The 5 Most Underrated Exercises You Should Be Doing

Brittany Risher
by Brittany Risher
Share it:
The 5 Most Underrated Exercises You Should Be Doing

There’s no shortage of exercises you can do to target any muscle you want to work. Just turn to Google and you’ll find lists of the best moves for abs and videos of more lunge variations than you knew existed and don’t forget all the Instagram stars posting challenges for you to try.

It’s not bad to have options … but all of these exercises can make it seem like the only way to work out is to do complex moves that have you flipping upside down, hanging from one leg, holding a kettlebell and doing a fusion yoga-boxing-cycling maneuver.

It doesn’t need to be — and it shouldn’t be! — so complicated.

“The more complicated an exercise, often the less muscle engagement you have, and that decreases the effectiveness,” says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of “Beat the Gym.”

When we favor these moves, we tend to forget about “old-school” exercises like the pushup or squat, which have been standards for years because they work.

“Simple stuff works — but you need to do them correctly,” Holland says. “Just because they are simple doesn’t mean you don’t have to focus and connect to your muscles.”

Try these five underrated exercises that are more effective than we tend to think. You may be surprised at how hard they are when you perform them properly.


“The squat is a functional movement,” says exercise physiologist Fabio Comana, a faculty instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. “We do it all day,” he says. Think about picking up your kids or lifting heavy groceries, sitting in a chair and standing up or hovering over a public toilet. They’re all squats.

Since we squat so often in daily life, we should squat at the gym, too. Plus, contrary to what you think, squats strengthen the muscles around your knees and lower back.

Nail it: Start off with your bodyweight until you perfect your form, then add weight. In both cases, follow Comana’s instructions:

  • Engage your abs, which will stabilize your low back and help prevent back pain.
  • Push your butt back, hinging at the hips first, then bend your knees to lower toward the floor. Allow your knees to travel forward. It’s OK if they move past your toes, but don’t go too far — your torso and lower leg should be parallel.
  • Lower as far as you can without compromising this alignment, making sure the arches of your feet don’t collapse inward.


“Pushups have all the criteria of an amazing exercise,” Holland says. “You can do them anywhere, anytime, you can modify them in infinite ways, they work for everyone from beginner to advanced, they work multiple muscle groups at the same time and they’re super effective.”

As if that’s not enough, Holland adds that many people tend to focus on how much they can lift, but during the negative (lowering) part of an exercise, they tend to use gravity and momentum, rather than controlling a movement. Pushups force you to move more slowly, helping build more strength.


Nail it: To get all the bang out of your pushup buck, there are a few key things Holland recommends:

  • Go slowly to maximize your muscle engagement. He lowers on a count of 3 or 4, then presses back up on a count of 1 or 2.
  • Perform pushups, not pulses. Rather than banging out tons of reps where you only lower and raise an inch or two, focus on getting a good range of motion. Start at the top with your elbows almost locked and lower until your chest is about an inch or two away from the ground. Then push back up. That is a real pushup.
  • Knee pushups count and they help increase that range of motion. Once you can do 10 good knee pushups, try doing one or two regular pushups. Keep adding more as you gain strength, and soon you’ll be able to do a set of 10.


If you stopped doing glute bridges because you don’t feel them in your glutes but rather in your hamstrings, low back or front of your thighs — you’re not doing them correctly. That’s no reason to abandon this exercise because, when performed with good form, it’s an effective way to build a stronger butt.

“Glute bridges are to the lower body what pushups are to the upper body — an essential strengthening movement,” says Jonathan Ross, author of “Abs Revealed,” and creator of Funtensity. “They teach the body to move with your booty as the ‘boss’ of all lower-body movements.”

Nail it: Ross recommends peeling yourself off the mat, rather than lifting everything at once. He’s found success with his clients by breaking the bridge into four steps:

  • Tilt your hips to eliminate the space between your low back and the mat.
  • Then, lift just your butt cheeks off the mat — do not lift your back yet!
  • Now lift your lower back.
  • Lastly, lift the middle of your back off the mat, which puts you at the top of the glute bridge.
  • Return to the starting position, reversing through all four steps one at a time.

Do your glute bridges like this for a week or two, then return to your normal pace. “By then you’ve retrained your body so this new technique of using your glutes should be automatic,” Ross says.


We know what you’re thinking: Are you crazy?!? Crunches are horrible for your back!!!

But not only can crunches help with back pain by strengthening your abs, a study by the American Council on Exercise found they are more effective than other exercises. Researchers placed electrodes on the abdominal muscles of 30 men and women and had them perform 13 different ab exercises. Only five exercises — including crunches on an exercise ball and vertical leg crunches — generated more activity in the rectus abdominis (aka six-pack) than other exercises to be statistically significant.

Nail it: Be sure you do crunches and not sit-ups, Holland says. That means:

  • Don’t place your feet under a bar or other brace, which can cause you to use momentum and your hip flexors, possibly leading to pain or injury.
  • Place your hands behind your head or, to make it easier, across your chest.
  • Look toward the ceiling and imagine you have a tennis ball under your chin to help keep it off your chest.
  • With each rep, only curl up a couple of inches so your shoulder blades come off the ground.


Do you loathe when your group fitness instructor tells you to do jumping jacks as part of your warmup? We get it — this old-school move gets your heart pumping and you panting. That’s exactly why you should do them!

“Jumping jacks feature rapid, big, range-of-motion movement in both the upper and lower body, so almost everything is working,” Ross says. “Plus there is a little coordination involved, which heightens mental engagement.”

To make jacks even more effective (plus also more fun), try Ross’ “funky jacks”. “Doing these gets you to pay attention, and the novelty makes you put more energy into it,” he says.

Nail it: To do funky jacks, mix up your arm and leg patterns, alternating between some or all of the following:

  • Perform a basic jack, but alternate lifting one arm at a time.
  • Give yourself a squeeze: As you jump your legs like normal, alternate between opening your arms to opposite sides and then crossing them in front of your body, almost like you’re hugging yourself.
  • Perform the leg movement of a normal jumping jack while moving both arms to the left and then to the right (rather than up and down). This way you have to fight the urge to rotate your torso.
  • Rather than moving your arms and legs up and down along your sides, lift and lower them in front of and behind you. You can either move the opposite arm and leg together (i.e. your right arm goes forward as your left leg goes backward) or move the same arm and leg together (i.e. your right arm and leg both go forward as both the left arm and leg move backward)
  • Pretend you are holding a jump rope and, with bent elbows, move your arms in the shape of an infinity symbol. Then hop side to side, both legs to the left, then to the right, keeping your feet about shoulder-width apart.

Originally published September 2017

Ready to take the next step? Unlock MyFitnessPal Premium to access custom goal settings, quick-log recipes, and guided plans from a registered dietitian. Premium users are 65% more likely to reach their weight loss goals!

About the Author

Brittany Risher
Brittany Risher

Brittany is a writer, editor and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She loves experimenting with new vegan recipes and believes hummus is a food group. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training, meditation and scotch. Connect with her on TwitterInstagram, and Google+.


34 responses to “The 5 Most Underrated Exercises You Should Be Doing”

  1. Avatar Kaicheng Hu says:

    Simply wonderful!

  2. Avatar Ed K-b says:

    You don’t know what you’re talking about with your click bait, because rarely do people underrate any of these 5 exercises. They are some of the most popular exercises performed by many at the gym daily.

  3. Avatar Jeff Smith says:

    Good ideas, thanks for the tips!

  4. Avatar Nancy Phillips says:

    I try to do squats, making sure my knees stay behind my toes. Still my knees are where I feel it and I don’t really have knee pain. Any suggestions? I am 61 and am trying to build more muscle. Really noticed the loss since hitting 60. I like your article and the descriptions of how to do the exercises properly.

    • Avatar EzE says:

      Don’t squat as low. You should never sacrifice form for risk of injury.

    • Avatar Jeff says:

      keeping your knees behind your toes reduces stress on the knees a bit, but it’s unnatural, and transfers the load to the lumbar…not a good trade off.
      If you are having discomfort, try backward-stepping lunges. This takes some pressure off the patelar tendon.
      Also, try just holding a squat position with your back against a wall, and your knees at 90 degrees.

    • Avatar robinbishop34 says:

      google “squat + wall” You will find some brief youTube videos showing how to use a wall to obtain proper form… it is easy to understand.

    • Avatar David Reynolds says:

      Hi Nancy. At 61 yo you may have some osteoarthritis in your knee including the kneecap joint. Many people with OA can do body weight squats, some can’t. I’d suggest starting with straight-leg raising and short-arc quad extension exercises, bridges and clamshell exercises ( see youtube ). After 6-8 weeks you might be able to return to bodyweight squats w less pn.
      David.. Physical Therapist

      • Avatar Nancy Phillips says:

        Thanks! Glad you suggested you tube because I sure didn’t have a clue what you were saying. I will check it out!

      • Avatar Nancy Phillips says:

        I found some good videos. I will try strengthening those areas before trying squats again. Thank you!

  5. Avatar sean raman says:

    I think I may have hurt the top of my hamstrings while exercising about 4 weeks ago. there is that one sore spot beneath my right buttocks but probably about 2 inches inside. My doctor asked me to lay off the leg exercises for about 4 weeks. 4 weeks later not much has changed. Does anyone have had any experience like this? it is very annoying that I can’t get back to working out my legs

    • Avatar derek says:

      I have had a similar experience with that and the first thing I would suggest is that you continue doing leg exercises that hurt less an make sure you stretch your hamstrings and glutes. I would also suggest that you make sure you target your glutes during most of the leg exercises you do, they are often forgotten and that can lead to pain in that area as well. I hope this helps you.

    • Avatar Jv says:

      Probably a hamstring injury . If it’s a “sprain” then a break and some proper targeted stretching would allow it to rest , but if it’s injured meaning small tear you will have to reorganize your work out routine . A tear can be identified by Ultrasound or definitively by MRI

  6. Avatar Pam Ivy says:

    What do you think about Seido Karate to lose weight?

  7. Avatar Canuk says:

    Hmmmm contradicts one of your other posts in the same email

  8. Avatar BlakSam says:

    Y’all gotta pick a side on this whole “crunches” thing, yo.

  9. Avatar Anonymous Is A Woman says:

    Yeah. Crunches are terrible. The most effective exercise: get a barbell, or a couple of dumb bells, or even kettle bells, and do some squats. lunges, and deadlifts. Those are the most effective exercises for your core and lower body. And push ups also engage your abs. Stay away from crunches. They’re ridiculous.

  10. Avatar Anonymous Is A Woman says:

    If those are your underrated exercises, they should stay underrated. Crunches are terrible for your back. If you want exercises for your core and abs, here: grab a barbell, or some dumbbells, or even kettlebells, and do some squats, deadlifts, and lunges. And even pushups engage the core. Those are the most effective exercises.

  11. Avatar Dracozny says:

    Conclusion: Disregard everything you read on MYFitnesspal Blog and just listen to your trainer and nutritionist.

    • Avatar cattail722 says:

      Then why did you read and comment on the article? Most of us don’t have trainers or nutritionists and that’s why we’re here. Just saying.

  12. Avatar Pat says:

    On the jumping jack variations, isn’t the author saying the same thing twice?

    “Rather than moving your arms and legs up
    and down along your sides, lift and lower them in front of and behind
    you. You can either move the opposite arm and leg together (i.e. your
    right arm goes forward as your left leg goes backward) or move the same
    arm and leg together (i.e. your right arm and leg both go forward as
    both the left arm and leg move backward)”

    If your right arm goes forward and your left leg goes back, then obviously your right leg goes forward (with your right arm).

    Proof reading I guess.

  13. Avatar StittsvillePhysio says:

    Your rectus abdominus (RA) is not part of the original “core” muscles identified in the literature regarding back pain etc. to help support and stabilize your back. The core in these papers did not include all the abdominal muscles but rather the transversus abdominus TA), deep multifidi, pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm. Your RA, as the most superficial abdominal muscle, is farthest away from your spine and does not insert as nicely into the huge thoracolumbar fasica like the transversus abdominus and internal oblique (next layer our from TA) do. Being more removed from the spine when RA contracts (as it does in a crunch) it adds a large compressive load to the spine. The “core” works functionally more like the plank exercise or in various squat exercises for example. If you sit most of the day at work or have ever had lower back pain my advice to patients is don’t do crunches especially on a ball!

  14. Avatar Bonnie Douglas says:

    Brittany, get on the pelvic floor bandwagon!!! Squats and Jumping Jacks are fine *if* you have control over your pelvic floor. For anyone who has carried a baby these moves can seriously compromise you! You do NOT want your bits coming out! If you don’t know how to coach women to protect their pelvic floor when doing these moves then do a short course through the continence foundation. Too many women suffer from leaking and/or prolapse at the hands of personal trainers!

  15. Avatar Lori says:

    I am in awe of the majority of the comments to MFP articles. No because they are rude, condescending, and sometimes just plain ugly, but because these know it alls even bother reading anything on MFP if they think the advice is so wrong. Do they just not have anything better to do, just starved for attention, or just trying to show everyone else how awesome they are? P.S., if it’s the latter, it ain’t working.

  16. Avatar Sheena Dhir says:

    Exercise without equipment, but it could be more better with images otherwise it is good.

  17. Avatar Suze says:

    I am 77 years old and in 2yrs 6 months I have lost 56.7 pounds and don’t exercise. I walk with my dogs around my acre several times a day 3 to 4 times a week and on a no walk day I still walk 9000 steps just taking cate of my day. What is all the disagreement between you about? Sounds like grade schoolsrs to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Never Miss a Post!

Turn on MyFitnessPal desktop notifications and stay up to date on the latest health and fitness advice.


Click the 'Allow' Button Above


You're all set.

You’re taking control of your fitness and wellness journey, so take control of your data, too. Learn more about your rights and options. Or click here to opt-out of certain cookies.