6 essential exercises for building full-body strength

man performing dumbbell back row exercise
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

When it comes to building full-body strength, not all exercises are created equal. If you're looking for six simple strength and conditioning exercises to target your entire body using a set of adjustable dumbbells, a barbell, or simply using some of the best resistance bands, we've found them.

Below we've gone into detail on how best to perform the exercises and suggested reps for a full-body workout. If you're new to exercise or returning to exercise following an injury, it's a good idea to check your form with a personal trainer before adding weight to the move, to ensure you're not putting yourself at risk of injury.  

Nicky Simbotin
Nicky Simbotin

Nicky Simbotin is a Personal Trainer, and athlete, who works in collaboration with Crazy Nutrition, a brand new sports nutrition range, including all-natural, premium, protein, creatine, and pre-train supplements. 

Goblet squat

an illo of a man doing a goblet squat

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Aim for: 12-15 reps for 3 sets

A great full-body exercise to build muscle (particularly in the legs, core, and glutes) and develops cardiovascular fitness. 

As with all squats, the goblet squat targets all the major muscle groups of the lower body. This shows in everyday functional movements as it mimics squatting down to pick up shopping, rising out of a chair or getting out of bed in the morning. You don't need much to get started with the goblet squat — just a kettlebell or dumbbell and enough space to stand with your feet roughly hip distance apart.

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart, your toes angled slightly outward.
  2. Hold a kettlebell in both hands at your chest and bend your elbows, so the goblet is positioned right at the centre of your chest.
  3. Engage your core and look straight ahead — you want to keep your back neutrally aligned and your eyes facing straight forward throughout the squat.
  4. Press your hips back and begin bending your knees to perform the squat. Inhale as you perform this downward phase.
  5. Focus on keeping your chest tall as you continue pressing your hips back and lowering down. The goal is to get your hips below parallel with your knees.
  6. Make sure your weight remains evenly distributed across your feet or slightly more weighted toward your heels.
  7. Press through your heels and reverse the motion to return to the starting position. Exhale as you rise.

Romanian deadlifts

an illo of a woman doing a romanian deadlift

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Aim for: 8-12 reps for 3 sets)

Romanian deadlifts are a variation on the traditional deadlift, they come with some major benefits. Targeting your glutes and hamstrings, you'll build muscle and strength in the lower back, and even your lats will feel the burn. They're great for improving mobility.

Here's more on how to do a Romanian deadlift, and the benefits. 

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold the barbell or dumbbells out in front of you, near thighs.
  2. Keeping your back and legs straight (don’t lock your knees), bend at the waist and focus on sending your hips and butt back as you lower the barbell/dumbbells toward the ground. Make sure your weight is in your heels.
  3. Maintain that position and lower yourself as far as your flexibility allows, ideally with the weight(s) landing at least in the middle of your shins.
  4. Engage your glutes, contract your hips, and drive back to the starting position.

Walking lunges

an illo of a man doing a walking lunge

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Aim for: 10 reps on each leg (20 in total) for 2-3 sets

Strengthen the leg muscles as well as the core, hips, and glutes. You can also make walking lunges more challenging by adding weights or adding a torso twist.

Here's more on how to do a lunge and the variations to try.

  1. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your hands can stay by the side of your body or on your hips.
  2. Step forward with your right leg, putting the weight into your heel.
  3. Bend the right knee, lowering down so that it’s parallel to the floor in a lunge position. 
  4. Without moving the right leg, move your left foot forward, repeating the same movement on the left leg. Pause as your left leg is parallel to the floor in a lunge position.
  5. Repeat this movement, “walking” forward as you lunge, alternating legs.

Shoulder press

an illustration of a man doing a shoulder press with dumbbells

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Aim for: 10-12 reps for 3 sets

This exercise works the deltoid muscle of the shoulder. The standing dumbbell overhead press also engages the core for stability throughout the movement. In daily life, you may need to place objects on shelves above your head or your luggage in the overhead compartment on a plane. This exercise helps build the strength you need to do these tasks safely.

Try next: This shoulder workout only takes 10 minutes to build muscle.

  1. Stand upright and keep the back straight. Hold a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell, at the shoulders, with an overhand grip. 
  2. Inhale, brace the core, drive the weights above the head in a controlled motion.
  3. Pause briefly at the top of the motion.
  4. Return the dumbbells or barbell to the shoulders.

Dumbbell back rows

an illo of a woman doing dumbbell bent over rows

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Aim for: 12-15 reps for 3 sets

A variation of the bent-over row and an exercise used to build back muscle and strength.

Rows are a foundational movement pattern and are very important to train for balanced muscle growth and strength. Experiment until you find a rowing variation that you enjoy and work on it.

  1. Start in a standing position while holding a dumbbell/kettlebell in each hand with a neutral grip.
  2. Hinge forward until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor (or slightly above) and then begin the movement by driving the elbows behind the body while retracting the shoulder blades.
  3. Pull the dumbbells/kettlebells towards your body until the elbows are at (or just past) the midline and then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position under control.

Hip thrust

an illo of a woman doing hip thrusts

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Aim for: 15-20 reps for 3 sets

Many personal trainers agree the hip thrusts build strength and size in your glutes in a way many other exercises cannot. Strong glutes promote athletic abilities, like jumping, sprinting, and changing directions. In general, strong glutes are key to good mobility. 

Follow these steps to perform a hip thrust:

  1. Set up with your back against an elevated surface (like a bench or a box) with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
  2. The bench should hit just below your shoulder blades, and your feet should be about shoulder-width apart. You can rest your elbows on the bench.
  3. Keeping your chin tucked, push through your heels until your thighs reach parallel to the floor — your legs should form a 90-degree angle.
  4. Squeeze your glutes at the top, then return to start.

Chest press

an illo of a man doing a dumbbell chest press

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Aim for: 8-12 reps for 2-3 sets

The chest press works the pectoral muscles of the chest. You can use a variety of equipment, including dumbbells, barbells, a Smith machine or even resistance bands.

It also uses the anterior deltoids of the shoulder and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. Building chest support and definition is desirable for a fit look, but building this muscle is also functional. You need strong pecs for power for sports where you swing a bat, racket, or club. The chest press also helps you with any daily activities that require pushing or carrying.

  1. Lie on a flat bench with your feet pressing into the floor.
  2. Draw your shoulders down and back to press them into the bench.
  3. Hold two dumbbells with palms facing forward and your thumbs wrapped around the handle.
  4. On an inhale, lower the dumbbells slightly wider than your mid-chest, slowly and with control.
  5. Gently touch the dumbbells to your chest.
  6. On an exhale, press your arms upwards, keeping your elbows slightly bent.
  7. Position the dumbbells just below eye level.

Looking for more workout inspiration? Here are 10 of the best dumbbell chest exercises to add to your routine, plus 5 of the best dumbbell ab exercises to try

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy. 

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