Fact: A full-body strength workout doesn’t need to be overly long or filled with complicated exercises in order to be effective. This four-move, total-body routine proves you can hit every major muscle group without spending hours in the gym doing a million different exercises. This routine is simple and effective.
“I’m a huge believer in the minimum effective dose,” ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, C.P.T., owner of Strong With Sivan, tells SELF. That means focusing on the quality of a workout rather than the quantity as a way to get the most bang-for-your-exercise-buck and progress towards your goals.
Focusing on quality is really about having good form and giving your best effort, no matter how long your workout is. With this approach, you can get super solid results while saving yourself time and energy and reducing your risk of injury, says Fagan.
One easy way to get a quick-yet-effective total-body workout? Incorporate compound movements, which are exercises that involve multiple joints and stimulate large muscle groups. Compared to isolation movements, which target just one muscle, compound movements are a great choice for getting a lot done in a short period of time. And if you pick compound exercises that follow the four major movement patterns—hinging, squatting, pressing, and pulling—your workout becomes that much more efficient and functional.
Including unilateral exercises is another solid way to get the most from a workout when you want to keep it simple. Unilateral exercises require you to rely on the strength of just one limb to perform a movement, which means they often feel more intense than bilateral moves (moves done with two limbs). And because unilateral work demands balance, your core has to fire more too, in order to keep you stable and resist bending or rotating, as SELF previously reported.
The following four-move dumbbell workout, which Fagan created for SELF, checks all of these boxes. It hits the major movement patterns with compound moves and incorporates lots of unilateral work too, so you can smoke every major muscle group in your body in a short amount of time.
Depending on your fitness level, you can do this routine two to three times a week, either as a standalone routine or as part of a larger workout. One easy way to add it to a larger workout? Combine it with some shorter core and/or shoulder work, says Fagan (though you certainly don’t need to add on; this is a super-solid workout by itself). However you choose to do this routine, make sure to pencil in enough rest in between sessions so your muscles have enough time to recover—scheduling at least 48 hours of downtime is a good general rule of thumb.
Also important: Before jumping into this routine, do a quick warm-up to mobilize your joints and activate your muscles. Several minutes of moves like pull-aparts, arm swings, squats, and striders can do the trick, says Fagan. (You can also try this five-minute dynamic warm-up here.)
Then, when doing the actual workout, be sure to give it your all, Fagan advises. That means really try to challenge yourself with the weight that you use, and the number of reps you get. You should be working hard enough that you have to rest in between each exercise, she says. Remember: The focus here is on quality, and that means giving max effort.
What you need: An exercise mat for comfort and dumbbells. If possible, get several sets of dumbbells of varying weights, so you can switch between exercises as needed. While the weight will vary for each person—anything between 10 to 25 pounders can be a good ballpark, says Fagan—you should choose heavy enough weight that your last two reps feel quite hard.
- Do each exercise for 10-12 reps. Do the entire circuit four times total. Rest as needed in between exercises and rounds so that your breathing is close to baseline. In general, that will mean taking about 2 minutes between exercises and about 2 to 3 minutes between rounds, says Fagan. (While this might seem like a lot of rest, it’s necessary so you can continue to go hard and heavy on the next exercise!)
1. Romanian Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your thighs.
- Hinge at your hips, bending slightly at your knees. Push your butt way back and keep your back flat. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor, and the weights should reach your shins.
- Keeping your core tight, push through your heels to stand up straight. Keep the weights close to your shins as you pull.
- Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. This is one rep.
- Do 10-12 reps.
The deadlift is a hip-hinging movement that really works your hamstrings and glutes, and also engages your shoulders and core stabilizer muscles, says Fagan.
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2. Alternating Chest Press
- Lie faceup with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing your legs and your elbows on the floor bent at 90 degrees so that the weights are in the air.
- Press one weight toward the ceiling, straightening your elbow completely and keeping your palm facing your legs.
- Slowly bend your elbow and lower it back down to the floor.
- Now, do the same thing with your other arm. This is one rep.
- Do 10-12 reps.
This unilateral exercise is obviously great for firing up your chest or pectoral muscles. But it also really works your core stability, says Fagan, since your core has to engage to prevent your body from rotating to the side as you press the dumbbell overhead.
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3. Single-Arm Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in your right hand with your arm at your side. Step forward about two feet with your left foot, and rest your left hand on your left quad. This is the starting position.
- With your core engaged, hinge forward at the hips, pushing your butt back, and bend your left knee, so that your back is no lower than parallel to the floor. (Depending on your hip mobility and hamstring flexibility, you may not be able to bend so far over.) Gaze at the ground a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.
- Do a row with your right arm by pulling the weight up toward your chest, keeping your elbows hugged close to your body, and squeezing your shoulder blade for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbow should go past your back as you bring the weight toward your chest.
- Slowly lower the weight by extending your arms toward the floor. That’s one rep.
- Do 10-12 reps on your right side, and then switch and repeat on the left.
Another unilateral exercise, this move engages your back muscles (and thus is helpful for improving your posture) and also demands core stability, says Fagan.
4. Reverse Lunge
- Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms resting along the sides of your legs, palms facing in. This is the starting position.
- Lift your right foot and step back about two feet, landing on the ball of your foot and keeping your heel off the floor. Bend both knees until your left quad and right shin are approximately parallel to the floor. Your torso should lean slightly forward so your back is flat and not arched or rounded. Your left knee should be above your left foot and your butt and core should be engaged.
- Push through the heel of your left foot to return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. That’s one rep.
- Do 10-12 reps. You can do all of your reps on one side, then repeat on the other, if you’d prefer.
Yet another unilateral exercise, reverse lunges especially target the glutes and quads, and are also great for firing up the core stabilizers, says Fagan. Compared to forward lunges, they place less pressure on the knee joint, making them a better option for people with knee issues. (That said, if you have a history of knee pain or injury, get cleared by a professional first before trying reverse lunges or any other movement involving the knee joint.)
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