Underrated Exercises-Part 4

In previous blog posts, I’ve touched on three highly underrated forms of exercise - hill sprints, walking, and sled work. In this post, the focus will shift to seven additional exercises that are extremely beneficial but often forgotten about.

It’s important to remember that just because an exercise looks good on paper or is widely considered to be a "great exercise", doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone in every situation.

Take the standing barbell overhead press for example. While executing this exercise with great form and technique will surely make you stronger and increase muscle mass in your shoulders, I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen someone doing this movement properly and safely.

If an exercise is great for strength and muscle but your shoulder is bothering you for 3 days after doing it, do you still think it’s great for strength and muscle? I use three main criteria when choosing an exercise to put into a program. These criteria can differ from person to person depending on goals, but the principles will remain generally the same.

  1. Does it effectively load the target muscle
  2. Can I effectively progress and make strength and muscle gains?
  3. And the most important, but least often considered: does this exercise beat up my joints and/or cause a great degree of systemic fatigue? In other words, can I do this exercise consistently for the next 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years, 15 years and continue to feel good? 

If your exercise selection does not meet these requirements, you should probably find an alternative. The exercises mentioned within this blog post meet all three criteria for most lifters. They’re also movements that I rarely see people doing (although some are gaining popularity), hence the name of the blog post. 

Let's get into it!



Notice that I didn’t just say “farmer’s carries”. While farmer’s carries are a phenomenal exercise regardless of your goals, and I highly suggest doing them weekly (preferably several times), there are tons of other carry variations that tend to fly under the radar. Farmer’s carries are amazing for grip strength, upper back and shoulder health, core strength, and full body stability. It’s difficult to think of a single muscle that is not involved in this exercise. You can do them heavy for short distances to increase your strength, or lighter for longer distances as part of a conditioning/endurance session. But there are more carrying options people often forget about! You can do single arm farmer’s carries (aka suitcase carries) to really target one side of your body (the opposite side of the hand you’re using). Suitcase carries will strengthen your quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle, which is often a neglected (but highly important) body part responsible for hip and core stability and function. A lot of lower back injuries stem from weakness or instability in this muscle. Other highly underutilized yet highly effective carries include those in which you carry odd objects like d-balls or sandbags. These mimic real life situations better than most standard exercises. Overhead carries can be implemented to improve shoulder mobility and stability prior to pressing movements. Carries can be done either at the beginning of your workout as part of your warmup and priming, after training on leg day or upper body day, as part of a zone 2 endurance circuit, or just as a stand-alone training session. Get creative with it, but do carries more often!

Rack Chins

The pull-up or chin-up is an exercise most people are familiar with. But what if I told you that most people’s execution of these movements can actually do more harm than good. A well executed pull-up or chin up is undoubtedly a great back exercise, but the “well executed” part of the equation is often not considered. For most average gym-goers, the rack chin up is a great substitute (or progression) for the standard pull-up or chin-up. If you can do rack chins using rings, a neutral grip bar, or angles 90’s grips, even better. That said, doing them on a fixed bar is often still a better option than a standard pull-up. This exercise is less stressful on the shoulder joints because of your torso position, and actually does a better job at directly targeting the muscles you would be targeting with a well executed pull-up. You can progress this moment by manipulating the height of the object you’re using for your feet (higher is harder), and if you’re really strong (you can do more than 12 reps with perfect form using bodyweight) you can add weight to your lap in the form of a medicine ball or barbell plate. Another great option is to use a weight vest. Even if you’re great at pull-ups already, doing rack chins from time to time can give your joints a breather and it’ll even make you stronger at standard pull-ups!

Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge

This is, in my opinion, the best unilateral (single leg) squat movement. It’s easy to set up, easy to adjust based on which muscle group you want to target, and far less stressful on the knees compared to a standard walking lunge. You can also do several different variations of this exercise, depending on your goals and what equipment you have access to. For most people, using dumbbells (one in each hand) is the easiest and most effective way to load this movement. The only additional equipment you’ll need is something to elevate your working leg (usually a 2-4 inch box or 1-2 bumper plates). The elevation allows the lifter to achieve a greater range of motion than most bulgarian split squats variations and certainly standard lunge variations because your knee won’t hit the ground till well past parallel. It’s also easier for most people to balance and stabilize throughout the movement than other single leg movements. It’s highly versatile and easy to adjust based on your intent. You can target the quads by taking a short step back and driving your working knee forward over your toes, or the glutes with a longer step back and more vertical shin. Another advantage is that if you’re tight on time, you can alternate back and forth between legs (instead of doing one, then resting, then the other). If you haven't considered this exercise, I highly suggest trying it for a while. Start light and progress once you’re comfortable with the movement. Not only will it make you stronger in your main bilateral lower body exercises like the back squat, it can also help you even out side to side strength and muscle discrepancies (which we all have).

High Incline Bench Shrugs

Many people will target the traps by doing upright (standing) shrugs. While these will certainly make your traps bigger, most of your trap size actually stems from your mid traps. Having strong, thick mid traps not only looks good, but will also improve your shoulder health and make you stronger at pressing movements. The mid traps can handle a lot of volume, and many people undertrain them because they focus mainly on lat exercises and general mid-back row movements (or they just do back movements for the sake of doing them). Upper back rows are great for muscle development and should be done frequently, but the incline shrug is advantageous because it’s more of an isolation movement and it won’t fatigue other muscles that are involved in rows (like the biceps). Another great advantage of this exercise is that it allows the lifter to achieve a better mind-muscle connection to their traps. Muscles that you can’t see in the mirror are often more difficult to connect to, and isolation exercises for those muscles are a great way to alleviate this issue. Having better connection to your targeted muscles will improve your strength, movement quality, and of course, muscle size. As for the incline, you can use a few different angles to hit different areas of the traps. Anything from 45-70 degrees will be effective. 

Straight Arm Plate Raise

This exercise is commonly done for front deltoid development, but rarely as a compound lift. Fortunately, there's an easy fix to make it more effective. By simply increasing the range of motion (ROM) of the plate raise (bringing it all the way overhead) you can turn this lift into another great exercise for upper back and trap development. Instead of stopping in front of your face, you’ll bring the plate all the way over your head by engaging your traps. Not only is this exercise great for muscle development, but it’s also one of the safer movements you can do for your front delts. In fact, a great superset you can try is to superset the previous exercise (incline shrugs) with full ROM plate raises. If you’ve never had a pump in your mid traps, you’ll learn quickly what it feels like by executing these two lifts back to back. Pro tip: If you’re unable to do this with a 45 pound plate, use a bumper plate (with the same diameter as a 45) so your hands can still remain shoulder width apart. This will engage the traps more effectively.

10-15 Degree Incline Dumbbell Press

While the standard incline press is a commonly executed movement, most people do it with too steep of an incline. Instead of putting the bench at a 45 degree angle (which trains the front delts more than the upper pecs and can stress the shoulder joint), put the bench on the lowest setting for your incline presses. Your shoulders will thank you, and your chest will grow more than ever. If your gym doesn't have benches with a low incline option (shame on them), you can use 1-2 bumper plates to put under the end of the bench to reach the desired angle.

High Incline Chest Supported Laterals

Another exercise that’s commonly performed, but usually done incorrectly (and for some people, dangerously). To target the side delts, you need to do isolation exercises. Generally, the best side delt isolation exercise is a lateral variation, of which dumbbells are the most common. The standing lateral is great when executed properly, but again, it’s quite a rare occurrence. To keep your shoulders and elbows healthy (and hit your side delts, not front), you need to be leaning forward slightly and raise your arms in the scapular plane (not directly out to the side). Instead of focusing on this while standing, use an incline bench at ~70 degrees (usually the 2nd to highest setting) and lean into it with your chest. This will put your torso in the correct position without you having to even think about it. Then, instead of raising the dumbbells straight out to your sides, you’re raising them at ~45 degrees in front of you with your arms slightly bent. Another common error people make is trying to take the traps out of the movement. This is unnatural and can lead to poor movement quality. Accept that the traps will be involved to a degree, but using the high incline bench will make it easier to reduce trap involvement.

If you’re struggling with finding the right exercises for you, sometimes you need to think outside the box a little. This doesn’t mean going on instagram and finding the wildest craziest looking influencer workout. It just means thinking through which muscles you want to stimulate and how to best do it in a way that’s sustainable and allows you to progress.

If you’ve never tried any of these movements, I highly suggest considering them. You’ll develop more muscle and strength while also adding to your longevity. Always remember to consider the three criteria I mentioned when selecting an exercise, and you’ll be able to continue lifting for as long as you please.

Can you think of some underrated exercises that I haven’t covered? Let me know what your go-to’s are in the comment section below.

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