3 essential moves to master

The fitness goal: a stronger core

The skill to match: the handstand

Holding a stable handstand requires strength in the arms, shoulders, upper back, and core, Hageman says. Think of the move as a vertical arms-extended plank and the corework involved becomes obvious.

Your game plan:

For starters, make one core-specific exercise (such as a plank or hollow-body hold) a staple in every strength session, Hageman says.

Otherwise, the first step toward mastering a handstand is nailing the pike hold: With your feet on a low bench or step, get into a high plank and walk your hands toward your feet until you’re in an inverted V. Perform 2 sets of 5 reps, holding as long as you can, at least 3 times a week until you can maintain proper form for 20 seconds for all reps.

From there, add walk-up wall holds and kick-up handstands (in which you use a wall for support) to your routine twice a week. Aim for 2 sets of 5 reps for each, keeping your body as vertical as possible. Once you can hold all reps for 30 seconds, try a full handstand. 

Always practice in a clear, open area and, if possible, with a partner to help support or catch your legs. For safe performance, do 5 minutes of wrist and shoulder mobility drills before each progression.

“Film yourself so you can build kinesthetic awareness and adjust your alignment,” says Hageman. Losing tension in the core and arching the back are the most common issues in beginners. “Your goal should always be to maintain a straight line.”

The fitness goal: a new race PR

The skill to match: the pistol squat

This advanced bodyweight exercise improves hip strength, mobility, and stabilization, says Conlon. The result: You’ll run faster and with a lower risk of injury.

Your game plan:

Conlon progressed through four moves before attempting a full pistol squat: narrow squats (with feet together), negative pistol squats (lowering on one foot and rising on two), narrow squats with leg extension (extending one leg in the lowest position), and elevated pistol squats (done on a box so the unplanted leg can drop further).

Start by practicing narrow squats twice a week. Once you can perform 10 reps with proper form, move on to negative pistol squats. Follow the same pattern for all exercises, advancing once you can complete 10 back-to-back reps per side.

Before each one, perform 5 minutes of ankle mobility drills, calf stretches, eccentric calf raises, and calf foam rolling. This will help you develop the range of motion you need to achieve the pistol squat.

Don’t be discouraged if your progress seems slow. “The first time I tried most of these, I needed one to five minutes of rest before I could try again,” Conlon recalls. 

The fitness goal: overall athleticism

The skill to match: the deadlift

This exercise is the pinnacle of total-body strength, says Patrick Sullivan, Tier 3 trainer at The Loop. It trains some of the body's most-used muscles—including the glutes, hamstrings, and lats—while developing core and grip strength. The latter is a major limiting factor in the deadlift and dynamic moves like pull-ups, carries, and rope climbs.

Honing your form will help you improve at virtually everything you do in and out of the gym. 

Your game plan:

Chances are, you can deadlift. But it can take years to build the technical proficiency to achieve what is, for many, the ultimate goal: pulling double your body weight.

To perform conventional deadlifts, starting and ending with the barbell on the floor, you need hamstring mobility, which actually stems from core strength. Perform this core work routine every day to build both.

Before progressing to the barbell variation, master the hip hinge through double- and single-sided Romanian deadlifts using kettlebells and dumbbells. Do it at least twice a week, using moderate weights that allow you to confidently complete 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps. Focus on maintaining total-body tension, keeping your spine in neutral, and not squatting at the bottom of the movement, a near-universal mistake.

Once you can complete all reps with proper form, swap kettlebells and dumbbells for a barbell. Sullivan recommends this protocol from his playbook: Once a week, complete 3 to 6 sets of 1 to 6 reps using a heavy load that makes you max out in that range. On another training day each week, perform 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps with a lighter load. Stick with the same weights and set-rep schemes and add 5 to 10 pounds once you can perform 2 extra reps. Keep that cadence going until you hit your goal.