So, you want to start an exercise program?

weights as part of an exercise program

So, you want to start an exercise program? You’re motivate. You’re ready. But, you’re unsure where to start.

There are lots of options for you and it can be confusing as to which one is the right one for you. The three top things I would advise when selecting an exercise program are:

  1. Look at your goals. What do you want to accomplish?
  2. Identify any short or long terms goals that you may have.
  3. Do what you love, yet be sure to mix it up.

Still not sure what to do?

Since my Marine Corps days, I’ve tried many different programs and have found most to be beneficial. Something is always better than nothing. At various times I’ve switched between following only one program to mixing up my workouts with programming from several programs. My main driver for selecting a workout protocol has always been:

  • What are my goals?
  • Am I getting results?
  • Do I enjoy the workouts enough to keep it up?

Listed below are some of my favorites. One, or a few of these, may be a starting point for you; or they might offer you options for a lifetime of fitness.

results from exercise program

Body for Life

An oldie, yet goody! This program offers a schedule of 3 days of “body building” for upper and lower body, then 3 days of HIIT (high intensity interval training).

At the time I followed Body for Life, I was rock climbing as much as I could. And, although Body for Life is not sport specific program, it kept me in awesome shape for 10 years.

*Note: I also followed the Eating for Life plan at this time – and I must say, the combination of the two really worked for me.

Running as part of an exercise program

Maffetone Method

Do you like running? Lots of choices here, yet my suggestion is to start out with lots of low intensity, long duration runs. The Maffetone Method is a great way to build your running base, safely and effectively.

To build up your aerobic base, shoot for a heart rate of 180 – (your age). Build up your mileage/time at your prescribed heart rate until you can run for long runs, maintaining your target rate.

After 6 months of base-building, start throwing in high intensity intervals. Do sprints and hill runs. The key is to keep your long, slow runs while adding in sessions of sprinting.

Don’t go into the black whole of running (like I did for years), lots of long, hard runs. You’ll learn how to suffer…yet you won’t be optimizing your training.

Keep your aerobic sessions within your aerobic training zone. Keep your anaerobic sessions intense and short. You can occasionally do a long, hard run….but not too often!

If you are a book geek like me and like to have the actual program, you can find it here .

CrossFit workout for an exercise program


CrossFit changed my world! After years of either lots of running or lots of traditional body building type workouts, I immediately fell in love with CrossFit.

I loved the athleticism, the variety, the intensity, the community, and the results of CrossFit.

Did it make me a better climber or mountain biker? Maybe not, yet it offered an overall fitness (strength, endurance, speed) that I had not had in any previous programs.

So what about those sport-specific needs? I found it didn’t matter how strong my deadlift was if I could not hold onto the rock or my calves flamed out when on a climb. To address my sport specific needs, I now combine CrossFit-style and strength-based workouts with specific grip strength and calf strength workouts.

lifting weights for exercise program

Wendler 5-3-1

Is strength your goal? A program like Wendler 5-3-1 may be the program for you. The program book can be found here.

Be prepared though, compared to CrossFit-style training, Wendler is relatively boring. Yet know your goals! If you want to develop serious strength…use a strength program and have the discipline to stick to it.

Low reps of high weight – it’s the absolute best way to stay strong!

*An example of how well Wendler works: My wife, Be, resisted lifting weights when we started training together. After 2 years of CrossFit, I got her to incorporate Wendler’s 5-3-1 program into her workouts. After 6 months of sticking to the program, she was able to do a 230# deadlift (which, at 115#, was twice her body weight!)….something she is still proud of today.

Be - 230# deadlift
A bit fuzzy, yet her delight is clearly visible.

Starting Strength

Starting Strength is similar to Wendler. It’s a great way to get strong. It is based on 5 sets of 5 reps weight lifting program. The program will take discipline. It won’t be entertaining or exciting. But, it will make you strong…nuff said! For a written copy of the program, click here.

Max Effort Black Box

Max Effort Black Box (known as MEBB) is CrossFit with a strength bias. It’s not the best for metabolic conditioning (CrossFit bias) and it’s not the best for getting super strong. Yet, it’s a great combination. If you love CrossFit and are proficient with your Olympic lifts and want more strength, this might be for you.

kayaking as part of total exercise program

Primal Blueprint Exercise Routine

This is basically a general fitness program that is easier on the joints. You’ll lift heavy things, walk a lot, sprint every once in a while, and be active. Primal Blueprint’s routine focuses on mixing things up, being healthy, enjoying life, and keeping things simple. What’s not to love?

Mark Sisson (creator of Primal Blueprint) has several books that we recommend. His original Primal Blueprint and his 21-Day Total Body Transformation.

Create Your Own

After you’ve tried some programs and defined your goals, you might try designing your own workout program.

If you do decide to design your own program, I suggest including at least 1 full-body resistance workout per week, sprint or intervals once per week, a low intensity run/walk/ride/hike/swim once per week, yoga or Pilates once per week, and play at least once per week.

Whatever you choose to do, have fun. Do what you like….just know what you want to accomplish for the workout and for the long run.

Hikers enjoying a hike as part of their overall exercise program

Train for an Event

Regardless of what fitness program you are following, there may come a time when you need to train for an event (at this writing, we are currently training for a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon – which means including lots of time on a raised treadmill as well as day hikes in the surrounding mountains).

When you need to train for an event, my suggestion is to not completely dump your current program, but scale back on it to allow you time to include training that is specific to your event’s needs.

I find programming for the event first and then including additional training works best for me. A few events that we have programmed for include: training for a long ride, training for a long hike, training for a trail run, and training for overhanging climbs.

In Summary

My first recommendation still stands: KNOW YOUR GOALS!

If you just want exercise

If you just want to exercise, stay in good all-around shape, and be entertained, CrossFit is hard to beat. It’s fun, it has a community that can help keep you motivated, it’s athletic, and it’s adjustable to different levels of fitness.

If your goal is aerobic conditioning

If your goal is aerobic conditioning; run, ride, or swim – A LOT. However, to stay strong with your conditioning, lift once a week and to remain flexible, throw in some yoga or Pilates. And remember, keep your long runs easy and your short runs hard!

If you want to get stronger

If you are in good general health and want to get strong, Wendler 5-3-1, Max Effort Black Box, or Starting Strength might be the programs for you. They’re months of “chop wood, carry water” type programming. They take discipline, yet they work!

If you want to look good naked

If your main goal is to look good naked while maintaining decent strength…then a body building program such as Body for Life is hard to beat. It’s more varied than a regular weight lifting program, yet is more predictable than CrossFit.

If you want variety and fun

If you want variety and low key movements that are easier on the joints, Primal Blueprint is an excellent all-around program that encourages moderate weight lifting, walking, play, and just movement, movement, movement.

And remember….have fun!

Carl on a climb

Do you have a program that you love and that works for you? Do you include a sport-specific protocol in your programming? We’d love to hear about it and learn about what works for you.