All you need are four basic exercises—if you put them together in the right way. Customize your plan here
New exercises are great for variety, sure. But by mastering this four-pack of tried-and-true classics—and then mixing and matching them with varying amounts of rest and resistance—you can target almost any fitness goal with just a handful of moves. Here’s how.
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Stand with feet hip-width apart and shoulder blades tucked back and down (imagine trying to tuck them into back pockets). Push hips back and bend knees until thighs are parallel with the floor, keeping chest up, weight in heels, and knees tracking over middle toes. Push through heels to stand back up.
Tip: Lead the movement with your hips by imagining that you’re pushing a door open behind you with your butt.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold dumbbells in front of thighs, palms facing body. Push hips back and bend forward until back is parallel to the floor, letting the dumbbells hang downward and maintaining a flat back. Pull dumbbells to sides of torso, then lower them to starting position.
Tip: As with the squat, lead the move with your hips by imagining that you’re pushing a door open behind you with your butt.
Stand with feet just narrower than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward. Hold dumbbells at sides, palms facing in. (To modify, extend arms by sides without dumbbells.) Take a wide step out to the right with right leg, pushing hips back and bending right knee, keeping left leg straight and chest up. Straighten right leg to return to starting position. Repeat on opposite side.
Tip: As you descend, feel the move through the glute and hamstring of your bent leg—the exercise shouldn’t place all the stress on your knee.
Get in a plank position with hands directly beneath shoulders. Bend elbows, keeping them close to sides, lowering body until chest touches the floor. Press back up to starting position. To modify, place hands on the fifth step of a staircase instead of the floor. When you’re strong enough, move down one step at a time.
Tip: Think “head to heels, strong as steel”: Tense your core and strive to maintain a straight body line from your shoulders to your feet throughout the move.
Goal 1: Burn Fat
The trick: Intervals. Research has shown that 20 minutes of interval work is more effective for fat loss than 40 minutes of slow cardio. Not only do intervals burn more calories than traditional cardio training, they also increase your body's ability to torch fat through hormone production. In this workout, Craig Ballantyne of TurbulenceTraining.com turns the four moves into a high-intensity interval circuit. “Do the exercises in a non-competing sequence, so that the lower body rests while the upper body works and vice versa,” Ballantyne says. “That allows you to work with high intensity and minimal rest and to finish the workout faster.”
The workout: Perform each of the four exercises in order, doing as many reps as possible for 45 seconds with 15 seconds rest between exercises. Repeat the entire circuit 3 or 4 more times.
Goal 2: Get Stronger
The trick: Progression. “Don’t get caught up in just increasing reps,” says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University. “You’ve got to find a way to make each rep more difficult.” Doing more and more reps at the same weight builds endurance (and muscle size). But if you’re looking for strength gains, use heavier dumbbells for the lunge and the row. Upgrade the squat to a goblet squat by holding a dumbbell in both hands in front of your chest (like a goblet). And add resistance to pushups by narrowing your hands to target your triceps or by elevating your feet (use the bottom step of a staircase to start).
The workout: Do 4 or 5 sets, with 5 or 6 reps per set, of each exercise in any order, resting about 1 minute between sets and exercises. When you can perform 10 reps of any exercise at your current resistance level, increase the resistance.
Goal 3: Finish Your Workout Faster
The trick: Increase work capacity. To build work capacity over time, you can increase the amount of work you do in the same time, or do the same amount of work in less time. Since your goal is the latter, “complete the total number of reps in less time each workout, or decrease rest periods each workout,” says Mike Wunsch, program design specialist at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, CA.
The workout: Perform 10 reps of each exercise in order, noting the time it takes to complete each one. Repeat the entire circuit three or four more times, resting for 60 to 90 seconds between sets. At each subsequent workout, complete the same number of reps but try to beat your time from the last session. Or, decrease the rest period between sets by 10 seconds at each subsequent workout.
Goal 4: Improve Your Running
The trick: Go heavy. “When you run, you can sacrifice quality muscle mass,” says Arent, who works with Rutgers’ soccer teams on staying strong and fast. By lifting heavier weights, “you can maintain the muscle mass that’s needed for optimal performance.” You might think you want endurance training to go with your endurance running, but Arent says your weight workout should accomplish different goals: “You’re trying to counterbalance what running is doing,” he says. “Use weight lifting as an addition, to build strength for maintaining posture, preventing injury, and giving your runs a finishing kick.”
The workout: Twice a week, using resistance equivalent to 80 to 85 percent of your one-rep max weight, do 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps of each exercise in any order, resting one or two minutes between sets. (A weight you can lift 8 times with correct form is around 80 percent of your one-rep max, according to the American Council on Exercise.)
Goal 5: Build a Strong, Flat Stomach
The trick: Add instability. And you don’t need fancy equipment to do it. Just by lifting one foot off the ground during your pushup, “you’re adding a ton of core musculature” into the move, says Arent.
The workout: Use any of the protocols described above, but tweak the exercises in the following ways:
- Squat: Extend your arms overhead through the entire move, keeping your torso upright and arms in line with your ears. This makes the exercise much tougher, so if you were using dumbbells, bring the weight way down or don’t use them.
- Pushup: At the lowest point of the move, before pressing back to starting position, lift one foot a few inches off the floor, keeping your leg straight and shoulders square. Return the foot to the floor at the top of the move. On the next rep, repeat with the opposite foot.
- Lateral Lunge: Raise dumbbells overhead, keeping arms close to ears, through the entire move. Want even more core? Hold a dumbbell in only one hand.
- Bent-Over Row: Before bending over, bend one knee to lift one foot up. Continue as before, but standing on just one leg. Switch feet halfway through set.