By Lauren Bedosky
Your time is valuable, so you need your strength exercises to give you the most bang for your buck when you go to the gym. The five moves below will not only save you from spending hours on your workout, but they’re also your best bet for building total-body strength.
Squats strengthen two powerhouse muscle groups in your lower body: your glutes and quadriceps (the muscles in the front of your thighs). Your abdominal muscles will get worked, too.
Start by practicing the movement without weights so you can nail perfect form. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width, toes pointed slightly outward. Brace your abs to prepare, and then initiate the movement by bending your knees. Sink into your hips until your thighs are parallel (or almost parallel) with the floor, making sure your knees don’t push past your toes. Try to keep your chest up. Push your feet into the floor to return to the starting position.
Add weight with dumbbells, kettlebells, a barbell, or a resistance band once you’re comfortable with bodyweight squats.
While deadlifts are usually considered a lower-body exercise, they target nearly every major muscle group, from your glutes and hamstrings (the muscles in the backs of your thighs) to your abs and back.
If you’re new to deadlifts, begin with the bodyweight Romanian deadlift. You can add weight when you feel ready. Stand with feet hip-width apart, letting your hands rest on the tops of your thighs. With a straight back and a slight bend in both knees, push your hips back to hinge forward at the waist. As you hinge, let your hands drop toward the floor until you feel a slight pull along the backs of your legs. Then, push your feet into the floor and pull the knees gently backward to return to standing.
Progress the exercise by holding onto dumbbells, kettlebells, a resistance band, or a barbell.
The Chest Press
As the name suggests, chest presses build strength in your chest. Specifically, the four pectoral muscles. Chest presses also engage the triceps, shoulders, and abdominals.
Sit at the edge of a bench and rest one dumbbell on each knee. Carefully lean back to lie on the bench with arms bent, dumbbells at chest height, palms facing out. Brace your abs to prepare and press the dumbbells over your chest until your arms are straight. Then, lower the weights with control until your elbows reach below the bench. Keep your arms close to your body and feet planted on the floor throughout the movement. Set up on the floor if you don’t have a bench.
The Bent-Over Row
Give attention to the muscles in the upper and middle back, shoulders, and biceps with bent-over rows.
Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand with feet hip- to shoulder-width apart. Brace your abs and hinge at the waist to push your hips back. Bend your knees slightly and lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel to the floor. Let the weights hang at arm's length, palms facing each other. This is your starting position. Keeping your back flat and elbows tucked, row the weights as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Stop when your elbows go just past your midline. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
If this exercise is uncomfortable for your lower back, rest one hand and knee on a chair or bench while you row with the other arm.
Sprinkling single-leg exercises like step-ups into your routine helps even out any strength imbalances between your dominant and non-dominant leg. Step-ups, in particular, target the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Start with a bodyweight step-up by planting one foot on a step, bench, or sturdy chair. Remember the taller the surface, the more challenging the exercise. Lean forward slightly and push through your lead foot to straighten your leg. Rest your opposite foot on the step, bench, or chair before stepping back down to the floor with control, keeping your lead foot in place. Repeat for 10-12 reps, and then switch to the opposite leg.
When you’re ready for a greater challenge, add weight with dumbbells or kettlebells.