Joining a gym for the first time can be quite an overwhelming experience. You’re entering an environment filled with unfamiliar equipment, much of which looks pretty daunting. Sure, you’ve got a plan to follow, but when you look at it, it’s about as clear as mud.

 

Workout plans are written in a particular format. Unless you’re familiar with it, you might as well be reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. In this article, I’ll step you through everything you need to know about how to read a workout plan. This will unlock the roadmap that will guide you through your gym sessions.

 

If you are looking for some help to design a workout plan that suits you then check out our weightlifting instructors here.

Learn how to read a workout plan

What is a Workout Plan?

A workout plan is a written record of the exercise routine that your gym instructor provides for you when you join a gym. Each time you work out, you are meant to carry the plan with you and refer to it to tell you exactly what to do.

 

Workout plans are designed to be interactive documents. They will have boxes where you can fill in the details of your workout, such as the weight you used for a particular exercise. On some plans, you simply tick the box to indicate that you have completed the exercise.

 

Once you can read and design your own workout plan, you will be able to save money each month by getting rid of your gym membership.

 

A Sample Workout Plan

The best way to learn to read a workout plan is to break down an actual plan, decoding every part of it. There are many types of plans, ranging from very basic to quite complex. Let’s take a look at a complex plan to make sure that we cover everything that you are likely to find on your workout plan.

 

As a personal trainer and gym owner, I have written thousands of workout plans. Here is a sample plan that I would give to experienced members …

ExerciseSetsRepsTempoRestResistance/Reps
A BB Deadlift410-152,0,2,060 secs
B1 Flat BB Press

B2 Seated Cable Row
3

3
8

8
2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0
60 secs
C1 Pull Ups

C2 Hyperextensions

C3 Push Ups

3

3

3
AMRAP

12

AMRAP
2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0
60 secs
D1 SL-RDL

D2 Side Plank

D3 Renegade Row

D4 BW Row

D5 KB Goblet Squat
3

3

3

3

3
10

30 seconds

12

10

10
2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0

2,0,2,0
60 secs

Exercise Type

The first thing we see in the exercise column is a letter. This signifies the type of set you are doing. There are six set types that you are likely to come across:

 

  • A = Straight Sets: This is when you do a single exercise on its own for a specified number of repetitions and then rest before repeating the exercise.
  • B = Supersets: A superset involves performing two exercises back to back, with no rest between them. You then rest before repeating the paired movements on your next superset. Supersets may be for the same or different muscle groups.
  • C = Triset: A tri-set involves performing three exercises with no rest between them. You then rest before repeating the tri-set.
  • D = Giant: A giant set involves doing four or more exercises with no rest between each exercise. You then rest before going through the giant set again.
  • E = Circuit: A circuit involves performing 5 or more exercises in a row with no (or very little) rest between exercises. Usually, a circuit will include every exercise in the workout and you will go through several rounds of the circuit.
  • F = Drop Set: A drop set is similar to a giant set in that you do four sets in a row. However, in this case, you are using the same exercise. On each subsequent set, you decrease the weight you are using. This is a very intense way of working a muscle group.

 

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Exercise Abbreviations

There are a number of exercise abbreviations that you will come across on a workout plan. Here are half a dozen of the most common …

 

  • BB = Barbell
  • BP - Bench Press
  • DB = Dumbbell
  • KB = Kettlebell
  • SL = Single Leg
  • RDL = Romanian Deadlift
  • BW = Body Weight
  • HIIT = High Intensity Interval Training
  • AMRAP = As Many Reps (or rounds) As Possible
  • OHP = Overhead Press
  • OHS = Overhead Squat
  • PP = Push Press

Sets

A set is a group of repetitions of an exercise done without any rest. For each exercise, you will do a designated number of sets according to your goals which will be indicated in the sets column.

Key terms in weight lifting
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Reps

Reps stands for repetitions. This is the number of times you will perform the exercise in each set. There are five rep schemes that you are likely to come across …

 

  • Straight Sets: This is when you do the same number of repetitions on each set, such as 3 sets of 10. You may also come across straight sets that give you a range of reps, such as 3 sets of 8-12. In this situation, you will have the goal of getting 12 reps on the first set.

 

On the next set, when you are more fatigued, you are still aiming for 12 but may realistically only get to 10 or 11 reps. Then on the third set, you, as your working muscle is even more fatigued, you might only get to 8 or 9 reps.

 

  • Descending Pyramid Sets: A descending pyramid set is when you decrease the reps and increase the resistance on each succeeding set. This will be indicated with a series of rep numbers, separated by a slash. Here is an example …

 

5 x 30/20/15/10/8

 

Here you will do 30 repetitions for the first set. You then add resistance to do 20 reps on the next set. On each succeeding set, you add more resistance as the repetitions are lowered.

 

  • Descending / Ascending Sets: In this case, you perform the descending pyramid set as described above and then work your way back up the pyramid to finish with the same number of reps you began with. Here’s an example …

 

7 x 30/20/15/10/15/20/30

 

Sometimes you will jump directly from your lowest rep, heaviest weight set directly to the rep and weight that you started with. This acts as a final pumping set to flush blood into the muscle. Here is an example …

 

5 x 30/20/15/10/30

 

  • As Many Reps As Possible: In this case, you simply keep going until you cannot do another rep with proper form. You will usually find this rep scheme paired with such bodyweight exercises as pull-ups or push-ups.

 

Tempo

The tempo is the cadence with which an exercise is performed. It is indicated by four numbers representing seconds. Here’s an example …

 

2,0,2,0

 

The first number relates to the first part of the exercise. In most exercises, this is the concentric part of the movement when you are lifting the weight. So, in the above example, you would take two seconds to lift the weight.

 

The second number represents the transition between the lifting and the lowering part of the rep. In the above example, there is 0 rest time, so you smoothly move directly to the lowering part.

 

The third number relates to the lowering part of the rep, which again is two seconds.

 

The fourth number represents the transition into the next rep. In our example, there is no rest between repetitions.

 

Rest

The rest column will tell you how long to rest between each set. This will be a range between 30 seconds and three minutes. Your trainer will adjust the rest between sets in accordance with your training goals.

 

When it comes to supersets, tri-sets, giant sets, and circuits, the number in the rest column tells you how long to rest after completing the designating grouping of exercises.

 

Resistance & Reps

The final column of the workout plan is where you record the resistance and the actual number of repetitions you achieved. If you are a beginner, your trainer will take you through your first workout and help you to determine the appropriate weights to use for each exercise. He will fill  that in for you.

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Alongside the record of the weight, you will fill in the actual number of reps you achieved for each set. Even though you already have your reps recorded, that previous number is the goal. In this column, you record what you actually achieved.

 

Every workout, you should record the resistance and number of reps you lifted for each set. This provides a record of exactly what you managed to lift.

 

Your resistant and rep record also serves as a target for the next workout. For example, the plan may call for you to do 10 reps on your third set of the Deadlift. However, you only get to 8 reps. Before you start your next workout, you should scan your workout plan to see what you did last time. Your goal will be to get to 9 or even 10 reps on that third deadlift set.

 

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Wrap Up

Your workout plan is your roadmap to unlocking your health and fitness future.

 

As a beginner, you will probably not come across a plan as detailed as the one we’ve discussed. Now that you know how to decipher this plan, though, your own plan will be a piece of cake.

 

Want to know how to make quick progress in the gym? Check out our complete guide for aspiring bodybuilders.

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Steve

Hi, my name’s Steve Theunissen. I joined my first gym at age 15 and, five years later, I was managing my own studio. In 1987, I became the first personal fitness trainer in New Zealand. Over the past decade, I have built a freelance fitness writing career to share my fitness passion with the world.