An Exact Training Plan to Build Muscle and Lose Body Fat

The science-backed training strategies that got me the results I wanted and can work for you, too

Emily Kathryn Rudow
Oct 6 · 18 min read
The author preparing to run.
The author preparing to run.
Photo of the author by Rosie Photography

There’s an abundance of information out there on what training plan you should follow, many with conflicting opinions. On top of that, the fitness industry overcomplicates this information for a number of reasons; for example, to prompt you to buy their products, training plans, or hire trainers. It can be overwhelming even for the most seasoned athletes.

I got my personal training certification back in 2010. I picked up my textbook the other day and skimmed through some of the pages and couldn’t believe how much of the information in the text is now rendered obsolete.

Science is progressing at a rapid rate and new studies and subsequent findings are being released all the time. I’ve had to make an ongoing practice of staying on top of the latest findings and digging deep into the research — looking at this research through a critical lens to ensure I’m weeding out less-than-credible sources.

I’m no longer an active certified personal trainer, but I do still have the foundational knowledge and steps on how to create a fitness plan. I enjoy sharing the techniques I’ve learned, which I’ve landed on through the sheer process of trial and error.

In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into my exact training plan and what I’ve done to achieve the results I have to-date. This includes a breakdown of my exercises, my current training split, reps/sets/rest periods, and how I discover/actively include new exercises in my routine.

I’m an able-bodied cis woman, and I recognize that what works for me may not work for everyone. But I’ll also give you some basics (that will work for most people) of how to create a plan of your own and based on your fitness goals, how you can structure your time at the gym, and get the results you want.

Fitness Goals

Before we dive into a comprehensive review of my current regimen, it’s important to mention my current fitness goals and commitment levels.

Aesthetically, my goal is to continue building muscle and lose body fat. I apply the principles of progressive overload (lifting more weight, taking less rest, and/or doing more reps on a weekly basis) to achieve hypertrophy (AKA muscle growth). Performance-wise, I want to get stronger. I aim to see continuous improvements in my strength every few weeks through lifting heavier weights and performing more reps per set.

My number one priority and focus is on my running and maintaining a consecutive streak. While I do want to simultaneously improve speed, my number one goal is to be able to run everyday injury-free. The reason? Well, there’s too many to get into this post. I say this because the number of leg days I mix into my fitness routine is minimal, and you’ll most likely want to include more leg days and exercises than I do.

Commitment Levels

Another unique situation is that I’m self-employed. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to create my own schedule and free up time to engage in more activities that are important to me. I realize that people with full-time careers and/or those with kids, don’t have much of a choice when it comes to how much time they can squeeze in during their weekly workouts.

Here’s the truth: my daily workouts are long (on average 1.5–2 hours per day). I know it’s a lot and not feasible for many, but with that being said, you don’t need an enormous time-commitment to achieve amazing results; just ensure you’re following an efficient training plan and keeping your nutrition in check.

In terms of frequency, I work out seven days a week; seven days of cardio (running) and six days of strength training. I’ll flesh out the exact workouts I do in the following sections, but for now, I need to mention that I don’t take “active” rest days. However, that’s not to say that I’m pushing myself to my limit every single day. Actually quite the opposite, as I outlined in my post, How to Deal with Mental Roadblocks, I’d say a good 80% of my training is considerably easy.

If you’re just starting out, it’s important to pick a number of days a week you can commit to your fitness routine and stick with that. Once you flesh out your weekly schedule, you can decide how many days you can designate to training — it’s okay to be modest with this. Make those training days your top priority and find a way to slot in time to prioritize yourself and your health (both physically and mentally).

Training Fundamentals

In this section, I’ll take you through some of the main training fundamentals backed by credible industry resources and personal experience. Reps/sets/rest are a big point of contention in the fitness industry. I will lay out my findings, but I recommend that you don’t take everything I say at face value; try it out for yourself, see if the rule of thumb applies to you, but also be open to seeking out and incorporating new information (even if it’s not aligned with what you currently think you know).

Unlearning is one of the most difficult but important aspects of seeing material changes in your physique. By adopting that mindset, you’re well on your way.

Reps

How many reps should you do in a given set? The answer isn’t so straightforward. Basically, you need to decide what your training goals are: are you looking to build muscle (hypertrophy), strength, or muscular endurance? Most of us want to focus on numero one, but it’s okay to want all three. It is important to note that the main goal we choose impacts the number of reps we need to perform per set.

Goal 1: Muscle growth (hypertrophy)

If your goal is to build muscle, you’ll need to apply both the principles of progressive overload and bringing muscles to failure in order to see growth. Most of the resources I’ve found suggest the rep range for this goal is to hit 8–12 reps per set. However, like anything, there are caveats.

In Jeff Nippard’s video, Rep Ranges and Training Intensity, he explains two separate studies by Schoenfeld that were conducted with two groups of men (in each) comparing the effects of muscular adaptations in trained individuals. The first study compared one group that lifted ten reps with lighter weights and another that was performing three reps with heavier weights. The second study compared a group performing reps in the 8–12 range and the other in the 25–35 rep range.

The findings? Across both studies, the results indicated that all groups’ efforts led to hypertrophy. There are a few stipulations of course; the effort has to be equal across these groups (all sets need to be taken to failure) and training volume also needs to be matched. The main point here is that you can see muscle growth across a wide spectrum of rep ranges.

Nippard suggests there is still a “magic rep range” that is more ideal for the majority of the population to aim for when it comes to building muscle: 6–15 is the ideal range where 6–12 is more on the hypertrophy level. Here’s the takeaway: try to stick to a rep range of 6–15 reps with your focus being getting to muscle failure (where you literally can’t physically do one more rep) within the last set of each given exercise.

Goal 2: Strength

If your goal is to build strength, the recommended rep range drops quite a bit. Powerlifters would fit nicely into this category but it is also for individuals who just want to get stronger and lift more. The suggested rep range for strength training is 1–6 reps per set; lifting the heaviest weight out of all the other training methods. Most powerlifters focus on a core set of exercises inducing the deadlift, squat, and bench press.

This may be a redundant point but I still feel that it’s worth mentioning: working on strength will help you get stronger and provide you with the ability to lift more. Hence why this is the go-to training method for powerlifters. To give you a quick comparison on the above goal, most bodybuilders focus on hypertrophy and try to get as lean as possible while simultaneously building muscle, but bodybuilders can also see immense benefit in muscular growth if they also include some lower rep exercises into their routine.

From an aesthetic standpoint, powerlifters do appear quite a bit different. In fact, the physique of powerlifters differs dramatically. They aren’t concerned with the “ripped physique,” but rather on the ability to lift as much weight as possible.

Goal 3: Endurance

Simply put, your endurance level determines your ability to perform for longer periods of time. Your body is using slow-twitch muscle fibers and provides you with the ability to last longer during exercise. In order to train for endurance, you need to lower the weight a bit and focus on doing lighter loads (15 reps or more) with less rest between sets.

By incorporating lighter weight and more reps, your body will be able to better utilize oxygen and give you that added boost. If you’re a runner, working on endurance can help you sustain harder periods of activity for longer periods of time. Another added benefit is burning more calories while boosting your metabolism.

Sets

Generally speaking, the average number of sets per exercise should range from 1–4 per exercise. However, like any claim, there is some controversy, when it comes to performing just one set. Once again, depending on your fitness goals, you can try incorporating set ranges as outlined in the table below:

A chart showing how many sets you should be doing in a workout
A chart showing how many sets you should be doing in a workout
Source: How Many Sets You Should Be Doing in a Workout

You may have noticed in the far right column “1RM”. Let me just digress for a moment and explain what that is because I had no idea what RM stood for a few months back. 1RM stands for one-repetition maximum or in other, plain ol’ human words; this is the MAX amount of weight someone can lift for a single repetition.

Here’s an example: say you can bench press 100lbs one time, but in a given set you can bench 70lbs. Your intensity would be 70%. I’m not going to get into too much detail here, but if you want to explore why intensity matters, I’ll link to an article in the further reading section of this post.

Volume

In addition to the principle of progressive overload, training volume is also a main driver of muscle growth. Volume is the amount of work you perform in a given workout and a good formula that Nippard laid out in his Training Volume and Frequency video is as follows:

TOTAL work in training (sets) x (reps) x (load/weight)

When it comes to the number of sets you should perform for each muscle group per week, most aim for the 10–20 range. It’s worth noting that there have been studies conducted on trained athletes that have upped the volume to 30–45 sets per week. Be sure to check out this interesting article on increased weekly volume and the impacts on trained vs. untrained athletes.

For your reference, here’s a quick breakdown of the main muscle groups:

  • Biceps
  • Back
  • Chest
  • Triceps
  • Rear delts
  • Side delts
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Abs

Most beginners typically aim around the ~10 set/week range and intermediate/advanced aim closer to the ~20 set/week range per muscle group. So if you’re a beginner, you could do five sets of bicep exercises and repeat the session 2x in a given week or you could do ten sets of bicep exercises in a single session. For advanced, you could up that to ten sets or more. Even though these are recommended by some fitness experts, it’s best to determine this out for yourself by setting a range and tracking your progress. If you’re at a stall or plateau you might want to increase your weekly volume.

Rest between sets

To add another ingredient to the pot, another controversial topic when it comes to strength training is rest between sets. Again, this goes back to what goal you’re trying to achieve: strength, muscle growth, or endurance/stamina.

Goal 1: Muscle growth

For hypertrophy, the ideal time is 1–2 minutes between sets. Shorter rest periods have been proven to increase blood flow, helping protein get to the muscles at a more rapid rate.

Goal 2: Strength

From a strength perspective that includes lower reps, most studies recommend the 3–5-minute range between sets.

Goal 3: Endurance

To increase stamina, it’s recommended to take 45 seconds to 2 minutes between sets.

In a study titled Physiologic responses to heavy-resistance exercise with very short rest periods, researchers found that bodybuilders that train with shorter rest periods have the ability to clear lactic acid much faster than powerlifters. In layman terms, this means that bodybuilders have more stamina when it comes to lifting weights.

Other considerations

It should be noted that there are some differences between cis men and cis women when it comes to training, nutrition, body composition among other variables. The article titled 9 reasons why women should not train like men, outlines that “women don’t need as much rest as men to complete the same relative training volume.” I’m consciously trying not to overwhelm you with over-complication and too much information, but this article is worth checking out to get a better grasp of training differences in gender.

Training splits

One last thing to mention before we dive into some exercises is the concept of training splits or in other words, how to split up your weekly workout session by different body parts. I’ll lay out a few examples here:

While building out a plan, choose a split that works best for you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. As long as you’re hitting your weekly volume goals and seeing gains, the split shouldn’t matter.

Learning exercises

If you’re new to the workout game and are the type that likes to figure things out for themselves, then I have some tips for you regarding learning new exercises and incorporating them into your routine. It’s easy to find exercises online through YouTube, but sometimes I find that I learn the exercise online then forget both the exercise and form when I’m at the gym.

Here’s what I would recommend. I’ve talked about this channel so many times before in previous posts, but it’s been an invaluable resource for me and really moved the mark both in my training and my physique. The Anabolic Aliens YouTube channel has highly targeted videos aimed at specific muscle groups with unique and unconventional exercises, many I’ve never heard of or seen before.

When building out your training split, try incorporating a few of the videos at the beginning of your workout and as you repeat them week-over-week, you’ll naturally start learning new exercises as well as the form. Although many of these videos are focused on endurance (at least my favorites), once you learn these exercises, you can increase the weight and tailor them to fit within either the strength or hypertrophy category.

My Training Plan

I try to vary my training plan slightly each week; adding new exercises (I typically incorporate a new one once per week), increasing weights, mixing up the order of my exercises, or experimenting with new workout videos. I realize that I probably do way more cardio than most — as I previously mentioned, running is my top priority.

I think it’s worth briefly mentioning my old routine, which laid the groundwork for building muscle. Previously, I had broken out my training splits as follows: arms/back (2x per week ), legs (1x per week), abs (1x per week). Over the past year, I’ve been following more of a push/pull split for my upper body.

If you’re unfamiliar with the push/pull methodology, I’ll briefly describe each from my article How I Naturally Transformed My Composition in 1 Year:

“A push workout is where your muscles contract when weight is pushed away from your body. These muscle groups include chest, shoulders, triceps, quads, and calves. In contrast, a pull workout, in turn, is when your muscles contract when weight is pulled towards your body. These muscle groups include your traps, back, biceps, hams, obliques.”

Below is an outline of my current training plan, which includes videos and exercises that you can link to and specifics when it comes to reps/sets/rest/volume.

Some days I like to start with working on my muscular endurance and follow a few videos targeting a specific muscle group that day. I’ll then move on to lifting heavier weights with lower rep ranges (in the strength/hypertrophy range). Other days, I’ll switch it up and start with lifting heavier and finish my workout with endurance.

Reps

In my training, I prefer to work on all three: strength, hypertrophy, and endurance (with a focus on the latter two. For example, if I’m doing an upper-body push workout, I’ll start by lifting heavier (~6 rep range) for a few exercises, then drop the weight and lift within the hypertrophy sweet spot (8–12 reps). I’ll finish off by dropping the weight even further and performing some exercises in the 15+ rep range.

For the endurance portion, and as you’ll soon see, I prefer to do a few YouTube dumbbell videos that are highly targeted to specific muscle groups. By mixing in all three, I’ve been able to build muscle, get stronger, and perform for longer durations both in my running and lifting.

Sets

In my training, I prefer to stick to the 3–4 rep range per exercise when lifting in the hypertrophy or strength zone. With endurance exercises, I’ll try to get as many reps in as possible in a specific timeframe (ie. one minute) with breaks dispersed in-between when I hit muscle failure.

Usually, I’ll take 1–2 breaks per minute for each exercise. When it comes to sets, you can also incorporate supersets, tri-sets, etc. to help you train more efficiently and build intensity. For those who don’t know what supersets are, I’ll provide a quick definition here: you’re performing two exercises without rest in between which can help with the intensity.

Tri-sets are similar, but you perform three exercises vs. two. Personally, I do incorporate a few supersets and even a few tri-sets here and there, but I mostly focus on isolated movements.

Volume

For each of my training sessions, I typically choose five exercises per muscle group (in the strength/hypertrophy rep range) then perform three sets per exercise (15 sets total per group per session). I train each muscle group 2x per week which ends up being closer to the 30-set per muscle group range. For some exercises I up the rep range to four, but on average I stick to three reps.

Rest

Although the general rule of thumb is to aim for the one-minute mark for your rest period when the goal is hypertrophy, from personal experience, I usually hit below a minute — sometimes even below the 30-second mark. My focus has been building muscle and endurance over the past 1.5 years and as a result, I’ve been able to see tangible results with my physique and running.

Like every piece of information out there, it’s important to trial and error different techniques and theories on yourself. However, if you’re just starting out, starting with the recommended rest periods outlined in the above section can be a solid foundation.

Monday — Upper body pull workout (biceps/back/traps)

Endurance

Anabolic Aliens Intense 8 Minute Dumbbell Back & Bicep Workout

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Bicep Workout

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Back Workout #2

Muscle Growth (3–4 sets, 8–12 reps per set)

*I alternate between biceps and back each exercise to give that muscle a break between.

Strength — (3 sets, 4–6 reps per set)

Volume: 30–40 sets total

Cardio

  • Run 8 kilometers/5 miles steady state-run on a treadmill or outdoors (easy pace)
  • Cooldown walk on the treadmill (20 mins)

Tuesday — Legs & Core

Endurance

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute At Home Abs & Obliques Workout

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Leg Workout

Muscle Growth (3–4 sets, 8–12 reps per set)

Core

Volume: 15–20 sets

Legs

Volume: 9–12 sets

Cardio

  • Run 8 kilometers/5 miles steady state-run on a treadmill or outdoors (easy pace)
  • Cooldown walk on the treadmill (20 mins)

Wednesday — Upper body push workout (shoulders/chest/triceps)

Endurance

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Tricep Workout

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Chest Workout

Muscle Growth (3–4 sets, 8–12 reps per set)

Shoulders

Volume: 15–20 sets

Chest

Volume: 15–20 sets

Triceps

Volume: 15–20 sets

Cardio

  • Run 10 kilometers/6.25 miles steady state-run on a treadmill or outdoors (easy pace)
  • Cooldown walk on the treadmill (20 mins)

Thursday — Core

Volume: 15–20 sets

Cardio

  • HIIT (high-intensity interval training) 8–10k/5–6.25 mile workout on the treadmill (4’00–4’20/km pace)
  • Cooldown walk on the treadmill (10 mins)

Friday — Upper body pull workout (biceps/back/traps)

Endurance

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Bicep Workout

Anabolic Aliens Intense 5 Minute Dumbbell Back Workout #2

Anabolic Aliens Intense Dumbbell Trap Workout

Muscle Growth (3–4 sets, 8–12 reps per set)

Volume: 21–28 sets

Cardio

  • Run 8 kilometers/5 miles steady state-run on a treadmill or outdoors (easy pace)
  • Cooldown walk on the treadmill (20 mins)

Saturday — Shoulders

Muscle Growth (3 sets, 8–12 reps per set)

Strength — 3 sets, 4–6 reps per set

Seated Shoulder Press

Volume: 18 sets

*I only do triceps and chest 2x per week every other week and like to break out a shoulder session individually every other week.

Cardio

  • Run 10 kilometers/6.25 miles steady state-run on a treadmill or outdoors (easy pace)
  • Cooldown walk on the treadmill (20 mins)

Sunday — Cardio only

Longer slow run +12k /+7 miles (easy pace for me 5’00–5’30/km)

Rest & recovery

With my current plan, I only take one day off strength training but ensure I get my cardio in every day. However, just because I don’t take full days off, doesn’t mean that I don’t engage in rest and recovery activities.

I’m acutely aware of how my body is feeling and have devised various techniques to help me deal with muscle stiffness/soreness so I can perform better. To be completely honest, it’s very rare that I’ll have two super-strong workouts per muscle group each week. I’ll usually just have one. Rarely I’ll have zero (unless I’m sick or recovering from an endurance event). I’m okay with that and you should be too. We shouldn’t be pushing ourselves too hard every single day or it’s a surefire recipe for burnout and/or an overuse injury.

Results

I’ve written about my progress up until the spring of 2020, but as I continue to tweak my plan and integrate new strategies + the bonus of consistency, I’ve continued to get stronger.

JANUARY 2019

Me with the old plan: some definition, but more body fat.

Image for post
Image for post

JULY — SEPTEMBER 2020

Following the new split, I gained more definition and vascularity.

Image for post
Image for post
JULY 2020 — SEPTEMBER 2020

Nutrition

I would be remiss without mentioning the importance of a complimentary nutrition plan to support your muscle growth and weight loss goals. I’ve written an in-depth post on What I Eat to Build Muscle and Lose Body Fat that provides a step-by-step process on figuring out maintenance calories, deficit calories (to lose body fat), macro splits, a sample meal plan, nutrition timing, and other pertinent information.

I’d suggest reading and applying the information there or from other resources to help you get the most out of your fitness plan.

Conclusion

If you’ve been performing the same training plan and seeing minimal improvements or results, the most important mindset to adopt is the process of relearning. That is, coming to terms that what you’re doing isn’t working, dropping it, and seeking out new information to experiment with.

The process can be as easy as starting to track your daily calories and macros, trying new exercises, changing up the numbers of reps, sets, or periods of rest between sets, or increasing your weekly volume. My best results have stemmed from slowly incorporating a few changes into my routine over time, checking in periodically to see how I’m feeling, and tracking any subsequent results both from a performance perspective and aesthetically.

Implementing too many changes at once can cause confusion with what’s working and what isn’t. It can also be overwhelming and cause you to throw in the towel altogether. Simplicity is key when it comes to a sustainable exercise regimen.

My hope with this post is that you’re able to find a few nuggets of information to put to the test. Trust that the resources I’m sharing are credible, but also do your own research to get to that comfort level of letting go of pre-existing notions when it comes to exercise and adopt the willingness to try new things. I wish you all the best on your fitness journey.

Feedback is important to me. To follow my progress or for any follow-up questions with this post (or others), you can connect with me on Instagram.

Additional Resources

Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25853914/

Intensity in Weight Training — How Does it Work & 1RM Determination: https://emerging-athlete.com/intensity-in-weight-training-1rm-determination/

The Ultimate Guide to An Effective Workout Split: https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/the-ultimate-guide-to-an-effective-training-split.html

Rep Ranges and Training Intensity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JOEZb46-dM&frags=pl%252Cwn

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Emily Kathryn Rudow

Written by

Just a gal who loves running, writing, and sharing her experiences ❤ https://emilyrudow.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Emily Kathryn Rudow

Written by

Just a gal who loves running, writing, and sharing her experiences ❤ https://emilyrudow.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store