Eight Effective Muscle Building Exercises You Are Not Currently Doing
Let’s face it, training to build muscle can get boring. The most effective training programs involve the same basic exercises repeated consistently, and progressively over time.
With that being said, variety is the spice of life. How many cable crossovers and dumbbell curls can you do before getting tired of it and joining a CrossFit gym? Sometimes just adding in a new exercise can give you an added jolt of enjoyment to push harder during your workouts. And, enjoying your workouts is more important than we often give it credit for.
Keep in mind, this is not going to be a list of unique movements you see influencers doing on Instagram. I’m not going to have you sit on a machine backward, sideways, or upside down. This isn’t about reinventing the wheel. In fact, many of the exercises on this list I’m sure you have done before. My goal is to provide you with a nudge to include a few less common exercises into your program. Don’t feel like you need to include all of them right away. Pick out a couple of movements you like, try them out, and see how they feel. If all goes well, in a month or two, come back to the list and try out a couple of more.
So, without further ado, here is a list of eight effective exercises, one for each body part, you are not currently doing.
Chest: One Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
If you have been following me for a while, you know this is one of my all-time favorite exercises. I have been talking about this movement for over ten years, but it’s tough as hell, so it’s still not very popular.
As the name implies, it’s a dumbbell bench press variation where you only use one dumbbell at a time instead of two. Although it doesn’t seem like a big difference, it is.
The key to this exercise is tightness. If you do not start with the required full-body tension, you will go flying off the side of the bench embarrassingly. Everything from your toes to your upper back needs to be tight. Where have you heard that before? It’s the same level of tension you need when bench pressing. The difference is, on the one-arm dumbbell bench press, you can’t get away with not doing it.
The one-arm dumbbell bench press has other benefits as well.
The unilateral nature of the movement will help expose or prevent strength imbalances between the right and left arm. In general, dumbbells do a pretty good job of this, but with regular dumbbell presses, there is an equal load on each side, so the unilateral demand is less.
The first time you do this exercise, your obliques will be sore the next day. The offset leading requires your obliques to work hard to prevent rotation.
Last but not least, it’s a self-limiting exercise meaning you can use less weight to get the same effect. Some people may think this is a negative, but the one-arm dumbbell bench press is not the main exercise. It’s a great accessory movement. Anytime I can use less weight to get the same effect and save my joints a little bit, I am all for it.
This exercise can be humbling; I recommend starting light. You can do this on a flat or incline bench; I like both variations.
Back: Chest to Bar Pull-ups
A lot of people recognize that pull-ups are an excellent back movement. However, the chest-to-bar (CTB) variation is an entirely different beast. I have to admit I originally got the idea to perform this exercise from CrossFit back in the day.
What makes the CTB pull-up different? Instead of just getting your chin over the bar, you pull until your upper chest comes in contact with the bar. Pulling to your chest creates an extended range of motion, and generally, the greater range of motion you can use with an exercise, the better. With back training, in particular, an extra inch or two of range of motion makes a big difference.
Most people are weak in the top range of motion during a pull-up. Even people who can bust out ten or more regular pull-ups may struggle to hit five solid reps bringing their chest to the bar. The late John Meadows used to be a big fan of using band-assisted pull-ups for this reason. He recommended people use a resistance band to help them get a good stretch at the bottom and pull higher at the top. For most people, using a band as assistance is a good place to start. Don’t let your ego get in the way of doing this movement correctly.
Another benefit of this variation is it forces you to change the angle you pull. To get your chest to meet the bar, you will need to arch your upper back and push your chest up. This creates a different feel.
Last but not least, if you ever want to progress to being able to do a muscle-up, getting strong at chest-to-bar pull-ups is a great first step.
Shoulders: Handstand Push-ups
The handstand push-up is my favorite shoulder-building exercise. It’s brutally hard, but unlike the overhead barbell press, I can do a lot of handstand push-ups without it beating up my shoulders. Also, I have to admit this is another exercise I took from CrossFit back in the day. It’s also one of the main six exercises in the Convict Conditioning program.
When it comes to the handstand push-up, the main issue is the level of difficulty. Most people will need to progress to the handstand push-up, starting with a few easier regression exercises.
The best place for most people to start is with a pike push-up. A pike push-up is just a push-up with your butt up in the air. Once you get proficient at those, you can progress to a pike handstand push-up, which is just a pike push-up with your feet up on a box or a bench. Elevating your feet shifts more emphasis to your shoulders and increases the level of difficulty.
From there, the next progression is getting up into a regular handstand position and holding it at the top for time. This will get you upside down while also improving overhead stability, which is needed to do the full handstand push-up.
Once you are comfortable holding a handstand in the top position, we can progress to a half rep handstand push-up. Lower yourself down about halfway, or as far as you are comfortable, and pump out reps in that rep range for a bit. From there, it won’t be long before you can do a full handstand push-up.
A pro tip, when you are at the gym, take your shoes off when doing these. Otherwise, the soles can mark up the wall.
When it comes to biceps exercises, it’s hard to get creative. Most movements are simply curling variations using a barbell, dumbbell, cable, or machine.
However, chin-ups offer us an outside-the-box option. Although they are predominantly a back exercise, the supinated grip (underhand) activates the biceps more than traditional pronated grip (overhand) pull-ups. Interestingly, EMG activity shows lat activation is about the same in both grips.
The key is making a few adjustments to the execution of the lift to make sure we can shift as much focus to the biceps as possible.
Unlike the chest-to-bar pull-up, we don’t arch into the bar. With chin-ups, the goal is to keep the torso vertical and avoid leaning back. End the rep with your biceps as close to your forearms as possible. The chin should be very close to the bar at the top.
As far as grip width goes, I recommend going with a medium to close grip. Also, try to keep the elbows pointing forward during the rep, avoiding the tendency to let them flair.
Feel free to use band assistance to help you get the reps.
Triceps: Crush Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
The crush grip dumbbell press is a movement I used to do a lot back in the day. It is essentially a close grip bench press with dumbbells.
I love it because it keeps your shoulders in a good position, and it’s easier on the wrists, which are both benefits over traditional barbell close grip work. The problem with many beneficial triceps exercises is they can beat up your shoulders, elbows, and wrists. When I find a joint-friendly triceps exercise, I tend to hammer it.
The key with the crush grip dumbbell press is to focus on driving the dumbbells together as hard as you can. You can do it with a neutral grip (palms toward each other) or a pronated grip (palms facing forward); either variation works well. I like using a pronated grip best.
You can perform it on a flat bench or an incline bench.
Quadriceps: Pistol Squats
A couple of years ago, when COVID-19 closed gyms and sent us all inside, I asked myself a question: what can I do to make this time as productive as possible? I brainstormed a few things I could do at home that would be beneficial once gyms opened back up. Improving my pistol squat was at the top of the list.
In my opinion, due to the high level of mobility and stability, having the ability to do a pistol squat keeps your lower body healthy.
Like Handstand Push-ups, most people will need to start with something that allows them to work up to a full pistol squat.
Step #1: The Box Pistol Squat
Start with a high box, and as you progress, slowly lower it down. Stay tight and in control. Don’t plop down on the bench. As you get more proficient in the movement, you can put less and less weight on the bench until you are barely putting any. At that point, you can even transition to a cardboard box.
Step #2: TRX or Assisted Pistol Squats
Do pistol squats holding on the TRC handles or simply holding onto a pole or rack.
Step #3: The Elevated One Leg Squat
This is a single-leg squat standing on a box. It’s a good movement on its own, but since it requires less mobility than a pistol squat, it makes for a perfect stepping stone. Once you get good at these, it won’t be long before you can do a pistol squat.
Hamstrings: Nordic Ham Curls
The nordic hamstring curl has gained popularity in recent years from Tyreek Hill’s Instagram challenge and people like Knees Over Toes Guy talking about their benefits. I used to do them a lot back in the day when I didn’t have access to a GHD machine.
The motion is similar to a glute-ham raise, but you start on your knees, with your feet and ankles anchored by a spotter, strap, or weight. To perform the movement, control your upper body towards the floor, and use your hamstrings to reverse your body back up.
Again, this is another exercise that is brutally hard. If you have never done these before, I recommend starting with a limited range of motion, holding on to a stick or implement, or using your hands to spring you back up.
The problem with these is most people do them wrong. Don’t let your ego get in the way. I would rather see you do a limited range of motion maintaining a good position than going all the way to the floor and letting your technique fall apart.
Core / Full body: Suitcase Farmer Carry
I didn’t plan on including anything for the abs/core, but I knew people would be upset if I didn’t. By the way, you can’t bully me into including anything for calves. Just do your calf raises and be quiet.
When it comes to underrated exercises, loaded carries are always at the top of the list. They aren’t flashy, and they don’t get likes on social media, but they are effective.
I like the suitcase carry because it gives us a ton of bang for our buck. It will challenge the obliques, improve grip, build the traps, and it’s highly functional.
To do a suitcase carry, you pick up a heavy dumbbell and hold it in one hand like you would a suitcase, and walk. Walking is the key component of the exercise. Once you start moving, it forces the core to stabilize the body with each step. Don’t be afraid to go heavy, but be mindful of positioning. Fight the dumbbell the entire time. Don’t lose tension, and allow the dumbbell to pull you down on the working side. Doing so will defeat the purpose of the exercise and can lead to back pain.
I like to throw these in at the end of a lower-body training session.
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