You walk into the gym, head to the dumbbells or gym machines, do the same few moves you’ve been doing for a while, and then call it a day. Sound familiar? Us too.
We’re not even sure if those exercises are all that effective. The good thing is, it’s easy to figure out the best moves for your body and switch up your routine — without a personal training certification or advanced degree in kinesiology.
Building your own workout is not only straightforward, but it’s also important. “Programming gives you a purpose,” says Noam Tamir, owner of TS Fitness in New York City. “Otherwise it’s like going on a road trip without a map.”
The easiest way to get started is to learn your basic movement patterns. The ones we’ll include here are:
- lower-body push
- hip hinge
- single-leg movement
- vertical push
- vertical pull
- horizontal push
- horizontal pull
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize there’s a near endless number of exercises that fall into these patterns — and that’s the beauty of designing your own workout. Sayonara, boredom.
Below we’ve provided a brief explanation of each movement followed by beginner and advanced exercise examples. Do at least 1 exercise from each section for a well-rounded workout.
Pick a medium-heavy weight that will fatigue you by about 8 to 10 reps. If you’re new to working out, do 2 to 3 sets.
More advanced fitness fans can do 4 sets. Don’t forget to warm up first and stretch out those tight spots after.
This movement targets the lower-body powerhouse muscles plus your core — think glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and calf muscles. The most well-known example is a squat. We’ve included two options below, but our list of squat variations has plenty more ideas.
Beginner: Goblet squat
Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold the weight with both hands at chest level. Brace your core, send hips back, and lower. Bend your knees and make sure they don’t go past your toes.
Keep chest up and back straight (no hunched shoulders). Try to bend your knees to at least a 90-degree angle before returning to starting position.
Advanced: Overhead squat
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold a weight overhead in each hand, keeping biceps in line with your ears. Squat down, holding weights steady overhead throughout movement.
A hip hinge is any movement that involves flexion or extension of the hips. Even though you’re working a lot of the same muscles as a squat, you’ll engage them in a different way.
Beginner: Romanian deadlift with dumbbells
Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold dumbbells so they rest against the front of your thighs. Brace your core, send hips back, and lower weights toward the ground.
Keep your spine neutral (no rounding). If you need to, bend knees slightly in order to get weights to ground. Engage your glutes and hamstrings to return to starting position, squeezing glutes at top of the movement. Find a more detailed explanation of how to do a perfect deadlift here.
Advanced: Single-leg Romanian deadlift with dumbbells
This move is almost the same as the last, except you’ll be performing it on one leg to work on your balance. Begin with both feet on the ground and hinge forward, allowing right leg to lift behind you, keeping hips square toward ground.
Think of your lifted leg as a counterbalance to bending forward. Return to starting position by lifting the torso and bringing your leg back to floor. Do all reps on left leg then switch sides.
This benefits the posterior chain but also engages core and stabilizers since more balance is required. You do this every time you walk, run, or climb stairs. Try our two lunge options below or get more ideas here.
Beginner: Reverse lunge
Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Shift your weight slightly to the right side and step your left foot back, dropping into a low lunge with both knees bending to 90 degrees.
Engage right glutes as you push off your left foot to return to starting position. Do all reps on left side then repeat the lunge on the other side.
Advanced: Lateral lunge
Start with feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Shift weight to right foot and step to the side with left foot. Send hips back and bend left knee, while keeping right leg straight as you sink into a side lunge.
Allow your right hand to naturally slide to the front of your body and the left hand to slide behind torso. Press off left foot to return to starting position. Do all reps on that side, then repeat on the other side.
The upper-body movements below will build strength in a lot of the same major muscle groups. However, like the hip hinge and lower-body push, you’ll engage those muscles differently.
It’s that variability that makes your workout well-rounded. For the vertical push, you’ll use shoulders, upper and middle back, and arms.
Beginner: Half-kneeling overhead press
Kneel with your right knee and left foot on the ground, holding a dumbbell in right hand. Your left arm can hang at the side.
Bend right arm to 90 degrees, then push weight overhead, fully extending arm and keeping biceps in line with your ear. To return to starting position, bend your arm and lower the weight to shoulder height.
Advanced: Standing overhead press
Repeat the same movement as above, but this time stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a weight in each hand.
Bring elbows out to sides at 90-degree angles as you push up, which is sometimes called a military-style press. Remember to engage your core and keep hips level — don’t stick your butt out.
This move works your upper and middle back, shoulders, and chest. The most classic example of this exercise is a pull-up. Learn to do a perfect pull-up here or check out this list of moves to do when you can’t do a pull-up yet.
Beginner: Single-arm resistance band pulldown
You’ll need to anchor a resistance band overhead for these. Start in the same half-kneeling position as you did previously: left knee and right foot on the ground.
With your back straight and core engaged, hold the resistance band with left hand, light tension, and arm extended. Pull band toward torso, keeping elbow close to body. Extend your arm to return to start.
Advanced: Two-hand resistance band pulldown
From the same position, hold both ends of the resistance band. Pull bands down and toward torso, keeping elbows close to ribcage. Extend arms to return to starting position.
This movement will help strengthen the front of your body and engage your shoulders, upper back, and arms.
Beginner: Modified kneeling push-up
Start in a high plank position and carefully drop both knees to the floor. Lift feet off the ground. If you’d like, cross your ankles. Keeping elbows pulled tight to body, engage core and you’re your elbows to lower chest to ground. Extend arms to return to starting position.
Start in a high plank position. With core tight, bend your elbows to lower chest to the floor. Straighten arms to return to starting position. Get more details on how to do the perfect push-up here.
This movement will build strength in your upper and middle back, plus shoulders and triceps.
Beginner: Single-arm bent-over row
Stagger your stance so your right leg is forward and left leg is behind you. Bend right knee slightly and hinge forward at hip, resting right forearm on right thigh.
With dumbbell in left hand, do a row by pulling the weight up toward the right side of torso, keeping arm in line with rib cage. At the top of the row, your hand should be near ribs, not shoulder (it’s not a biceps curl). Return to starting position by straightening arm.
Advanced: Bent-over row
Stand with feet together and a dumbbell in each hand. Send hips back and bend knees slightly, hinging forward from the hip. Do a row with both arms simultaneously. Focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together and using your back to lift weights.
If you read this and thought: What about plyometrics? We hear you — and we didn’t forget.
Plyometrics fall under a category referred to as power movements, Tamir says. Add them to your workout once you’ve reached an intermediate level. Do them at the beginning of your workout when you have the most energy.
Want to give it a shot? Pick 2 to 3 exercises from our list of 19 explosive bodyweight movements. Do 5 or 6 reps and repeat for 2 to 3 rounds total.
What about your triceps, biceps, abs, thighs, and calves? Working these muscles individually is often referred to accessory work, Tamir says.
Remember, these muscles are getting worked in the larger movements described above, but you can add on more specific moves to target them if you have the time.
- Abs: Take your pick of these core bodyweight exercises.
- Thighs: Check out these exercises for inner and outer thighs.
- Butt: Try these killer bodyweight butt moves.
- Legs: Mix up your lunges with these intense variations.
- Arms: Build some serious upper body strength with this HIIT workout.
Special thanks to certified trainer and owner of TS Fitness Noam Tamir, who designed these moves and modeled them for us. Tamir wears a shirt and shorts by Lululemon and his own Reebok sneakers. You can follow TS Fitness on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.