5 key strength-training exercises

You want to add some strength training but don't want to pay for a trainer or classes. What exercises should you do, how heavy and how much? Answer: Make them functional movements and make them hard. That's what stimulates the body to get stronger.

"I saw an article a few years ago that said women shouldn't use weights over 3 pounds — but grocery bags can be 20 pounds," notes Danette Rivera, a coach at CrossFit L.A. "You have to use weights and reps that are hard enough to effect change."


According to Jacque Crockford, an exercise physiologist and educational specialist at the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise, "hard enough" is a weight that you can lift no more than 6 to 12 times before you can do no more. Beyond 12 repetitions, the weight is so light that it becomes less strength-building and more aerobic training.

Here are five exercises she says reflect the primary movement patterns and motor skills from head to toe that we all need for daily function:

Squats: Keeping your back and head erect, bend at your knees and hips until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Then stand up, pushing through the butt. This works all the muscles below the waist and gives you function movement through the hip, knee and ankle joints. Start with your body weight only; add dumbbells when 12 reps becomes too easy. Do two to four sets.

Lunges: Step forward and lower the rear knee to the ground so that both knees are at 90 degrees. Keep your head and back erect throughout. This works your single-leg pattern balance. Start with body weight only; add dumbbells when 12 reps becomes easy. Do two to four sets.

Push-ups: Keeping back and legs straight, push up from a prone position. This strengthens the shoulders and chest. Since there is no real way to add weight, do as many as you can.

Pull-ups: Maybe the most "empowering" exercise for women, according to Crockford, the pull-up is hard for most people and unfathomable for many women. If you can't do one of these, called "king of the back exercises," start by hanging on the bar as long as possible to build back and hand strength. Then do assisted pull-ups with a resistance-assist band to lighten your own body-weight load. When you get up to 12 reps, toss the band and use body weight only.

Wood chops: Starting from a staggered stance with feet wider than shoulder width and one foot 12 inches ahead of the other, hold one dumbbell with two hands, keeping arms straight, and move the weight cross-body from left hip to above the right shoulder. Do six to 12 reps, then do it from right hip to left shoulder. This rotates, strengthens and stabilizes the thoracic spine (the middle 12 vertebrae, from the base of the neck to the top of the lower spine, largely between the shoulder blades), thereby protecting the more vulnerable lower spine. Even active people tend to neglect this part of the spine, which is used throughout the day as we get in and out of a chair and car, answer phones and turn.