These essential workout elements can change your body.

There isn’t one “right” workout program for everyone. You need the workout that works for you and for your goals—and there’s a world of movement disciplines and inspiration to draw from. That choice and variety can be a good thing, and it can also be very intimidating. Don’t let choice derail you. The best workout is the workout that you will actually do, and preferably one that you enjoy and want to repeat. It’s more likely you’ll stick to your plan and see the results you want if you choose a workout that appeals to you. So with your own interests in mind, here are the steps you can take to build your own workout with a happy ending in sight.

PRE-ASSESSMENT: How did I get here?

Take 15 minutes to think about and write down what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past. It’s important to note why, from your perspective. What keeps you from moving forward with change? What have you already tried and what failed—and why? What do you see as the obstacles to change? Consider your physical experience, too. Why do you think your knees hurt? Why do you think you gained weight? Was there a time when you could do a backbend, and can you recall when you couldn’t anymore? These insights will fuel your desire for change.

END OBJECTIVE: What’s the goal today?

As you plan your workout on any given day, it should fit into a workout program with an end goal that relates to your vision for your health and fitness that ideally supports your life. If you know you need to build your endurance to hike more with your partner, choose a workout with cardiovascular endurance as the key benefit. If you are building postural strength for health and vitality, perhaps the goal today is a strength session. Or you might have a goal of fun and overall conditioning, and you can build your workout with that in mind.

If you’re new to working out, it’s worth your time to pay for a session with a fitness coach to understand what the components of a health program for your goals could and should be.

MOVEMENT STRATEGY: Choose your modality

This is where it gets fun. There has never been more information, ideas, inspiration or instruction available—there is a workout for everyone under the sun. (Of course, you have to evaluate the qualifications and credibility of the source and choose wisely.) Only a serious case of unwillingness could prevent you from finding something that piques your interest.

Depending on your workout goal and how much time you have available to train, the next step is to answer three questions. What discipline interests me? What equipment is available to me? What movements will I do to advance toward my goals? Keep in mind that movement variety is essential for physical and mental development, and selecting activities that are functional in nature (requiring multiple parts of your body to work together) will more quickly increase your overall conditioning.

MOVEMENT PREP: Pick a warm-up that wins

It seems obvious, but getting your workout going is the key to your success. The beginning of your training primes your body for the workout that is to follow. Don’t skip it and don’t rush it; invest time in preparing your body from head to toe, including your mind. Mobility warm-ups get your joint articulation going; dynamic stretching, yoga, walking and full-body calisthenics are also excellent techniques to include. Add in mindset practices that help to bring you into your full power with a present mind, invigorated breathing and embodied awareness, and your body will be ready to move.

WORKOUT: Dial in the details

True, you can get a great overall sweat session and burn some calories by throwing a few of your favorite moves together and rocking out to an awesome playlist. But it pays to be more strategic. Evaluate whether your workout is balanced, covering all the major muscle groups; includes all the right critical movement patterns; and challenges your body appropriately for your goal with the right mix of resistance, sets, repetitions and recovery intervals. If you’re not sure, ask a fitness coach for help. In combination, these details create a synergistic effect that helps your body to grow.

CHALLENGE: Plan the peak challenge

Challenge that’s appropriate to your skill level and level of motivation will stimulate your desire to grow. Human beings thrive when we learn something new, and we thrive when we are pushed out of our comfort zone and forced to grow and do something we thought we could not do. This is true for our workouts too.

Decide what your challenge will be for the month or year, or even just that day, and make it part of your workout. Practice that handstand for one minute, work on your serve or go full out when you tackle that interval. Pick your challenge and watch your body and mind light up.

RECOVERY: Stretch and roll

You deserve a treat. Not candy—a movement treat. Your body needs and loves recovery. That’s when your nervous system has an opportunity to integrate the skills and stimulus you’ve just encountered and downregulate to return to the day. It’s important to select compensatory movement patterns, stretching, breath work and either meditation or reflection to observe and enjoy the physical sensations in your body. Use your recovery time to discover how to manage the tension in your body and reset your tissues with self-massage techniques, skin rolling or self-myofascial release.

Bring those tools with you to every workout, or look for health clubs and gyms that offer the classes or have equipment available for you to use. Spending time in recovery is the secret sauce that high-performance athletes and fitness professionals use to fall in love and stay in love with their workouts.

POST-WORKOUT REVIEW: Reflect and refuel

When your workout is done, and you are showering and getting ready to return to your day, think about what went well and what didn’t and make note of what you would do differently next time. This line of thinking keeps you in forward motion. If you use a tracker or a fitness diary, take a moment and record your session. Refueling, hydrating, or eating or planning your next meal is also crucial to reset your body for success and rebuild the tissues that you challenged in your session.


The next time you’re heading to the gym, remember this: working out is personal, so choose a program that is best for you—and get coaching from a trainer if you need more support. Take the time to make planning your workouts part of your day that you look forward to—just like you do for your evening and weekend entertainment or your meals. Approach that planning creatively, and craft the workout that will best serve you.

When you take responsibility for your health and fitness plan, you fast-track the new behavior you wish to engage in, and it fuels your internal drive for the results you desire. We all know that we’re more likely to stick to striving for a goal when we have choice in the matter. Boosting your self-motivation is a more effective tool for success than punishment or trickery. Take ownership of your health and fitness routine, and you’ll more likely see results.

Tune in to your body to choose the workout you need today

You may know your target heart rate, but heart rate variability is the more important measure.

Did you know that the time between each of your heartbeats is a little different with every beat? Heart rate variability (HRV) is a relatively new metric in health and fitness, and it gives you powerful information about how stress affects your physiology. That’s because stress triggers two processes within the body:

1. First, stress from any source activates our “fight or flight” system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). It boosts heart rate, produces stress hormones and puts us on high alert.

2. When the stressful situation passes, our “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), takes over to relax us and return our body to homeostasis.

The amount of difference in beat timing seems to be related to the activity of our SNS and PNS. When we are rested and relaxed, we have more PNS activity. In this state, our heart rates display a lot of variability in the timing of beats. If we are stressed out or not yet recovered from our last workout, our SNS dominates. Our heart rates will be less varied and more consistent—more like the metronome from piano lessons or a ticking clock.

If stress is high, variability in the heart rate decreases. If stress is low, variability in the heart rate increases. Why does this matter? Because now we can track and use the information to benefit our health. All it takes is a simple heart rate monitor and an app that analyzes heart rate data. Since stress from all sources contributes to SNS activity, we can use the information to gauge our exercise readiness. If our HRV is low, it means we are stressed out and need the right kind of workout to help us recover.

We can (and should!) exercise daily. Monitoring heart rate variability helps us decide how to exercise—when to go for a class featuring high-intensity interval training and when to choose a low-intensity workout to promote recovery.

To get started tracking your own heart rate variability (and a gazillion other metrics), see this tech guide at Quantified Self. For more insight into tracking HRV in action, check out this fascinating look at HRV data from a high-stress workday.

Photo credit: 123RF Stock, dolgachov