If you were a Hollywood celeb or star athlete, you wouldn’t have to think about your workout. You could pay big money to hire a world-class trainer to do that for you.
But if you’re like most of us, you are the person in charge of your lifting plan – choosing your exercises, setting goals for sets and reps, and figuring out how to cram it all into the limited free time you have to hit the gym. So how do you design a workout that best meets your needs?
Thankfully, it’s easier than you think. The following series of simple moves will help you determine your strengths and weaknesses. Once you know the areas where your body is powerful (and where it needs work), you can choose exercises to help you reach your fitness goals.
It’s important to understand how well your body performs the most basic of motions: bodyweight squats, pushups, overhead reaches and lunges.
Self-Assessments: Your Starting Point
Whether you’re a seasoned workout warrior or gym newbie, it’s important to understand how well your body performs the most basic of motions: bodyweight squats, pushups, overhead reaches and lunges.
These moves will tell you a lot about how stable and how mobile you are. If you’re stable, you’re in control. If you’re mobile, you have the range of motion to perform exercises with proper form. If you’re wobbly, shaky or just can’t fathom how your hips could ever sink into a squat, you’ve just discovered an area for improvement.
Assessment 1: Body-weight Squat
The Test: Stand facing a wall with your legs a little more than shoulder width apart. Descend into a squat. Keep your torso upright, with your knees tracking over your toes. If you fall forward or your knees buckle inward, you’ve got a problem. Either your ankles, hips or upper back don't have enough flexibility to perform the squat, or your core doesn't have the strength to remain upright.
The Fix: To address mobility issues in your lower body, you want to open up your hips with exercises such as striders. You can also improve flexibility in your upper back by performing thoracic extensions on a foam roller. Lastly, you should do some planks to strengthen your core.
Striders: Start in a pushup position with your legs, glutes and upper back tight. Lift your right leg and bring your right foot to the outside or your right hand. Return to the starting position and repeat on the left side. Keep your entire body in a straight line during the movement – don’t let your hips drop. Perform up to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each leg.
Thoracic Extensions: Lie with a foam roller underneath your back about halfway between your shoulders and hips. Your hips should touch the ground. Tuck your chin but do not stretch your neck, and keep your hips pressed against the ground as you extend over the foam roller as far as you can. Then bring your chin back upward, as if you were doing crunches. Perform two sets of eight to 12 extensions.
Plank: Start either on your hands in a typical pushup position or on your forearms if you find the pushup position too challenging. Tense all of the muscles in your body, including your back, core, glutes and lower legs. Hold this position for one to two minutes. Do up to four sets.
Assessment 2: Push-Ups
The Test: Set up in the top of a pushup with your arms locked. Lower yourself with control, tucking your elbows in toward your sides. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees, then reverse the movement and drive back upwards to the starting position. Perform 10 repetitions, paying particular attention to the following: Does your back remain straight? Were your shoulders wobbly? Did your elbows flare outward? If so, your triceps are weak or you don’t have proper engagement in your core and back to perform the exercise.
The Fix: If the problem was in your core, the fix is simple – add planks to your workout. If the instability felt rooted in your shoulders, try face pulls, which strengthen the shoulder retractors and external rotators. And if your elbows flared outward, dumbbell military presses will help.
Face Pulls: At a cable resistance machine, position a two-handled rope at the highest setting. Grab each end of the rope with an overhand grip and take a step back so that you feel tension on the rope. Your feet can be together or you can use a split-leg stance. Keep your posture straight as you pull each end of the rope in straight line toward your face. Use a lower weight for this exercise and focus on form. Do up to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions.
Dumbbell Military Press: Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, held at shoulder height. Engage your torso so that your abs, lats and even legs are all supporting you as you push both dumbbells upwards. Your arms should be fully extended at the top. Lower the weights back to your shoulders and repeat. Perform up to four sets of six to12 reps.
Assessment 3: Overhead Reach
The Test: Stand upright with your feet parallel and positioned about shoulder width apart. Your hands should be at your sides with your palms facing inward. Engage your core – don’t let your ribs flare out -- and lift your arms forward, drawing a half-circle in front of you until your hands are over your head, your arms are straight and your thumbs are pointing behind you. Keep your back straight, and don’t let your lower back hyperextend. If you are unable to reach fully overhead, it’s an indication of poor upper back mobility, a weak core and even potential issues in your hips.
The Fix: This assessment goes hand in hand with the squat assessment, and tells you a lot about your shoulder mobility and posture overall. Many lifters have internally rotated or slouched shoulder posture, which the overhead reach will point out immediately. If your shoulder flexibility is less than you’d like, address it with shoulder stretches on a squat rack. For mobility problems in your back, try some foam roller work. Lastly, use squat-to-stands to fix any issues in your hips.
Shoulder Stretches: Find a squat rack or power cage, bend your arm 90 degrees at your elbow and place your forearm against one of the racks. Turn your torso away from your arm. Keep your trunk in a neutral position with your shoulders and hips parallel as you turn. You should feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders and across your chest. Repeat on the other side. Hold each stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. Do three to four sets.
Foam Roller: Roll back and forth on the foam roller, working out any tightness in your middle to upper back. Roll for 30 to 60 seconds, and do up to three sets. Then turn to your side, keeping the foam roller perpendicular to your torso, and roll out your triceps and lats. Move slowly and deliberately, taking deep breaths whenever you feel discomfort. Repeat the routine on your other side.
Squat-to-Stands: Grab the tops of your toes while trying to keep your back as straight as possible. Squat down, driving your knees toward the outside of your arms. Continue to hold on to the tops of your feet as you extend your hips back up. When you feel tension in your hamstrings or glutes, lower yourself back down. Repeat this pattern for up to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
Assessment 4: Lunges
The Test: Start by standing upright and take a step forward with your right leg. Plant your right foot squarely on the ground, shifting most of your weight into your right heel.
Lower your body, keeping your torso erect until both your back leg and front leg are bent at 90 degree angles. Your back foot should be up on your toes, and your left knee should just barely be touching the floor. Stay in control as you step forward with your left foot, bringing it directly alongside your right leg. Repeat on the other side. Throughout the routine, your hands can either be at your sides or pressed together in front of your chest.
If you have a tendency to shift side to side, or your front knee is falling forward of your toes, it indicates immobile hips or ankles.
The Fix: Work on the mobility of your ankles with a simple ankle mobility drill.
Ankle Mobility Wall Drill: Stand about one foot away from a wall with your feet flat. Keep your heels down, and drive your right knee forward, trying to touch the wall. Repeat on the other side. Perform eight to 12 repetitions for up to three sets.
Hip Thrusts: Your instability on lunges could be an indication of a weakness in your posterior chain -- the backside muscles including your glutes and hamstrings. Because of immobility and misalignment in your hips, your glutes typically don't work the way they should, which negatively affects your stability. Performing hip thrusts will reactivate your glutes and provide a dynamic stretch on your hips flexors on the front side of your hip.
Lie face up with your upper back on a flat bench and your feet flat on the floor. Keeping your torso and head in a straight line, lower your hips toward the floor. Then reverse the movement by powerfully contracting the glutes and thrusting your hips upward, extending your hips until your knees, hips and torso are in a straight line.