There’s a lot to be said for strength training. It can build physical and mental resiliency while improving performance in a variety of activities. It can also prevent injury and help you rehab if one should occur. Overall, it can enhance longevity and quality of life.
And these benefits are accessible to almost anyone willing to give it a try.
With effort and commitment, you can improve your strength. A weight that felt impossible to budge or a move that seemed out of your wheelhouse — whether due to physical or mental factors or a combination of the two — can suddenly become possible.
This month, your effort and commitment will be put to the test as you home in on four full-body moves that will build your overall strength:
- Rear-foot-elevated split squat
- Incline-bench dumbbell press
- Trap-bar deadlift
- Band-assisted pull-up
These moves hit almost every muscle in your body. And these particular variations are among the most body-friendly versions of the squat, press, deadlift, and pull-up. They allow you to focus on quality of effort and increased weight without stumbling over the intricacies of a challenging movement.
While these four lifts form the backbone of this month’s programming, other exercises will fill in gaps to prevent injury and ensure a cardio load each week. But the main focus is lifting heavy stuff.
Month 5 Building Strength
This month you’ll do three weekly strength workouts: A, B, and C. Perform them on nonconsecutive days, and wait at least 48 hours between sessions. On two other days, you’ll perform recovery cardio. See the chart at right for a sample schedule.
In workouts A and C, you’ll focus on building muscle: Perform more repetitions of movements that allow you to feel each muscle group working, and rest only as long as necessary between sets.
In workout B, you’ll focus on safely lifting as much weight in the four movements as you can. Rest as long as you need to to feel fully recovered.
Each week, the sets and reps you perform change slightly, according to the “Sets and Reps” chart at right. For exercises marked “technical failure,” complete as many good-form reps as you can each time you perform the move. Perform the same number of sets as prescribed for the other moves in the circuit.
And remember: Prioritize excellent form above additional resistance for all the moves.
Twice each week, on days when you’re not doing strength workouts, perform a recovery cardio session. After a five-minute warm-up of deep breathing, stretching, and light calisthenics, complete the following workout:
- Ten to 15 minutes of cardio at a low to medium effort. This can be on an elliptical, bike, treadmill, rower, or stepmill, or it can be an easy jog or bike ride outside.
- Five to 10 minutes of low-intensity intervals. Using either the same or a different cardio machine or modality, shift to a lower effort level. At the 45-second mark, increase the intensity or speed to high (though not maximum) for 15 seconds. Repeat the cycle for five to 10 minutes.
- Five to 15 minutes of body-weight or light-resistance work. Finally, perform a circuit of body-weight moves of your choice: Crawls, jumps, pushups, side-shuffles, shuttle runs, crabwalks, short sprints, and burpees are good choices for body-weight drills. If you have access to the necessary equipment, these are also good options: Turkish get-ups, kettlebell swings, med-ball slams and throws, rope slams, and jump-rope exercises. Do each move for reps (15 to 30) or time (20 to 30 seconds), and cycle through your circuit until you’ve completed five to 15 minutes’ worth. The moves can change with each workout.
For the next month, your workout schedule might look like this:
Sets and Reps
Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat
- Place a 12-inch box or step inside a squat rack and stand with the box behind you, holding a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in your left hand.
- With your right hand, hold onto the rack for balance.
- Keeping your hips and shoulders square, step your right foot back and place the ball of your foot on the box behind you.
- Keeping your torso upright and your gaze forward, bend both legs, lowering your back knee until it touches the floor lightly.
- Without pitching your torso forward or using your right hand for assistance, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
- Complete all reps with your right foot forward before switching to your left.
- In Workout A, perform a Split Squat with both feet on the floor.
- In Workout C, perform a Front-Foot-Elevated Split Squat with your front foot on a low platform.
Incline-Bench Dumbbell Press
- Set an adjustable exercise bench to about a 30-degree angle to the floor.
- Sit on the seat of the bench, holding two dumbbells on your lap.
- Lie back on the incline bench and raise the dumbbells to shoulder height, boosting them with your knees if necessary. This is your starting position.
- Slowly press the dumbbells to arm’s length above you, allowing your wrists to rotate comfortably.
- Slowly reverse the movement, drawing your shoulder blades together as you return to the starting position.
- Repeat for the appropriate number of reps.
- In Workout A, perform a Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press on a flat (rather than inclined) bench.
- Assume a wide stance (one and a half shoulder widths) with your feet turned slightly outward and a kettlebell on the floor about 18 inches in front of you.
- Keeping your back long, fold at your hip joints, and take a double-overhand grip on the handle of the kettlebell.
- Tighten your core, lengthen your torso, and shift your weight back onto your heels until the kettlebell swings back between your legs.
- When your wrists make contact with your thighs, forcefully thrust your hips forward, squeezing your glutes hard and swinging the kettlebell forward and up in front of you.
- Allow the kettlebell to swing back and down between your legs. Repeat.
- Using an incline bench to support your chest, position yourself facedown with feet on the floor and a dumbbell in each hand hanging below your chest.
- Simultaneously bend your arms and retract your shoulder blades, pulling the weight up and back. Don’t let your shoulders scrunch toward your ears.
- Hold for a one-count and reverse the movement.
Curl to Press
- Stand upright, holding a pair of dumbbells by your sides, palms facing forward.
- Slowly curl the dumbbells to shoulder height.
- Keeping your torso vertical, exhale and press the dumbbells to arm’s length overhead, rotating your palms so they face each other.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat for the assigned reps.
- Assume a pushup position with your feet elevated on a stability ball rather than on the floor. Set your hands directly below or slightly wider than your shoulders, avoiding setting them too far out in front of you. Push into the ball with the balls of your feet to engage your lower body. Brace your core to keep your body straight from heels to the head — make sure your midsection doesn’t sag to protect your back.
- Keeping your arms and legs straight, contract your core musculature, lifting your hips as high in the air as possible.
- Hold for a moment, squeezing your abdomen as much as possible, then reverse the movement and slowly return to the starting position.
- Load a trap bar with a medium weight and stand inside the hexagonal opening, feet at shoulder width and parallel.
- Bend at your knees and hips and take hold of the high handles, palms facing inward.
- With your head in a neutral position, lengthen your torso, drop your hips, lift your chest, and arch your lower back strongly. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your chest high and your back flat, drive through your heels and come to standing.
- Pause for a moment and return to the starting position, lowering the bar to the floor.
- Drape an exercise band (the kind that looks like a giant rubber band) over a chin-up bar, pull the back loop through the front one, and pull tight.
- Stand on a chair, box, or bench placed beneath the chin-up station and place one foot inside the band, or loop the bottom of the exercise band around one knee.
- Take an overhand, shoulder width grip on the chin-up bar and step off the stool (you should feel as if the band is helping propel you upward. If not, either tie a knot in the band to shorten it, or use a thicker band).
- Without swinging or jerking, pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar.
- Reverse the movement, lowering yourself until your arms are fully extended, and repeat for reps.
Make It Easier: Use a thicker band.
Make It Harder: Use a thinner band — or no band at all.
- Loop a resistance band around an anchor, or attach the rope handles to a cable machine, just above shoulder height.
- Face the anchor and grasp the band or handles.
- Step backward to create some tension on the band or cable until your arms are extended directly forward from your shoulders. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your elbows up, contract the muscles in the backs of your shoulders and upper back, and hold for a one-count.
- Slowly reverse the movement and repeat for reps.
Stability-Ball Leg Curl
- Lie on your back with your heels elevated on a medium-size stability ball, feet about 6 inches apart.
- Extend your hips so that only your upper back, head, and arms are on the floor. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your body straight from your knees to your neck, bend your knees, lifting your hips as high as possible, and squeezing your hamstrings at the top of the movement.
- Slowly straighten your legs, returning to the starting position. Repeat.
- Stand holding a single dumbbells or kettlebell, supporting the weight overhead with both hands. Engage your core and squeeze your glutes. Draw your ribcage down to avoid overextending through the back.
- Bend your elbows to lower the weight behind your head.
- Keep the elbows directly over the shoulders, shoulders over the ribs, and ribs over the hips.
- With control, and without jerking or bending the rest of your body, reverse the movement to fully extend the arms overhead. Repeat.
This originally appeared as “Strong, Fast & Fit: Part II — Month 5: Building Strength” in the May 2020 print issue of Experience Life.