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Most Effective Exercises

What are the most important things you need in a workout? The two that will give you the most bang for your buck are time-efficient, effective exercises. We’re busier than ever and most of us don’t have an hour or more to work each muscle group 2 to 3 times a week, as well as fit in another hour of cardio, as the guidelines suggest.

Optimal Workout

The good news is, you don’t need hours to get in a quality, total body workout that includes cardio, strength, balance, core, and stability training.

These exercises are exactly what you need to work your entire body in a short, intense workout. These moves:

  • Are efficient: Any time you can work more than one muscle at a time, you shave off precious time from your workout, making a busy schedule one more obstacle you can cross off your list. 
  • Are functional: Your muscles don’t work in isolation in the real world, so why should you work them that way in your workouts? These moves mimic the real-life activities we do on a regular basis, from picking up groceries to pushing open doors while our hands are full.
  • Are intense: If you’re short on time, the one thing you want to focus on is intensity. The harder you work, the greater the afterburn.
  • Target multiple muscle groups: The more muscles you work, the higher the intensity and the more calories you burn both during and after your workouts.

You can take these exercises and add them to your usual workouts or, if you really want a challenge, put them all together in a killer circuit workout.Components of an Effective Workout

Precautions

These are advanced moves, so watch yourself and be sure to see your doctor if you have any conditions, injuries, etc.

Equipment

Dumbbells, a kettlebell (use a dumbbell if you don’t have one), and a resistance band.

How-To Tips

  • Start with at least 5 minutes of cardio to warm up.
  • Do each exercise for 30 to 60 seconds, one after the other, and try not to rest between exercises.
  • Repeat the entire circuit once for a shorter workout, or up to 3 or more times for a longer, more intense workout.
  • End your workout with a cool down and a stretch.

Experts say there is no magic to exercise: You get out of it what you put in. That doesn’t mean you have to work out for hours each day. It just means you need to work smart.

That said, experts agree that not all exercises are created equal. Some are simply more efficient than others, whether they target multiple muscle groups, are suitable for a wide variety of fitness levels, or help you burn calories more effectively.

So what are the best exercises? We posed this question to four fitness experts and compiled a list of their favorites.

1. Walking

Any exercise program should include cardiovascular exercise, which strengthens the heart and burns calories. And walking is something you can do anywhere, anytime, with no equipment other than a good pair of shoes.

It’s not just for beginners, either: Even the very fit can get a good workout from walking.

“Doing a brisk walk can burn up to 500 calories per hour,” says Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Since it takes 3,500 calories to lose a pound, you could expect to lose a pound for every seven hours you walk, if you did nothing else.

Don’t go from the sofa to walking an hour day, though. Richard Cotton, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, says beginners should start by walking five to -10 minutes at a time, gradually moving up to at least 30 minutes per session.

“Don’t add more than five minutes at a time,” he says. Another tip: It’s better to lengthen your walks before boosting your speed or incline.

2. Interval training

Whether you’re a beginner or an exercise veteran, a walker or an aerobic dancer, adding interval training to your cardiovascular workout will boost your fitness level and help you lose weight.

“Varying your pace throughout the exercise session stimulates the aerobic system to adapt,” says Cotton. “The more power the aerobic system has, the more capacity you have to burn calories.”

The way to do it is to push the intensity or pace for a minute or two, then back off for anywhere from two to -10 minutes (depending on how long your total workout will be, and how much time you need to recover). Continue doing this throughout the workout.

3. Squat With Overhead Press

This is a total body, compound exercise targeting all the muscles of the lower body as well as the shoulders. Because you’re combining an upper and a lower body move in the same exercise, your workout becomes more functional, more efficient, and more effective. The more muscle groups you involve, the more calories you burn.

How to Do It

If you’re new to this exercise, start with a light or moderate weight, 5-10 lbs for women and 10-20 lbs for men.

  • Begin with the weights over the shoulders, elbows bent, and feet about hip-width apart.
  • Squat down, sending the hips back and keeping the chest up and the abs engaged.
  • Squat as low as you can and keep the weight evenly distributed between the balls and heels of your feet as you push back to standing position.
  • As you stand, press the weights straight up and overhead without locking the elbows.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

Below are possible modifications to use as needed:

  • To make the move easier, try light weights or no weights and shorten your range of motion so you’re not going down as low.
  • To make the move harder, squat as low as you can and use heavier weights.

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises2

4. Burpees

Woman doing burpee
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Most of us are very familiar with this exercise, having done them in gym class or maybe a bootcamp class. One reason these are so popular in intense workouts is that burpees work every single muscle in your body. And because you’re going down to the floor and back up again, usually with a jump at the end, you get some great cardio benefits as well.

How to Do It

  • Squat and place your hands on the floor on either side of your feet.
  • Jump the feet back so that you’re in a plank position.
  • Jump the feet back in and stand up, taking the arms overhead.
  • Add a jump at the end for added intensity.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

Try these variations if needed to make this exercise accessible to you:

  • Step the feet back instead of jumping.
  • You can also elevate the hands on a step or platform to decrease the intensity of the exercise.
  • To add intensity, add a pushup, hold weights or anything with resistance such as a medicine ball or a BOSU.

5.Around the World Lunges

Woman doing around the world lunge
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Lunges are one of the toughest exercises for the lower body. Because you’re in a staggered stance, you have to balance your body which engages all the muscles in the lower body as well as the core. Not only that, the lunge, or variations of it, is something we do every day. In fact, walking is a kind of lunge, although not nearly as hard as the traditional lunge.

These Around-the-World lunges are a great variation, allowing you to go to the front, side, and rear for a complete lower body exercise.

How to Do It

  • Holding weights if desired for added intensity, begin by stepping forward with the right foot.
  • Bend both knees and go straight down until the knees are at about 90-degree angles.
  • Press into the heel to step back to start and then step the same leg out to the right into a squat.
  • Bring the right foot back in and now take it straight back into a reverse lunge, again bending the knees to 90-degree angles. 
  • Come back to start and repeat for 30-60 seconds on each side.

Modifications

Below are ways to modify this exercise:

  • Add weights for more intensity.
  • Try a modification, such as lunging onto an elevated platform, if your knees or joints bother you with this exercise.

6. Turning Kettlebell Lunges

Woman doing turning lunge with kettlebell sweeps
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

You may not recognize this move, but it’s an excellent one for working the entire body and it’s a great way to incorporate a kettlebell into your training. The lunge works the lower body, of course, but having to circle the kettlebell overhead involves your upper body and quite a bit of core work.

If you’re new to this exercise, start with no weight or very light weight. You can always substitute a dumbbell if you don’t have a kettlebell.

How to Do It

  • Begin with feet wider than the hips and hold a kettlebell or weight in the right hand.
  • Pivot and turn the body to the right so that you’re in a split stance and lower into a lunge so that knees are at about a 90-degree angle.
  • As you push back up, swing the weight up and over the head as you pivot back to the front.
  • Switch the kettlebell to the left hand as you pivot to the left, lowering into a lunge and taking the weight towards the floor.
  • Continue alternating sides while swinging the weight up and over for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

Try these variations:

  • If you’re advanced, you can toss the weight to the other hand at the top of the motion.
  • If you’re a beginner, you can keep the weight at chest level rather than swinging it overhead or skip the weight altogether.

7. Divebomber Push-Ups

Woman doing divebomber pushups
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Push-ups work almost all the muscles of the upper body, including the chest, shoulders, triceps, and core.

But tweak them a bit and you get even more out of the shoulder and core muscles. This is by no means an easy exercise, so practice it on your knees at first or skip it if you have any shoulder issues.

How to Do It

  • Begin in an upside V position, like a downward dog. Your hands are a little wider than shoulders.
  • Bend the elbows and dive down towards the floor.
  • Scoop the body forward and press up into an upward dog.
  • Scoop back to start and repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

Below are possible modifications:

  • Keep your knees on the floor if you need an easier version.
  • This move is very hard on the shoulders so, if you have problems skip it or just do regular push-ups.

8. Ski Abs

Woman doing ski abs exercise
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This exercise has it all: Core, upper body, lower body, and everything in between. By jumping the feet in and to the side, you hit all your ab muscles while engaging your stabilizer muscles as well. The quick movement also adds some cardio to the mix making it a great total body exercise.

How to Do It

  • Begin in a plank position on the hands and toes. Your hands should be under the shoulders, back flat, and your hips in line with the rest of your body.
  • Jump the feet in and towards the right hand, landing just behind the hand.
  • Jump the feet back into a plank and then jump them behind the left hand.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

Make this exercise easier by doing the following:

  • If this is too intense, try walking the feet in and out rather than jumping.

9. Roll-Ups With a Burpee

Woman doing roll-up with burpee exercise
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This very intense exercise requires strength, endurance, and a fair amount of flexibility. This move is great because it really does hit every muscle in the body, with a special emphasis on the core. It also includes a burpee, making this perhaps one of the hardest exercises in this workout.

If you’re not familiar with this exercise, start simple, with just rolling back and up to see if that feels good to your body.

How to Do It

  • Begin seated on a mat and, keeping the knees bent, roll back, bringing the knees towards your chest.
  • As you roll back up, take the right foot under you, as you step onto the left foot, like you’re kneeling.
  • This is the toughest part, so take your time. From the kneeling position, bring the hands to the floor and either step or jump the feet back so that you’re in a plank position.
  • Jump the feet in, as in a burpee.
  • Stand all the way up, adding a jump at the end.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

The following are possible variations on this move:

  • Try doing just a roll-up to a kneeling position if the burpee is too challenging.
  • If you want more challenge, add a push-up to the burpee.

Burpee Varieties8

Pushup to a Side Plank

Woman doing pushup side plank exercise
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This is another favorite because it works the upper body as well as the core muscles, with an emphasis on the obliques.

The rotation is what adds more challenge to the exercise. You can keep the feet stacked, which is harder, or stagger the feet on the floor when you move into your side plank.

How To

  • In a push-up position, on the toes (as shown) or the knees, bend the elbows into a push-up.
  • As you push up, rotate to the right, taking the right arm straight up in a side plank.
  • Lower the arm and repeat on the other side for 30 to 60 seconds.

Modifications

Try these modifications:

  • Do the push-up with the knees down and, as you rotate, take the knee to the floor to modify the side plank.

11. Squat with Side Step/Resistance Band

Woman doing squat with resistance band
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This is a little bit of a break from the intensity of the other exercises, but a good one nonetheless because you’re working the lower body as well as the biceps. Take your time with this one and keep lots of tension on the band to work those guns.

How to Do It

  • Loop a resistance band under the feet and hold the handles in each hand. You may need to loop the band around your hands to create more tension.
  • Step as wide as you can to the right, lowering into a squat and sending your hips back.
  • Keep the arms bent to work the biceps and keep tension on the band.
  • Step the feet back together and continue to the right for the length of the room before going back to the left.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

Try this to protect your knees:

  • Take out the squat or shorten the range of motion if this bothers your knees.

Choosing and Using Resistance Bands10

12. Bear Crawls

Woman doing bear crawl exercise
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This is the ultimate total body exercise with an emphasis on strength, power, and endurance. Any time you go from standing down to the floor and back up, you increase the intensity of the exercise. Best of all, this one requires no equipment.

How to Do It

  • Squat to the floor and walk the hands out to a plank position. 
  • On the knees or toes, do a push-up.
  • As you push back up, walk the hands back and stand up.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds.

Modifications

The following are modifications on this exercise:

  • Put the knees down as you walk the hands out if you need a modification.
  • You can also take the push-up out of the exercise or, if you want more intensity, add a jump at the end.

13. One-Arm Arnold Press

Woman doing one-arm Arnold press
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This is another really great core exercise that forces all the muscles of your abs and back to stabilize you as you press a weight overhead. You can always use a dumbbell if you don’t have a kettlebell.

How to Do It

  • Begin in a squat position with the left arm out for stabilization and the right arm bent, kettlebell or weight at the shoulder.
  • Holding that position, press the weight up and overhead.
  • Look at the weight, if you can, then lower the weight.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds on each side.

Modifications

Try this variation to protect your back:

  • If this bothers your back, do the move from a standing position.

Great Shoulder Exercises

14. One-Arm Triceps Pushups

Woman doing one-arm tricep push up
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This is easily one of the toughest triceps exercises out there and we don’t want to forget the triceps since we’ve worked all the other muscles. The key here is to keep your range of motion short the first time you try this exercise. It’s much harder than it looks.

How to Do It

  • Lie on your right side with the knees bent and the hips stacked. 
  • Wrap the bottom arm around the waist and place the left hand on the floor in front of you. 
  • Contract the triceps to push the body up and off the floor, straightening the left arm as much as you can
  • Lower the body down until the arm brushes the floor or as far as you can.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds on each side. 

Modifications

Try the below variations:

  • Only lower a few inches if you have trouble with this exercise.
  • You can also use the lower elbow to help push your body up if you need more leverage.

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