Fact: A full-body strength workout doesn’t need to be overly long or filled with complicated exercises in order to be effective. This four-move, total-body routine proves you can hit every major muscle group without spending hours in the gym doing a million different exercises.
“I’m a huge believer in the minimum effective dose,” ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, C.P.T., owner of Strong With Sivan, tells SELF. That means focusing on the quality of a workout rather than the quantity as a way to get the most bang-for-your-exercise-buck and progress towards your goals.
Focusing on quality is really about having good form and giving your best effort, no matter how long your workout is. With this approach, you can get super solid results while saving yourself time and energy and reducing your risk of injury, says Fagan.
One easy way to get a quick-yet-effective total-body workout? Incorporate compound movements, which are exercises that involve multiple joints and stimulate large muscle groups. Compared to isolation movements, which target just one muscle, compound movements are a great choice for getting a lot done in a short period of time. And if you pick compound exercises that follow the four major movement patterns—hinging, squatting, pressing, and pulling—your workout becomes that much more efficient and functional.
Including unilateral exercises is another solid way to get the most from a workout when you want to keep it simple. Unilateral exercises require you to rely on the strength of just one limb to perform a movement, which means they often feel more intense than bilateral moves (moves done with two limbs). And because unilateral work demands balance, your core has to fire more too, in order to keep you stable and resist bending or rotating, as SELF previously reported.
The following four-move dumbbell workout, which Fagan created for SELF, checks all of these boxes. It hits the major movement patterns with compound moves and incorporates lots of unilateral work, too, so you can smoke every major muscle group in your body in a short amount of time.
Depending on your fitness level, you can do this routine two to three times a week, either as a standalone routine, or as part of a larger workout. One easy way to add it to a larger workout? Combine it with some shorter core and/or shoulder work, says Fagan (though you certainly don’t need to add on; this is a super-solid workout by itself). However you choose to do this routine, make sure to pencil in enough rest in between sessions so your muscles have enough time to recover—scheduling at least 48 hours of downtime is a good general rule of thumb.
Also important: Before jumping into this routine, do a quick warm-up to mobilize your joints and activate your muscles. Several minutes of moves like pull-aparts, arm swings, squats, and striders can do the trick, says Fagan. (You can also try this five-minute dynamic warm-up here.)
Then, when doing the actual workout, be sure to give it your all, Fagan advises. That means really try to challenge yourself with the weight that you use, and the number of reps you get. You should be working hard enough that you have to rest in between each exercise, she says. Remember: The focus here is on quality, and that means giving max effort.
What you need: An exercise mat for comfort and dumbbells. If possible, get several sets of dumbbells of varying weights, so you can switch between exercises as needed. While the weight will vary for each person—anything between 10 to 25 pounders can be a good ballpark, says Fagan—you should choose heavy enough weight that your last two reps feel quite hard.
- Romanian deadlift
- Alternating chest press
- Single-arm row
- Reverse lunge
- Do each exercise for 10-12 reps. Do the entire circuit four times total. Rest as needed in between exercises and rounds so that your breathing is close to baseline. In general, that will mean taking about 2 minutes between exercises and about 2 to 3 minutes between rounds, says Fagan. (While this might seem like a lot of rest, it’s necessary so you can continue to go hard and heavy on the next exercise!)
Dumbbells We Like:
Amazon Basics Hex Dumbbell
The textured, contoured handle makes this 10-pound dumbbell easy to use, and its hexagonal shape means you don’t have to worry about any rolling.
Core Fitness Adjustable Dumbbell Weight Set
This set of dumbbells has you covered from five pounds up to 50, in five-pound increments. While this set is pricey, we love how easy they are to adjust, and how comfortable and natural the grip feels.
Amazon Neoprene Dumbbells (Set of 2)
Thanks to the neoprene coating, these 12-pound dumbbells are easy to grip and feel comfortable to handle, whether you’re pressing or pulling.
Demoing the moves below are Cookie Janee (GIFs 1 and 4), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; April Nicole Henry (GIF 2), a strength athlete based in New York City; and Nathalie Huerta (GIF 3), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland.