!
      @Lindsay- Thanks for stopping by despite my errant blog reading ways!
      @Changingmyweighs- Love to hear from beginners. They see results most quickly ;). Thanks for stopping by!
      @Michelle- You mean you won’t risk your supervisor’s wrath for me??
      @Amy- Thanks!
      @Ndem- I hope so 🙂

    • Thank you hon!

  8. What a fantastic post! Thanks Suzanne for doing this!
    Sheri @ TheMotivationalGirl recently posted..Stress Less Weigh LessMy Profile

  9. Wow! Not sure how I missed this! What an amazing overview of the different components of different types of fitness measurements.
    My wrists are lean – they’re the first to get lean – alas my belly is not. But I’m not ready to give up my half and half!
    For me? I think I want to have better cardiovascular endurance and capacity at higher intensity. So instead of being winded swimming hard for 1 lap in the pool – I’d like to be able to maintain that pace for 2 laps. Not sure what you call that…. but that’s what I want.
    And a slimmer belly of course. ha!
    Kris @Krazy_Kris recently posted..Beginning Mountain Biking | I REALLY Rode in Tahoe!My Profile

    • Kris, you’re always striving for more. I know your workouts are a LOT different than this but you are organized about what you do and that will get your results!

  10. Perfect article, thank you! This is definitely where I need to start.

    Strength endurance is my goal – I’m a runner and a chaser of a 5 year old 🙂

    Thanks for your help. I’m sure I’ll creep around your site for more.
    Kristen @SEO Runner recently posted..Forks Over Knives and Nov Goals – EarlyMy Profile

  11. OK, I have to be “mean” and say what about those “I want to tone but I don’t want those big muscles, that is so manly”, lol. If I had a penny for every time I heard that. I’ve been trying to build for a figure competition and every ounce of muscle I get is a result of so much training and nutrition and supplements and I go nuts hearing that 🙂 When will that big fat lie go away from women’s heads. Awesome post, Suzanne.
    Brankica recently posted..Importance of Pre-workout and Post-workout MealsMy Profile

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