The fastest way to sculpt and strengthen your muscles: Slow down your reps.
There's a pretty genius technique you're likely not using that could really help you power up without having to lift heavier weights or do more reps and sets. "When you play with an exercise's tempo to extend the time your muscles are working during a single rep, you can build strength, burn fat, and develop lean muscle faster than going at a standard pace," says trainer and exercise scientist Dasha Libin, the co-owner of Anderson Martial Arts and creator of Kettlebell Kickboxing in New York City.
The idea is to squeeze more muscle-making out of each rep's three phases—positive, static, and negative—by doing them in slow motion. Quick example: The positive phase of a push-up is the work, or actual pushing, part; the static phase is the peak contraction point where your chest grazes the floor; the negative phase is the lowering part. "Increasing your time under tension in the negative part of an exercise, for instance, can help you grow your positive strength," Libin explains. (Here: more weight training tips for beginners.)
Libin created this total-body routine to give every major muscle a fresh challenge from seven go-to exercises. No matter how fit you are, you'll come away stronger and more carved, she promises: "If you can only string together four or five push-ups right now, after just a couple of weeks of doing push-ups under tension, you'll be able to double your count." Like those odds? Ready, set...slow.
How it works: Warm up with 1 minute each of alternating straight-leg kicks, plank walk-outs, air jump rope, and air squat with overhead reach; then 30-second forward fold (palms on floor) standing on left leg, then right. Next, do each exercise as indicated. Complete this routine 2 or 3 days a week on alternate days.
Total Time: up to 15 minutes
1. Forward Lunge
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with arms by sides. Step left leg forward and take 5 seconds to lower into a lunge, bending legs 90 degrees. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Push through right heel to return to start.
8 to 12 per side
Scale down: Perform the move without weights.
Scale up: Take 5 seconds to rise out of lunge and return to start.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand resting on thighs. Take 5 seconds to lower weights toward floor, bending knees softly, shifting hips back and hinging flat torso forward until upper body is parallel to floor. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Reverse movement to return to start.
8 to 12
Scale down: Hinge torso toward parallel at a standard, rather than slower, pace.
Scale up: Take 5 seconds to reverse the movement to return to start.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding one weight in left hand with arms by sides. Bend knees softly, shift hips back, and hinge flat torso forward 45 degrees (right hand can rest lightly on right thigh) to start. Pull left arm up, bending elbow straight back, until weight reaches chest. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Take 5 seconds to lower to start. Switch sides; repeat. That's 1 rep.
3 to 5
Scale down: Lower to start at a quicker, standard pace.
Scale up: Also take 5 seconds to pull left arm until weight reaches chest .
Start on floor in plank on palms. Take 5 seconds to lower body until chest grazes floor (bend elbows back at 45 degrees).
Quickly push up to start. Scale down: Lower as far as you can, then hold there for as long as you can. Once you can hold the bottom point for 30 seconds, you are ready to advance.
3 to 5
Scale down: Lower as far as you can, then hold there for as long as you can. Once you can hold the bottom point for 30 seconds, you are ready to advance.
Scale up: Also hold push-up at lowest point for 5 seconds, then take 5 seconds to push back up to start.
Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, holding a weight in left hand with arms by sides. Press weight overhead with palm facing forward, look up at weight, and let toes turn slightly toward right to start.
Take 5 seconds to lower flat torso over right leg, bending right leg softly and hinging from hips, keeping left arm over shoulder with gaze fixed on weight, and reaching right hand to right foot. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Reverse movement to return to start.
5 per side
Scale down: Lower flat torso over right leg at a quicker, standard pace.
Scale up: After holding static phase, also take 5 seconds to reverse the movement to return to start.
6. Overhead Sit-Up
Lie faceup on floor with legs extended and wider than hip-width apart and feet flexed, holding a weight in each hand. Press weights straight up over chest with palms facing forward to start.
Sit up, pressing legs into floor and pushing weights toward ceiling until torso is upright and weights are over shoulders. Take 5 seconds to lower to start.
Scale Down: Do move without weights
Scale Up: Also take 5 seconds to sit up.
7. Front Squat
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand at shoulders with palms facing each other and arms bent with elbows pointing downward.
Keeping arms fixed and chest lifted, take 5 seconds to lower into a squat until hips drop below knees, then hold that position for 5 seconds. Take 5 seconds to return to start.
8 to 12
Scale down: Do move without weights
Scale up: Stand facing a wall with feet hip-width apart and big toes touching a wall throughout reps; this will force your chest to stay lifted.