People get really psyched about cardio. Endorphins! Major sweating! Hundreds of calories burned!
And though cardio is a good thing, strength training is just as important for a strong fitness routine. Why? Muscles burn more calories than fat — even when you’re horizontal on the couch watching HBO—which improves metabolism and keeps weight down. You’ll also avoid the ubiquitous back pain that seems to hit everyone over age 25 by making your core tighter, and you’ll build bone density to help prevent osteoporosis.
“Creating lean muscle mass through strength training helps us do everyday things like pick up, lift up, push and pull with ease,” says Fredina Usher-Weems, Fitness Program Manager with the Lifestyle 180 Program at the Cleveland Clinic. “When you’re strong, you’ll grow older with grace, feeling good and looking good because your body is aligned and your muscles are functioning well.” (Translation: Sculpted shoulders, tight calves and no hunched backs in sight!)The best news of all is that you don’t need any infomercial equipment du jour to strength train at home. Here are five simple moves that Usher-Weems recommends, none of which involve a home gym or canned-foods-as-weights. Got a wall and a chair? You’re good to go.
Push-Ups. With your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor and your feet flexed at hip distance apart or slightly wider, tighten your abs and create a straight line from your heels to the top of your head. Bend your elbows until your chest is close to the ground and then, you know, push up. Try to make sure your whole body moves together in a straight line—don’t lead with your hips or your shoulders. Do three sets of eight and your arms and chest area will beg you to go strapless.
Easier Form: Place your knees on the ground and keep your body in a straight line from your knees to the top of your head.
Tricep Dips. Sit on the edge of a chair and place your hands just outside your hips, fingers pointing forward. Now, edge your behind off the chair and bend your legs at a 45-degree angle, so both arms and legs support you (extend legs fully for a more intense move). Bend your elbows so that your bottom dips down until your elbows are at 90 degrees, and then push your butt back up to chair height. Make sure your elbows stay close to your body—don’t let them bow out. Those are your triceps you feel working—and you’ll avoid the dreaded upper-arm-wobble (sometimes referred to as the turkey wave) if you keep them tight! Do three sets of 10.
Easier Form: Keep your knees bent at a 90-degree angle so you get more support from your legs.
Squats. Stand with your feet hip distance apart and bend your knees, sticking out your rear end as if you’re about to sit down in a chair. Make sure your weight shifts backwards as you squat, ensuring that your knees don’t go past the front edges of your toes, until your knees are at a 90-degree angle (thighs parallel to the floor). Then press into your heels to push yourself back to a standing position. Do three sets of 10 regularly and find some jeans that show off your backside.
Easier Form: Lessen the angles if the move is too intense—try a 60-degree bend in the knee to start.
Lunges. Think about taking a big step forward. Bend your front knee to a 90-degree angle, making sure that your knee tracks in line with your second-biggest toe and doesn’t go past the front edges of your toes. Your back knee should also bend until it hovers a few inches above the ground. Make sure your back and head stay straight up and down—do not lean forward from the hip. Do three sets of 16 (eight for each leg) and get ready to break out the short shorts.
Easier Form: Hold onto a chair at your side to help support proper form during a lunge, or try a half-lunge, where your back knee only bends slightly. (Be sure to still keep your back straight!)
Crunches and Core. Crunches are the anytime, anywhere staple. Lie down on the floor with bent knees, hands behind head, belly button pulled in toward your spine and lower back against the floor. Slowly contract your abs, exhaling as you bring your shoulder blades just two inches off the floor (lower back stays on the ground). Hold at the top of the movement for a beat, then inhale as you relax down, but don’t relax all the way—pull up into the next move before your head hits the ground. Do three sets of 12 with this in mind: Bare midriffs are back in style.
Easier Form: If you’re somewhere where you can’t splay out on the ground (like, uh, your office), you can still do core work. Sit in your chair with your back straight and your hands behind your head. Bring your left knee in to your chest, curving your spine so that your right elbow touches the knee across your body. Alternate knees and elbows for three sets of 12.
Standing Leg Lifts. Holding onto the wall or a chair, tighten your abs and keep your back perpendicular to the floor as you straighten and lift one leg out to the side, making sure it stays directly in line with your body, or slightly behind you (bringing the leg in front of your body can engage the wrong muscles). Keep a soft bend in the supporting leg. Along with engaging your core and challenging balance, this move works your thighs and glutes. Keep your leg straight as you lift it, with your toes either pointed or flexed. Don’t go beyond a comfortable range of motion—when you feel tightness in your hip area, you’ve reached your limit. Do three sets of eight lifts for each leg.
Easier Form: Try a smaller range of motion. You only need to lift the leg a few inches and your glutes will engage. Remember that with these moves, the focus is not on speed—it’s on range of motion, flexibility and a slower, controlled pace that will create defined, lean (and pretty darn gorgeous) muscles if you practice these three to five times each week.