How To Structure A No-BS Workout Plan That Works

By Molly Galbraith

nobsworkout-womanscreaming-450x338There’s no end to the amount of ridiculousness we hear regarding what the best workout program really is: From “you must perform two hours of cardio six days per week” and “don’t eat any more than 1,200 calories each day” to “you should totally wear sweat bands on your belly and spend an hour shadowboxing in the sauna.” Yes, “qualified” trainers have given all of this advice to women I know.

It’s laughable, but also pretty scary. And did I mention it’s complete B.S.?

The fact is, evidence-based fitness professionals know (as well as we can ever know anything) exactly what women need to do for their training to get the results they desire. Women who want to look good, feel good, and be healthy and strong need to engage in:

  • Moderate to heavy strength training two to three days a week
  • High-intensity interval training one to two days a week
  • Moderate-intensity cardio one to two days a week

That’s it.

Although, I’d be remiss not to mention that, apart from performing the right workouts, they also need to eat a diet consisting primarily of whole, nutrient-dense foods; manage their stress effectively; get moderate amounts of sunshine regularly; sleep seven to nine hours (preferably in a cold, dark room) every night.

This training program structure work so well because it covers everything a woman needs to look and feel her absolute best, while allowing for adequate recovery, and preventing burnout.

Obviously, you want to know how to put all of this together, right? Of course. No worries. I have plenty of examples for you.

The following workouts are broken down into individual categories.

Relatively Heavy Strength Training

Benefits include:

  • Increased muscle mass
  • Increased strength
  • Improved posture
  • Increased bone density
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Increased self-confidence

So what do relatively heavy lifting workouts look like? Obviously it will depend on a lot of things: specific goals, ability level, equipment availability, personal preferences.

For women, I prefer full-body, upper/lower splits, or a push/pull/lower body split (with a deadlift variation on your pull day to incorporate lower body twice throughout the week). And let me note, I say relatively heavy strength training because it just needs to be heavy for you. If you’re a beginner, maybe manipulating your body weight is enough. If you’re intermediate or advanced, you’re likely tossing around a fair amount of iron.

I generally like to pair two to three exercises in a circuit that work different muscle groups to maximize work in minimal time, and keep your heart rate elevated, while still allowing your muscle adequate recovery time between sets.

However, if I am starting with a very heavy movement (generally a weight lifted for fewer than five reps) then I’ll perform that exercise alone with two to three minutes of full rest in between to allow good form to be maintained and close to maximal weight lifted.

Obviously this isn’t all-encompassing, as it’s part of a larger program, but it gives you an idea of how I like to structure my strength training workouts.

High-Intensity Interval Training

Benefits include:

  • Efficient
  • Metabolically expensive (read: burns a lot of calories) for the amount of time spent
  • Increased metabolic flexibility (i.e. your body’s ability to transition back and forth from using fat for fuel to using carbohydrates for fuel)

High-intensity interval training can be performed a number of ways using a number of work-to-rest ratios (written as “work:rest” throughout the rest of this article). You can organize your workout by predetermined work:rest ratios, variable work:rest ratios (the ratio changes over time), positive rest (rest more than you work), negative rest (rest less than you work), or any combination thereof.

In general, the longer you have been training, and the more “fit” you are, the more work you can do with less rest. Try a few combinations and see what works for you:

Set Work : Rest Ratios

  • 15 seconds : 45 seconds (positive rest)
  • 20 seconds : 40 seconds (positive rest)
  • 30 seconds : 30 seconds (equal rest)
  • 40 seconds : 20 seconds (negative rest)
  • 45 seconds: 15 seconds (negative rest)

Variable Work:Rest Ratios

  • Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest twice as long (positive rest)
  • Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest exactly as long (equal rest)
  • Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest half as long (negative rest)
  • Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest until your heart rate drops to 120 bpm

HIIT Example: Plate Pushes and Farmer’s Carries

Equipment needed: Weight Plate and Dumbbells/Kettlebells


  1. Place a plate and a pair of heavy dumbbells at the end of a long strip of turf or carpet
  2. Perform a plate push for 10 to 15 yards at a very quick pace
  3. Rest for 30 seconds while walking back to the dumbbells
  4. Pick up the dumbbells and perform a farmer’s carry for 20 to 30 yards (down and back)
  5. Place the dumbbells back down and rest for 30 seconds while walking back to the plate
  6. Repeat as necessary for the allotted HIIT time

Moderate-Intensity Cardio

Benefits include:

  • Builds aerobic foundation
  • Allows for better recovery between sets of exercises
  • Allows for better recovery between workouts so you approach each workout fresh and ready to train
  • Increases your ability to relax, focus, and deal with stress
  • Can improve sleep quality

When people think of moderate intensity cardio, they always seem to think of slaving away on the treadmill or elliptical, but there are tons of options for this type of workout. Keep your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute (bpm), and you’re good to go.

Tip: If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, there’s an easy, low-tech way to check your heart rate. Place the pad of your index and middle finger either on the side of your neck just below the jawline, or on your wrist just below your thumb. When you feel your pulse, look at a clock that counts seconds and count how many heart beats you feel in 15 seconds. Multiply that number by four to get your beats per minute. If your heart beats between 30 and 35 times in 15 seconds you’re in the 120-140 range.

Example: Rope Slams and Walk-Outs

Equipment needed: Battling Ropes


  1. Perform 20 alternating slams with moderate force/intensity
  2. Perform 10 walk-outs
  3. Perform 20 bilateral slams with moderate force/intensity
  4. Perform 9 walk-outs
  5. Perform 20 alternating slams with moderate force/intensity
  6. Perform 7 walk-outs
  7. Perform 20 bilateral slams with moderate force/intensity
  8. Perform 6 walk-outs
  9. Repeat until you get to 1 walk-out, resting 30 seconds between every exercise (During this time, take your heart rate and ensure that it’s between 120 and 150 bpm. Adjust your workout accordingly as necessary.)

Putting Everything Together

So you’re probably wondering how you would structure these workouts over a week’s time. No worries—I won’t leave you hanging.

Weekly Layout:

Day 1: 50 minutes strength training + 10-15 min HIIT
Day 2: 30 minutes moderate-intensity cardio
Day 3: 50 minutes strength training
Day 4: OFF
Day 5: 50 minutes strength training + 10-15 min HIIT
Day 6: 30 minutes moderate-intensity cardio
Day 7: OFF

As you can see, a well-laid out and effective program allows you to spend less time in the gym, and more time outside of the gym enjoying your life.

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About the author:  Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, a global movement of 800,000+ folks passionate about women’s health, fitness, and empowerment. She’s also the creator of the The Girls Gone Strong Academy, home of the world’s top certifications for health and fitness pros who want to become a Certified Pre-& Postnatal Coach or a Certified Women’s Coaching Specialist.   The GGS Academy is revolutionizing women’s health and fitness by tackling critical (and often overlooked) topics like body image struggles, disordered eating, menopause, amenorrhea and menstrual cycle struggles, PCOS, endometriosis, osteoporosis, pre- and postnatal exercise, incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, postpartum recovery, and much more.   Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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