How to structure your workout

Women training with a barbell on their own
Written by
Katy Harkness
Published on
December 12, 2022

How to structure your gym workout

A free downloadable guide on how to structure and get the most out of your gym sessions whether you are completely new to training or a bit more seasoned.

Have you ever found yourself wandering around the gym, with your hands on your hips (always on hips) wondering what to do next?  Finding a free machine, giving it a bit of a whirl and then wondering and wandering to the next thing?  

Yep, I used to do that too.

To help with the wondering wandering I’ve pulled together a free guide for you based on my training, experience and being a bit of a programming geek.

Now, I’m not going to give you a list of exercises to do in your session with the number of sets and reps because everyone is different, with different goals, different strengths, different weaknesses, different access to equipment and different time available.

And I don’t do cookie-cutter programmes.

What I am going to give you though is give you a guide to how you can broadly structure your workout to get the most out of it.  

It will help you plan and structure what you are going to do, enabling you to create something that works for you.

This is based on an hour session, but you can adapt the principles to the time you have and what your focus is.

If your workout was a sandwich think about your warm up and cool down/ stretching being the bread.  Without it you don’t have a sandwich.  You can put whatever filling in you like to make it your favourite sandwich, with the filling being the main part of the workout.  So, first rule – don’t forget your warm up and cool down/ stretching bread for your workout sarnie.

Approximate timings for your hour session

Timings table for your hour session
Timings for your hour session

NB – these are approximate.  Your body might need more of a warm-up.  Or more of a stretch at the end.  Or cardio may be your focus. This is a guide.

1. Warm up and dynamic mobility with a focus on the movement patterns and muscles you are about to train. This could be a few minutes on the treadmill or rower followed by some lower body dynamic mobility if you are training legs that day, or upper body mobility if you are training upper body.  

Why bother with a warm-up? – in short it slowly raises your heart rate, lubricates your joints, warms up and stretches the muscles you are about to use and mentally prepares you for the rest of the session.

2. Resistance Training where you are moving a weight. This includes bodyweight.

Always work from multiple muscle groups (compound exercises) to individual muscles (isolation exercises).

Compound exercises are brilliant – they recruit a load of different muscles, they get your heart rate up and burn more energy because they take real effort, and they more closely mimic everyday movements so help train you for life.  

Isolation exercises because they concentrate on strengthening a specific muscle, will help with muscular imbalances you might have.


Examples of Isolation and Compound Exercises
Examples of Isolation and Compound Exercises

Across the week train your whole body to avoid muscular imbalances.

5-6 resistance exercises are realistic in a session.

Alternate upper and lower body exercises when you can if doing a full body workout, to help with fatigue and to keep varied.

Across the week train the 7 functional movement patterns – the things our body is designed to do on a day-to-day basis - squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry, rotation.

The more stable your base the better when learning new movement patterns and building initial strength. In a nutshell fixed weights/ cable machines are more stable than dumb bells and barbells.  If you are new to training, start with fixed weight machines where possible and as you get more confident progress to free weights.

You can progress and challenge yourself without having to increase weight – you can increase reps and sets, slow down the tempo, add in half a rep, add in a pause or shorten your rest period.  This will help you keep your form and help ensure a safer workout.

3. Cardio/ Heart Raiser – this does not need be a sweaty session from hell.  You can create a small circuit or jump on a machine. The choice is yours, but you want to be about a 7 out of 10 in terms of effort.  You should still be able to talk, all be it in short sentences.

4. Include some core… or controversially don’t

I personally love core exercises and building a stronger core will help you with every single exercise you do. But the reality is knowing how to engage your core so that you stabilise your spine when you are doing all your other exercises, will serve you brilliantly.  

So how do you engage your core and stabilise your spine?

Think about pulling your belly button back towards your spine and bracing as if someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Try it now. Give your stomach a little punch. Feeling solid? Good, you’ve got it.

5. Stretch…

Always stretch the muscles/ muscle groups you have worked during your session. Remember it is one of the slices of bread in your workout sandwich.

And if you have any muscles that are short and tight then show them some extra love with some developmental stretches which over time will help to lengthen them.

A developmental stretch is simply stretching the muscle to point of tension and holding for 6 – 10 seconds then when the muscle relaxes stretch further to the next point of tension, hold for another 10 seconds, repeat this once more for a total time of 30 seconds.


There are 5 elements to a session, two of which are non-negotiable. Your warm-up and dynamic mobility and stretching – the bread of your sandwich.

Your filling will be made up of resistance training, cardio and core exercises but the degree to which you lean into each of these will depend upon your goals.

I go into all this is more detail in the free download here.

The PLAY Fitness and Coaching philosophy built around PROGRESS, LEARNING and ACTION for YOU.

So, I hope you have found this helpful and have learnt something about structuring your workout, and that any action you take as a result of this helps you progress towards your goal.

And if you would like to chat about your goals and work together to create your bespoke training plan designed with those goals in mind then you can get in touch here.

About Katy Harkness

Katy founded PLAY Fitness & Coaching after she made changes in her life, which saw her lose over 20kg and become the fittest she has ever been.

As Katy became more interested in health and fitness, the algorithms shared more and more misinformation.

Becoming frustrated with unrealistic goals and standards being set, that are often not healthy, Katy left the advertising industry where she had a successful 20+ year career, to help create the change she wanted to see in the health and fitness industry and to support people to make the sustainable, long term changes they wanted to see in their own lives.

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