I believe fitness is first about getting healthy and feeling capable in your own body, and second about how you look. When you train only to look a certain way (skinny or ripped), you will either end up disappointing yourself constantly or sacrificing health for appearance. But when you train for function, your looks automatically change in a way that you can be proud of what you can do and how you look. That being said, I’d like to talk about some of the best exercises to get you that lean, “toned” look. There are a lot of misconceptions about how to do this, (my personal favorite is that to get great looking arms you need to do bicep curls).
Arms. As I said in the intro, it seems like most people (including myself once upon a time) think that to get defined looking arms you have to build your biceps. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, your biceps are one of the smaller muscles in your arms and if you isolate them too much, you will get a very unbalanced looking Popeye arm. By doing the exercises I’ve listed below, you will primarily target your triceps and shoulders, while indirectly work your biceps. I promise, this is exactly the combination you need to get great looking arms.
Ring dips — If you invest in a door frame pullup bar and set of gymnastics rings (like these), you will have the perfect at home setup to get a crazy fit upper body. Trust me, rings and pullup bars will get you better results much more quickly than gym machines. One of the best exercises you can do on rings is tricep dips. Rings are unstable, so they call on all of your muscles to not only to lower and raise yourself but also to hold the rings steady. This will significantly enhance your shoulders and triceps, along with all the smaller stabilizing muscles. If you can’t do dips with your feet off the ground (this is extremely difficult by the way so don’t feel bad if you can’t), you can put your feet up on something like a chair or countertop, or even the ground, until you can build up the strength to do an unanchored ring dip.
Ventral/front raises. Get out some heavy dumbbells and raise them straight in front of you to shoulder height. Lower and repeat for at least 5 sets of less than 10 reps. You can also do this on a suspension trainer or gymnastics rings as in the video below:
Ring supports. If you’ve never tried to support yourself on rings trust me when I say it is a LOT harder than it looks. It takes a lot of strength and muscle control to hold the rings close to your body, while supporting all of your body weight. Check out the video below:
Pullups. Tricep pushups. Dumbbell shoulder press. These three are also great options to build shoulder and tricep muscles, while indirectly strengthening your chest and biceps.
To further illustrate my point that triceps and shoulders are what make the perfect arm, study the arms of the woman below. Wouldn’t you agree that the triceps and shoulders (which are noticeably larger) are what gives this arm true definition?
Legs. Getting defined legs is all about building your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. These are the BEST exercises to get that done in a short time.
Hip bridges. I’ve tried so many different leg and butt exercises over the last 4 years that I couldn’t even begin to count them all, but this is the single best exercise I’ve found for strengthening (and building) glute and lower back muscles. I seriously recommend getting really good at doing 100 reps in various foot positions (feet and knees together, apart, one leg at a time, etc.). You’ll notice great results within 2 weeks if you add these in a well structured workout program.
Leg lifts. There’s a reason ballerinas have amazing toned legs. They lift them all the time. Follow this principle and make a point to do lots of leg lifts from all angles to target every part of the thigh and hip abductor muscles). These will also strengthen your lower ab, oblique, and back muscles which will protect your back.
Donkey kicks. This is another great to get that lifted butt and strengthen your lower back. They are pretty straightforward, again try to work up to 100 reps per leg without rest. Once you do you will notice a definite difference in your strength and appearance.
Lunges. If you are prone to knee problems, I recommend skipping this exercise altogether and doing leg lifts and hip bridges instead. If you don’t have a lot of knee joint pain, they can be another excellent exercise to get lean quads, which are the most defining muscle in your legs. Do them with and without added weight, and with your feet in various positions for the best effect.
Plyo squats and lunges. They may be simple but don’t underestimate the power of adding a jump to any leg exercise. Plyometric exercises burn far more calories (burning off the fat that hides beautiful muscles), while also building strength and lean muscle. Squat jacks are another great example of this kind of exercise.
Core. Contrary to popular belief, the core is not just made of six pack abs. To get a truly fit and defined core, you need to work your upper and lower abs, obliques, and lower back. Do the exercises below on a regular basis to target all three sections of your core. (Note: These exercises will build strength and lean muscle, not burn fat. If you have fat to lose that is keeping your muscles hidden, try some plyometric leg exercises and interval training for the most effective way to burn fat quickly.)
Plank, hip bridges, and side planks are what I call the “perfect trio” for achieving a lean, strong, chiseled core. No amount of sit-ups and crunches can top how effective these three exercises are. Another bonus is that they won’t kill your back like sit-ups and crunches tend to do. Always remember that a fit core is about much more than getting a six pack. It’s about building all three muscle groups in your core – this includes your six pack, obliques, and lower back.
Back. No fit physique is complete without a strong, toned back. These are absolutely the best exercises to get just that.
Pullups. You may not want to hear it, but pullups are definitely the king of all upper back building exercises. No other exercises has made a difference for me personally than good ol’ pullups. If you can’t do a pullup yet, don’t be intimidated. There are lots of great ways to build up your strength so you can. And believe me, nothing feels better than busting out a set of 10 pullups, especially as a girl when you used to not even be able to hang from the pullup bar for very long.
W and Y flys on rings or a suspension trainer. These are great for targeting all the smaller and larger muscles in every part of your back. If you have dumbbells rear delt flys are a good alternative.
Lift. Any lifts at all with dumbbells or a barbell will strengthen and define your back. Even seemingly upper body exercises like cleans or overhead presses call on a strong back to stabilize you. Just another of the many benefits of lifting.
There ya go! I spent hours and hours working on this post so I hope it was helpful for you 🙂 Let me know which exercise you’re most excited to try! Comment below with any questions or thoughts.