Being strong and healthy is nice and important, but the reason a lot of us exercise is to look good. These aesthetically-focused exercises won’t make you hot overnight, but in combination with a healthy diet, they will give you the best bang for your workout buck so you look good dressed up — or undressed.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
These exercises target body regions for attractiveness based on typical Western beauty standards. That means the exercises we’ll highlight are different for men and women. For men, we’ll broaden the upper body and develop defined leg muscle. For women, we’ll focus on tightening up arms and building a firmer, tighter booty. Still, not every body type can be (or needs to be) a statue of a Greek god or goddess. If that’s not you, you can still look great naked. These exercises will still help you get healthy and strong no matter who you are.
Exercises for Men
For men, looking good in your birthday suit involves building some upper body muscle. We spoke to “PictureFit”, of the PictureFit YouTube channel, and he explains that it’s often easier for guys to make themselves appear broader than it is for them to diet for a six pack or build muscles proportionally throughout the body. Dick Talens, fitness coach and Lifehacker contributor, says the key to that is developing the “V-taper”, which means building broad shoulders, a wide chest and a small waist so your upper body looks like the letter “V”. The V-taper approach is especially useful for those who have “dadbods” or identify as “skinny fat”.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
To work your upper chest and broaden your shoulders, Talens recommends you start with the incline dumbbell bench press. In the video above, fitness coach Max Tapper demonstrates the proper form. Grab your dumbbells, lean back on an inclined lifting bench, hold the dumbbells straight above you and make sure your shoulders are pinched back and your chest is out. Now bring the dumbbells out to your sides so your upper arms are parallel to the floor, return to the starting position and repeat.
Talens suggests you use dumbbells over barbells or machines when possible because the instability of free weights helps build more defined muscle. When it comes to weight and reps, do whatever weight feels comfortable for you, but make sure you focus on form first. If you need to work your muscles more, do more reps, don’t add more weight — at least when you’re just getting started. Beginning with too much weight breaks down your form and can lead to injury. That goes for all exercises that involve weights.
Dumbbell Side Lateral Raises
You can also broaden your shoulders by working your deltoids. PictureFit says dumbbell side lateral raises target the hard-to-hit lateral head (or “side delts”) of your shoulder that overhead presses can’t hit. This will noticeably increase the width and thickness of your delts, making your shoulders look a lot bigger overall. There are a lot of exercises that build shoulder strength, but dumbbell side lateral raises also build and chisel muscle so you look stronger.
In the video above, fitness coach Scott Herman explains how to do lateral raises correctly. Start by standing up straight, knees slightly bent and holding your dumbbells at your side. Pinch your shoulder blades together, keep your wrists straight and raise your arms outward until they’re parallel to the ground. Slowly lower your arms back to your side and repeat.
To create the top of your V-taper, Talens says you need to widen your back by working your latissimus dorsi muscles, or “lats”. Lat pulldowns are the best workout for this, but you’ll need access to gym equipment, or use a fitness band at home. In the video above, Tapper is back to demonstrate a proper lat pulldown at the gym. Start by locking your legs under the cushions (if the machine has them), then grab the bar with a wide grip and bring the bar down slowly in front of your chin until it touches your sternum. Slowly return to the start position and repeat.
As you do these, Talens recommends you keep a loose grip on the handles and pull down from your elbows, not your hands. Think of your hands as a hook only, and don’t forget to breathe as you work. As you lift you should feel it in your back and the area under your armpit. If you don’t have access to a gym, or own a fitness band, PictureFit says the classic pull-up will give you the same workout.
If you only work your upper body, you’ll start to look silly, so Talens suggests you do some leg work to avoid the dreaded chicken legs. Front squats will work your quads specifically so you develop an “X” shape with your body. Think about it: If your lower body is wide, and your upper body is wide, you won’t have to worry about your middle as much — and everybody wants the appearance of a thin waistline.
The video above, from the CrossFit YouTube channel, demonstrates the proper form for a front squat. With your legs at a shoulder-width stance, hold the barbell in front of your chin with your hands just outside your shoulders. Make sure your elbows are held high and you have a loose grip with your fingers. Now lower your hips below your knees while keeping your back straight and your heels down, then use your legs to bring yourself back up.
Exercises for Women
Looking good naked isn’t as straightforward for women as it is for men. As Talens explains, there’s nothing quite like the V-taper for women to strive for, and “looking good” is subjective. And while genetics play a big part in everyone’s appearance, they tend to have a more pronounced role in the natural shaping of women’s bodies. That said, Stephanie Lee, fitness guru and Lifehacker contributor, suggests there are plenty of exercises that will help accentuate your shape and build some much-desired muscle definition. Lee notes that virtually any program works well for women at first, and you can expect decent results fast, even if you’ve never trained before.
Lee, Talens and PictureFit all agree that a toned booty is highly sought-after, and they all agree that regular, basic squats are the best place to start. Not only do squats shape and tone your glutes, but Lee explains the aesthetic perks are secondary to the total body workout and strength you get. You can’t lose.
In the video above from the womensworkoutchannel on YouTube, fitness model Andrea Calle demonstrates a few variations of squats you can do at home. Like the previously mentioned front squats, the key is to keep your heels flat on the ground, your back straight and focus on sticking your butt out as you go down. PictureFit notes that bodyweight squats are difficult enough for most people, especially when you’re starting out. But when you’re ready to add a little weight, go with the goblet squat. It lets you continue to build muscle while ensuring your proper form stays intact.
Barbell Hip Thrusts
When you’re trying to shape up, the hips don’t lie. If you’re worried that all those squats will give you disproportionately large thighs in addition to your nice caboose, Lee and Talens suggests you add some barbell hip thrusts to your regimen. This exercise directly targets the glutes without targeting your thighs, and is a great exercise if you’re looking to be better in the bedroom, not just look better.
Suzanne Digre, personal trainer and youtuber, demonstrates proper hip thrust techniques and a progression that’s good to follow if you’ve never done any hip thrusts before. If you’re not ready to add a barbell, PictureFit suggests using only one leg at a time when doing unweighted hip thrusts on the ground. It gives you a chance to progress without worrying about any extra weight resting on your hips. Lee also recommends throwing reverse lunges and step ups into the mix if you want to give your butt some extra credit work.
Rope Pull Downs
Working the upper body is important for women, says Lee, and she argues that girls want visible guns just as much as the guys. Working your arms keeps the muscles toned, the skin tight and will help build some strength to boot. Lee suggests rope pull downs are great for this because they work your triceps, and they work them hard.
In the video above, Michelle Trapp, a personal trainer from Gold’s Gym, shows you the right and wrong ways to do a rope pull down. The key is to keep your elbows in at your sides and keep your shoulders from rolling. If your elbows are moving and you’re starting to lean forward, lower the weight. Remember, adding reps is a lot better than sacrificing form and risking injury.
Rear Deltoid Raises
When it comes to your lats, Lee recommends the rear deltoid raise. It’s similar to a dumbbell side lateral raise (mentioned above), but is an isolation exercise that heavily works your posterior delts instead of the whole muscle. This helps you chisel and shape your shoulders without broadening them too much.
When you’re doing the exercise, the main difference with the rear deltoid raise is you’re seated and leaning forward (or lying flat on your stomach). The video above from the Bodybuilding.com YouTube channel demonstrates the proper technique. Sit at the end of a bench with your legs together and the dumbbells hanging behind your calves. Keep your torso forward, then lift the dumbbells until your arms are parallel to the floor. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat. This seated version of the deltoid raise is easier on the back and better for women who don’t do a lot of lifting.
Lee also recommends a basic chest workout, like the push-up. It works your pecs, it works your arms, and push-ups actually provide a couple of aesthetic perks for your bosom. First, as you develop your pectoralis major muscles, they will stick out of your chest more and make your breasts appear a bit more pronounced. Second, as your pecs get bigger, they will lift your breasts so they sit higher on your chest.
Start out in a plank position with your hands on the ground directly under your shoulders. Keep them slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Ground your toes into the floor and keep your body as flat as possible. Now lower your body to the ground, eyes up, until your chest nearly touches the floor. Then exhale as you push yourself back up with explosive energy to the starting position. If you’re having trouble doing normal push-ups, or need something more challenging, there are a ton of variations you can try.