The selection of resistance training exercises you can do in a weightroom is limited only by your imagination. If you need a kick-start on ideas, pick up a copy of Bill Pearl’s Keys to the Inner Universe (Physical Fitness Architects, 1978). A 639-page classic, Pearl’s work has been called the ultimate reference of bodybuilding exercises. With such a book, you have plenty of tools to help you achieve your goals, but for now we’ll point out some exercises that are often overlooked but shouldn’t be.
We’re not talking about squats and deadlifts and chin-ups – those exercises are all terrific and deservedly popular. What we’re talking about are exercises that have unique qualities, especially in terms of keeping you structurally balanced so you can avoid injury and keep training hard.
It’s not necessary to perform these exercises all the time, but including them in your workout a few times a year will deliver valuable benefits. To get you started, here are five overlooked exercises that make our list.
#1. Reverse Hyper
The erector spinae are lower back muscles that work with the glutes, hamstrings, and other posterior-chain muscles to help extend the trunk. Further, research shows that developing the erector spinae muscles helps increase strength throughout the entire body.
Because the reverse hyper exercise puts minimal compressive forces on the spine, it is often an excellent choice for those who have a history of back pain. Another advantage of the reverse hyper is that it can provide traction on the erector spinae, which may help relieve muscle tension. A note of caution: When performing the reverse hyper you should not lift your legs to parallel or higher, as this can hyperextend your spine and place unnatural stress on the L3 to L5 vertebrae.
#2. Lower-Ab Hip Raise
The rectus abdominis is a single, long muscle that extends from the top of the sternum and rib cage to the pubic bone. Although it’s true that its entire length is activated to some degree in virtually every exercise for the rectus abdominis, for training purposes the rectus abdominis can be divided into two sections: the supraumbilical, the area above the bellybutton; and the subumbilical, the area below the bellybutton.
The subumbilical section plays an important role in maintaining proper posture. In fact, the excessive lumbar curvature displayed by some gymnasts may be due in part to a relative weakness in the lower abdominals because gymnasts devote so much of their training to hip flexor movements.
The lower-ab hip raise focuses on the lower abdominals. Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Place your hands just above your hipbone, lift your elbows off the floor, and keep your head in contact with the floor. Now try to lift your upper legs straight up. If you can’t perform this test without moving your knees towards your head, or if you have to brace your elbows on the floor or raise your head to perform the movement, then you have weak lower abdominals.
When you first perform this pelvic tilt exercise, you may not be able to lift your hips at all. That’s okay, because as long as you are contracting the muscles you will get a training effect. Soon you will be able to perform it easily. At this point you can make the exercise more difficult by holding a weight, such as a medicine ball, between your knees. A few sets of 15-20 reps will get the job done (the number of reps is high because the range of motion is small).
#3. Overhead Squat
This exercise is great for teaching the proper positions for the snatch and has many benefits for all trainees. It will develop flexibility, both static and dynamic, in many of the major upper body and lower body muscle groups. This makes it an excellent warm-up exercise, especially for squats and overhead presses. To increase the difficulty of the overhead squat, you can use more weight or use a closer grip.
The overhead squat is also an excellent exercise for coaches to assess structural balance in their athletes, as any excessive tightness or weakness will affect an athlete’s ability to properly perform the movement. Here are some key technical aspects of this exercise:
- Heels remain on the floor as you squat down
- Kneecaps remain in line with your long toe during the descent
- Bar stays behind the knees during entire movement
- The arms do not bend during the descent
- The hips do not shift laterally during the descent
- The head remains level throughout exercise
- It’s possible to easily descend below parallel
- There is no pain while performing the exercise
#4. Seated Calf Raise
This is an excellent exercise to counteract the damage done to our calves and feet by our lifestyle. Because we spend most of our waking hours in close-fitting shoes that desensitize the nerves of the feet and provide external stability to the ankle, often we develop tight calves and become susceptible to flat (valgus) feet, which affects the functioning of the foot. Having poorly functioning feet impairs athletic performance and can increase the risk of knee and back pain. The seated calf raise develops the soleus calf muscles and also stretches these muscles by working them throughout a full range of motion. In women who wear high heels, the soleus muscles are often especially tight.
When training the soleus, consider that this muscle consists primarily of slow-twitch muscle fibers. As such, they respond better to higher reps than the gastrocnemius does, as the gastrocnemius consists primarily of fast-twitch fibers.
In the early days of bodybuilding the barbell pullover was a standard exercise, but today it is seldom performed. Arthur Jones with his Nautilus machines created interest in this exercise (he called it the “Upper Body Squat), but now few gyms carry these machines.
The pullover develops the lats, pectoralis major and minor, and the muscles attached to the ribs called serratus anterior. It also develops the rectus abdominus, contracting these muscles isometrically.
Two basic types of pullovers are straight-arm and bent-arm. Considerably less weight can be used with the straight-arm pullover; with bent-arm pullovers it’s especially important to anchor your feet. One popular variation that works both the lats and the triceps is performed with an EZ curl bar. Start with the bar resting on your chest, and while keeping the weight close to your head, lower the bar behind you with bent arms; upon the return, finish off the exercise with a close-grip press.
This list is by no means complete, so check out Bill Pearl’s book for many more neglected exercises that are worth your attention. In the meantime, give these five a try and see what you’ve been missing.