The 7 Best Strength Exercises You’re Not Doing
Less than 25 percent of Americans over the age of 45 engage in strength-training exercises,1 which are actually among the most important exercises to stay fit and healthy. It’s a matter of fact that your muscle strength decreases with age… unless you do something to stop it.
That “something” is strength training. Without it, by the time you’re in your 70s, your muscle strength and tone will have declined by roughly 25 percent from what you had in your mid-30s. You’ll lose up to 50 percent once you approach your 90s.
Yet, gaining muscle strength is only one benefit of strength training. This form of exercise also helps prevent osteoporosis, improves your range of motion, and ability to perform functional (day-to-day) movements and even, when done properly, can act as a form of aerobic exercise and even help you lose weight.
The more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. Unlike traditional cardio, strength training causes you to continue burning more calories for up to 72 hours after the exercise is over through a process known as afterburn.
Many are also not aware that strength training has been shown to slow cellular aging, helping you to live a longer, healthier life. It also increased BDNF brain derived neurotropic factor that helps you remember and learn better.
Strength Training Impacts 10 Biomarkers of Aging
Contrary to popular belief, strength training is not simply a matter of “bulking up.” It can also achieve a number of beneficial changes on the molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical levels in your body, which will also help slow down (and many cases stop) many of the diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle.
One study showed that strength training in the elderly reversed oxidative stress and returned 179 genes to their youthful level. In other words, it genetically turned back the clock about 10 years. Further, this form of exercise is known to beneficially impact 10 biomarkers of aging, which are determinants of aging that you are capable of controlling. This includes:
|Strength and muscle mass (which results in greater balance, as you get older)||Body composition||Blood lipids|
|Bone density||Cardiorespiratory fitness||Blood pressure|
|Blood glucose control||Aerobic capacity||Gene expression|
Are You Missing Out on These 7 Phenomenal Strength Exercises?
There’s more to strength training than bicep curls and leg extensions… seven of the best strength-training exercises, recently reported by CNN,2 are actually among the least known and utilized.
If you’re new to strength training, these exercises can form the basis of your muscle-building routine. If you’re an avid strength trainer already, try these moves to reach higher levels of fitness and work your muscles in a different way.
1. Goblet Squat
This is a squat done while holding a weight in front of you (like a goblet), which adds more of a workout for your core and legs.
“How to: Hold a dumbbell with both hands underneath the ‘bell’ at chest level, and set your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards. Push your butt back like you’re sitting in a chair and descend until your elbows reach the inside of your knees.
Keeping your heels flat, pressing onto the floor, pause at the bottom of the squat, and return to a full standing position. If your heels rise push your hips further back and work on partial ranges of motion until mobility and form improve. Repeat for four sets of 8-10 reps.”
2. Pallof Press
This “anti-rotation” movement is challenging because you must resist rotation, working your obliques, abs, lower back, glutes, and more.
“How to: Stand perpendicular to a cable column with the column’s arm set around shoulder height. Grab the handle with both hands and pull it in to the chest, maintaining tension on the cable. Feet should be shoulder-width apart, and the feet, knees, hips and shoulders all remain square and facing straight ahead throughout movement.
Holding the chest high, squeeze through the stomach and press the handle away from the body, extending the arms straight while resisting any twisting or rotation. It’s at this point the resistance will be highest. Continue to engage your core, and ensure you remain square and straight and resist the rotational force. Bring arms back in to the chest and repeat for three sets of 10 reps per side.”
3. Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row helps to develop a strong back, arms and core. Plus, because it works your lats, traps, and rhomboids, it supports proper posture by pulling your shoulders back and helping to stabilize your spine.
“How to: Grab a dumbbell (20 pounds is plenty for most to start) and find a bench. Start with your left hand on the bench with left arm extended, while your right arm holds the dumbbell and right foot is on the ground. Retract your shoulders, brace your abs, and pull the weight up on the side of your body until the elbow passes the side of the body. Lower under control and repeat for three sets of 6-8 reps on each side.”
Push-ups are a deceptively simple functional movement that works your upper-body muscles while engaging your core and allowing you to use the full range of motion in your shoulder blades.
“How to: Start on your knees facing the floor with your hands at shoulder-width, planted directly under the shoulders. Assume a plank position by straightening your legs, supporting your weight with hands and feet. Squeeze your backside to keep your trunk engaged and lower your body slowly to the ground. The elbows should be slightly tucked — like arrows, rather than flared like the letter ‘T’. Descend until your chest is just above the ground and return to the starting position by fully extending your arms, and repeat.
Note: If you can’t do five push-ups with good form, elevate your hands on a bench or chair to begin building up your strength. If push-ups are easy, try elevating your feet on a chair on adding a weight vest. Make sure you’re able to perform three sets of 12 push-ups with your bodyweight before adding a vest or elevating your feet.”
5. Split Squat (Stationary Lunge)
This is important because it involves single-leg movements that help minimize training imbalances. Split squats will help to build lower-body strength while improving balance, flexibility, and stability in your hips.
“How to: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Next, take a step forward with your right foot, and a large step backwards with your left foot — this is your starting position. Keep the front heel flat and descend into a lunge, bringing your back knee towards the floor. Stop just short of the knee touching the ground on the back leg with the front heel still flat on the ground. Pause for one second and return to standing. Perform 6-8 reps on your right leg, then 6-8 reps on your left leg, and repeat for three sets.”
6. Lateral Squat
This is a combination of a lateral lunge and a squat, useful for stretching your groin and inner thighs while also working out your hips, thighs, and trunk.
“How to: Stand tall with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, heels flat on the ground and toes pointed forward. Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards, bending your left leg, and leaning to your left with your right foot angled out slightly. The left knee should be bent, left heel flat on the floor, and right leg extended with your weight over the left side of your body. This is one rep. Return to a standing position and descend doing the same movement on your right side to even things out. Perform six reps per leg for three sets.”
7. Hip Extension (Glute Bridges/Hip Thrusts)
This exercise helps to train your glutes, which are often underutilized if you sit for long periods each day.
“How to: Position the back of your shoulders across a stable bench, feet planted firmly on the ground, about six inches away from your butt (a). Squeezing the glutes, push through your heels to rise up into a bridge position with the hips fully extended. The shoulders down to the knees should be in line, with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Hold the position at the top, glutes, core and hamstrings engaged (b). Lower the hips down and repeat for three sets of eight reps (c). Beginners can continue with just bodyweight, whereas more advanced lifters can progress to rolling a barbell over the top of the hips for added difficulty.”
9 Varieties of Strength Training: Something for Everyone
Strength training is, unfortunately, still widely viewed as an exercise primarily for bodybuilders and athletes. As a result, key groups of people neglect to perform this rewarding activity, including those who need it most (women, seniors over 85, and people with obesity are among those most at risk of not strength training).3 Once you’ve gotten past the stigma that strength training is “only” for bodybuilders, you might resist it because you think it’s repetitive or boring. One thing is certain—strength training need not be monotonous, and if you incorporate several different types of activity, your fitness will progress faster and you’ll have a lot more fun doing it. Strength training is anything but boring!
|Body weight exercises||Body weight exercises have the advantage of being very flexible and convenient, requiring no equipment and no special place or schedule, and the price is right—they’re free. They are great to do at your office or while traveling, because you always have your “exercise gear” with you! Some of my favorites are squats, pushups, and planks.|
|Hand weights||Hand weights are inexpensive, portable, and readily available for purchase in just about any department store. Keep them next to your sofa and do a few sets of shoulder presses, bicep curls, and tricep presses during commercial break.|
|Kettlebells||A kettlebell is a cast iron weight that looks like a cannonball with a handle. The kettlebell allows for ballistic movements and swinging motions you can’t do with traditional weights. Kettlebells can help you develop power in your hips, legs, and glutes as well as strength, flexibility, and stability for your back and shoulders. Kettlebells also build wrist and forearm strength.|
|Resistance bands||Resistance bands allow you to get a full-body strengthening workout without weights. They are inexpensive, easy to store, and perfect for exercising while traveling—just toss them into a pocket in your overnight bag.|
|Medicine balls (exercise balls)||Medicine balls look like a kickball—but much heavier! They come in varying sizes, from a couple pounds up to 150 pounds. Medicine balls can be thrown, swung, caught, or lifted. Since they have no handle, you have to coordinate a number of different muscle groups to maneuver them.|
|Water jug workouts||These are basically “poor man’s dumbbells.” A plastic gallon jug weighs about eight pounds when full of water and 13 pounds if filled with sand. The unevenness of the weight produces the benefit of strengthening your smaller, stabilizing muscles, which you must engage to maintain control of the bottle.|
|Resistance machines at the gym||If you have access to a gym, you may want to experiment with some good-quality resistance equipment. The benefit of a machine is that it will allow you to focus your mind on the effort, as opposed to the mechanics of the movement. The various machines each feature a different muscle group and usually bear diagrams explaining how to use the equipment, but don’t hesitate to ask for assistance if you are a newbie.|
|Strength classes at the gym||Gyms often offer a variety of strength training classes, and if you are more of a “social exerciser,” this might suit you well. Group fitness is evolving and now you can find some very interesting classes, such as Smart Bells, Forza, Urban Rebounding, water–based exercise, Pilates, and Bosu.|
|Rope climbing or rock wall climbing||There is a reason climbing has been a staple exercise in military training and combat fitness for thousands of years—it’s one of the best upper-body strength exercises. Climbing targets many muscle groups (hands, arms, shoulders, abs, and back), and builds coordination and agility skills.|
Why to Incorporate Super Slow Strength Training Into Your Workout
Dr. Doug McGuff, M.D. is an avid promoter of high-intensity strength training, referred to as super-slow strength training. While I have long recommend high-intensity interval training (Peak Fitness) using an elliptical machine or a recumbent bike, super-slow weight training may have superior benefits, and may be a more suitable form of high-intensity exercise for older individuals. High-intensity strength training, or super-slow weight training, also has profound effects on your insulin and leptin sensitivity and gives you an excellent boost in human growth hormone (HGH), otherwise known as the “fitness hormone.”
Ironically, by slowing your movements down, you’re actually turning them into high-intensity exercise. The super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle. You can perform the super-slow technique with many of the strength training exercises already discussed, such as hand weights, resistance machines, bodyweight exercises, or resistance bands.
How to Perform the Super-Slow Technique
I recommend using four or five basic compound movements for your super-slow exercise set. Compound movements are movements that require the coordination of several muscle groups—for example, squats, chest presses, and compound rows. Here is my version of the technique:
- Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the video above, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. (When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened, then smoothly reverse direction)
- Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four
- Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps. Once you reach exhaustion, don’t try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it’s not “going” anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you’re using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you’ll be able to perform four to eight reps
- Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group, and repeat the first three steps
Another newer variation is Super Super Slow developed by Dr. Ellington Darden, which he calls negative accentuated exercises. They can be done with bodyweight or weight equipment. I have just started this type of strength training and am impressed with its efficiency and the science behind it. This is only a 1.5-rep exercise done with the same weight as in Super Slow, but instead of eight or 10 seconds up and down, it is 30 seconds down, 30 seconds up, and 30 seconds down for a total of 90 seconds for the exercise. Ideally, 10 exercises would be completed once a week.
I am experimenting with 16 exercises, about half are bodyweight exercises (push-ups, chin-ups, dips, sit-ups) and the other half I use dumbbell weights. I do half of them, or eight, once a week and the other half later in the week. The total time spent is similar to Peak Fitness, about 20 minutes.