As a trainer I have several exercises that I use frequently, because I think they are the best way of performing a certain movement, or hitting a muscle group.
Everyone has these biases, especially those of us who don’t stay up late reading fitness articles, or spend their time on the bus to work thinking of a core exercise that can hit anti-rotation and anti-flexion in two planes of movement.
So I reached out to some of the most brilliant people in the fitness industry and asked them what they thought was the most underrated and under utilized exercise in their arsenal. The exercise that doesn’t get the accolades of the mighty squat or the spotlight of bench presses and bicep curls.
These exercises are Michelle in Destiny’s Child, Bill Murray in Space Jam, and anyone who stars in a movie alongside Matthew McConaughey.
So enjoy reading the top 10 most underrated exercises, that has been put together by a panel of coaches with a cumulative 2228 years* of experience.
(*note: dog years)
Cable Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
This exercise is often passed up for it’s cousin the regular Romanian dead-lift. Even when it is used, many times people just use a dumbbell or kettlebell at their side. Adding in the cable provides a bit more instability depending on how high the pulley is, and it also self limiting in that it forces you to ‘kick’ the opposite leg back as a counterbalance, and keep both hips level.
Additionally, I believe that this exercise can simultaneously:
Build muscle through the posterior chain. (Make dat ass look great)
Work on the proprioception of the ankle joint. (Help strengthen the ankle you rolled a dozen times in your twenties)
Strengthen the deep hip extensors and low back musculature in a low stress movement pattern. (Fix your nasty low back pain)
How to use this: Add in 2-3 sets of 10-15 per leg at the end of a warmup on lower body or full body days. This should not detract from your strength training workout.
Low intensity active recovery work
In my experience people always want to go hard or do nothing at all. I’m a believer in the value of lower intensity work so the body doesn’t always perceive movement as warfare.
For people that aren’t very active as a matter of course in their day, this is particularly important.
This is to say nothing of it’s ability to improve recovery and integrate the less-sexy stuff that can get squeezed out of the limited time most people have to train (including but not limited to mobility work, breathing drills, technique-grooving, etc.).
How to use this: Add in a 20-40 minute walk in your neighborhood twice a week after work.
Check out Mark’s website here.
For guys with lousy chest development, I like DB pullovers. Get a deep stretch but only come so high that tension remains on the pecs. Then hit your standard chest exercises.
This exercise will grow the pec minor, which will give the pecs a fuller appearance
How to use this: Set up on a bench like you would for a dumbbell bench press with your feet on the floor. Hold a single DB in both hands above your head. Reach back with your elbows slightly bent, pause at the stretch position and contract at top. Do 3 sets of 10-15 reps.
The most underrated exercise is less a specific movement, and more of a way to approach movement. I can’t say one particular movement or another is underused or underrated because it always depends on the person and their goals, and any good coach is going to use the right movements for someone’s goals.
That said, utilizing asymmetry across all categories of movement is highly underrated and underutilized. When you walk into the gym, your body carries with it a whole slew of asymmetries whether they are hereditary, from daily life habits, sports, or lifting. These asymmetries affect how you move, which in turn affects your structure and vice versa in a perpetual cycle. You can’t just hammer these asymmetries away by training symmetrically, which is what most people unknowingly do.
You can swing way too far to the other end of the spectrum and spend all your time trying to “correct” them away with specific exercises, but the problem is they often don’t work, and they burn up precious time.
The better option is to acknowledge that asymmetry, and work with it. That might mean staggering your feet a little bit in a deadlift or squat, changing your hand positioning in a push or pull, or rotating your body slightly. The options are really unlimited, because if you change one joint angle you change everything about the movement.
How to use this: Start by checking out Dave’s thoughts on biofeedback, the act of ‘checking in’ with your body to see what movements it prefers. Then before you squat, use the biofeedback technique with a couple different positional changes in order to see what the most ideal move for your body is at the time.
Read all about biofeedback here.
If I had to pick my most underrated exercise, I’d have to go with the pull-through. I can understand why some people would be hesitant to give it a try. Upon first glance, it looks rather unorthodox (the best description I’ve ever heard is that it looks like an elephant humping a ball). Regardless, I’d argue it’s one of the best bang-for-your-training-buck strength exercises out there.
It’s an excellent way to introduce the hip hinge pattern. I find that once someone gets a handle on this, it makes introducing more advanced (hip hinge dominant) exercises like the Romanian Deadlift more manageable.
Because it’s such an excellent exercise to learn the hip hinge, the pull-through is a very “back friendly” exercise and there’s very little spinal loading.
Trainees can learn to dissociate their hips from the lumbar spine. Meaning, when done correctly, the pull-through teaches people to gain movement from THEIR HIPS and not their LOWER BACK (which is often a culprit of chronic low back pain).
Last but not least, pull-throughs help to strength the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes especially) which is a woefully weak area in many people.
How to use this: Watch the video to see Tony explain it.
Here’s another great exercise from Tony to dominate the lower body.
Dr. John Rusin
The primary problem with the traditional plank is the lack of deep core activation over an extended period of time.
Traditional planks have been progressed to increase the time of the hold, along with increasing the load placed on the body. The core was not meant to fire for extended periods of time in isolation. Rather, the deep and superficial muscles of the pillar need to have the ability to fire with maximal force repeatedly over time.
The RKC Plank can literally be programmed into any type of training session effectively. Depending on the movement or training emphasis of a specific session, the RKC Plank can be programmed as a dynamic warm up or metabolic finisher.
Time to throw away the traditional plank, and upgrade your planks with the RKC Plank
How to use this: Swap out your boring planks and core work for the RKC plank. The simple way of getting into an RKC plank is by getting into a forearm plank position, then squeezing every muscle incredibly tight from the arms to the legs. If you’re doing it right, you should be shaking after 10 seconds. Do 3 sets of 10 seconds with a 10 sec pause between each. That’s one set. Do 3.
Read more about the RKC plank here.
Farmers walks are a staple. Done very slowly, they’re highly underrated.
You wont see most guys doing these, even at regular speed. Everyone should be doing them 52 weeks per year, and it’s best to vary the speed.
How to use this: Farmers walks are a great finisher after because they hit almost every muscle without an eccentric movement, so you’ll get strong without getting sore. Do 2-4 sets of 100 ft at the end of deadlift or back day.
Read Jay’s top 10 muscle building tips here.
Few exercises match the high performance benefits of the front squat
Increase depth achieved and glute activation:The placement of the barbell allows greater depth during front squats. Muscle activation of the glutes also increases with increased hip flexion (squat depth)
Improve core strength:Anterior bar placement keeps the torso vertical, preventing the hips from going into excessive tilt, and requiring greater oblique and rectus abdominus involvement to prevent flexion.
Decreased lumber and knee stress: Anterior bar placement forces lifters to attain an upright posture, decreasing shear stress on the spine. There are also significantly lower compressive forces at the knee compared to back squats without compromising muscle activity in the quads or hamstrings.
Increased Thoracic Extension and a Stronger Upper Back:Let’s be real here—Most dudes have the posture of Smeagol from the Lord of the Rings Front squats require scapula and clavicle elevation and upward rotation to keep the elbows up and the bar in proper position. This requires the traps, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, rhomboids, and lats to work in conjunction to hold position and prevent you from dumping the bar forward.
The front squat is everything you need and then some to become a diesel beast in the gym and on the playing field. Everyone from bodybuilders, athletes, and weekend warriors benefit from decreasing joint stress, increasing total body training stimulus, and attacking common weak-points like thoracic extension and the anterior core
How to use this: Swap out your back squats for a front squat on leg day. Do 2-4 sets of 8-10.
Read more from Eric about the front squat here.
Dr. Skylar Pond
Joint Prep Movements
The spine alone is a flexible stack of blocks that is vulnerable to buckling under compressive load. With the surrounding musculature removed, the ligamentous support has been demonstrated to buckle under as little as 20 pounds of compressive load.
My team and I see injuries like this all the time, and while we’re able to fix them up, prevention is still king.
There is no single muscle that stabilizes this osteoligamentous structure so forget about targeting the multifidus or transverse abdominis. The system that supports the spine is the collective tension of all of the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles firing with equal tension from all sides. It is a guy wire system.
image from Low Back Disorders 2nd Edition.
The guy wire system only functions when all “wires” in our case muscles, fire equally. This is why I see athletes vulnerable to back injury in deadlifts during light weight (warm-up) weight pulls. They lack the ability to engage all of the tissues necessary for stability at lighter loads and their spines buckle. At higher weights they are less vulnerable as all of the tissues fire necessarily just to move the bar. The key to avoiding this warm-up weight movement fault is priming the tissues to fully engage by firing first with speed, then with load.
I use a lot of corrective exercises in practice but what I’m demonstrating today is more of what I’d call Joint Prep Movements. These are to be performed immediately before a loaded lift to prime your neurologic sequencing and set the table for successful and coordinated firing patterns.
How to Use this: Check out the video from Skylar below.
Check out Skylar’s youtube channel, The Quick and Dirty, for some great exercises to stay strong and healthy.
Feet Elevated Bench Press
The feet elevated bench press gets a lot of hate in the world of weightlifting, but I think that hate is unwarranted due to the myriad of benefits that you can get from it. By eliminating the leg drive in a bench press, you get more pec, tricep and anterior deltoid activation, but unlike the floor press, you also get a full range of motion. To start:
1. Set up exactly as you would for a standard bench press but bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the bench right in front of your butt.
2. Lower the bar towards your chest and make sure to keep your shoulders down & away from your ears throughout the entire movement. Think about raising your chest to the bar to keep your shoulders in the safest position.
3. As soon as the bar touches your chest, press the bar back up at a slight backwards angle to the starting position.
How to use this: After you finish your main exercise on chest day, jump into the feet elevated bench press in order to more directly target the upper body pressing muscles. Do 3-5 sets of 5-12 reps.
Read more from Jordan about the FEBP here.