More of the Best Exercises (You’re Not Doing)


By Andrew Heffernan |

Get a bunch of smart trainers started on their favorite workout secrets, and it can be hard to stop ’em.

Last spring, Experience Life went looking for the kind of underhyped, underused exercises that more of us should be doing more often — the kind that leave one feeling the hurts-so-good difference that can only mean new muscle.

We hit up a handful of nationally known, cutting-edge trainers for the moves they deemed most worth working into your routine. They responded with six terrific selections (which, if you haven’t incorporated them into your routine already, can be found in the May 2010 archives). And then they kept on responding.

So, here again to spice up your workout are six more often-overlooked but highly effective strength-training exercises, all well worth a place in your rotation.

As before, our experts have road-tested their choices on pro athletes and average gym-goers alike. You’ll see how to execute these movements, what they’re good for and which conventional exercise each one most closely replicates.

And there are options here for your lower body, your upper body and your core, so no matter what’s on the docket for today, you’ll be able to make one of these new classics your own.

Lower Body

GLUTE-HAM RAISE

What It IsAn exercise that manages to work the posterior chain in ways most exercises don’t. Because of this, the glute-ham raise helps correct muscle imbalances and improve power, stabilization and posture.

How To Do It

  1. Keep your reps low at first — about five per set. Repeat for three to five sets.

Why It’s WorthwhileThe hamstrings do two things: flex (bend) the knee and help extend (straighten) the hip. Unlike the ever-popular leg curl machine, which requires movement only at the knee joint, the glute-ham raise trains both hamstring functions at once and activates the core as well. “I despise the machine leg curl because it’s a completely unfunctional exercise — it resembles nothing you do in life or in sports,” says strength coach Tony Gentilcore, NSCA-CPT, CSCS, cofounder of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass. “Glute-ham raises are humbling but worth the effort.”

Substitute for: Leg curls

BULGARIAN SPLIT-SQUAT

What It IsA single-leg lift that improves strength, balance, hip mobility and general athleticism. The Bulgarian split squat is fast becoming the go-to lower-body exercise for people with lower-back troubles, and some coaches even argue that it’s a better exercise than the much-revered barbell squat.

How To Do It

  1. Do eight to 15 repetitions per leg. Repeat. Once you’re comfortable doing multiple sets of 15 on each leg, increase the difficulty by adding resistance: A weighted vest, dumbbells or a barbell are all great options.

Why It’s WorthwhileThe split stance makes it easy to maintain optimal posture, and because most of the work is done with your front leg, you can use just over half the weight you would normally use in a barbell squat and still get a killer lower-body workout. Be prepared to suffer a bit for these great results, however: “Bulgarian split squats are super-hard — they never feel good, and no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be able to use a weight that impresses anyone,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, CSCS, co-owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. So proceed with courage and abandon your pride.

Substitute for: Squats, lunges

Upper Body

COMPOUND ROW

What It IsA high-return, feel-good exercise that recruits your lats more effectively than seated rows.

How To Do It

  1. Repeat for two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

Why It’s WorthwhileIn sport and life, movement in the upper body is almost always initiated in the lower body, so you can often make a seated exercise more applicable to real-life situations simply by performing it standing up. But that’s not the only reason the compound row is an improvement on its old-school cousin, the seated cable row. Traditional rowing exercises minimize action at the spine and hip joints. But the lats — the heavy lifters in rowing exercises — don’t just move the arms. They also aid in pulling your spine from a flexed (rounded) position into an extended (arched) position. Standing upright from a bent-over position as you pull the weight toward you allows you to work both lat functions at once, explains Nick Tumminello, CPT, a Baltimore-area strength and fitness coach (www.nicktumminello.com). “It’s a more complete exercise, and most people think it feels great, too.”

Substitute for: Seated cable row, dumbbell row

BAND-ASSISTED CHIN UPS

What It IsA step in the progression toward being able to do unassisted body-weight chin-ups.

How To Do It

  1. Lower yourself under control, keeping your shoulder blades retracted, and repeat for three to five sets of at least five reps. The thicker the band, the more of a boost it will provide.

Why It’s WorthwhileGentilcore prefers this variation to the one performed on the assisted chin-up machine, which provides constant assistance throughout the entire movement. The lower-tech elastic-band version provides what he calls accommodating resistance: “It helps you more where you’re weakest — at the bottom of the exercise — and less where you’re strongest — at the top,” he explains. “You’ll get stronger faster using the band, and pretty soon won’t be needing assistance at all.” (For more on how to work up to doing an unassisted pull-up, see “Clear the Bar” in the May 2008 archives.)

Substitute for: Machine-assisted pull-ups

Core

ALTERNATING TOE TOUCHDOWN

What It IsAn advanced plank variation, this exercise ups the level of difficulty and recruitment of core musculature by placing the feet on a Swiss ball — and then moving them off, one at a time.

How To Do It

  1. Perform two to three sets.

Why It’s WorthwhileSome strength-training exercises require careful attention to form to do them safely and effectively. The alternating toe touchdown isn’t one of them, however, and that’s part of what makes it a great exercise: “This is a self-limiting movement,” says Cosgrove.

“It provides instant feedback to the exerciser about form and correct muscle recruitment.” Unless you fire up your core appropriately, he explains, your hips will sag and your feet may even slip off the ball. “You have to stabilize like crazy through your core, making subtle adjustments as your legs move and your arms and shoulders stabilize you. It’s a very tough, advanced exercise.”

Substitute for: Plank with leg lifts

RENEGADE ROW

What It Is“The renegade row is essentially an advanced plank,” says Sara Wiley, MS, CSCS, associate director of strength and conditioning for athletics at the University of Minnesota.

How To Do It

  1. Alternate sides for two to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions on each side.

Why It’s WorthwhileBasic planks — done isometrically (with no movement) — are excellent for static core and shoulder stability. In life and athletics, however, the torso muscles have to stabilize the spine while your limbs are in motion — for example, making adjustments as the baby squirms in your arms or lunging to return a serve on the tennis court. By adding the rowing motion to the basic plank, renegade rows replicate this kind of challenge, forcing the core to stabilize the spine dynamically while your center of gravity is shifting.

Substitute for: Plank with hands on stability ball

Andrew Heffernan is a Los Angeles–based personal trainer and writer. He blogs at www.malepatternfitness.com.

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