Fitness Articles

The Only 12 Exercises You Need to Get in Shape

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It's easy enough to make the decision to work out, pull on your favorite active wear and head to the gym, but the idea of putting together a series of actual exercises can be daunting. Which moves should you do? Which muscle groups should you target? What works and what's a waste of time? Is one move more effective than others? All of the uncertainty could be enough to send you bolting back to the couch—but not so fast!

The good news: Fitness doesn't have to be as complicated as it might seem. With the right multitasking, hard-working moves, you can maximize your results in the least amount of time. For those days when you don’t have the time or creativity to plan complex workouts, some of our favorite trainers came up with a dozen tried-and-true moves. These 12 powerful exercises target all the major muscle groups while also incorporating some heart-pumping cardio.
 
Next time you have the motivation to exercise but not a whole lot of mental energy, try this basic—but very effective—series. Do the whole dozen at once, or split them up across multiple workouts if you have limited time. Shoot for three sets of 12 to 15 reps, modifying as needed.

The 12 Moves of Fitness


1. Mountain Climbers

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Julia Buckley

The Move: Get into a plank position, with your palms down on the ground directly below your shoulders and your arms straight. Move your legs in a running motion, bringing alternating knees up to your chest and straightening the leg again. Keep your abdominals pulled in throughout the move to protect your lower back.

Why it Works: Mountain climbers are a great total-body workout in a single "do anywhere" move. With the core activated to keep the body in position as you power your legs in and back out behind you, you’re sculpting several muscle groups all in one fluid motion. These are hard core, but if you want to burn body fat, they’ll definitely get you ignited!

2. Pushup

Recommended by: Fitness trainer and Fit Armadillo founder Catherine Basu

The Move: Start in a high plank position, on your toes with your palms on the floor below your shoulders, forming a straight line from your shoulders to your feet. Bend at your elbows to lower your body toward the floor. Then, press down through your palms while engaging your chest muscles to return to the starting position. If necessary, you can modify by resting the knees on the floor or placing your palms on an elevated surface.

Why it Works: The classic pushup targets many muscle groups at once—chest, triceps, shoulders and core—effectively activating a greater calorie burn, even at rest. The move is both a great toner and a metabolism booster.

3. Squat

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Rachel Straub

The Move: Place your feet shoulder-width apart or wider. Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or stop beforehand if pain occurs or if flexibility is limited). Push through your heels to stand back up. 

Why it Works: Although the squat is generally classified as a lower-body exercise, it is also a core exercise, as it strengthens the largest core muscle in the body (the gluteus maximus). You likely do squats daily (assuming you get in and out of a chair), but you should be doing squat-specific exercises (at home by simply holding onto a chair, or at the gym using weights). Inability to squat can be a sign of poor lower-body strength or poor mobility at the low back, hips, knee and ankle.

4. Lunge

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Cheryl Russo

The Move: Stagger the legs hip-distance apart with one in front and one behind, keeping enough distance between them so that when you bend the legs, your knees don't extend beyond your toes. Keeping your chest open, hips tucked under and core engaged, bend both legs at a right angle so that your front quadricep (thigh) and back shin are parallel to the floor. The back heel should raise as you push off the front heel. There are many variations of standard lunges, including split lunges, alternating forward lunges, alternating rear lunges and plyometric (jumping) lunges.

Why it Works: All lunge variations work the muscles of the legs, glutes and core, while simultaneously improving balance. Since you are lifting your body weight, it can increase the heart rate, especially when performing the plyometric option.

5. Burpee

Recommended by: Personal trainer Ashley Pitt

The Move: Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Do a squat to send your butt and hips back and down, then put your hands shoulder-width onto the ground and jump your feet back into a strong plank. Brace your core before jumping your feet back up toward your hands again and return to standing. From there, you can jump into the air or stand up on the balls of your feet and reach your hands up. Repeat this a few times and you’ll feel your heart rate skyrocket. For beginners, modify the move by stepping your feet into a plank one at a time, rather than jumping them back. If you want a more advanced move that incorporates additional muscle groups, add a full pushup after you plank!

Why it Works: The burpee is a full-body move, which has a little bit of strength in the plank (and the pushup, should you choose to add it), some plyometric power in the jumps and, of course, heart-pounding cardio. You'll work your legs, glutes, core and shoulders. Try doing sets of 10 at a time during your workout in between weighted moves for an extra explosive burn.

6. Deadlift

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Tyler Spraul

The Move: Start out standing tall with feet about shoulder-width apart and a single dumbbell standing on end between your legs, just slightly in front of you. From there, bend at the hips to get low toward the floor, almost like you're trying to push your butt out behind you. Once you're down low enough, grab the top of the dumbbell with both hands and stand up tall while squeezing your glutes and pushing your feet into the floor. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the floor and repeat as needed. Make sure you learn the movement and have it down pat before adding a lot of weight.

Why it Works: The deadlift engages multiple muscle groups—including the glutes, hamstrings and posterior chain—meaning you have to stay strong and tight from top to bottom. It's an efficient way to get a total-body workout, and also a functional move that you can use to perform daily tasks.

7. Plank

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Julia Buckley

The Move: Begin by lying flat, face down on the floor. Position your hands directly under your shoulders and then push your body up so both your arms and your back are straight. Pull your abdominals in tight and hold this position for a minute—you may start to wobble! Hold for 30 seconds to begin with if you are finding it too difficult.

Why it Works: The plank is one of the best exercises for tightening the tummy because it works the entire midsection, including the deep abdominal muscles. It's also great for improving posture, balance and core strength to help you perform many other exercises.

8. Bridges

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Julia Buckley

The Move: Lie flat on your back and bend your knees, keeping your feet flat on the floor. Push your heels into the floor to slowly raise your body so your weight is in your feet and upper body, with your bottom and lower back off the floor. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the move and keep your knees parallel. Keep your body straight and hold this position for a count of 10, then release and repeat.

Why it Works: The gluteal muscles commonly get lazy from the amount of time we spend in a sitting position. This move effectively fires them up and helps stretch out the front of the hips, while also working the abdominal muscles.

9. Jumping Jacks

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Tricia Brouk

The Move: Jumping jacks offer a full range of motion. To perform, hop your feet apart as you simultaneously bring your arms from your sides in the lateral plane up and over your head, meeting at the top. Next, reverse that action so the feet come back together and the arms return to the sides. In the modified version, you can step one foot out at a time and your arms only go up to shoulder height. This is a great modification for an older adult or someone with shoulder impingement.

Why it Works: Jumping jacks elevate your heart rate and burn extra calories, while helping to improve bone strength.

10. Bent Over Rows

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Kristy Stabler

The Move: Grab a set of dumbbells or a resistance band. With the feet hip-width apart, bend over from the waist keeping your back flat and you shoulders rolled back. Engaging your core, pull the dumbbells or handles toward your chest, pushing your elbows straight back. Pretend you have a pencil between your shoulder blades that you need to pinch together and hold at the end of the movement. Slowly return hands back to the starting point.

Why it Works: This exercise helps to counteract all the sitting and computer work so many of us do every day. We tend to roll our shoulders forward, which can lead to pain in our backs and necks. Standing rows will improve your posture and decrease pain. Muscles strengthened include the erector spinae in your lower back, the trapeziusrhomboids and latissimus dorsi. Your shoulder muscles will also benefit from adding this move to your routine.  

11. Jump Rope

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Tyler Spraul

The Move: This one is pretty straightforward, especially for anyone who’s spent any time on a playground at recess: Grab the jump rope handles, swing the rope around you as you hop and don't let it hit you! Jumping rope can be done just about anywhere, so there's no excuse not to get in a good cardio workout.

Why it Works: Jumping rope is a simple, but extremely effective way to train your cardiovascular system. It will ramp up your heart rate in no time, and is simple to execute. It's very easy to adjust the intensity to meet your fitness level, and it's easy to stop and take a break as needed.

12. Wood Chop with Medicine Ball

Recommended by: Fitness trainer Tricia Brouk



The Move: While standing with your feet hip-width apart and your core engaged, hold a medicine ball above shoulder height on your right side. From here, twist away and downward toward your left leg, making a chopping action with the arms while keeping them straight and pivoting your opposite leg just slightly. Repeat 15 times, then switch to the left side.

Why it Works: The chop works your obliques and rectus abdominis, but also uses the rhomboids and scapula as stabilizers. It's also a great way to tone your midsection and work on your torso’s range of motion.

When you have just enough time to suit up and show up, you can't go wrong by sticking to these 12 proven exercises. Blending strength and cardio, they'll hit all the major muscle groups while torching some serious fat and calories.


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About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.

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