As a Personal Trainer and Nutritionist, I’ve seen endless gym-goers logging multiple hours per week, and becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of progress. Needless to say, one of the main reasons we workout is to get results, whether that be fat loss, muscle gain, or both.

In order to really see change in your body, there are certain exercises you should include (and others that offer little to no benefit). Here we will discuss the top 4 movements that will help you reach your goals, and keep you healthy in the long term.

The Squat

Many fitness experts see the squat as one of the most important functional movements to be included in everyone’s routine. The squat provides lower body strengthening and mobility, and mimics a natural movement that we carry out in daily life. The problem is, squats are not easy, mainly due to poor flexibility and mobility. When done correctly, they work the glutes, hamstrings, quads, erector spinae (muscles lining your spine), abs, adductors (inner high muscles) and much more.

If you haven’t done squats before or it’s been awhile, start without any weight in order to perfect your form (a body weight squat). Once you’ve mastered this, you can start adding weight either with a barbell resting on your shoulders (back squat), in front of your shoulders with your elbows pointed forward (front squat), or dumbbells alongside your body.

To properly execute the squat, stand with your feet just shoulder width apart, keeping your knees centered over your ankles (not jutting out in front of your toes). Bend your knees as your sit the hips way back, maintaining your weight on the heels, until you come to about ninety degrees from the floor. Press back up through your heels to starting position, squeezing your glutes at the top. This is one repetition.

Deadlift

The deadlift is right up there with squats for being one of the best exercises you can do. They work to strengthen the lower and upper back, abs, biceps, quads, forearms, glutes, hamstrings and more. It is the ultimate total body movement.

Deadlifting properly takes a good amount of mobility, so preparing the body by working on hip mobility is important. Check out this resource for specifics on how to prepare your body for a deadlift (and this should not be underestimated, as you can definitely injure yourself by improperly executing a deadlift).

To begin your deadlift, stand with feet just past shoulder width apart, a barbell (at first with no extra weight) directly in front of you on the floor. Now, position your feet just under the bar (when you look down, the bar is directly over your toes), and bend down, hinging from the hips with a flat back and abs tight, to position your hands on the bar. You can bend your knees in this step as much as you need for your back to remain straight, and you might need to raise the bars starting position by propping it up on two low boxes.

To prepare for the lift, open your chest and pull your shoulders back, and raise the bar so that it stays as close to your body as possible, until you are in a standing position. Thrust your hips forward (this becomes crucial as you add weight to the bar), and then lower the bar back to starting position, back remaining straight and abs engaged. Repeat.

Pull-up

For the females out there, you might be rolling your eyes at this one. But remember, even if you don’t (yet) have the strength to do a strict pull-up, there are easy ways to modify a pull-up and still reap the many benefits offered by this movement. The pull-up is excellent for overall body strength and endurance, and primarily works the triceps, lats, biceps, and various muscles of and around the shoulders.

To modify, use an assisted pull-up machine or elastic band. You can decide whether to have your palms facing forward, backward or between a wide or narrow grip. Each is beneficial, and each offers slightly different benefits. For a beginner, start with a wide grip, palms forward push-up variation.

Hang from the bar (or assisted machine), shoulders pulled down and away from your ears, and pull your body straight up until your chin is just over the bar. Hold this position for a second and then slowly lower back to your starting position. Do as many reps as possible. For those needing more challenge, weight can be added to a belt.

Bench Press

The bench press is not just for men looking to bulk up, but is an extremely powerful and effective upper body movement for everyone. The bench press targets the pecs, shoulder muscles, triceps, rotator cuffs, core muscles and much more.

To properly carry out this movement, begin lying down on a bench underneath a barbell, and grip the bar just beyond shoulder width. Make sure your glutes and hips are firmly planted to the bench, but a natural and slight arch in the lower back is fine. Press your feet firmly into the floor, and make sure your shoulder blades are squeezed together and abs are tight.

Lift the bar and lower it to your chest, keeping your elbows bent at around 45 degrees. Lift straight back up, and repeat.

Conclusion

Although many people have heard of these exercises and they are some of the most basic weight lifting movements, don’t be fooled into thinking they are simple (when executed correctly). Getting a personal trainer that is on the floor and available for spotting and general tips can be a great idea to make sure your form is correct, and certainly practice these movements without adding extra weight until your form is perfected. Whether your main goal is muscle gain or fat loss, these top movements will be hugely beneficial to your workout plan.

Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.