The Hardest Exercises for Strength Training, According to Trainers

From hardcore abs moves to total-body activators, these exercises are so hard that even trainers love to hate them.

a person lifting a heavy tire in a gym
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No matter how much of a gym rat you are, there are a few moves you just hate doing. Think: squat variations that activate lower-body muscles you didn't even know you had, triceps moves that make your arms feel like they're going to fall off, or sprint drills you genuinely think will cause you to pass out. And no one knows this feeling better than the people barking at you to churn out one more rep.

Trainers know better than anyone that pushing through the exercise will be well worth it in the end. Here, fitness pros share the moves even they love to hate — and while that makes this a list of seriously hard workout moves, it's also a list of exercises that guarantee serious results. So grit your teeth and dig into these nine moves that challenge even the fittest of the fit.

Prisoner Get-Ups

This exercise fires up your whole core while activating the entire chain of muscles in your back — especially your lower back. And that's all while working on your balance and agility.

A. Lie faceup with hands behind head, elbows fanned out, and knees touching the floor with feet crossed (like in a sitting crossed-legged position).

B. Using lower abs muscles, bring torso forward until heels of feet are close to butt.

C. Keeping hands behind head, hinge at hips to get up off the floor and stand up straight in one swift motion, without using hands — just legs. (Need to modify? Place hands on the ground to help assist when lifting off of the floor.)

Recommended by Shaun Robert Jenkins, an NCSF-certified personal trainer and head coach at Tone House in New York City

Body Saw

This is a great move to target all the muscles of your torso, and, depending on your position, also your shoulders. Start with your feet in a TRX or on workout sliders (or even with your feet over a foam roller!), and progress to a stability ball for more of a challenge.

A. Start in a forearm plank with feet in TRX straps or on workout sliders and elbows beneath shoulders. Engage core and, keeping forearms perfectly still, start to move hips backward while moving shoulders away from wrists. Keep elbows in front of body and maintain a straight line from ears to ankles.

B. Saw back as far as feels possible, but don't go so far back as to feel low back kick in. Return to starting position.

Recommended by Tristan Rice, performance specialist at Exos in California

Dumbell Thruster

This is a great explosive movement with core stabilization throughout to challenge your whole body. It helps to improve shoulder and hip flexibility, gets your blood flowing, and builds strength too.

A. Hold a pair of dumbbells at the top of a biceps curl (elbows bent, weights right in front of face). Squat to full depth.

B. When coming up from the squat position, press dumbbells overhead so that at the top of the movement, body is standing tall with arms fully extended over shoulders, squeezing quads, glutes, and abs.

C. Descend back down to a full squat while simultaneously lowering the dumbbells back, so that at the bottom of the squat the dumbbells have returned to the starting position.

Recommended by Albert Matheny, R.D., co-founder of and trainer at Soho Strength Lab in New York City

Dumbbell Lateral Lunge

Lunges generally mean business because of their dynamic nature, recruitment of the most powerful muscles (your glutes, core, and entire leg), and challenge to stability with their asymmetrical demands. Changing the orientation of that lunge to the side engages the other muscles in your glutes more than a typical squat or forward lunge would, helping to better improve hip mobility and stability. (Want to make it harder? Add a dumbbell to further engage the core and make this primarily lower-body exercise into a total-body movement.)

A. Stand upright, then step to the right with right foot, keeping toes forward and feet flat.

B. Squat through right hip while keeping left leg straight. Squat as low as possible and hold this position for 2 counts.

C. Push back to the starting position. Switch sides; repeat.

Recommended by Maureen Key, senior performance manager at Exos in Philadelphia

Pistol Squat Get-Ups

This exercise primarily targets your quadriceps, but it also activates your core and just about every other muscle in your lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, and calves. (TBH, mastering the pistol squat should be your next fitness goal.)

A. Balance on left leg. Hold right leg out in front of body so that heel is just off the floor.

B. Using leg strength and balance, start to lower into a squat, keeping right heel just above the floor the entire time. Keep hands out in front of body to help with balance.

C. Squat down until hamstring touches calf, then release butt to the floor.

D. Lay flat on back with left knee bent and right leg straight. Hinge forward with some momentum, using hands to help push up back into the pistol squat, then return to standing. Switch sides; repeat.

Recommended by Shaun Robert Jenkins

Lateral Step-Ups with Medicine Ball

The key benefit of this dynamic, heart-pumping variation of step-ups is that it's performed in a natural movement pattern, which helps you avoid injuries in your everyday life. The continual stepping up and down means that a range of lower body muscles are engaged: quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, abs muscles, and lower back muscles, as well as the biceps from holding a medicine ball or hand weights. Want to make it harder? Raise the height of the step or the weight you carry.

A. Stand parallel to and on the right side of a bench, holding a medicine ball or hand weights close to chest. Lean slightly forward and lift left leg onto the bench.

B. Lift right leg up to meet the left and immediately move left leg to the floor on the other side of the bench. Extend landing leg as far out from the bench as possible to feel activation in quads and glutes.

C. With right leg still on the bench, move left leg up to meet it. Now right leg moves to the floor, while left remains on the bench.

Recommended by Jimmy Minardi, certified personal trainer and founder of Minardi Training

One-Arm Kettlebell Press

This move completely activates your hip, torso, and shoulders. It integrates stability throughout the core with shoulder mobility, as it works through a full range of motion of these muscles. When done correctly, you'll feel this almost more in your torso than you will in your shoulder, giving a great secondary abs workout. It can be very easily progressed or regressed by simply changing the weight. (If you don't have kettlebells, you can try this with a dumbbell.)

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and with a kettlebell on the floor in front of left foot. Push hips back and grab the kettlebell with left hand so palm is facing toward body. Keep butt down and arms fully extended.

B. Keeping core tight, drive through heels to lift the kettlebell while keeping chest tall. Once the weight passes knees, explosively extend ankles, knees, and hips.

C. As the kettlebell rises, shrug shoulders and continue to lift the weight, keeping it as close to body as possible. Bring the kettlebell to left shoulder, with left elbow pointed directly at the floor, simultaneously rotating wrist so that the palm faces inward. This is a kettlebell clean.

D. Look at the kettlebell and press it up and out until it is locked out overhead, rotating arm so wrist faces away from body. Make sure that torso remains upright while pressing the kettlebell overhead, restricting any backward extension of the torso.

E. Lower the kettlebell back to shoulder with control, and repeat.

Recommended by Tristan Rice

Lunge Jumps + Standing Lunge Hold

Hard? Yes! Effective? Also yes! This lower body combo will have your glutes firing and your lower body feeling the activation.

A. Start in a split stance with hands down, torso upright, and back knee bent to 90 degrees. Keep front knee aligned with front heel.

B. Explosively push off front foot, bringing lower body off the ground. While in mid-air, switch the positioning of the feet. Allow back knee to bend while landing softly with the opposite foot now forward.

C. After 20 reps, land softly in a split stance. With hands on hips and torso upright, lower hips by bending back knee to a 90-degree angle. Keep front knee aligned with front heel, allowing a majority of the weight to drop through heel of foot that is forward.

D. Hold the position for 30 seconds, then switch legs and hold the lunge for another 30 seconds. Finish with one more set of lunge jumps.

Recommended by Jessica Wilson, owner of Wilson Fitness Studios in Chicago


Deadlifts have the potential to be an incredibly challenging exercise, meaning that they are also capable of yielding the best results. Not only is this a move that occurs in everyday life (picking up your kids, for example), but it also helps to improve your muscle density and strength.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, then hinge at hips and lower chest toward the ground, grasping the barbell placed in front of shins.

B. Explode upward by pushing heels into the ground while thrusting hips forward. Maintain a flat back and tight core to avoid lower back injury.

C. Pause at the top, then lower barbell back to the ground and repeat.

Recommended by Evan Kleinman, Tier 3 Equinox Personal Trainer

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