There’s more to the gym than grabbing the dumbbells and busting out some bicep curls. Mix up your routine with these lesser known moves and you could unlock another level of fitness.
Look, we get it. You love the bench press. You think deadlifts are great. And squats? Well, we can’t get enough of them either. But – whisper it – there are other exercises you can do. And, by mixing it up, you might even shock your body into working even harder, growing fitter and stronger as a result. Don’t believe us?
In a study published in PLoS One, 21 men with experience in resistance exercises were divided into two groups. The first continued as usual. The second had their tried and tested routines upended with varied and random exercises and rep ranges.
The results? While both groups showed muscle growth in different areas, those who mixed up their regiments displayed an increased enthusiasm for the gym, and motivation to train.
Meanwhile, data from University Hospitals Sports Medicine, suggests varying your workout isn’t only more fun, but can lead to improvements in adaptive resistance. In other words, a win-win which should help you push through plateaus and approach the gym with a new level of enthusiasm.
To get you started, we asked our experts to talk us through their favorite, underrated exercises. Why not try swapping out one or two next time you’re in the gym?
“The overhead squat is a total-body squatting movement that can increase upper back, shoulder, and core strength, while also reinforcing proper squatting technique. The ability to perform an overhead squat correctly is also a good test of ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder mobility and midline control,” explains Chris Antoni, founder of Tailor Made Fitness.
How to do it: Stand tall with the barbell across the back of your shoulders, hands slightly wider than you might for a back squat. Push the barbell overhead and hold it there, keeping it level.
Shift your hips back slightly and squat down as if you were trying to sit on your heels without tilting the barbell. Keep your core tight and your elbows fully extended. It's imperative to keep your chest and head up. Press through your feet and use your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core to fully extend your knees and hips as you return to the starting position.
The key: “If you are just getting started doing this exercise, I would suggest using a PVC pipe or a broom before moving onto an Olympic barbell to see how the exercise feels. Make sure not to lean too far forward with your torso when on the downward phase, if you do this could be a weakness in the back extensors.”
“The frontal plane (lateral movements) is an area that is often neglected but it’s key to physical development, especially in sports,” explains Mitch Raynsford, strength & conditioning coach for P3RFORM. “Lateral landmine skater squats are a great alternative to the typical lateral lunge and as well as developing a new plane of muscle, they allow you to feel more of a powerful sidewards drive.”
How to do it: Using a landmine attachment, hold the bar against your chest at a right angle. Facing forward, bend the leg nearest the barbell so it is behind you at a right angle. Squat down on the outside leg, until this too is at a right angle. Push down through your outside heel to return to the start for one rep. Repeat ten times per leg.
The key: “The core has to be braced to ensure the spine stays neutral throughout and mimics a more dynamic action that is more applicable to sporting situations. Leaning into the barbell allows the lifter to drive more powerfully.”
“Plank Skiers are an intensive and effective alternative to activating and challenging your core muscles compared to the standard plank workout,” says Farren Morgan, founder of The Tactical Athlete training method. By pushing your body through a fuller range of motion, you actively engage more muscles, deepening the gains (and the burn).
How to do it: Start in the plank position with your legs together and hands placed beneath your shoulders. Your body should be straight and aligned from head to toe. Next, jump inward toward your right elbow with both legs, rotating your core so your knees come outside your elbow. Jump back into the start position then repeat the process on the opposite side. Let’s see 10 per side, please.
The key: Keeping your head forward. This is about twisting the core, not your spine.
“It’s common to use deadlifts to build strength in your glutes, hamstrings and upper body, but swapping this for a single leg deadlift is more effective for strengthening the lower body,” explains David Wiener, training and nutrition specialist at lifestyle coaching app Freeletics.
“Balancing on one leg also provides more of a challenge for the core and fires up the posterior chain to get all the muscles at the back of the body working.”
How to do it: Stand on one leg with your knee slightly bent and hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. Bend at the hips and extend your free leg behind you. Then, lower your torso until you’re parallel to the floor. Next, return to the starting position and repeat with the opposite leg to ensure both sides of your body are worked equally.
The key: “Make sure you keep your core engaged to maintain correct form, and be sure to breathe in as you lower down, keeping your weight back on your heels so that you don’t round or arch your back.”
“Most people use momentum and their hip flexors instead of their abs when performing crunches,” says Chelsea Labadini, PT and founder of Chelsea Labadini’s Online Coaching. “This can result in a sore neck, and they aren’t the best if you suffer from back pain. The reverse crunch can eliminate all of these things, while getting you to work your abs correctly.”
How to do it: Lie down with your legs raised and knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Grab a heavy kettlebell and hold it behind your head. Exhale as you contract your abs and bring your knees up towards your chest, raising your hips off the floor. Pause in this position for a second, then slowly return your legs to the starting position. Aim for 12-14 reps and 3/4 sets.
The key: As with any crunch variation, keep your neck straight to avoid injuring it.
Words: Tom Ward
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