Bench press, squats, and rows: all are exercises every lifter knows and loves. However, there are many underrated exercises just waiting to be found and performed. If you’re looking to step up your athletic performance, eliminate muscular imbalances, or even just build a better physique, think about implementing these 11 underrated exercises.
Entirely too many trainees (and regular, everyday people) have shoulders that are sloped forward. This is because their front deltoids and chest are dramatically stronger than their rear delts and upper back. While many bodybuilding programs may include rear delt flies, they’re generally considered a shaping exercise.
Face pulls aren’t just an alternative to bent laterals, but are often a better choice as they put constant tension on the upper back, traps, and rear delts. At the same time, they cause all these muscles to work together synergistically, which can rectify muscular imbalances. Keep the weight light, and do 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps on shoulder or back days.
Band Pull Aparts
Band pull aparts are an alternative to face pulls and are one of the better underrated exercises you can implement in your program. The difference with these is that because band tension increases the further you pull the bands apart, the more force you produce. The develops more strength and muscle.
In addition, it’s easy to carry a band with you anywhere, letting you easily add these to any program. Do 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps at the end of your shoulder or back workouts. If you’re suffering from a severe muscular imbalance (as is the case for many athletes), you can do 30-50 total reps 4-5 days per week for 8-10 weeks to bring up your rear delts and upper back more quickly. Because of the nature of this exercise and how it’s performed, overtraining doesn’t really need to be a concern.
This might be the king of underrated exercises, simply because of how useful it is. Barbell squats are an excellent muscle and strength builder. However, proper form can be difficult to learn and even harder to master. This is only compounded when you’re a newbie lifter and training without the aid of someone who knows how to squat properly to help you. Learn about common exercises you’ves been performing incorrectly here.
However, a goblet squat puts you into virtually perfect squatting position from the very beginning. You don’t have to worry about shoulder or ankle flexibility, and it distributes tension just right between your quads, glues, hips and hamstrings. Start your leg workouts with goblet squats for 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
Standing Overhead Barbell Press
Many trainees don’t do overhead presses of any sort, opting instead to let bench press take care of their upper body “pushing” needs. And when you do see people overhead pressing, they’re often using a machine. Seated dumbbell presses are a great way to build strength, but standing barbell overhead presses allow you to use the most weight, which will build the most strength and muscle.
At the same time, because you’re standing, you have to engage your core to keep your body stable. This will build increased static strength throughout the torso, and teaches all the muscles of the upper body to work together as one unit. Start your shoulder or upper body strength workouts with 4-5 sets of 5-6 reps.
Deadlifts are one of the best exercises a trainee can do to develop a stronger lower body and build more muscle all along the posterior chain. However, deadlifting from the floor can often put the lower back in a highly disadvantageous position, opening you up to injury.
Rack pulls might be one of the most popular on this list of underrated exercises, but don’t do it in popular fashion. While there can be some benefit to powerlifters pulling a ton of weight in only the top few inches of the movement, a much better choice is to set the pins at just below knee level and pull from there. Start your back or lower body strength workouts with 4-5 sets of 5-6 reps.
Cable Pull Through
Driving the hips forward forcefully is not only a great way to develop explosive power, it’s a great way to target the glutes and hamstrings. While this same movement pattern can be replicated by deadlifts and kettlebell swings, a cable pull through forces you into perfect position. This is because if you’re not setup just right, your balance will be off and your entire body will be pulled backward. Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
One of the best things you can do for balance, stability, and overall athletic development is to do single leg lower body work. Split squats not only work the quads and hips very well, but also force a great stretch in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and glutes. They can also have a great aesthetic benefit as they tend to target the VMO – the “teardrop” shaped muscles just above the knee. Use them as an assistance exercise after your heavy lower body work, doing 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
Perhaps one of the most uncommon underrated exercises on this list, pullovers have seemingly fallen out of favor in the last few decades. This is hard to believe when you consider the vast benefits they can have when used consistently. Golden era bodybuilders liked to do pullovers lying across a bench with as heavy of a dumbbell as they could use, focusing mainly on the stretched position. The thinking was that the exercise would lead to ribcage expansion and eventually narrow your waist.
Conversely, going heavy on a pullover machine is one of the best ways to build the lats and upper back. The job of the lats is actually to rotate the upper arm around the shoulder joint, and pullovers are one of the only movements that work the muscle throughout its entire range of motion. Whichever version you choose, do it for 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
Sprints may seem an odd choice on a list of underrated exercises due to the current popularity of high intensity interval training (HIIT). However, while sprints can be a version of HIIT, HIIT isn’t always a version of sprints. While you might be working hard by climbing onto your favorite cardio machine and setting a difficult pace, going to a track or field and trying to get from “point A” to “point B” as quickly as you can ensures you’re working as hard as possible.
Sprinting is beneficial because it can help you improve speed, power, and do wonders for your anaerobic conditioning (read about aerobic vs anaerobic training here). It can also contribute to building muscular legs and burning a number of calories after your workout is over. Two good sprint workouts could be as follows:
At a track:
- Jog one lap to warm up
- Sprint the straights + walk the corners x 3-6 laps
- Walk one lap to cool down
At a field:
- Jog 200-300 yards to warm up
- sprint 50 yards*, turn around, walk back to starting point x 10-20 sprints
- Walk x 5 minutes to cool down
*You could also sprint 75 or 100 yards.
Olympic lift variations are some of the best exercises to build explosive power. However, they can be very technical to perform, and mastering form without proper instruction from a qualified coach is quite a difficult task.
On the other hand, a dumbbell snatch is much easier to learn, can build the same sort of strength and power, and doesn’t require a special bar or bumper plates. Dumbbell snatches should be performed as a part of lower body strength workouts or integrated into power-based conditioning. Do 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
Single Leg Deadlift
Stiff-legged deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts are both great hamstring and glute exercises, but it can be easy to unknowingly botch the form. You can end up pulling with your lower back or want to pile on too much weight too quickly. Both of these can lead to injury.
However, by doing a single leg deadlift, you have to go much lighter just to keep your balance. This forces you to have a greater mind-muscle connection, and will almost always target the glute and hamstrings by default. At the same time, they’re great for improving balance, and working one leg at a time gives you the chance to address any muscular imbalances you might have. Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
Incorporating some (or all) of these underrated exercises won’t be difficult and can greatly improve your workouts. You can fix muscular imbalances, become more athletic, and end up training many muscles through a much fuller range of motion. Add them to your routine today and watch how quickly you progress.