Fitness Friday Flashback: Designing Your Own Full Body Workout

Back before this whole cancer and broken arm thing, I used to work as a personal trainer at a gym in Toronto. I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the fitness posts I wrote back then, starting with this beginner’s guide for creating your own full body weightlifting workout. I originally wrote this as a guest post for Hallie last year.

There are 7 muscle groups you want to hit when designing a full-body workout, all of which require the same basic movements to work. I’m going to start with the three large muscle groups.

Thighs and Glutes

The Squat Works mostly your quads and glutes. There are a number of variations, you can stand with your legs wide or narrow, do them on one leg, with your heels raised. You can bring your knees to a 90 degree angle, or take your butt right to the floor. Put a barbell on your back, dumbbells at your side, medicine ball at your chest, or jump in between each rep. If you really have a death wish, you can flip over a bosu ball and try not to fall on your face mid-squat.

The Lunge – Another one that works mostly your quads and glutes. Again, the variations are almost endless. You can step out, step back, step sideways, walk, step diagonal into a curtsy. Hold a barbell on your back, dumbbells at your side. Lunge off a step, or step on to a bench for a “step-up.”

The Deadlift These are amazing, but also dangerous if you don’t practice correct form. It works your lower back, quads, glutes, and hamstrings depending on the variation. Holding a barbell or dumbbells in front of you, squat your butt down, then push it back up. You can do overhand, underhand, mixed, wide or narrow grip. A wide or narrow stance, and off a step or box. To zap the hamstrings, keep you legs straight and hinge forward at the hip, lowering the weights toward the floor.

Arnold should know better than to go barefoot in the weight room… tsk tsk…


Women need to work their pecs too! It’s too big of a muscle to ignore and will cause an imbalance in your body if your back is stronger.

In weightlifting, many moves are either a “push” or “pull” motion. Chest exercises are almost exclusively a push motion.

The Push Up We all know this one. Make sure your back isn’t arched and butt isn’t sticking in the air. Our bodies naturally do this to take some of the weight off our chest. Also, make sure your hands are wide enough, when they’re too close you hit your triceps instead.

The Bench Press Lay on a bench and push a barbell or dumbells up. Do this on an incline to hit your anterior deltoids (front of shoulders) too.

The Dumbbell Fly – Lay on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing one another. With a slight bend in your elbow, bring them out to your side, then push them together again.


Remember how our chest moves were all push motions? Well our back, being the opposing area, is all pull motions.

The Pull-Up/Pull-down These mainly work your lats. The pull-up is one of the hardest things to accomplish in weight lifting, you can use the assist machines at the gym to help you along. Or, just stick your toe on a chair or bench to take some of the weight off. The pull-down is the same motion, except the weight is coming from above on a cable machine. You can also do an underhand grip for these (aka the chin up). Targets a few different smaller muscles, but your lats are still the big movers.

The Row There are several different ways to do this. You can use a cable rowing machine, where you bring the weight toward your core in a seated or standing position. You can also hinge forward at the hip, and bring dumbbells or a barbell toward your center. Stick one knee on a bench and bring the dumbbells up one at a time.

Now onto our four smaller muscles!


The best thing a woman can do for her silhouette is work her shoulders. You won’t look bulky, it will offset your hips and you’ll look great in a tank-top!

The Overhead Press If you only have time to do one shoulder exercise, do this one. It hits all your deltoid muscles. You can do it with dumbbells, a barbell, or tubing. Sit or stand. Just remember to keep your shoulders down and don’t push your neck forward when you start to struggle with the movement.

The Shoulder Raise This will work different areas of your deltoids depending on which movement you choose. You can bring the weight out to your sides or out in front of you. Just remember to vary which direction you bring the weight with each workout, so you’re hitting different muscles each time.

Triceps & Biceps


I put these two together because again, they are two opposing muscles with two opposing movements. To work your biceps, all you have to do is start with a straight arm and flex your arm up. Your elbow should be the only joint that moves. Your triceps are just the opposite. Start with a bent elbow, and extend your arm at the elbow until your arm is straight. Easy peasy!

The Bicep Curl I wish I could give you a bunch of new moves to work your biceps, but this classic move will do it best. Use dumbbells, a barbell or a cable. Do it off a preacher machine, an incline bench, turn your wrists to hit different areas of your biceps.

The Tricep Extension This is one of many, there are also kickbacks, a cable pushown, extension using cable or tubing, and my favourite, the skull crusher. Just remember they all have the same movement, and only your elbow should be moving!

Isolating these two muscles will not make you look like a she-hulk. If anything, it will give you that extra little bit of sculpted definition in your arms.


Listen, I’m not going to sit here and list all the million kinds of crunches you should be doing to get a six pack. Cut abs are mostly made by a good diet, which is a whole other post in itself. However, it is very important to have a strong and stable core in order to perform well in all your activities.

Your abs will actually be working in all the moves I listed above. To make sure they’re fully engaged, when lifting, brace your core like you’re about to be punched in the gut. Not only will it give you more stability and power in your movements, but it will strengthen those silly ab muscles as well.

The Plank This is one of my favourite ab moves. It will strengthen your core while not adding bulk to it. You can do it on your elbows, or with straight arms. On your side, with one leg off the ground, with a weight on your back. Much like the push-ups, make sure your butt isn’t up in the air, and push your weight back into your toes. You should not feel this solely in your back.

And that’s it!! I hope this helps you when coming up with your own full-body workouts! Don’t be scared to try new things. Scribble down some notes and bring it to the gym with you, ask people for help (I swear the meatheads are nice – they love it when you rub their ego!). Read magazines, Google new moves, watch other people in the gym, find inspiration wherever you can get it!

Posted on September 30, 2011, in Fitness Friday and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. This is exactly what I needed- I’m trying to get my own strength routine down, but I didn’t know where to start. Thank you!

  2. PLEASE submit a move for Tuesday Trainer – it’s Back and Bi’s this week!! pretty please.

  3. Excellent!

  4. Perfect timing! I’ve been trying to start strength training, but I wanted to figure out a routine before jumping in. This is really helpful!

  5. This is awesome! I’ve been doing some weight training, and want to target additional areas; perfect timing. :-)

  6. When lifting weights at home I’m guilty of going barefoot. I hate shoes! A broken toe or two will probably cure me of that! lol

    • In all fairness, it’s a lot easier to stabilize yourself barefoot. That’s why a lot of kettlebell classes are done barefoot, so you don’t tip over while throwing weights around ;)

  7. This is wonderful, thank you! Sometimes I need a refresher so I don’t walk into the gym and cluelessly stare at myself in the mirror. It can get a little embarrassing :)
    Just looking at the shoulder raises made me ache, I can’t say that is my favourite muscle to challenge.

  8. Andrew van Geest

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m just getting back to the gym and I needed this information to help me out. Your inspiring post has given me that last burst of enthusiasm I need to get me there.

    Best regards

  9. I will admit that it’s been a while since I’ve been on the exercise wagon, but I do intend to get back to hitchin’ a regular ride very soon. This post will make it much easier to convince myself to pick up the weights again (I always was more of a cardio kind of girl!) Thanks Susan!

  10. Hey! Thanks for the link love. You know, if I go to the gym and I’m usually wandering around deciding what to do, I always say to myself, “Susan says ‘If you only have time to do one shoulder exercise, do [a shoulder press]'” Even though I have shoulder issues so I can’t lift a lot of weight on em. I really need more of a routine though, I think it’d get me lifting more regularly!

  11. Aghhhhhhhhhhhh I love and hate the plank at the same time! Great post, makes me miss my pre-child gym days :/

  1. Pingback: Friday Review: September 30, 2011 | Gillian's Active Life

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