Every exercise in your strength program has a purpose — to help you build strength and muscle, burn fat, and improve your fitness. While there’s a time and a place for nearly any exercise under the right circumstance, some movements are simply more effective than others. And it should be no surprise that the ones that build a foundation for skills that you’ll use in real life will be the most beneficial for improving your fitness and quality of life.
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So how does a lifter ensure they’re making all the right moves? If you’ve plateaued or just aren’t seeing the results you’re banking on, it’s time to get back to basics with these seven moves. From increased strength, better core stability, greater athleticism, and improved overall health, these key exercises need to find their way into your routine.
1. Goblet Squat
Squats are an exercise many people struggle to perform safely and effectively. Luckily, the goblet squat is a great progression from a bodyweight squat before squatting with a bar. Because the load is held in front, the core works double-time to keep you tall, while your legs work to control your movement down and stand back up.
How to: Hold a dumbbell with both hands underneath the “bell” at chest level, and set your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards (a). Push your butt back like you’re sitting in a chair and descend until your elbows reach the inside of your knees. (b). Keeping your heels flat, pressing jnto the floor, pause at the bottom of the squat, and return to a full standing position. If your heels rise push your hips further back and work on partial ranges of motion until mobility and form improve (c). Repeat for four sets of 8-10 reps.
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2. Pallof Press
The Pallof press is one of those movements that looks confusing, but is actually incredibly simple and beneficial, says Mike Campbell, personal trainer and owner of Unleash Your Alpha. While you may not be hoisting heavy weight, the real challenge lies in resisting movement — in this case, rotation. That makes this an ‘anti-rotation’ movement, forcing you to engage through your entire core: obliques, abs, lower back, glutes and more. According to Campbell, the Paloff press will build great usable strength while adding athletic definition through the mid-section (in coordination with a sound diet).
How to: Stand perpendicular to a cable column with the column’s arm set around shoulder height. Grab the handle with both hands and pull it in to the chest, maintaining tension on the cable. Feet should be shoulder-width apart, and the feet, knees, hips and shoulders all remain square and facing straight ahead throughout movement (a). Holding the chest high, squeeze through the stomach and press the handle away from the body, extending the arms straight while resisting any twisting or rotation (b). It’s at this point the resistance will be highest. Continue to engage your core, and ensure you remain square and straight and resist the rotational force. Bring arms back in to the chest and repeat for three sets of 10 reps per side (c).
3. Dumbbell Row
Most of us spend more time training the “mirror muscles” on the front of the body, and neglect what we can’t see, according to Campbell. But developing a strong back is key to balance things out, improve posture and avoid injury. The dumbbell row can help achieve all that, in addition building strong arms and a strong core. The main muscles being used are the lats, traps and rhomboids, which reinforce good posture by pulling your shoulders back and aiding the core in stabilizing your spine.
How to: Grab a dumbbell (20 pounds is plenty for most to start) and find a bench. Start with your left hand on the bench with left arm extended, while your right arm holds the dumbbell and right foot is on the ground (a). Retract your shoulders, brace your abs, and pull the weight up on the side of your body until the elbow passes the side of the body (b). Lower under control and repeat for three sets of 6-8 reps on each side (c).
The push-up might appear basic, but it’s one of the best exercises you can do. The functional movement is great for training the upper-body pushing muscles — the anterior deltoids, triceps and chest. It also requires you to engage your core and allows full range of motion in your shoulder blades, unlike the bench press.
How to: Start on your knees facing the floor with your hands at shoulder-width, planted directly under the shoulders. Assume a plank position by straightening your legs, supporting your weight with hands and feet (a). Squeeze your backside to keep your trunk engaged and lower your body slowly to the ground. The elbows should be slightly tucked — like arrows, rather than flared like the letter “T” (b). Descend until your chest is just above the ground and return to the starting position by fully extending your arms, and repeat (c). Note: If you can’t do five push-ups with good form, elevate your hands on a bench or chair to begin building up your strength. If push-ups are easy, try elevating your feet on a chair on adding a weight vest. Make sure you’re able to perform three sets of 12 push-ups with your bodyweight before adding a vest or elevating your feet.
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5. Split Squat
Traditional squats are great, but it’s important to incorporate single-leg movements to develop athleticism and minimize training imbalances. The split squat, a stationary lunge, does just that. The split stance requires you to balance with a narrow base of support, firing up stabilizing muscles of the hip and trunk while training your quads, glutes and hamstrings to perform the movement. In addition to building lower-body strength, the single-leg nature of the exercise helps improve balance and increase flexibility and stability in the hips.
How to: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Next, take a step forward with your right foot, and a large step backwards with your left foot — this is your starting position (a). Keep the front heel flat and descend into a lunge, bringing your back knee towards the floor. Stop just short of the knee touching the ground on the back leg with the front heel still flat on the ground (b). Pause for one second and return to standing. Perform 6-8 reps on your right leg, then 6-8 reps on your left leg, and repeat for three sets (c).
6. Lateral Squat
The lateral squat combines two movements: a lateral lunge and a squat. The difference? The lateral squat is stationary. It requires you to move side-to-side, providing a great stretch on the groin and inner thighs while training the hips, thighs and trunk to work together. Life isn’t strictly moving forwards and backwards. It’s best that your training isn’t either.
How to: Stand tall with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, heels flat on the ground and toes pointed forward. Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards, bending your left leg, and leaning to your left with your right foot angled out slightly (a). The left knee should be bent, left heel flat on the floor, and right leg extended with your weight over the left side of your body (b). This is one rep. Return to a standing position and descend doing the same movement on your right side to even things out (c). Perform six reps per leg for three sets.
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7. Hip Extension (Glute Bridges/Hip Thrusts)
One of the most important muscle groups for any trainee — athlete, weekend warrior, or newbie — is the glutes. Yet they are often neglected and underutilized from sitting for long periods each day. According to Campbell, “When we attempt movements from running to squatting without optimal hip movement we risk injury to our hips, knees and ankles. Getting glutes that not only switch on when they should but are strong is crucial, and that’s where this simple yet powerfully effective movement comes in.”
How to: Position the back of your shoulders across a stable bench, feet planted firmly on the ground, about six inches away from your butt (a). Squeezing the glutes, push through your heels to rise up into a bridge position with the hips fully extended. The shoulders down to the knees should be in line, with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Hold the position at the top, glutes, core and hamstrings engaged (b). Lower the hips down and repeat for three sets of eight reps (c). Beginners can continue with just bodyweight, whereas more advanced lifters can progress to rolling a barbell over the top of the hips for added difficulty.
With all these exercises, pay close attention to form and execution. Continue to add weight to each lift once you can complete two more reps than prescribed with your training weight. Keep it up and after a few workouts you’ll start to notice rapid gains in strength and overall fitness. Within a few weeks you’ll have these exercises mastered and be on your way to having a body that better serves you!
Originally posted October 2014. Updated August 2015.