Essential exercises for muscle-building and fat-loss
Below you will find a list of many of the commonly performed exercises along with photos and descriptions. This list is not all-inclusive and there are many other variations of these exercises.
The photos below demonstrate the exercise movement through the full-range of motion. These photos should only be used to become familiar with each exercise as they will often be referred to throughout my blog articles and other published material.
Please seek out a professional trainer that has experience with the use of free-weights, specifically using dumbbells. Working out with free weights requires instruction to ensure that proper form and technique is executed.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dumbbell squats (Quadriceps)
Start/Finish: Hold two dumbbells at your sides, with your palms facing in. Stand with our feet about shoulder width apart. If you have trouble balancing, try placing a couple of dumbbell plates under your heels.
Mid-point: While keeping your shoulders back and head upright, bend our legs at the knees and lower your hips until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Then, pushing from your heels, lift yourself back up to the starting position. Keep your back as straight as possible throughout this exercise.
Romanian deadlifts (Hamstrings)
Start/Finish: Stand up straight, with your feet shoulder width apart and a dumbbell in each hand, your palms facing toward your legs. This is a great exercise for the hamstrings, and it helps strengthen the lower back.
Mid-point: Bend forward at your hips, and slowly lower the dumbbells in front of you until the weights almost touch the floor. Keep your back straight throughout the exercise. Then, while concentrating on the muscles in the back of your legs, raise your upper body and the weights to the starting position.
Tip: Don’t hunch over. Keep your back flat throughout the exercise.
Dumbbell lunges (Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings)
Start/Finish: Stand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, palms facing in. Take a large step forward with your left leg. When your front thigh is parallel to the floor and your back knee is a few inches off the floor, hold for a second. Then return to starting position and repeat with your right leg.
Tip: Be sure to keep your knee from extending over your toes which can cause injury. Lunges can be done without the weights if it’s too difficult.
Hamstring Curls Swiss Ball
Start/Finish: Lay flat on your back with an exercise ball under your heels. Bridge your hips up and hold that position through the entire exercise. Flex your feet and dig your heels into the ball. Place your arms straight out to your sides for support only.
Mid-point: Slowly roll the ball towards your body as you curl your heels. Keep your hips in the bridge position flexing your glutes throughout the movement. Then slowly return to the start position (straight legs, hips bridged) to complete the first rep.
Wall squats with Swiss ball
Start/Finish: Place Swiss ball between your lower back and a wall. Lean against the Swiss ball with your feet shoulder-width apart and firmly planted about 12” in front of you.
Mid-point: Slowly lower your body, bending at the hip and knees. Squat down slowly using the ball to support your back while lowering your hips slightly lower than 90 degrees at the knee. Push with your heels to return back to the starting position.
Tip: You can vary your stance to focus more on different areas of your quadriceps. Keep your back perpendicular to the floor and do not lean forward while performing the exercise.
Pullups (assisted using resistance bands)
Note: Using a resistance band in your pull ups exercises can be a great way of assisting your workout. Adding a resistance band can not only help you hold your form, but also help you give you that little amount of assistance to help you complete more pull ups.
The resistance band that you choose for these pull ups will depend on your existing fitness levels. You should start with a band that offers high resistance, and as you improve use bands that offer progressively less resistance:
Start/Finish: If your resistance band is a continuous loop, then you should drape it over the pull up bar, put one end through the loop of the other and pull it through tightly. If your resistance bands have handles on the end of them, you should either remove your pull up bar, put the bar through the handles and then re-attach, so that the band is hanging down to the floor.
Make sure the resistance band is hanging down in the middle of the bar. Place your hands either side of it, at slightly more than shoulder width.
Depending on how long your resistance band is, either place your right foot into the band so that the band is resting against the center of your foot. If your resistance band is shorter, then place your right knee into the band. If using your feet, pull yourself up and place your other foot into the resistance band.
Using the resistance band for support, pull yourself up so that your chin is slightly above the bar.
Lower yourself back down to the starting position in a controlled and slow manner. The resistance band will help take some of the strain here. Repeat this process until your reps are complete.
As your fitness improves, you should gradually change the resistance bands to ones that offer less resistance, so that you are doing more of the work.
Tip: Two excellent brands of resistance bands for pull-ups/chin-ups are Lifeline USA Pullup Revolution and Chinup Max by Beachbody.
Start/Finish: Seated on a bench or pulldown machine, grasp a wide bar wider than shoulder width.
Mid-point: Pull the bar down to the top of your chest. Focus on keeping your elbows directly below the bar. Arch your back slightly, and hold the bar in that position right on top of your collarbone for a second, then slowly let the bar back up to the starting position.
Tip: Don’t lean back too far and pull the weight down using momentum.
Seated cable row
Start/Finish: Sit at a cable row machine using any of the handles available. Grasp the handle with both hands using an overhand grip. Sit up with a straight back, brace your feet.
Mid-point: Pull your shoulders back. Forcefully pull the bar to the abdomen area by bending your arms and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pause for a second and return to the starting position.
Tip: Don’t bend forward or backward at the waist while performing the exercise. Keep your torso at a 90 degree angle to the bench.
One-arm dumbbell row
Start/Finish: Start with our right foot flat on the floor and your left knee resting on the bench. Then lean forward so you’re supporting yourself with your left arm on the bench. Your back should be parallel to the floor. Reach down and grab the dumbbell with your right hand. Look straight ahead instead of at the floor so your back stays straight.
Mid-point: Concentrate on pulling our elbow as far back as it can go. The dumbbell should end u roughly parallel with our torso. After you’ve rowed the dumbbell up as far as you can. Slowly lower it to the starting position. After you complete the set of reps, switch to your right arm and do the same thing.
Tip: Don’t hunch your back. Keep it flat and parallel to the floor.
Bent-over barbell row
Start/Finish: Stand in front of a barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend over and grasp the bar, making sure your back is parallel with the floor. Your head should be up, and your legs slightly bent.
Mid-point: Pull the bar upward toward your lower chest, then lower the bar in a controlled manner. Do not allow the bar to touch the floor until you’ve finished the set.
Tip: Pull your elbows back and keep a slight arch to your back to flex the muscle even more.
Start/Finish:Place a dumbbell at each side of your feet. Stand with our feet about a foot apart. Bend at the waist and grab the weights making sure your back is straight, your knees are slightly bent, and your head is up.
Mid-point: Exhale as you stand back up with the dumbbells in hands. Your elbows should be locked out so no movement at elbow joint.
Tip: Keep the dumbbells as close to your body as possible. Focus on pushing your hips forwards as you pick up the weights and flex/tighten your glute muscles.
Flat bench dumbbell press
Start/Finish: Lie flat on a bench with feet flat on floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just above your shoulders, with your palms facing forward and your elbows out at sides.
Mid-point: Press the weights up until the arms are fully extended and locked, then slowly lower the weights back to the sides of your chest.
Tip: The path of the weights should follow in a straight line over your collarbone, not your face or upper abdominal region.
Incline dumbbell press
Start/Finish: Lie on an incline bench with feet flat on the floor. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your chest, arms extended using an overhand grip.
Mid-point: Lower the dumbbells toward the sides of your chest, pause for a second, then forcefully push them back to the starting position.
Tip: The bench should not be inclined more than about 30 degrees for this exercise, otherwise there’s too much shoulder involvement.
Dumbbell flyes on Swiss ball
Start/Finish: Lie down on a flat bench with two dumbbells held above your head, at arm’s length touching each other with palms facing inward, with elbows slightly bent throughout the exercise.
Mid-point: Lower the dumbbells out to your sides of your chest until they’re until they’re at chest level at your sides. The movement is like moving through a semi-circle pattern. Keep your chest high while performing the exercise. Now return to the starting point with weights above your chest.
Tip: Don’t lower the weights past the plane of your torso.
Seated dumbbell press
Start/Finish: Sit on a bench with feet flat on floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, elbows out and palms facing forward.
Mid-point: Press the dumbbells up and together so they almost touch above your head. Don’t allow the weights to stray back and forth. Press the weights up until your arms are almost fully extended straight. Then slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position.
Tip: Look straight forward with chin up, shoulders squared and chest high.
Start/Finish: Stand upright with your feet about shoulder width apart and your arms at your sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, your palms turned toward your body. Keep your palms turned downward as you lift the dumbbells so your shoulders, rather than your biceps do the work.
Mid-point: Keeping your arms straight, life the weights out and up to the sides until they are right about level with your chin, and hold them there for a second. From this position, lower them slowly back to your sides.
Tip: Don’t lean back and swing the weights up. Lift them straight out to your sides until they’re almost directly out from your shoulders. At the top position, it appears like a gymnast doing an iron cross on the rings. Don’t lean forward and allow the dumbbells down in front of your body either. Instead, let the weights down to your sides.
Start/Finish: With a dumbbell in each hand and feet shoulder width apart, bend forward at the waist so our upper body is parallel with the floor. Let your arms hang straight down, palms facing each other.
Mid-point: Raise the dumbbells, pulling your arms apart and moving your elbows up. Resist the temptation to raise your torso as you lift the dumbbells. Pause for a second at the top when the dumbbells are in line with our shoulders. The slowly lower the weights to the starting position.
Tip: Don’t hunch your back. Your back should be straight and your torso almost parallel with the ground.
Start/Finish: Stand in front of the cable machine with feet shoulder width apart. Grab the bar with your hands about eight inches apart, palms facing downward.
Mid-point: Push down the bar in an arc-like movement until the arms are extended and locked out. Pause for a second and follow the same arc movement back to the starting position. Always maintain tension on the triceps.
Tip: Keep your arms firmly positioned at your sides so your elbows don’t flair outward during the movement.
Lying barbell tricep extension-skull crushers
Start/Finish: Grab a barbell and lie down on a bench. Your hands should be about a foot apart on the bar. Press the bar up so your arms are extended straight and weight is over your upper chest/shoulder-region.
Mid-point: Lower the bar down to the top of the forehead while elbows remain stationary, pointing towards the ceiling. Now press the barbell back to the starting point using the same arc of motion.
Tip: Lower the bar slowly behind the head for a longer range of motion, keeping elbows locked in position to isolate the triceps. Using an E-Z curl bar vs. straight bar reduces pressure on the wrist joint.
Start/Finish: Sit on flat bench perpendicular to your body. Put your arms behind you and to your sides and hold on to the edge of the bench with your hands. Now stick your legs out in front with a slight bend at the knee.
Mid-point: Begin by pushing your torso up until your arms are locked out at the elbow joint and triceps flexed. Slowly lower your body by bending at the elbow joints until you lower yourself far enough to where there is an angle slightly less than 90 degrees between the upper arm and the forearm. Using your triceps to push your torso up again, push your body back to the starting position.
Tip: Do not allow your torso to move away from the back of the bench. This can cause too much strain on the anterior head of the deltoids. Your back should lightly slide against the back of the bench as you’re pushing your torso up and down during the exercise.
Incline dumbbell curls
Start/Finish: With a set of dumbbells in hand, sit on an incline bench. Keep your shoulders squared and your chest elevated. In the starting position, our arms will be hanging straight down at sides.
Mid-point: While keeping your back flat against the bench and your palms facing forward, curl the dumbbells all the way up to your shoulders. Then slowly lower the weight until your arms are hanging straight down, so you get a full stretch on your biceps before you lift the dumbbells back up.
Tip: Don’t lean forward away from the back of the incline bench which results in swinging of the weights up.
Standing barbell curl
Start/Finish: Stand with feet about shoulder width apart holding a barbell with shoulder width grip. Keep your chest up and shoulders squared.
Mid-point: Curl the weight up without leaning back, keeping your upper arms close to your sides, not allowing elbows to flair outward. Lower the weight down to starting position in a controlled manner.
Tip: Don’t allow the torso to lean forward or backward in a swinging fashion while performing the exercise.
Start/Finish: Lay flat (supine) on mat with your feet together and your toes pointed toward the ceiling with hands on floor over-head and behind you.
Mid-point: To begin the exercise, keep your legs straight and lift them up, and at the same time raise your upper body off of the floor and reach for your toes with your hands. Squeeze your abdominal muscles as you reach for you toes, and then slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position to finish the first repetition.
Tip: Begin each repetition with upper back on floor to allow abdominal muscles to work dynamically. The rectus abdominis and obliques contract only when actual waist flexion occurs. This is a rather difficult exercise to perform with good form and requires more coordination. To increase the difficulty, hold a medicine ball or weight plate behind your head.
Front and side planks
Start/Finish: Lie on your stomach with arms bent, palms and forearms on the ground, legs extended.
Mid-point: Contract your ab muscles and slowly lift your entire torso off the floor, keeping palms, forearms, and toes on the ground. Avoid arching your lower back. Hold for up to one minute or shorter until strength increases.
Start/Finish: Lie on your right side, in a straight line from head to feet, resting on your forearm. Your elbow should be directly under your shoulder. With your abdominals gently contracted.
Mid-point: Lift your hips off the floor, maintaining the line. Keep your hips square and your neck in line with your spine. Hold up to 1 minute or less and then lower body.
Tip: Repeat two to three times, alternating sides. If this is too challenging, start with bent knees. If you need more of a challenge, instead of resting on your forearm, support your body with your hand, palm on the floor and under the shoulder, elbow straight.
Swiss ball roll-ups
Swiss ball crunches
Start/Finish: Sit on a Swiss ball with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet forward as you lie back on the ball. Stop when the ball is under your hips, lower back, and middle back, knees bent 90 degrees.
Your lower back should feel like it’s curved around the ball. Place your hands lightly behind your head and draw in your abs.
Mid-point: Raise your chest up and slightly forward in a crunching motion. Do not pull on your neck to initiate the crunch. At the top of the movement the middle of your back will lose contact with the Swiss ball. Now squeeze the abs and then slowly return to the starting position.
Tip: The exercise primarily works the rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles, and the transverse abdominis. When performed properly, it also works the muscles that stabilize the hips and lower back.
Hanging leg raises Hanging knee raises (to waist) Leg raises (to top of bar)
Hanging leg raises (to top of bar):
Note: This is an advanced abdominal exercise and should only be performed if you have the strength to hang suspended from a bar holding the weight of your body. There are several other versions you can choose in place of hanging leg raises until you build the strength to perform these.
Start/Finish: Hold onto a pull-up bar with both hands at shoulder width apart so you’re supporting the entire weight of your body.
Mid-point: Lift both legs up so your feet are out in front of you with your legs slightly bent at the knee. Without swinging of the torso, lift your legs all the way up until your ankles meet the bar and then lower your legs back to the starting position. Move in a slow and controlled manner when lifting and lowering, so you’re using your core muscles and not gravity or momentum.
Tip: Don’t keep the knees locked straight as it causes too much strain on the lower back and doesn’t provide additional benefit to abdominal development.
Hanging knee raises (to waist):
Start/Finish: See hanging leg raises exercise
Mid-point: Instead of lifting your legs as high as instructed for hanging leg raises, lift your knees up to waist height with a 90 degree bend at the knee joint. Move in a slow and controlled manner when lifting and lowering your knees, so you’re using your core muscles and not gravity or momentum.
Tip: This is a great starting exercise before advancing to hanging leg raises with ankles to the bar. This is still considered an advanced exercise because many individuals do not have the strength to support the weight of their body from a bar.
Another recommended exercise to perform before advancing to the use of any hanging abdominal movements is the use of the captain’s chair ab exercise. This is the best exercise to begin building your strength with before advancing to the hanging leg raise versions.