Ask Stew: What Type of Workout Is Best for Someone Starting a Fitness Routine?

Army squats
A U.S. Military Academy cadet performs squats during a physical training session with Col. Andrew Kiser, commander of 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division June 21 at Fort Carson, Colo. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Gabrielle Pena)

Depending on an individual's goals, there can be different answers to the same question. The variety of fitness routines is only limited by one's imagination. A workout can include weights, calisthenics, a mix of both, a wide variety of cardiovascular activities, or common non-barbell resistance equipment like sandbags, weight vests and suspension trainers.

You can also choose fitness classes that specialize in everything from yoga, Pilates, cycling, circuit training and "boot camp" type workouts. Here is a question from a young man looking to get in shape after a rather sedentary college life.

Hey Stew. Which is better: an upper body/lower body split or full body/cardio split routine with working out 4-5 times per week? Jason.

Jason, the answer can be both, "it depends" or the one that you get done. You must consider your goals, time available per day, how many days per week, accessible facilities, abilities and equipment on hand.

The short answer is to choose the one you prefer to do, then change it up when you feel you need a change. Since you are trying to get back into shape after some time without training, consider starting with a full body/cardio day split so you can avoid focusing too much on a single muscle group.

This can help you avoid soreness and distribute the physical activity to more muscle groups every other day or so. Do this workout circuit one day and follow it with a mobility day or cardio or stretching day between the full-body days.

Warm Up with Push-ups and Squat Pyramid

Walk or jog 50 meters, do one push-up and one squat, walk or jog 50 meters, do two push-ups and two squats, walk or jog 50 meters, then do 3/3, 4/4, and 5/5.

Push/Pull/Leg Circuit Routine

Rest as needed between the exercises in this circuit or move from one to the other with minimum rest, depending on your current fitness levels. Try to work the muscles in a variety of planes and angles by adjusting grips.

Repeat 2-3 times (build up to 4-5 as you progress).

  • Bench press (or push-ups): 10-20
  • Pull-ups (or pull-downs): 5-10
  • Squats (with or without weight): 10-15

You can change it up, using the same muscles with different movements.

Repeat 2-3 times.

  • Military press or dips: 10-15
  • Rows or biceps curls: 10 per arm
  • Leg machines or lunges: 10 per leg

Cool down with some easy cardiovascular training like walking, biking or rowing for 10-15 minutes, followed by stretching.

On the days in between, mix in some cardio, core, and stretching.

Repeat 4-5 times.

  • Walk, jog or other cardio: 5 minutes
  • Stretch and plank pose: 5 minutes

Do a mix of both. When not planking, stretch from head to toe.

Consider this workout to be a long cooldown, but it is important that you do it between full-body days, especially if you are feeling the sting of new fitness programming in your life.

You can also try these stretch and swim options on cardio day.

Upper-Lower Split: The other option is to take the above workout and split it into upper- and lower-body workouts and do them on back-to-back days. You can simply take the push and pull sections of the workout and do them on a Monday, then do the leg and cardio section together on Tuesday.

Both are fine ways to add resistance training and moderate cardio activity into your life. If you are working to improve overall fitness, either option will suffice.

However, if you are really working on improving your fitness for athletic, sports or the tactical professions, you may want to go with the upper/lower split routine 2-3 times each for 5-6 workouts a week.

There are many other types of split routines that you can try to see whether you like them. Some classics are the Classic Military PT Split, the Bro-Split, or you can try a similar routine where each day of the week is the following: Push/pull/leg/full/core and cardio split cycle spread out over five days.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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