Hitting the gym and pumping iron on fixed machines might tone up those vanity muscles, but what about the muscles that really work? Functional exercise, which combines movements we use in real life, has been shown to increase strength and balance, and even reduce risk of injury.. These complex moves integrate multiple muscle groups that mimic the way we move at home, at the office, and on the field to get better, faster, and stronger. So ditch the machines, grab some free weights, and get going on these 13 full-body moves that keep on giving.
1. Dumbbell Goblet Squat
Squats are considered the king of all exercises because they work the hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, core, and upper body. Squats also improve balance and coordination, as well as bone density. By adding a dumbbell in front of the chest, goblet squats help us stabilize and sit back, while getting the shoulders working, too.
How to: Holding a dumbbell at the sternum (the center of the chest), position the feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Roll the shoulders back and down, and bring the hips back as the knees begin to bend. Keeping the back straight, drop the elbows inside the knees for a full range of motion. Engage the core, and exhale while driving through the heels to return to standing. Drop it low (without dropping the weight!) for 12-15 reps.
2. Dumbbell Lunges
This exercise is a double whammy that works the legs and improves posture by strengthening the shoulders and back muscles. Dumbbell lunges also require a heckuva lot of balance, necessary for many functional tasks.
How to: Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Step the right foot forward (far enough that it creates a 90-degree angle when bent), with the left foot planted at the start position. Keep your chest high and torso tall as you lower down toward the ground. Note: The front shin should stay perpendicular with the floor and your lead knee always behind the lead toes. Drive through your right heel to return to standing. Repeat for 10-15 reps on each leg.
3. Romanian Dumbbell Deadlift
Deadlifts help improve balance, which is key for basic motor skills and athletic ability. They are also a go-to move to seriously strengthen the hamstrings and lower back.
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed forward, and dumbbells at your side. Next, shift the hips back as if you’re aiming for a chair. Allow the knees to bend, lowering the dumbbells toward the floor (just until you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings). Keeping the back flat and chest out, engage the core, and return to standing while contracting the hamstrings and glutes. Done perfectly, your knees will never move forward past your toes. For an added challenge, perform deadlifts on one leg at a time to work those stabilizer muscles. Keep at it for 10-12 reps.
4. Dumbbell Step-Up
You likely scale some stairs every day, whether it’s to your fifth floor walk-up apartment or when the elevator’s on the fritz at work. This move, which targets the quads and glutes, will have you running up the stairs (two at a time!) in no time, and improve athletic performance to boot.
How to: Stand six inches from a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Place the entire left foot onto the bench, forming a 90-degree angle at the knee (making sure it doesn’t track beyond the ankle). Next, drive through the heel of the left foot, to step the right leg to the bench. Lower the right foot back to the floor with control, keeping the chest up and the eyes forward. Step up for 10-12 reps on each side.
5. Russian Dumbbell Swing
This swinging motion uses mainly the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Opt for a lighter weight to start, and it’s a great way to warm up for a total-body strength workout.
How to: Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart holding a dumbbell vertically in both hands, out in front of the body. Hike the dumbbell back between the legs (like a kettlebell), until the back is nearly parallel to the ground. Then thrust the hips forward to move the dumbbell up and out to about shoulder height. Use the hips to help bring the weight up. Get your swing on for 12-15 reps.
6. Single-Arm Dumbbell Snatch
This advanced move helps improve explosiveness and overall power. It’s also sure to sizzle those shoulders, legs, and back.
How to: Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in the right hand between the knees (palm facing the body). Keeping the chest out and spine long, hinge at the hips and knees slightly in order to prepare yourself for lift off. Then jump, driving your body and the weight upward. As the weight comes up in front of you, past the middle of the chest, let the dumbbell’s momentum continue overhead into full lockout position (but don’t let go!). Let it be a quick, fluid movement instead of a shoulder press with the rest of the body hardly moving. Flow through the movement (trying not to pause at any point!) for 8-10 reps per side.
7. Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
This go-to back exercise strengthens the lats, which are the largest of the back muscles and hits the biceps as a synergistic (assisting) muscle. Lats are also the only muscles that connect the upper body and the lower body, making them integral to improving sports performance.
How to: Assume a tabletop position with the right knee and right hand placed firmly on a bench. The left foot will act as an anchor, positioned on the ground behind you, a few inches to the left of the bench. Holding a dumbbell in the left hand on the floor, row the dumbbell up to the ribs (keeping the elbow tucked close to the body). Make sure to squeeze those shoulder blades together at the top of each rep. Return the arm to start position until the dumbbell is just about to touch the floor. Row for 8-10 reps and switch.
8. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Time to get up and at ‘em! New research shows that standing dumbbell shoulder presses are more effective than seated dumbbell presses. Lifting weight while standing forces the body to stabilize, and therefore engages the abdominal muscles as well.
How to: Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. With a tight core and long spine, raise the dumbbells up to your shoulders, palms facing each other (making sure the elbows rest below the wrists). Press the dumbbells upward until the arms are fully extended overhead (with just a slight bend in the elbows). Without stopping at the top of the motion, lower the dumbbells back to the shoulders. Repeat for 8-12 reps.
9. Dumbbell Thrusters
This total-body exercise targets the legs, hips, shoulders, and triceps. Not only will this move make you stronger, it’ll crank up that heart rate too!
How to: Standing with the feet shoulder-width apart, grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them in front of the shoulders, arms bent, and palms facing each other. Quickly lower the hips down and back until the thighs are just below parallel to the floor. Next, explode back to standing and press the dumbbells above the head until the arms are straight, elbows facing inward. Lower back to a squat and bring the dumbbells back in front of the shoulders. Return to the starting position and thrust (tee-hee) for 10-12 reps.
10. Dumbbell Renegade Row
This power move works the core, shoulders, upper back, biceps, and triceps. It also forces the body to use the stabilizing muscles of the core, which are important for a healthy back and good posture.
How To: Assume the push-up position with the feet shoulder-width apart, gripping a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other. Keep the back flat, while making sure not to let the butt dip or stick out. Ready to row? Pull the right dumbbell up toward the right oblique, elbow tucked close to you side. Control the dumbbell back to the ground, and repeat on the left side. Keep the body from swaying back and forth with each pull of the dumbbell by engaging the core muscles. (Advanced lifters can move the feet closer together to really feel the burn.) Row it out for 8-10 reps on each side.
11. Dumbbell Woodchoppers
This exercise will help you perfect your disco moves, grab a case of water from the top shelf with ease, or as the name implies, chop wood. Crossing the body with a dumbbell engages the obliques, while the squat targets the abs, glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
How To: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell out in front of the body (like you’re handing a bouquet of flowers to someone). Squat down, and rotate the torso to the right while bringing the dumbbell to the right foot. Make sure to keep the chest upright and maintain a neutral spine. As you come to standing, keep the arms straight as the dumbbell diagonally crosses the body until it reaches overhead to the left side. Chop that wood for 10-12 reps on each side.
12. Dumbbell Russian Twist
This move improves core strength and all the muscles that help support the spine. You’ll feel Russian twists sans weight, but adding a little resistance will increase the burn even quicker.
How to: Put posture and positioning first when it comes to this move. Sit on a mat with knees bent, feet a couple inches apart (beginners, tuck them under something sturdy if necessary for balance). Holding a dumbbell in front of you with both hands (start light!), lean the torso back until it’s at a 90 degree angle to your hips, or about 45 degrees to the floor. With your torso steady and abs engaged, rotate the dumbbell to the right. Return to center and rotate to the left. Note: Avoid moving the dumbbell with your arms and shoulders — think of rotating it around your belly button. Done right, this is sneaky hard. Do the twist for 15-20 reps.
13. Lying Dumbbell Pullover
This old school move has nothing to do with a pullover sweatshirt, but it may have you bulging out of yours pretty soon. The lats, pecs, and abs will get a solid workout from the pullover, an often forgotten move that once frequented the pages of early fitness mags.
How to: Hold the end of a dumbbell in the palms of both hands, above the chest (hold tight!). Lie with the back flat on a bench or stability ball, the feet firmly grounded on the floor. Slowly extend the dumbbell behind the head, allowing a slight bend at the elbows. Return the dumbbell to start position, elbows tucked, making sure the back stays flat to the bench. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
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