The Bodyweight Exercises Every Woman Should Master for Superior Strength
In her time as a top trainer-which includes whipping contestants (and couch sitters) into shape for NBC's The Biggest Loser for the past two years-Jen Widerstrom has identified a short list of mega-exercises that pave the way to a super-fit body. They are no-equipment classics but also the ones she witnessed many women struggle to nail with textbook form. Aim to conquer this mix of strengtheners, Widerstrom says, "and you'll feel empowered like never before." That's because challenging moves like these sculpt a head-to-toe chain of muscles and build your athleticism and physical skills for a big shot of body confidence. (Seriously-getting strong will make you look and feel sexy AF.)
To make sure you ace all six, Widerstrom breaks down the basics of each exercise. Pump up your muscle capacity before each set with this game-changing bit of mental prep: Visualize yourself doing the exercise that you're about to attempt, and you'll feel a boost in your strength by up to 24 percent-without working a single muscle, according to a study in the North American Journal of Psychology. It's possible that such imagery lights up your brain in a way that activates areas involved with motor skills. "Trust the reality that your body is incredibly powerful," Widerstrom says. "And really go for it." You've got this. And you're about to get the body to prove it.
Sit on the floor with your legs long and palms flat by thighs, then elevate your body by pressing into your palms."It's deceptively tough for such a small movement, but it's the best static hold you can do for your core because you have to pull your abs in so deeply and wrap your core up so tightly to lift your body," Widerstorm says. "There's no way around it." Your shoulders and glutes also get a solid dose of sculpting, since they hoist you up and keep you there. Here are three steps that will help you nail it.
1. Make it halfway easier by starting with a single-leg L sit. Sit on the floor with legs together and extended, feet-flexed, and hands on floor outside of your thighs, fingertips 2 to 3 inches behind your knees, thumbs under thighs, and wrists touching the outside of your legs. With your fingers spread, press your palms into the floor, hollow your core, and straighten arms to lift your butt and right leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times. Switch legs and repeat.
2. Separate legs wide for a straddle hold to make them lighter and easier to lift while still accessing the same muscle groups. Sit on the floor with legs wide, feet flexed, and hands pressing into floor between thighs and about a foot apart. Press your palms into the floor, hollow your core, and straighten arms to lift your butt and legs, but leave your heels gently on the floor. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times. (Skip the sit-ups; planks are a better way to engage your core.)
3. Create more space than the floor allows to get more muscles involved in the lift by doing an L sit on 2 boxes or benches (or parallette bars!). Place the sturdy boxes or benches slightly wider than hip-width apart, and stand between them with legs together. Plant one hand on each box, hollow your core, and straighten your arms to lift your legs as high as you can. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
The Perfect L Sit: Sit on the floor with your legs long and together, feet flexed, hands on floor outside of your thighs, fingertips 2 to 3 inches behind your knees, thumbs under your upper thighs, and wrists touching the outside of your legs (any farther back and you won't be able to get off the floor). Exhale, keep your shoulders wide, press your palms into the floor, hollow your core, and squeeze your legs together. Then straighten arms to lift your butt and then your legs and heels about 1/4 inch off the floor. Hold as long as you can. "When you exhale to lift, do it as if you're blowing out a candle, which allows you to wrap a corset around your waist that pulls every muscle together into a tightly knit package."
It's you against gravity, balancing your body weight on the palms of your hands. The good news is that everyone has the strength to do this, Widerstrom says. It's the skill behind it that takes the most time to master: "You have to practice handstands-a lot-to get good at them," she says. A big part of that practice is in your head, learning to be OK with the idea of being upside down. "But when you conquer this exercise," she says, "you'll change your whole outlook on what seems challenging to you, asking yourself, What else am I capable of?" This is where you start. (Also try this yoga flow that will prime your body for nailing a handstand.)
1. Get comfortable being inverted and learn how to place your hands by starting with a 90-degree hip stand with shoulder taps. Stand facing away from a sturdy box or bench. Fold forward to plant hands on the floor, and step feet up and onto the box so your body forms an upside-down L shape. Then shift weight into left hand and tap right hand to left shoulder. Switch sides; repeat. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, alternating sides.
2. Do wall walks to start to straighten out your handstand while still being supported. Start on floor in plank position with feet pressing into a wall. Slowly walk hands toward wall in 3-inch steps, walking feet up wall as high as you are comfortable (the goal is to bring your body to fully touch the wall). Reverse the movement to get back down. Do 2 to 3 sets of 5 to 6 reps.
3. Learn how to kick up with support by doing handstands against a wall. Stand facing a wall, 2 to 3 feet away from it. Quickly fold from hips to plant hands on floor in front of wall, kicking your legs up one at a time until they rest on the wall. Hold that position as long as you can, letting your heels come off the wall a few moments at a time so you're not completely reliant on it. Then reverse the movement to get back down. Do 2 to 3 sets of 25- to 45-second holds.
The Perfect Handstand: Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms extended overhead. Find a point on the floor about 3 feet in front of you. Fold forward, reaching hands toward that point, kicking your left leg up (for your first couple of times, begin with less of a push than you know it would take to get you all the way up, so you can develop an understanding of what kind of power it takes to get you there). Then immediately follow with right leg, letting legs hover above hips, which are stacked over shoulders, which are stacked over wrists: "Imagine your body is a building where all those major joint intersections are a separate floor but still perfectly stacked to create a balanced unit," Widerstrom says. Hold as long as you can, then lower one leg at a time to safely return to standing.
Lying faceup, swipe your legs together left and right in a 180-degree arc. The glitch is that women tend to recruit their legs and hip flexors to do this exercise. "When you release your grip on those wrong muscles to engage the right ones-in this case your core- you can access your full range of mobility and strength, and suddenly this movement becomes so much more accessible and effective for shaping your body," Widerstrom says. (Master it, then tackle this 10-move oblique workout to test your strength.)
1. Teach your body to move, brake, and change directions fluidly with a barbell twist. Stand with feet together, with an empty barbell (or a broomstick) racked on your back across your shoulder blades, lightly gripping the bar with an overhand grip, elbows bent downward. Keep the torso long and hips square, then rotate torso toward right until you have no further range of motion toward your right side. Switch sides; repeat. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, alternating sides.
2. Move your legs as one-but without as much weight-with bent-leg wipers. Lie faceup on floor with arms extended out to sides and knees bent over hips. Keeping legs together at 90 degrees, drop knees toward left, letting your right hip come off the floor, to hover 1 inch above floor. Lift knees to start, then lower them toward right. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, alternating sides.
3. Do single-leg wipers to learn how to control the movement in its full range. Lie faceup on floor with arms extended out to sides, right leg extended upward and bent left knee over hips. Keeping knees together, drop legs toward left to hover 1 inch above floor, letting your right hip leave the ground. Lift your legs back the way they came, then lower them toward right. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, alternating sides.
The Perfect Windshield Wiper: Lie faceup on floor with arms extended out to sides and legs extended over hips. With ribs pressing into floor and legs together, drop legs toward left as your right hip lifts off the floor, to hover 1 inch above floor. Trace your legs back to start, then lower them toward the right. "As your legs reach away from your core, your body becomes very tight in order to keep you stable and connected to the floor," Widerstrom says. "Then when your legs come back to center, you feel a brief release of tension."
Squat deeply, roll back onto upper back and straighten your legs toward ceiling, roll forward onto feet, squat deeply, and stand again. Do all that without stopping, and you've got yourself a candlestick roll. "A candlestick roll fires up and connects every muscle in your core while you go from standing to active to standing again," Widerstrom says. This gymnastics-inspired exercise tends to be tough because in addition to calling on strength, mobility, and coordination, it requires you to be comfortable moving blindly. "You might be a little scared to travel backward-then when you're in it, expect it to feel a little weird-but then you get the hang of it and know what to expect," she says. "It actually starts to become fun, and suddenly you're great at it." Go from newbie to pro in three simple steps.
1. Master the rocking position (it's harder than it looks) by doing a hollow hold. Lie faceup on the floor with arms extended behind head and legs long and squeezing tight together. Pull your abs in tight and press your lower back into the floor, then lift your arms, head, neck, shoulders, and legs 8 to 12 inches off the floor (try to make your body resemble the shape of a rocking chair leg). Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
2. Learn how to use momentum to rock while maintaining the hollow-hold position by weighting each end. Hold one 2- to 5-pound weight with both hands behind your head and the other one between your feet. Start in hollow-hold position, then, without changing the shape of your body, rock back and forth, letting the weight pull you one way and then the other. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
3. Getting up is the hard part, so here are two ways to help you. The beginning is always the same: Stand with feet together, arms reaching forward. Squat all the way down, and when your butt touches the floor, roll back onto upper back, sending legs up and slightly back. If you struggle with mobility, cross your legs on the roll forward to come to standing, while also using your hands to press into the floor on both sides of your hips. If it's strength you lack, hold a weight in your hands on the roll backward, and push it forward on the way up to help power you to standing. Do 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
The Perfect Candlestick Roll: Stand with feet together and arms reaching forward. Squat all the way down, and when your butt touches the floor, roll back, reaching your arms behind head, rolling onto your upper back, letting your straight legs come high over your hips to create momentum. Without pausing, roll forward, bringing your heels as close to your butt as you can while connecting your feet to the floor; reach your arms forward to come back into a low squat to rise to standing. "Think of this movement as a seesaw," Widerstrom says. "Energy transfers from your feet to your head back to your feet." So if you're having trouble making it off the floor, roll back with a little more gusto. (Tackle this gymnastics-inspired workout next to sharpen your skills and challenge your muscles.)
"This deep single-leg squat isn't given the star power it deserves, so most women just don't even try it," Widerstrom says. But the body benefits are well worth the reps: You strengthen each leg independently, which evens out imbalances, and you also build strong, lean muscle from your core on down, Widerstrom says. Here's how to build up to it.
1. Do pistols using a pole to help lighten your load: Stand on left leg facing pole and grasp it with left hand. Let your palm slide down the pole as you shift your hips back, extend right leg forward, and lower into a single-leg squat with your hip crease well below knee level. Use as little help as you can to stand up. Do 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg.
2. Work on improving your depth by doing a pistol to an elevated seat. Stand about a foot in front of a box or a low bench, facing away from it. Shift weight onto left leg, then bend left leg, sending hips back and down toward the bench while you extend right leg and arms forward. Once your butt touches the bench, straighten left leg to return to standing. Do 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg, lowering the height of the bench or box as you improve.
3. Adding weight to this movement actually makes it easier by counterbalancing the motion, so before you try a body-weight pistol, do a weighted one. Hold one dumbbell (start with 15 pounds; decrease as you get stronger) horizontally with both hands, arms extended forward. Shift weight onto left leg, then send hips back and down as you lower your hips past 90 degrees, while still extending right leg forward. Once you hit below parallel-without lowering right leg-power back up to standing. Do 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg, alternating legs. (Take this on after your daily squat challenge for killer results.)
The Perfect Pistol Squat: Stand on left leg with equal pressure on all sides of your foot, right leg slightly lifted forward. Bend left knee and send hips backward, reaching arms forward as you extend right leg forward, lowering body until hips are below parallel. Then squeeze the glutes and hamstring to stop your descent, and let them act as a spring to bring you back up to standing. "Imagine that you're pushing your standing leg 6 feet down through the floor," Widerstrom says. "That will engage the bigger leg muscles and your power center more than just thinking about straightening your knee to stand up."
Strictly speaking, your chest should graze the floor each time you lower for a push-up. If you tend to fudge it, you're not alone. "Our center of mass is our hips," Widerstrom says. (For men, it's their chest.) "That's why our legs are tenacious as hell, but we lack upper-body strength." The good news is that you can use your more powerful butt and legs to help propel this full-body move. At the same time, build your upper-body strength and dial in that full range of motion with Widerstrom's three-step progression. (Then tackle this 30-day push-up challenge to perfect it.)
1. To perfect the pressing motion and strengthen your chest and arms, do a barbell bench press (dumbbells won't cut it here because you move them separately, unlike the floor). Start with an empty bar, then add weight as needed. Lie faceup on a bench with feet flat on the floor. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip with hands shoulder-width apart. Straighten arms above chest to start. Lower bar to graze chest, then press back up. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
2. Incline push-ups get your core involved and take you through the full motion but without all your weight. Do full-range push-ups with your hands on a sturdy bench or box and your feet on the floor. Do 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
3. Hand-release push-ups give your body a moment to recover and reset halfway through each rep while also developing your strength out of the bottom of the push-up from a dead stop. Start on floor in plank position. Lower body fully onto floor. Lift hands briefly, then plant them on the floor again and push-up to plank position. Do 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. "Even my contestants on Biggest Loser with 80- to 100-plus pounds to lose learn how to do real push-ups this way," she says. "Sometimes they have to peel up from the floor, but it's much better for their muscles and mechanics than dropping the knees."
The Perfect Push-Up: Start on floor in plank position with your hands below your shoulders and feet 8 to 12 inches apart (for a strong base). "Imagine you can flip a switch that turns on the muscles from your shoulders, chest, arms, abs, butt to legs," Widerstrom says. "Visualize lighting up those muscle groups that will carry you through the movement." Then begin to lower, bending your arms so there's a 4- to 6-inch space between your elbow and ribcage, to ensure more muscles pitch in. "Bring your chest between your hands instead of lowering your face to your hands, which will allow you to activate more chest muscles." Once your chest brushes the floor, power back up to plank.