Programming 101: The Formula for a Great Workout

By Sadie Flynn – April 1, 2021

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s how important fitness is to our overall health and wellness. For more reasons than just physical, moving our bodies does wonders for our mental and emotional health, too. But if you’re like the millions of people across the globe who have made at-home or outdoor workouts their primary means of fitness for the better part of a year — or perhaps you were one of the many folks who scramble-bought the last set of rubber-coated, 8-pound dumbbells in a random corner of Marshall’s but still don’t really know how to incorporate them into your living room routines — it’s time we took a short course in how to program workouts so they stay interesting and keep us moving toward our goals. 

Whether you’re just trying to get your blood flowing, or you’re pursuing a specific goal or simply doing what you can with what you have, here are three quick tips to consider when programming workouts for general (not sport-specific) fitness:

First: Decide Your Stimulus 

Not every workout needs to (or should) be a long, grindy burner. And some days, our bodies might just be telling us that something longer than 15 minutes just isn’t in the cards. So, before you figure out what movements you’ll be doing, decide first how long you want to work out. Generally, you can break your workouts up like so: 

  • Light, short and sprinty: 10 minutes or less
  • Medium and moderate: 12-18 minutes
  • Heavy or long and paced: 20 minutes or more

Next: Establish Your Modalities

In CrossFit, there are three modalities from which to program a workout. And depending on what is available to you, you might have options here: 

  • Monostructural or metabolic conditioning: In other words, the things that will spike your heart rate and build aerobic capacity.
  • Gymnastics: In CrossFit Land, gymnastics movements are categorized as anything you can do with just your body/bodyweight, pommel horse or not.
  • Weightlifting or weight training: Although this is commonly thought to just be barbell work, weightlifting, in this case, can include any weighted objects and resistance bands.

There’s no wrong one to choose here; it simply depends on your available time and desired goal for the workout. Some days might look like all monostructural (going for a run); some days you might have more time and energy, so a max-effort front squat might sound fun; or perhaps you’re on the road and all you can muster is what you’ve got on your person, so burpees are on the menu. Or, get wild and do a combination of all three. The beauty of this structure is that it is constantly varied, and intensity is entirely up to you. 

Finally: Pick Your Movements

There are, literally, thousands upon thousands of different movements you can incorporate into your workouts. For first-timers (and even experienced athletes!), that can feel wildly overwhelming. The easiest way to narrow down what you want to work on in a workout is to organize it by a push and a pull. 

  • Push — anything that requires you to push either yourself off of things, or push things off of or away from you. Pushing movements predominantly work everything going on in the front of your body (think: pecs, quads, core, biceps, etc.) and include these fan favorites:
    • Push-ups
    • Burpees
    • Presses
    • Squats 
    • Thrusters
    • Wall balls
    • Lunge
    • Plus many more
  • Pull — anything that requires you to pull yourself up or onto things, or pull things into you. Pulling movements predominantly work everything going on in the back of your body (think: glutes, hamstrings, calves, lats, triceps, etc.):
    • Pull-ups
    • Deadlifts
    • Rows and rowing
    • Rope climbs
    • Kettlebell swings
    • Plus, again, many more
  • Compound — I sorta made up this category to include some movements that actually can incorporate both a push and a pull (or both an anterior and posterior burn) in one fell swoop: 
    • Cleans
    • Snatches
    • Muscle-ups
    • Busters
    • Toes to bar
    • Jumping rope
    • Running
    • Plus, you guessed it, many more

Not every workout needs a specific push and a pull, but it’s a great place to start if you want to make sure your workouts are balanced while also staying varied. 

Five Sample Workouts

If you read none of the above and have scrolled straight here to get to the goods, I don’t blame you. Without further adieu, here are five workouts with varying stimuli, modalities and equipment. For funsies, see if you can identify the push/pull and apply the relevant modality! 

Workout #1

For time: 

2:00 Run

2:00 Walking Lunge

*Repeat until 1 mile has been run. Say goodbye to your legs. 

Workout #2

Every minute, on the minute for 30:00:

2 Man-Makers

*Starting at 0:00, perform 2 man-makers. When you finish, rest the remainder of the minute until the next minute begins. The goal is to work AND to rest.

Workout #3

For time:

50-40-30-20-10

Double-Unders

Sit-ups

*If you don’t have double-unders, do double the amount of single-unders (what CrossFitters say instead of “jump rope”).

Workout #4

15:00 AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible):

5 Pull-Ups

10 Push-Ups

15 Air Squats

*If you don’t have the means to do a pull-up, try YTWAs as an equipment-less option.

Workout #5

5 Rounds for Time:

21 Dumbbell Deadlifts 

15 DB Hang Power Cleans

9 DB Shoulder to Overhead

*Pick a heavyweight to use for the dumbbells. The shoulder to overhead can be any variation shown in the video. If you are a more experienced athlete with access to a barbell, you can do this workout with a moderately heavy barbell, too.

Sadie Flynn is a CrossFit Level 2 trainer and former collegiate athlete with a penchant for power lifts. As a new mom, Sadie is deeply passionate about pregnant and postpartum fitness and wellness and works hard to help women take care of their bodies before, during and after birth. When she’s not coaching at CrossFit Renew or forcing her 90s alternative music beliefs upon you, you can find her somewhere outside with a beer, her husband, two dogs and their rambunctious toddler.  

 
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