Fitness isn’t one-size-fits-all. When it comes to workout routines, we all have our own preferred style, individual needs, and unique goals. However, there are a few things all well-rounded fitness regimens have in common: They help you perform, move, and feel better. And that means they incorporate exercises that support natural movement patterns. Here, top trainers share the seven moves every body can benefit from.
“Core strength is of utmost importance,” says Philadelphia-based trainer, Joe Pepe, C.P.T. If you want to build strength or enhance performance anywhere in the body, you have to start with your core. After all, your core is responsible for stabilizing your entire body!
Planks, basic as they may seem, simultaneously strengthen the rectus abdominis, erector spinae, obliques, and the multifidi—all of the major muscles in your core.
To mix things up (or up the challenge), incorporate variations such as elbows-to-hands planks (a.k.a. plank up-downs) or plank shoulder taps.
Not ready for planks? Flip over and try dead-bugs, suggests Cody Harter, C.S.C.S., a Texas-based trainer and owner of Harter Strength and Conditioning. “The position of the exercise minimizes strain on the lower back while providing a challenging exercise for the abdominal muscles.”
2. Front Squats
Squats are one of the most important exercises in the book—and for good reason. Not only do squats strengthen nearly all of the muscles in the lower body and core, but they also improve mobility in the hips and spine.
To get squats’ lower-body benefits and then some, Harter recommends incorporating front squats. “Front squats are great for developing leg strength (with a focus on the quads and glutes),” says Harter. Plus, by holding a weight (like a kettlebell or dumbbell) in the front rack position, you really fire up your core.
For a cross-body core challenge, hold your weight off to one side.
“Few movements hit more muscle groups and benefit your body more than the deadlift,” says Pepe. The movement challenges everything from your neck down, from your back and forearms to your glutes and hamstrings. Incorporate deadlifts and you’ll make gains in pretty much every other exercise you do.
If traditional deadlifts feel a little intimidating, Harter recommends doing Romanian deadlifts (a.k.a. RDLs). Instead of lowering the weight all the way to floor, Romanian deadlifts allow you to go only as low as you are flexible. “RDLs aren’t as technical to perform and are great for functional hamstring recruitment,” Pepe says.
Another classic move, pullups work several important muscles in the back, shoulders, and arms. According to Pepe, the move is critical for strengthening the muscles that protect your shoulder joint.
In fact, even doing dead-hangs from the bar (if you can’t do pullups) yields some of the benefits.
Another variation: lat pull-downs. “People can over-stress their shoulders when trying to force a pull-up,” Harter says. “Lat pull-downs are easier to control, so you can maintain correct shoulder angles during the lift.”
5. Bench Presses
The barbell bench press, which works the chest, shoulders, and triceps, has long been the gold-standard for developing upper-body pushing strength.
However, if you drop your elbows too deep, the movement can bother your shoulders, Harter says.
If traditional presses are too much for you, swap in floor presses. “Pressing from the floor removes any depth concerns that tend to bother the shoulder,” says Harter. To engage your chest more, open your elbows out away from your chest. To really hit your triceps, keep your elbows tight to your sides.
6. Wood Chops
Kneeling dumbbell chop or cable chop
Since we naturally rotate throughout the day, whether in daily activity or sports, it’s key we train those movements to avoid injury. Thing is, “rotation is an often neglected movement pattern,” says Harter.
To work these ‘deeper’ core muscles (namely the transverse abdominis and internal obliques), Harter recommends incorporating wood chops into your routine. “Chops help strengthen your core during rotary movement that you’ll use daily,” he says.
Two popular variations: dumbbell chops (which are easier, thanks to gravity) and cable chops (which offer constant tension throughout the movement). Whichever variation you choose, slow, controlled motion is key.
7. Split Squats
For improving total-body stability or evening out any muscular imbalances (like a stronger left or right leg), Harter suggests split squats.
“Split squats highlight any unilateral weaknesses and force each side of the body to do the same amount of work,” he says.
Once you’re comfortable with split squats, up the challenge by swapping in Bulgarian split squats. By elevating your back leg on a box or bench, you increase the load on your lead leg, supporting further strength gains.