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.
3. GLUTE BRIDGES
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.
5. JUMPING JACKS
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
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