25 Most Deceiving Exercises (They Tone More than You Think!)
By Charlotte Andersen
One-legged squats don’t seem very tricky—after all, you did manage to pick up that cotton ball you dropped without putting your newly pedicured foot on the floor—but squatting on one leg seriously challenges your balance. It also activates your core and just about every other muscle in your lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Try it: Stand holding your arms straight out in front of your body and raise your right leg off the floor. Push your hips back and lower your body as far as you can. Pause, then push your body back to the starting position.Tip: Modify this move by using a resistance band or do them in front of chair or weight bench in case you lose your balance or get stuck (It happens).
Laying on your back and coming to a standing position sounds pretty benign—until you have to do it while holding a weight at arm’s length above your head. Up for the challenge? Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and hold a dumbbell in your left hand with your arm straight above you. Roll onto your right side and prop yourself up on your right elbow. Simply stand up, while keeping your arm straight and the dumbbell above you at all times. Once standing, reverse the movement to return to the starting position.Tip: Don’t take your eyes off the dumbbell at any time.
By combining squat thrusts with a return to standing in between each rep, the burpee is the ultimate full-body exercise. Just one seemingly simple movement challenges the muscles in your chest, arms, thighs, hamstrings, andabs. And because you’re using your full body when doing burpees, it’s one of the best exercises to burn fat.Tip: Make your burpees more challenging by adding in a push up before the squat thrust and/or a tuck jump when you come back up to your feet.
There’s a reason that hula hooping is all the fitness rage right now. Not only is it a good option for low-impact cardio, but it’s a great workout for your entire core. Plus, the dance moves and upbeat music make it as fun as it is challenging.Tip: Get an adult-sized hoop (usually about 10-13 feet in circumference). The larger it is, the easier it is to keep in motion. You can even make your own for just a few bucks.
Arm bikes, or “Kranking”, have recently gained popularity among endurance athletes for their ability to skyrocket your heart rate while working your shoulders, arms, and core. If you use them standing up, you’ll even feel it down your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.Tip: Try rotating the top of the Krankcycle to work your muscles in the opposite direction, says Kranking instructor Melissa Schenck. “This counters the hunching forward we do with our back and shoulders in daily activities.”
Lowering and raising your body is about as basic as it gets, which leads many people to dismiss push ups as boring or even worse, ineffective. But by using proper form—stomach pulled in toward your back, hands in line with your shoulders—this move becomes a full-body exercise that goes beyond your chest to work your abs, shoulders, and upper back.Tip: With hundreds of variations, there’s never a reason to be bored. Try plyo push-ups by pushing off your hands to catch a little air for a challenge or keep your elbows tucked in to your sides to work your triceps.
Barbell Front Squats
Standard squats may not be so bad, but it’s a different story when you shift the weight to the front of your body. Try it: Hold the bar with an overhand grip that’s just beyond shoulder-width and allow it to roll back so that it’s resting on the fronts of your shoulders. Slowly lower your body until the tops of your thighs are at leastparallel to the floor. Pause, then push your body back to the starting position.Tip: Make sure your shoulders are holding the weight of the bar so you don’t strain your wrists or roll the bar into your throat (the worst part of the latter is that not only does it really hurt but you can’t even call for help!).
Gym class memories of sitting with your back against a wall, legs shaking until you see stars are enough to remind us of the power of this seemingly simple move. Make sure your legs are at a 90-degree angle, press your back against the wall, and hold it until you absolutely can’t hold it any longer.Tip: Place your hands on top of your head or hold them out in front to add a little work for your shoulders. But whatever you do, don’t cheat and rest them on your thighs!
Jumping rope is an incredible cardio workout on its own, but go ahead and up the ante (and make it more fun) by throwing in a few tricks such as crossovers, high knees, and the CrossFit staple: the double under. Start by jumping rope with both feet to establish a good rhythm. Then, swing the rope as fast as you can while you’re in the air, trying to get it under your feet twice before you land.Tip: Once you’ve got the hang of it, try doing as many double unders in a row as you can.
Kettlebells are unmatched in their ability to give you an amazing cardio and strength workout at the same time. The basic kettlebell swing (the simplest kettlebell move of all) involves swinging the bell from the ground out in front of you to shoulder height and back down again. It sounds easy, but most people don’t use proper form and risk serious injury to their back. To master this move, “reach back with your hips on the backswing as if you are trying to touch a wall behind you,” says Jenn Nims, RKC certified kettlebell trainer. “As you do this, keep your shoulders back and your spine neutral. At the top of the swing, contract your abs as if you’re getting punched in the stomach, while simultaneously squeezing your glutes as if you’re crushing a penny. Maybe not the best image, but it helps people to activate the right muscles.”Tip: You should feel this move in your inner thighs, quads, and especially your glutes. If you feel a pull in your lower back, you’re doing it wrong.
It doesn’t get much easier than holding still. That is, until you try holding still with only your hands and toes touching the ground. To get the most out of this core exercise, make sure you pull your bellybutton in toward your spine and keep your hands in line with your shoulders. Don’t let your hips sag—you shouldn’t be feeling this in your back.Tip: Bored of the plain ol’ plank? Try lifting up one arm and the opposite leg to really challenge your core and balance.
Ninja Tuck Jumps
Moving quickly from your knees to your feet is only easy for Jackie Chan (and other action stars). But this is one stunt you can master with a little practice. Starting on your knees, contract your glutes and quads and jump to your feet in one motion, landing in a deep squat. Yelling hi-ya or whipping out your nun-chucks will earn you our undying love—which is worth the weird looks you’ll also get.Tip: Start by doing these on thick carpet or a mat and swing your arms to help you get enough momentum.
Pilates Single-Leg Lifts
Jane Fonda may have missed with the tights-belt-leotard combo, but she was definitely on to something with those leg lifts. Performed correctly, leg lifts can be a powerful tool in transforming your body. The trick is to get off your side and involve other muscles. Pilates “seated single-leg lifts” look like you’re just lifting one leg up and then other, but even the most advanced practitioner will feel a burn in their quads and core after a few reps.Tip: Be sure to keep your back straight so you’re not hunching over your leg.
If you want a flat, sexy stomach, shift your focus away from your core every once in a while and train your lower back. Lay flat on your stomach with your arms extended in front of you on the ground as your legs are lying flat. Lift both your arms and legs at the same time, as if you were flying, and contract the lower back. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute, depending on how “super” you’re feeling.Tip: Squeeze your glutes to help lift your legs higher off the floor.
Ballerinas are famous for making every move look graceful and easy, but don’t be fooled: These lean ladies work hard for their beautiful legs. Plies are essentially squats done with your toes facing out and your bottom tucked under (not reaching back as in a traditional squat). Try it: Stand with your back straight, toes pointed out to each side, and your rear tucked under your hips. Slowly lower your body and rise back up, squeezing your bum the entire time.Tip: Try plies in both first position (heels together and toes pointing out) and in second position (feet a little wider than hip-width apart and toes pointing out) to work your glutes and inner and outer thighs.
Rowers may look like they are gliding effortlessly across the lake, but this one compound exercise trains your back, core, glutes, arms, andlegs. To reap the body benefits without the sunburn (and who has a rowboat handy anyhow?) try the rowing machine at your gym. Form is everything, so be sure to sit up straight and use your legs to generate most of the power following this 1-2-3 pattern: legs, back, then arms.Tip: Make it fun by racing a friend on another rowing machine.
Believe it or not, the simple act of lifting yourself up one leg at a time activates your entire lower body, and the incline really gets your heart pumping. Just be careful not to hunch your shoulders as you step, especially if you’re using a stair climber or step mill.Tip: Don’t stay trapped on a machine! Find a tall building nearby or sign up for a “stair race” to add some camaraderie and competition to this killer move.
I’ve yet to meet a mountaineer that climbs mountains in this position (a better name would be “Sprinter Stuck at the Starting Line” but I suppose that’s not as catchy). Still, there’s no denying the power of this exercise that challenges your shoulders and quads and elevates your heart rate. Assume the sprinter starting position—hands on the ground, rear up in the air and one leg bent toward your chest. Alternate which leg is forward, only touching your front toe to the ground before quickly switching sides.Tip: Put your timer/watch on the ground between your hands, because you won’t be able to look at your wrist or up at a clock without breaking your rhythm.
If a 500-pound man in an adult diaper can do it, anyone can, right? Sumo squats—squats with your feet wider than hip width and with toes pointing out—require a unique combination of hip flexibility and glute and inner-thigh strength.Tip: Just like a regular squat, push your booty out like you’re sitting in a chair and then squeeze those glutes as you stand up.
Clean and Press
This move will challenge your coordination, glutes, and shoulder strength, as well as entertain you and, if you fail, everyone around you. Try it: Starting with the bar on the ground, bend at your hips and knees and grasp it with an overhand grip that’s just beyond shoulder width. Stand and pull the bar up so it’s just in front of your thighs—the “clean.” Then, raise your upper arms until they’re parallel to the floor (elbows pointing out in front of you) so the bar is resting on your shoulders and under your chin. From here, push press the bar over your head.Tip: People that are good at this make it look like one easy smooth motion. People that are not good at this have the bruises from shin to chin to prove it. To avoid being the latter, start with a light enough bar that you get the form down perfectly before adding weight.
Look like an action star and work your butt at the same time with this kick out to the side. Stand on one leg with your supporting foot pointed slightly outward. Bend your other leg and raise it up to hip level, and then extend your leg fully with your toe pointed. Remember this classic instruction to keep everything in line: “It’s as if you’re pressed between two panes of glass.”Tip: Have a friend hold their hand (or a board Mr. Miyagi style) at head height, and then picture your ex, boss, etc. and give it your all! Also, it’s easier to point your toes if you take off your shoes.
A new move to most people, the beauty of this core stabilizeris that it does all the work while you just stand there—at least, that’s what it looks like. Try it and you’ll see that it’s not so simple! Set a cable station to about waist height with the D-ring handle attached (that would be the handle that looks, yes, like a capital D). Stand with your right side facing the weight stack with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Step away from the stack so the cable is taut, hold the handle against your chest and brace your abs. Slowly press your arms in front of you until they’re completely straight, pause for a second, and bring them back. The objective of this exercise is to avoid rotation.Tip: How do you know how much weight to use? If it jerks you right off your feet—as it did me the first time I tried it—you’ve got too much.
Elementary school gym class was not complete until you raced each other across the cafeteria floor going backwards in the crab position (hands and feet on the floor, stomach facing up). While kids scuttle across the floor like, well, crabs, adults are often amazed at how difficult it is to move with any speed in this manner. Find some open space and give it a try!Tip: Add triceps dips at the end of each length for even more of a challenge.
It takes about 10 reps for you to really feel the genius of this inverted exercise. At that point, you’ll feel the burn from your shoulders down to your legs. Start on your hands and knees with your backside to a wall (preferrably a wall with nothing on it as you’re going to be kicking it). Lift up onto your toes, keeping knees bent. Jump your feet up onto the wall behind you while you support yourself with your hands. Jump feet back down.Tip: Don’t kick up any higher than your hip level.
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and blogs at The Great Fitness Experiment.