The 10 Best Strength-Training Exercises to Feel Strong and Confident
It's estimated that up to 85% of Americans suffer from low self-esteem. While most everyone can relate to occasional self-doubt or a dip in confidence, it is important to find practices to boost confidence to avoid bigger issues like anxiety and depression that can occur if self-esteem issues aren't addressed.
Studies indicate that resistance training is associated with a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety and can lead to a boost in confidence, higher self-esteem and improved body image.
I see this research in action in my personal-training clients. Regardless of weight loss, clients tell me, "I am getting so much stronger!" or "I can see my muscles now!" or "I always feel better after my workouts." That boost in strength can also lead to a boost in confidence, self-esteem and body image.
What Is Resistance Training?
Resistance training, or strength training, is a type of exercise that utilizes opposing force to make muscles stronger. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends including resistance training at least two times each week as part of your exercise routine. In addition to the benefits it provides for your sense of self, resistance training is crucial to preventing and treating sarcopenia and osteoporosis by helping to maintain muscle and bone mass as we age.
The good news? You don't need to use weights to get a strength- or resistance-training workout—your body weight can act as resistance. You can always add weights as you get stronger or want a greater challenge, but it is possible to get a good resistance-training workout with just your body weight.
Here we look at some of the best exercises to build strength and make you feel strong and confident.
10 Best Exercises to Build Strength and Confidence
Pull-ups are an upper-body exercise that recruits multiple large muscle groups, primarily the muscles in the back and biceps, and uses the body's own weight as resistance. To do a pull-up, grasp a bar overhead and pull your body up to the bar using the strength in your upper body.
You may be saying to yourself, "I can't do a pull-up!" And while you may not be able to do an unassisted pull-up today, most everyone can do a pull-up using an assisted pull-up machine or a resistance band to help lift part of their body weight through the range of motion.
With practice and by building strength, you will make progress. And when you do, the sense of accomplishment you get by doing something difficult will give you a big confidence boost.
Use this pull-up series from Shape to help you get started.
Like pull-ups, push-ups are also primarily an upper-body exercise that recruits multiple large muscle groups and use the body's weight as resistance. Push-ups target the chest, shoulders and triceps muscles, and because your body is in a high plank posture, you also engage your core and legs for stability.
There are two basic modifications to make push-ups more accessible. The most common modification is to simply drop your knees to the floor and do push-ups from your hands and knees. This is an easy variation that takes some of your body weight out of the equation. You'll want to make sure that you are in a modified (hands and knees) plank posture with your hips forward and body in a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, then lower your body to the floor until your chest touches the ground and push back up into your modified plank again.
I personally recommend that my clients modify by elevating the upper body onto a bench, a box, a chair or the edge of your desk or table. This elevated push-up modification allows you to remain in a full plank posture with the upper body elevated off of the floor to take some of the weight out of your arms and allow your legs to help you do the work.
With the elevated upper body method, as you begin to build strength you are also practicing what it feels like to do a full push-up. And you have a variety of progression options as you get stronger: the higher the elevation, the easier the push-up will be; so as you build strength, you can go from the desk to a bench or chair; and then to a step or small box; and then eventually to doing full push-ups on the floor.
Use this series from Shape to help you get started.
3. Glute Bridges
The gluteal (buttocks) muscles are the largest muscle group in the body. It's important to ensure they are strong and functioning properly to prevent injury and reduce back pain. Often the glutes get weak and lose function due to prolonged sitting. So before doing any other lower-body exercises, it's a good idea to perform a few glute bridges to make sure the glutes are firing properly.
I always tell my clients to squeeze their butt cheeks together, then lift their rear end off the mat into the bridge posture, then release to lower their body back to the mat. Repeat and pay attention to where you are feeling the exercise. If you are feeling it more in your hamstrings or low back, be even more intentional about squeezing the glutes and keeping them engaged throughout the exercise.
This will give you the confidence that you need to continue with your workout knowing that your largest muscle group is activated and ready to work.
Squats are my favorite exercise to boost confidence, since they're a great way to build strength in the lower body. Nothing makes me feel more powerful and better about my body than knowing that I can do a heavy weighted squat.
Squats build strength, primarily in the lower body, by working the glutes and the quadriceps muscles. They also recruit the core to stabilize the body throughout the exercise. Squats can be done using only your body weight or can be "weighted" by adding dumbbells, kettlebells, a barbell or bands to increase the resistance as you continue to build strength.
Using a wall to do a wall squat or wall sit provides an excellent modification for those who may have knee pain or who prefer the added support of the wall. And there are a number of variations to explore once you've mastered your form.
Deadlifts are one of the most important exercises that you can do to learn how to lift things without hurting your back. It also feels great to be able to lift something heavy.
Deadlifts work the muscles in the glutes, hamstrings and core. To reduce the risk of injury with deadlifts, as with all resistance exercises, you'll want to make sure you are using proper form. Start by practicing the movement with no weight. Then add weight slowly as you build strength.
Like squats, deadlifts are versatile. You can add weight using dumbbells, a barbell, kettlebells or a trap bar, and there are many progressions and variations to make this exercise accessible.
This guide to deadlifts from Shape provides an excellent overview.
6. Walking Lunges
Walking lunges are one of the best exercises to continue to target the glues and to tone the legs. They recruit multiple muscle groups, and since they also work your balance, walking lunges are a great way to build confidence by improving overall strength and stability.
Use your bodyweight, add dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell to continue to progress as you build strength.
7. Biceps Curls
One of the things I hear often from my clients is how good they feel when they begin to actually see the definition in their muscles. And the biceps may be one of the easiest areas to get early results that you can see, giving an early confidence boost to keep you going on your workout journey.
Biceps curls are an upper-body exercise that targets the muscles on the front side of the upper arms. They build functional strength that you'll need to carry heavy things, and they make your arms look great! If you don't have dumbbells or a barbell, you can do this exercise with something as simple as a bottle of water.
As with all resistance exercises, form is essential to help you get the results you want. Remember: Keep your elbows pulled in toward your sides and use your muscles to lift the weight up toward your shoulders. If you're swinging the weight, you're using momentum, not muscles.
8. Overhead Triceps Extensions
Building muscle in your triceps can help reduce the sagging in the arms that often comes with age. Improving muscle tone in that area of the body is a great way to boost body confidence. Plus, building the triceps provides functional strength to help in any situation where you need to push an object away from your body, and it will also help to perfect your push-up.
While there are a number of exercises that target the triceps, an overhead triceps extension also recruits the muscles in your core to stabilize your body as you lift the dumbbell over your head. It can be done with minimal equipment—one dumbbell or kettlebell (or even a water bottle!) will do. Remember: Keep your arms pulled in as close to your head as possible to keep your elbows from flaring out to the sides. This will ensure that you are primarily using your triceps.
9. Boat Pose
Building core strength is essential to basic body function. Boat pose is one of the best core-strengthening exercises, since it works both the abdominal and the back muscles. It requires no equipment, and you can start by holding the pose as long as you are able to, and then add time as you get stronger.
Getting the right posture from the start is important. Begin in a seated posture with your feet in front of you, and set your upper body by rolling your shoulders up, back and down to keep your chest up and neck neutral. Pull your belly button in toward your spine to activate your core and begin to tilt your body toward the back of your hips and allow your feet to float up to come into your boat. By breathing deeply and using your muscles to hold this posture, you'll strengthen your core and your confidence.
Like boat pose, a plank is a static posture that engages almost every muscle in the body. It is a core exercise, but also recruits muscles in the upper body and in the lower body. If you can perfect your plank posture, you can perfect your overall standing and seated posture, which research shows is essential to building confidence in ourselves and projecting confidence to others.
Planks require no equipment and can be done anywhere. There are number of ways to modify and progress a standard plank. Start by holding a standard plank as long as you are able, using good form, and then work to progress from there. My basic rule for clients is to be able to hold a low plank with good form for one minute before adding any progressions or variations.
How Strength Training Can Help Your Confidence
Resistance training provides a unique sense of accomplishment compared to other forms of exercise. It gives us an alternative to simply tracking progress on a scale, and allows us to focus on something we can add to our bodies, instead of something we need to lose.
Start with simple body-weight exercises, and track your progress as you build strength and begin to add weight. You'll be able to see the improvements and celebrate your successes as you become stronger. It will help you feel better, improve your self-esteem and body image, and give you a big boost of confidence.
Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta-based certified corporate wellness specialist, certified personal trainer and certified yoga instructor. Julie is the program director for Excellence in Exercise, where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning, Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.