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5 Exercises to Help Build Strength

It’s got nothing to do with bulking up.

If you regularly prioritize exercise, you probably plot out each week how you’re going to get in your recommended 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity, whether that’s riding a bike, going for a jog, or even just walking to the grocery store instead of driving. But are you taking the time to lift weights, too? While cardio is key, it’s also important to do strength training that targets your major muscle groups at least twice a week.

“Strength training is foundational to overall health. It shouldn’t be any less on your radar than cardio,” says Albert Matheny, C.S.C.S., co-owner of SoHo Strength Lab in NYC, adding, “Strength training becomes more important as you get older, especially for women, who often have issues with bone density, which becomes a big issue later in life when it comes to postural, back, and neck issues, [as well as] falls.” 

Think about it: stronger muscles can help keep you steady. Some research has found an association between muscle training and bone health, and the International Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that pre-menopausal women and young adults take advantage of high-intensity exercise to help maintain, and possibly slightly increase, bone mineral density, which may reduce the risk of fractures later in life. And muscle and bone health isn’t the only potential benefit of strength training. One long-term study found an association between adults who met the guidelines of strength training each week and a lower risk of premature death. 

Obviously, strength training gives you more muscle mass, which is a good thing—and it doesn’t mean you’ll bulk up or add size. “Muscle mass is [denser] than fat mass,” Matheny explains. “With a higher percentage of muscle, you may weigh the same, but you’re going to look leaner and more toned.” Plus, being strong will likely make you feel more confident and capable in all aspects of your life (think: moving your heavy stand mixer from cabinet to counter, or easily lifting — rather than lugging — that bag of potting soil). 

The best part about strength training: It’s so much more accessible than you think. If you’ve never done it before, start with your own bodyweight — seriously! “Ninety-nine percent of the population would vastly improve their strength just by doing bodyweight exercise,” Matheny says. 

When you’re ready to progress to a weight, make sure you choose one with which you can complete five reps with good form — if that means starting with just one pound, that’s totally fine. “Your goal is to perform a total of somewhere between 20 and 30 reps, broken into sets,” Matheny says. 

Like any new movement, you may find yourself sore when you start strength training, or when you move up to a new weight. Give yourself a rest day, and try an OTC pain reliever like Advil to help those achy muscles feel better. 

Ready to get started? Matheny recommends adding these five moves to your workout routine:

1. Squats

“[This is] fantastic not only for your lower body, but your whole body overall,” Matheny says.
How to do it: Start in a standing position with feet shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your abs, push your hips back, and bend your knees, lowering your body down like you’re sitting in a chair. Pause at the bottom, then push back up to the starting position. When you’re ready to add weights, hold one dumbbell in each hand with your elbows bent, weights at your shoulders.

2. Deadlifts

“Your core is super involved in [these],” Matheny says. 
How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out. Hold dumbbells in front of your hips, with your palms facing your thighs. Squeeze your abs, push your hips back, and lower dumbbells toward floor, keeping your spine in a neutral position. Once dumbbells are lower than your knees, drive through your heels, maintaining a neutral spine and keeping dumbbells close to the body, to lift back up quickly. After dumbbells pass your knees, fully extend your hips and knees, squeezing glutes at the top.

3. Pull-Ups

“Typically, upper body exercises are harder for women, in part because people don’t train it, but also [because] women have less muscle mass in the upper body compared to men,” Matheny says, but don’t be discouraged. “[This] means you can really make vast improvements.”
How to do it: Hang from a pull-up bar with hands placed slighter wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from the body. Use your arms, back, and shoulders to pull your body up (without swinging) until your chin reaches the bar. Slowly lower back down. If you’re new to this exercise, ask a trainer at your gym to show you how to use a pull-up machine, which can help make this move easier (and harder once you’re stronger).

4. Bent-Over Rows

“This is a great postural exercise—the biggest thing I see is [bad] posture in the back and shoulders,” Matheny says. 
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. With knees slightly bent, hinge forward at the hips until your torso is between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor and the dumbbells hang below your shoulders, wrists facing in. Squeeze your core and keep neck neutral to maintain a flat back to start. Pull dumbbells up next to your ribs, drawing elbows straight back and keeping arms in tight to sides. Slowly lower weights back to start.

5. Kettlebell Swings

“This is a great lower body exercise for your hips and core, but it also gets your arms so there’s total-body [engagement],” Matheny says. 
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, with a kettlebell about a foot in front of you. Slightly bend knees and shift hips back to grab the kettlebell by the horns, then lift the bell, squeeze your glutes, and drive hips forward. On the downswing, bend your knees to let the kettlebell pass under your legs, keeping your spine neutral, then drive hips forward again to repeat.

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