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The 6 Best Exercises to Tone Up

July 12, 2017


This blog post is by personal trainer Charis Cook.


People often get confused about which exercises they should program into workouts to achieve maximum results and efficiency. As a personal trainer, I tell my clients the best exercises they can do is actually quite simple. They're the ones they're willing to do consistently! Nothing is more important than doing an activity repeatedly and with a gradual increase in challenge (generally by adding weight). That being said, if you're a person who regularly hits the gym, there are some exercises that shine among others in terms of efficacy.


For results, pepper the below movements into your regular workout routine, and remember to change it up every few weeks by adding more weight, using a different tool or doing a variation of the movement. Aim for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps for each movement. You can either rest between sets (you should if you use heavy weights) or do non-stop supersets incorporating various moves that target opposing muscle groups.


Here are the best exercises for toning key muscle groups: 


1. Legs and Butt: The High Step-Up (shown above). The step-up is a tough movement that demands balance, stability and core strength, all while seriously working your butt and legs. Because it's a single-sided movement, the one side works hard to get you from the floor to the top of the step and back down again. All the while, your obliques are keeping you from leaning to one side and your core braces to keep your torso stacked. The high-step mimics the bottom of a deep squat, so your hamstrings, glutes, quads, and calves get fired up. Best of all, with an appropriate weight and step height, this move will shoot your heart rate through the roof. I like to perform this with a kettlebell or dumbbell held on the working side.


Maintain results by being consistent and then mixing things up. For example: Do the high step-ups for three weeks, then do side lunges for three weeks.



2. Shoulders: The Overhead Press. Pressing is one of my favorite movements. There are so many tools you can use (kettlebells, dumbbells, straight bars, sandbags) that keep your body guessing. Mixing it up will also help you avoid injuries. To perform the press correctly, keep your knuckles up so your wrists are in line with your elbow, and then fully extend your arms by your ear while flexing your tricep. It's very important you don't arch your back, so make sure your ribcage stays down and your glutes are contracted. Before building in more weight (thus increasing results), make sure you have good form. If you need to work on your form, you can start with a chest press on a bench or on the floor with a set of dumbbells.



3. Abs: The Crisscross Crunch. The most important thing you can do to get killer abs is to watch what you eat. That being said, there are ways to enhance the abs so they pop when you cut excess fat. The best way? Do Pilates one to two times per week. If you don't have access to a studio, there are great websites likePilates Anytime that offer thousands of classes for any skill, duration or style. If forced to pick one Pilates move, my favorite is the crisscross crunch. It looks like a traditional bicycle crunch, but it's far more effective because Pilates demands a specific alignment. For this exercise, carefully lift the legs into tabletop (90 degrees at the hip and knee), then interlace your fingers on the back of your head creating a basket that supports the head and neck. Use your abdominals to lift your head, neck and chest, keeping your abdomen scooped inward and your thighs over your hips (not tucked towards your face). Extend left leg at a 45 degree angle (any lower and your back can't maintain its form). Keep your shoulder blades off the mat, rotate your sternum and nose towards your right thigh (the leg in tabletop). Don't reach with your elbow and make sure you keep your right hip and lower back pushed against the floor. Rotate to the other side and repeat the movements. It takes some getting used to, but you'll absolutely feel the difference when you do it correctly!



4. Upper Back: The Bent-Over Row. Targeting the upper back can be tricky, and the most basic of exercises is the bent over row. It's import to make sure that your spine is neutral in the bent position (not arched and definitely not rounded). Focus on keeping your lower abdominals pulled up and in and your shoulder blades drawn together. Start with your arms extended downward and close to the body. Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back and following with your elbows. Keep your arms close to your body, and imagine pulling your elbows together behind your back. Be careful not to let your shoulders shrug or pop forward. Hold the top position for a moment and then extend your arms back down without relaxing your upper back.


Maintain results by being consistent and then mixing things up. For example: Do the dumbbell bent row for three weeks, then do a barbell bent row for three weeks.



5. Butt: The Barbell Hip Thrust. The butt is the body part du jour so even though we already covered the legs, it deserves some extra attention. The hip thrust is an awesome move to develop a solid posterior. It's a low-risk, high-reward movement. I use it as a way to get my female clients comfortable with having a lot of weight on them. It's not unusual for those clients to hip thrust over 200 pounds. However, it can be an awkward movement to set up in most gyms. Check out YouTube videos to get some ideas on how to safely set up with what you have available. I prefer to use an aerobic step since benches tend to be too high or move too easily. Just make sure you have a good squat pad on the bar to protect your pelvis and that the bench is sturdy. I keep my gaze forward and my chin tucked; looking at the ceiling encourages people to arch their backs, which can cause injury. At the top of the movement, make sure you take a moment to squeeze your glutes while tucking in your pelvis.



6. Triceps: The Skull Crusher. Triceps, like the abs, are a problem area for women because of body fat, so diet and consistent training will help more than anything. I love pushups for my triceps (and upper body in general), but skull crushers with dumbbells or a straight bar are a great isolation exercise. Remember to keep your elbows narrow and your upper arms still. Squeeze your triceps at the top of the movement and focus on stretching them as you bend the weights toward your face. Keep your shoulder blades back and don't shrug.


Another word of advice for those of you seeking to change your physique: Be mindful of when you weight train and when you do cardio. Before strength training, I strongly urge you to do only a short (5-10 minutes) cardio warm-up. You want to prioritize the weights if your goal is to tone and build muscle. Feel free to do any kind of cardio on non-weight training days, but don't overwork your legs the day before a leg weightlifting day. That hinders your ability to productively work your legs with weights. You need energy in the weight room so your body can build muscle.


Above all, genetics and diet play a big role in how long it takes to see results. Some of my clients get toned right away while others start seeing definition after six months. If you're new to weightlifting, it will take more time, but don't get discouraged! Have you ever heard people say lifting doesn't make women bulky? Well, it's true. It can take a while for our muscles to change shape due to the fact we don't have nearly as much testosterone as men. So, again, above all else, just BE CONSISTENT.



About Coach Charis Cook: 


Charis Cook's is unique among her peers. Her education is extensive and her background is eclectic: She is certified personal trainer (ACE), Pilates instructor (BASI) and Russian kettlebell instructor (RKC). She is also a functional movement specialist (FMS Level 2), using corrective exercises to prevent or rebound injury. In addition, she is a habit-based nutrition coach (soon to be PN-1). Charis is obsessed with all forms of movement and passionate about empowering people through physical and mental strength. She started her career as a fitness instructor in Seoul, South Korea, where she grew up and lived most of her life. When she realized her calling, she quickly devoted her life to helping people in beautiful Colorado reach their goals.


Be sure to follow Coach Charis on Instagram and Facebook!



Disclaimer: Before doing this workout or any other workout program, consult with your doctor or other healthcare practitioner to ensure you are healthy enough for exercise.

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