Strength training

Strength training: the 9 most effective strength training exercises according to fitness trainers

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Learn how to execute these effective trainer-approved exercises to build strength in your upper body, lower body and core.

Strength training can benefit your physical and mental health in so many amazing ways. But before you rush off and try to deadlift your own body weight, you need to master the basics in order to reap the full benefits from your training.

When we put the question of the best moves to perfect to nine fitness trainers, they all agreed that the most effective moves are the ones that work multiple muscle groups (rather than just isolating individual muscles).

These are usually referred to as compound movements, such as squats, press-ups and lunges. Ideally, you want to aim for 10-12 reps of each exercise, then rest.

Remember, always focus on your form and spend time working on perfecting these moves using just your bodyweight before adding in weights. When it comes to strength training, it’s a case of quality over quantity.



Strength training: press up
Strength training: think of press-ups as very much a tricep-dominant exercise.

The press-up is arguably one of the ultimate benchmarks of upper body strength. As Heloise Nangle, head trainer and COO at Core Collective, says, “It’s a movement that requires only your body weight and that can be done literally anywhere – it gives a huge amount of bang for your buck”.

The press-up is her favourite move because “it’s extremely versatile and there are a huge array of variations that can be done to target different muscle groups and to make it more challenging or easier depending on your fitness level. As a compound lift, it is a very effective exercise for building upper body and core strength and stability, hitting major muscle groups, such as your biceps, triceps, anterior deltoids, pectorals and abdominals to support your body whilst executing the movement. It can also assist in improving your cardiovascular capabilities when performed within a workout”.

How to do a press-up:

  1. Start in a plank position, making sure you position your hands in line with your shoulders. 
  2. Your back should be flat and your core should be tight.
  3. Lower your body to the floor, keeping your back flat and your elbows tight to your body.
  4. Your elbows should be pointing towards your feet.
  5. At the bottom of the press-up, squeeze your glutes and abs, and push through your hands, raising your entire body at the same time, until you come up to the starting position.


Strength training: dumbbell snatch
Strength training: the dumbbell snatch is a dynamic strength exercise.

“The dumbbell snatch is a very powerful and popular movement mainly because it’s a unilateral move meaning you are only exercising one side of your body at a time but still activating both lower and upper body muscles,” says KOBOX instructor, Emma Jones. 

It’s one of her favourite exercises because it helps to increase cardiovascular fitness while targeting upper body muscles including back muscles (trapezius and lats), shoulder muscles and triceps. But also your abs, glutes, quads and hamstrings. 

How to do a dumbbell snatch:

  1. Start standing shoulder-width apart with a dumbbell on the floor between your feet.
  2. Keeping your shoulders back and chest upright, push your hips back (hinge movement) and bend your knees into a squat position.
  3. With one arm straight, grab the dumbbell with an overhand grip. 
  4. Driving down through your heels, stand up with an explosive move using your glutes and with the same momentum start to raise the dumbbell overhead elbow high. 
  5. As the dumbbell reaches shoulder height, flip your elbow so that the dumbbell is now above into a press position so that the weight is now above your head with a straight arm.
  6. Then go back to your starting position and change arms.


Strength training: bent over row
Strength training: be careful not to round your back in a bent over row

Great for building bicep strength, the bent-over row is also a great move for working your upper back and shoulders, says Sammy Harper, founder of Blitz by Harper.

“I love working in supersets, tri-sets or giant sets to tone and strengthen my arms. Or I work opposing muscle groups such as a bent-over row into a chest press to make sure I’m working the whole upper body in one session.

“Not only do they allow you to save time by shortening the rest period but they allow you to increase the intensity of your workout by overloading a muscle group – so basically twice the gains in half the time.”

How to do a bent over row:

  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Retract your shoulders and start to hinge at the hip (like a deadlift), pushing your bum back, loading the hamstrings and keeping the core tight.
  3. Once you’re in this position, with weights directly under your shoulders, pull the weights up towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked in.
  4. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.



Strength training: glute bridge
Strength training: if you feel your hamstrings working too hard, move your feet a little nearer to your bum in a glute bridge

Lindsey Pryor, fitness instructor at Define London, says “One of my favourite exercises is the glute bridge – otherwise known as ‘Tushy Time’ at Define London!”

Why? “The glute bridge targets all the muscles through the back of your legs (glutes, hamstrings and calves), as well as your core,” she says. 

“There are also loads of extras you can add to really burn the muscles out – such as flexed feet, pulses, single leg and leg lowers to really get into the core. For an extra challenge, if you have a Barre or a wall nearby, why don’t you try placing one foot up and one foot to the sky. It’s an instant booty burner.”

How to do a glute bridge:

  1. Lie down on your back, with your heels flat on the floor, just in front of your bum.
  2. Lay your hands gently alongside your body on the mat.
  3. Drive your hips up into the air and squeeze your glutes at the top while pressing into your feet.
  4. Hold for a second before slowly lowering the hips back down to the floor.


Strength training: squat
Strength training: focus on mastering your squat before you take on any weights or variations.

The squat is an incredibly effective compound movement, says Tash Lankester, personal trainer at FLEX Chelsea.

“My favourite exercise definitely changes a lot, but at the moment it has to be a squat,” she says.

“The squat works almost every muscle group, including glutes, quads and core. The reason it is my favourite exercise at the moment is because it’s so versatile. There are so many ways you can progress a squat. Whether it be upping the weight with a bar on your back, working on perfecting your form and progressing with your depth. You can also have a play with where you are placing your load, for example, front or back squat, high or low bar squat to place greater emphasis on certain muscle groups over others. The squat is so unique and everyone’s comfortable squat position is different, which is why it is such an effective strength move, as you can execute the squat that feels perfect for you.”

How to do a squat:

  1. Start with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. If you’re using just your body weight, your arms can stay by your side. If you’re using weights, hold them tight to your chest.
  3. Brace your core, hinge at your hips and push your bum back as you lower to the floor and drive your knees out.
  4. Try to keep the weight in your heels throughout the movement.
  5. Ideally, you want to get your bum lower than your knees, then at the bottom of the squat, squeeze your glutes, keep your chest raised and drive up to full extension, back to the starting position.


Strength training: reverse lunge
Strength training: make sure your knee doesn't travel forward when you lunge

The reverse lunge is an incredibly effective exercise for developing lower body strength.

It’s a favourite of Natalie Rose Edwards, trainer for fitness and wellbeing app, for when she wants to turn up the intensity and “add tempo to get my heart pumping and sweat dripping”.

What makes the lunge so great is that you can switch it up with numerous variations, stepping one leg in front, behind or to the side (lateral).

How to do a reverse lunge:

  1. Start with your feet about shoulder-to-hip-width apart.
  2. Take a big step behind you and lower your back knee down to the floor.
  3. Keep the spine neutral and check that your front knee is tracking just over the midfoot.
  4. Squeezing both your core and glutes, push the floor away with your back foot and bring your food back to the start position.



“Clamshells are a staple in my classes,” says Kiri Louise, founder of The Classical Edit. “Clamshells work the outer hip and deeper glute muscles, such as gluteus medius, whilst challenging pelvic stability, recruiting your abs to help maintain stacked hips and a neutral spine. 

“This exercise is fantastic for anyone who notices sore joints when they run, or perhaps notices their knees buckling inwards when squatting. The bonus with clams is that they are performed lying on your side (winning), knees bent in front of you, opening your top leg towards the ceiling — but without letting your hips lean back. You can create resistance within your own body by zoning in on your technique here, or rest a dumbbell along your top thigh or loop a resistance band around to add extra spice.”

How to do a clamshell:

  1. Lie on your left side with your hips and knees bent 45 degrees. 
  2. Stack your right leg on top of your left leg, with your heels together. 
  3. Keeping your feet together and left leg on the floor, raise your right knee as high as you can without your heels coming apart. 
  4. Pause, then return to the starting position.


This exercise is particularly effective because “it will keep your body guessing,” says Megan Davies, Beachbody On Demand super trainer.  

You have to hold your body weight so it challenges your abdominals, obliques, shoulders and glutes. It’s an upper body and core “total power combo” she says.

How to do a push-up to alternating knee tap:

  1. Start in a plank position, with your hands flat on the floor slightly wider than chest distance. 
  2. Lower your chest between your hands and push back up into plank position (press-up). 
  3. As you return to plank position, drive your right knee towards your chest and tap the top of your knee with your left hand. 
  4. Repeat the push-up using the opposite hand and leg for the knee drive on the next rep.


Olivia Brierley, pilates teacher at Mindfulsoulpilates, says the pilates 100 is a fantastic exercise to strengthen the core as it helps engage the transverse abdominals (the deepest set of muscles you have in your lower belly).

“It is a great exercise for your core, a dynamic warm-up for the abdominals and lungs and helps to coordinate your breath with the movement,” she says.

How to do pilates 100:

  1. Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent in the tabletop position. 
  2. Reach your arms to the ceiling as you relax your shoulders into the mat. 
  3. Lower your arms and lift your head and upper body off the mat. 
  4. Point your toes and extend your legs out to a 65-degree angle without changing the position of your lower back
  5. With your arms down by your side, start pumping the arms, inhaling for five counts, exhale for five counts for a total of ten times.

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IMAGES: Getty / Strong Women

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