There’s a time and place for bicep curls, calf raises and leg extensions, but the bedrock of every workout should be big moves. That is, the ones that tap more muscles, improve your ability to perform everyday tasks and burn calories like crazy. Here are nine top trainers' picks for exercises that will give you the biggest return on your reps:
“Possibly more than any other movement in the gym, the farmer's walk has massive carryover to the ‘real world.’ After all, how often during the day do we pick up objects – grocery bags, suitcases, computer bags, overloaded handbags – and walk with them? (Answer: a lot.) Also, for a seemingly simple exercise, you can load it in a variety of ways: a dumbbell in each hand, one kettlebell in one hand held overhead or a sandbag on one shoulder. With lots of variations, tons of practical carryover and very little technical demands, the farmer's walk should be a staple in everyone's routine.”
– Dan Trink, founder of Fortitude Strength Club in New York City
Instructions: Squat, and keeping a flat back, pick up a weight (say, a dumbbell, kettlebell or sandbag) in one or both hands. Pull your shoulders back and down so they're stable, brace your core and walk for the prescribed distance – it could be anywhere from 10 feet to 20 or more yards. Squat to return the weights to the floor.
2. Power Clean
“Although the clean is used by many athletes, I believe that it's one of the best exercises for anyone, no matter their age or fitness level. What I love about the clean is its focus on explosive power, coupled with building strength and speed. Additionally, the clean helps build bone density, which will improve performance no matter the sport you play. The clean targets the hamstrings, back and calves, but the biceps, triceps, core and quads are all engaged as well. No matter what you’re trying to build, the clean will be a great addition to your training.”
– Lisa Niren, personal trainer at CITYROW in New York City
Instructions: Standing with your feet hip-width apart, push your hips back and slightly bend your knees to grab the weight (a barbell or set of dumbbells or kettlebells will do) with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing down. Straighten your hips and legs to lift the weight and, as it reaches your knees, move your hips forward and slightly bend your knees to keep it close to your body. Next, forcefully extend your hips, knees and ankles, and then use your arms to pull up on the weight. As the weight passes your chest, lower to a quarter-squat to catch it across the front of your shoulders, then stand up. Lower the weights back to start.
3. Turkish Get-Up
“There are so many reasons I love this exercise, both for myself and my clients. It's a great way to develop core strength and stability while creating mobility in the thoracic spine and hip. It also strengthens the extenders of the hip and stability in the shoulders. I have found that my clients who perform and perfect the Turkish get-up have noticed an increase in overall strength and stability throughout their bodies.”
– Patrick J. Sheehan, personal trainer at Equinox in Chicago
Instructions: Lie on the floor with a kettlebell in your right hand, extended straight above your shoulder. Plant your right foot on the floor. While keeping your right arm vertical, roll up onto your left forearm, and then your left hand. Press through your left palm and right foot to raise your hips up so that your torso forms a straight line. Swoop your left leg under your hips and behind you, and shift your weight until you’re in a half-kneeling position, with your torso upright. Push through the back foot to stand, your right arm still vertical. Slowly reverse the movement to return to the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.
“My favorite exercise is the burpee. I like it because it’s fun, challenging and a total-body exercise that I can do for a good number of reps to get my heart rate up. Plus, it requires no equipment, making it great for getting in a workout at home or on the go.”
– Mike Donavanik, Los Angeles-based trainer
Instructions: Get in a high-plank, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Perform a push up under control, keeping a flat back throughout the movement. Then jump your feet forward to the outside of your hands and explosively jump straight up into the air, hands overhead. Land in a squat position, place your hands on the floor and jump your feet back behind you to immediately move into the next rep.
5. Single-Leg Squat
“I like to say that life is just a series of squats. You squat to get on and off of the toilet and up and down from the couch. Squats are the most functional exercise I can think of. Plus, they’re infinitely modifiable. One of my favorite variations, especially for runners, is the single-leg squat because it builds strength in the glutes and quads while increasing lower body and core stability. Start with your body weight, and get ready to have a whole new respect for the ice skaters who do ‘sit spins’ balancing on a quarter-inch-wide blade.”
– Janet Hamilton, exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta
Instructions: Stand tall on one foot with your opposite leg and arms extended in front of you. Brace your core and, keeping your chest up, back flat and weight in your heel, bend at your knee and hip to lower your body as low as possible. (Start by lowering to just barely touch a chair or bench.) Press through your heel to raise your body to start. Repeat on the opposite side.
6. Transverse Lunge with Slider
“My favorite all-time exercise is the transverse lunge with slider. This is a great movement to work on balance, strength and range of motion in the hips. Using the sliders in this movement also helps to activate the hip adductors, which tend to be ignored in many lower body exercises. We move in the transverse plane from side to side on a regular basis in real life, but most of us rarely train transverse-plane movements in the gym.”
– Jacqueline Crockford, exercise physiology content manager at the American Council on Exercise
Instructions: Stand tall and place a slider (you can also use a paper plate or towel on a hardwood floor) under your right foot. Slide the right foot back and behind you as you bend the left leg into a lunge position so the left foot is pointing toward 12 o’clock and the right foot, with a straight leg, is pointed toward 4 or 5 o’clock. Squeeze the inner thighs and press through the left foot to bring the right foot back up to start. Repeat on the opposite side.
7. Dumbbell Squat Clean to Press
“The dumbbell squat curl to press is a total-body movement you can do it at any gym, at home or on the road. It’s excellent for building explosive power throughout the entire body while improving shoulder stability. As you strengthen your stabilizers and increase range of motion, you build a solid foundation to handle heavier loads during all of your upper-body hypertrophy exercises. Neglecting stabilization exercises is like putting on your shoes before your socks or putting up a house’s frame before you pour the foundation.”
– Kyle Brown, San Diego-based celebrity trainer
Instructions: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides, palms facing your body. In one motion, squat down and, as you raise back to standing, curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders. Immediately lower back down into another squat and, as you raise back to standing, press the dumbbells straight up over your shoulders. Lower the dumbbells to start, then immediately move into the next rep.
8. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
“My all-time favorite exercise is the single-leg RDL. It is a whole-body, functional exercise that has an appropriate progression for everyone. When incorporated correctly, it increases strength, balance, stability, coordination and posture. Most importantly, it builds posterior chain strength which translates to increased speed, power and running mechanics."
– Pamela Geisel, a performance specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City
Instructions: Stand tall on one foot with a slight bend in your knee and the opposite leg held just off of the floor. Hold a weight (dumbbells, kettlebells) in each hand against the front of your thighs. While keeping your glutes, core and back tight and your neck in line with back, push your hips back behind you to lower your torso toward the floor and the weights straight down, keeping them as close to your planted leg as possible. When your torso is parallel to the floor and your raised leg is extended straight behind you, pause, then drive through your planted heel to return to start. Repeat on the opposite side.
9. Sandbag Front Squat
“Effective and scalable to any exerciser, the sandbag front squat provides a total-body workout that naturally helps people improve their lower-body strength and mobility. It also improves posture by targeting areas and stabilizer muscles in which most people are weak.”
– Albert Matheny, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City
Instructions: Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and cradle a sandbag lengthwise against your chest. Keep your elbows up so that your upper arms remain perpendicular with your torso throughout the exercise. Squat down as deep as you can without breaking form. Drive through your heels and squeeze your glutes to stand back up to start.