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Strength Training Exercises for the Biggest Muscle Groups

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Angela Atkinson • updated: 7/11/2011

Although health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend strength-training your major muscle groups twice weekly, they don't actually tell you how to meet that goal. Come along as a certified personal trainer teaches an exercise for each major muscle group.

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    Chest

    The dumbbell chest press works your chest, shoulders and triceps together.

    • Lie down on a weight bench or, in a pinch, on the floor, with a dumbbell in each hand.
    • Extend the weights straight above your chest, palms facing toward your feet.
    • Bend your elbows, lowering the weights down and out until your elbows are level with your shoulders. The weights should stay over your elbows throughout the motion.
    • Press the weights back up to the starting position.
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    Back

    The dumbbell row works all your major back muscles (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major), plus your brachioradialis, one of the major pulling muscles in your arms. If you want to work your biceps, turn the weight so your palm faces forward as you lift.

    • Place one knee on a weight bench or the side of the bed. Lean forward and use your hand on the same side to support your body, keeping your back flat.
    • Hold a dumbbell in your free hand. Extend your arm straight down below your shoulder, but don't let your shoulder on that side sag down; your back should stay flat and level.
    • Keep both shoulders level as you pull the weight up and back, until your elbow is close against the side of your body. The weight hangs below your elbow throughout the movement.
    • Lower the weight slowly back to the starting position.
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    Abs

    Although late-night television and the Internet abound with ads for the latest, greatest ab machine, simple abdominal floor crunches work just fine:

    • Lie down on the floor or the bed. If you're lying on a hard floor, you might be more comfortable using an exercise mat or yoga mat to cushion your spine.
    • Bend your knees and plant both feet flat on the floor.
    • Place both hands to either side of your ears, or cross them over your chest. Don't put your hands behind your head or neck, which makes it hard not to pull on your head and neck as you crunch.
    • Squeeze your abs, flexing your spine and lifting your shoulders slightly off the floor. Think of bringing your lower ribs and the top of your pelvis closer together.
    • Lower back to the floor and repeat. You don't need to do hundreds of crunches to see results; if you can do more than 20 crunches with good technique, try extending both arms straight overhead, or holding a small weight plate against your chest, to make the exercise more challenging.
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    Quads

    Theoretically, you could divide your lower body into four major muscle groups--quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes--instead of just quads, hamstrings and calves. But unlike using strength-training machines in the gym, it's almost impossible to isolate a single muscle group with free weight or bodyweight exercises. This is particularly true for lower body exercises. In this case, your glutes almost always work any time you use your quads for exercises like leg dips. Try this exercise with just your body weight for resistance at first. As you get stronger, you can carry dumbbells for extra resistance.

    • Stand in front of a stable platform, like a step aerobics bench.
    • Place one foot flat in the middle of the platform. The higher the platform is, the more difficult the exercise will be. If your knee bends sharper than 90 degrees, the platform is too high.
    • Shift your weight onto the elevated foot. Straighten that leg, lifting your body until you're standing over it on the step.
    • Continue using that same leg as a "brake" as you slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
    • Complete a full set on one side before you switch to the other leg.
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    Hamstrings

    Your hamstrings perform two motions: They bend your leg at the knee, and they extend your leg at the hip. It's very hard to duplicate the former motion against resistance without a gym-style leg curl machine, but if you have a stability ball at home, you can use it to perform both motions with stability ball leg curls:

    • Lie on your back, legs straight and heels resting on top of the stability ball.
    • Squeeze your glutes (and hamstrings) to lift your hips off the floor. This is a great ab and back exercise, too; it takes a lot of core strength to keep your body straight from head to heels.
    • Keep the rest of your body as still as possible while you bend your knees, rolling the ball toward you until your feet rest flat on top of it. Then slowly straighten your legs, until they're straight and your heels rest on top of the ball.

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    Calves

    Your calves might not seem like they qualify as their own muscle group, but they power every walking, running or jumping step you take. Standing calf raises are one of the most effective ways to work them:

    • Place the balls of both feet on an aerobics step, the bottom stair in a flight of stairs, or any other stable surface that your feet won't slide off of.
    • Point your toes, lifting your heels as high as possible.
    • Lower your heels until your feet are level, or until your heels are very slightly lower than the balls of your feet. This completes one repetition.
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    Sets and Repetitions

    It's tempting to assume that "more is better." But the truth is that a single set of eight to 12 repetitions is enough for general strength training, as long as you're using enough resistance to make that last repetition a challenge. So don't be shy about doing one set of each exercise and then moving on to something else. After all, not having enough time is one of the most common excuses not to work out.