You got your routine down with those staple workouts that keep you chugging along to your goals. And while every exercise isn’t your absolute favorite, you’re pretty comfortable with what you’re doing—and pretty confident that you don’t look like a tool on the gym floor. But if you only train your body in one way, you can lose abilities. You know, like that guy with the huge shoulders who can’t clasp his hands behind his back (talk about awkward). These exercises are just what the trainer ordered to keep you healthy and injury-free—and help make you stronger.
1. Lateral Band Walks
Trainers are really big on getting their clients to shimmy into those little rubber loops and side-step to and fro. We admit, it looks a little goofy. But it also does incredibly good things for the lower body. “Strengthening the hip complex increases core stability and strength, and makes the multi-joint movements, such as the squat and deadlift, or any explosive movement, like the power and hang clean, much more powerful,” says Joe Kekoanui, a personal trainer in the greater Philadelphia area. Band walks also improve hip stability, which in turn keeps the knees safer, particularly in sports with a lot of lateral movement, like basketball and soccer.
2. Walking Reverse Lunge
Traversing the floor, unless it’s in a loaded forward lunge walk, draws gym attention that not all guys want. But here are few reasons to re-think your stay-in-one-spot policy, courtesy of the walking reverse lunge. “They challenge your balance more proficiently, build more gluteus maximus muscle efficiently, and stretch your psoas major and hip flexor muscles more continuously,” says NYC trainer Shaun Zetlin. Use these lunges as part of a dynamic warmup or as a mobility exercise within your lower body routine.
3. Dynamic Hamstring Stretch
Most people let their lower back take the brunt when they touch their toes (or try to). The reality is, tight hamstrings are what are holding you back, and what also limit your ability to deadlift and squat. To open them up, try this warm-up: Elevate your toes, hip-width apart, on a low curb or a half foam roller. Hinge down from the hips, sticking your butt out and bending your knees as much as needed so your fingers graze your toes; keep your back flat. From here, bend your knees in toward your forearms a titch more, then attempt to straighten your knees back as much as you can without letting your hands come up. Bend your knees and press back in a slow rhythm 9 more times. Stand up, adjust your feet so your heels are elevated and toes on the ground, and repeat the bending sequence. Now come off the roll and test yourself: Can you touch your toes, or at least come a lot closer? Thought so.
4. Barbell Hip Thrusters
While it true that squats and deadlifts work the glutes, they’re not the most efficient way to target these largest muscles of the body. Enter barbell hip thrusters. “Men often skip them because you come off looking like you're trying to get intimate with a barbell,” says Michelle Collier, founder of Philadelphia-area Performance Fitness. “But for strengthening and building the glutes, these exercises can't be beat.” With knees bent at 90 degrees, rest your shoulders on a bench, a barbell on your hip creases. Lower your butt toward the ground hinging at the hips, then press hips up high against the weight of the bar. Do for multiple reps. “Strong glutes mean better workout and sports performance,” Collier says. “you’ll be faster and stronger, and you might even alleviate low-back pain, which can be a side effect of weak glutes.”
5. High Lunges
Hips get tight from sitting, walking, standing, life. Open them up with this post-workout stretch snagged from yoga. Take a big step forward, wide enough that your back leg is extended long behind you, heel off the ground, and your front knee is bent at a 90-degree angle. Aim your hips straight forward and settle down so you feel a stretch across the front of the back leg’s hip. Send your hands up to the sky and think opposition—fingertips reaching up, back heel aiming to go flat on the floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Wait, what? Aren’t those only for chicks? Actually, no, says Alex Allan, lead kinesiologist at PhysioPlus Health Group and owner of the Kin Studio in Toronto, Canada. “Studies show that deep core is related to low back health and spinal stability when lifting,” he says. “Also, injuries like diastasis recti and abdominal hernias are common in men and can happen as a result of harder exercises (like roll outs) when deep core is not conditioned.” To do: Isolate the deep pelvic muscles by stopping the flow of urine while you pee. Once you’ve figured out how to use them, engage the muscles and release them, but without wetting yourself. Do ‘em whenever you think to—in the elevator, at your desk, while watching TV…
7. Balance Exercises
“Yes, I did say balance exercises and I know you aren’t an old man,” says Maurice Williams, MS, personal trainer and owner of Move Well Fitness in the greater Washington DC area. “Newsflash: We start losing our balance not as old men, but around the same age that our muscles begin to atrophy, somewhere in our 30s. So, how about we start working on balance now?” You don’t necessarily need to add new moves to your routine—just add instability to the old ones. “How about doing your cable chest work on a single leg?” he suggests.
8. Single-Leg Deadlifts
They’re challenging but not in the manliest of ways—after all, you need to lift very little weight if any at all to get the benefits. So what’s the case for doing them? “Almost everyone has strength and stability imbalances left to right side.” Allan says. “Single-leg exercises are also more functional for athletic development and balance.” Start with bodyweight only, with arms out like an airplane (easier) or on hips (harder). Shift your balance to one foot and pick the other one up, slowly hinging forward at the hips, going as low as you can while keeping the loose leg in the same plane as the back. Ground into the standing leg, slightly bent at the knee, to come back to stand. Do multiple reps, then switch sides.
Your shoulder repertoire no doubt includes front raises and lateral raises. But it might be worth taking another angle on those popular straight-arm raises, in the form of scaption—raising dumbbells with straight arms, thumbs up, in a V shape in front of you. “While beneficial for multiple reasons, the lateral raise could eventually cause harm to the rotator cuff,” Zetlin says. “Scaption employs the scapula and rhomboids to functionally strengthen your rotator cuff, creates shoulder mobility that fortifies your joints and tendons, and can help improve your posture.” It’ll also make your bench press and overhead press stronger.
10. Internal and External Shoulder Rotations
Speaking of the rotator cuff, there’s more you should be doing to keep it healthy. Far too many people end up with impingement or even muscle tears from excessive improper repetitive movement patterns (like those lateral raises mentioned already). To strengthen those all-important stabilizer muscles, rig up a band or cable at about waist height. Stand with the handle to your side. Grab hold of the handle with one hand—if it’s your closer hand, you’ll be working the internal rotators; your further hand, external rotators. Lock your elbow, bent at 90 degrees, into your side and either rotate your hand against the tension; in toward your body (internal rotation) or out away from your body (external rotation). Do both directions on both sides. “These exercises are a great warm-up prior to heavy bench presses or shoulder presses, and will help keep the shoulder joint healthy—helping you lift even heavier weight,” says Alex McBrairty, an Ann Arbor-based personal trainer and the owner of A-Team Fitness.
11. Quadruped Thoracic Mobility
That mouthful of a name is actually a pretty simple warm-up exercise with a very important purpose, and is an excellent warm-up for heavy back or chest work. From all fours, you place one hand behind your head, elbow winging out, and slowly rotate the elbow in to touch the other forearm, then opening it up to the other side, aiming to point it toward the ceiling. Do multiple reps (then do the other side). “This exercise is important for the health of your lumbar spine and shoulders because if you lack T-spine mobility, your body will compensate and find necessary mobility somewhere else,” says Chris Cooper, co-owner of Active Movement & Performance, a training facility in Long Island, NY.
12. Bridge Thoracic Mobility
With similar benefits to the quadruped version, this movement also offers some much-needed hip opening and glute strengthening for anyone who spends a lot of time sitting—totally worth the slightly compromising position it puts you in. Lie on your back with arms out like a T, bend your knees, and come into bridge position, hips up high. Pick up one arm and rotate it up and across your chest toward the other arm, lifting the shoulder up but taking care not to let the lower back twist. Rotate that arm back to flat and do the other side; Do 6-10 reps.
13. Foam Roam Thoracic Mobility
Rounding out this thoracic trifecta is a drill that helps to extend the midback, a perfect compliment to the two rotation-focused exercises. It also feels really freaking good. Lie back-down across a foam roll at the base of your rib cage. Cross your hands across your chest, and arch back over the roller, letting your shoulders drop back and your ribs come up slightly. Roll up an inch, and repeat the arch motion, working up toward your shoulders. “Most guys ignore these exercises because they’re on the boring side of the exercise world—they won't give you a pump or directly make you stronger,” Cooper says. “But they will give you better movement that carries over into other exercises, specifically most men's favorite, the bench press.”
14. Staggered Pushup
Placing your hands off center to do pushups feels weird, and can be tough for even the most adept regular pushup-er. And that’s for good reason. The uneven positioning makes one side work harder than the other, which can be especially tough on your nondominant arm. “It incorporates more core, shoulder, and tricep stability and more strength in your rotator cuffs,” Zetlin says.
15. Standing Cable Crossover
Chest = bench, bench, and more bench. Right? Not exactly. “We tend to focus most of our attention on the middle of the chest,” says Stephen Box, owner of Stephen Box Fitness & Nutrition in Suwanee, GA. “Targeting your upper chest not only makes the whole thing look much bigger, but it creates a nice tie-in with your shoulders and traps.” The standing cable cross hits the inner and outer portions of the upper chest in one move, with the benefit of consistent load that the cable machine provides. Lower the pulleys to the ground. Hold the handles down by your sides so there’s a bit of tension on the cables. then pull them up and toward your midline in front of your chest. Slowly release.
It’s a stupid name and a dopey-looking exercise. But the only dope here is the guy who discounts their effectiveness. “Deadbugs teach you to brace through movement and keep a neutral spine, which is important for just about every other exercise,” Cooper says. Lie on your back, extending your arms and legs toward the ceiling. Keeping your head down and your back flat, Slowly lower one arm and the opposite leg back toward the floor, stopping at about a 45-degree angle. Raise those limbs slowly back up to neutral, and repeat with the other side. Slow is key here, both for the strengthening benefits and so you don’t get confused about which limbs to move when. You can also do it with a stability ball pinned between your arms and legs—don’t let it fall.
17. Bear Crawls
They’re not easy or sexy. They are, however, extremely functional, training your core to stabilize against limb movement in one of the most dynamic of ways: crawling across the ground. As you surge forward, focus on your form, bringing knee to elbow with each pace. For added challenge if you need it (ha ha), try changing direction, crawling sideways and backward. Or bring them lower to the ground, in a military crawl, which emphasizes hip flexibility—and trains you to slink under barbed wire.
18. Inch Worms
Another exercise in the animal family, this variation of walkouts has you walking your hands out and your feet back in to make your (slow) way forward. It emphasizes the core, of course, but also gives the backs of the legs—hamstrings and calves—a very satisfying (or strenuous, depending on your flexibility) stretch.
19. Farmer’s Walk
That is, loading your hands up with heavy, heavy dumbbells and walking across the room (also called suitcase carries). It’s great for the core, and for the most underappreciated form of strength: the grip. “Nearly all exercises involve grip strength to some degree, and at times it can be a limiting factor,” says Shane McLean, a personal trainer and group exercise instructor in Dallas, TX. “Improving grip strength will add pounds to your deadlifts, rows, and presses.”
20. Band Pull-Aparts
The upper back is one of the most neglected areas. “We forget about what we can’t see,” says McLean. Grasp a resistance band or tube in both hands, arms extended straight in front of you. Pull your hands apart until the band comes against your chest and your arms are in a T position. Resist to come back to center. “When this is done for high reps (20-50), it’s a brutally effective exercise for upper back, posterior deltoids, and opening up the chest,” McLean says, “It can be supersetted with any exercise that needs upper back endurance (front squats) or good alignment (deadlifts).”
21. Face Pulls
An excellent upper-back strengthener, this has nothing to do with jaw contortions. “We tend to hit the front- and mid-delts either directly from overhead shoulder presses, or secondarily from benching, but often ignore the rear delts leaving their shoulders undeveloped from behind,” says McBrairty. Rig up a cable with the rope attachment at face height, holding each end in a hand. Start with arms fully extended, then pull the rope toward your face. ‘A bonus: this exercise will help improve posture, particularly for desk-bound professionals,” he says.
22. Standing Straight-Arm Pulldown
Unless you like the look of an an ape-like forward slump, you already know that you have to balance out all that chest work with plenty of back exercises. This cable-assisted move targets the lats, rhomboids, mid-lower traps, with a healthy dose of abdominal stabilization on the eccentric (return) portion. Load the cable up, attach a straight bar, and raise the pulley to the top. Stand back so your arms are straight. Press the bar down toward your thighs without rounding your shoulders forward. Slowly release the cable, engaging through the abs as you do.
Another back move to master, this bodyweight exercise is a lot tougher than it looks—or can look pretty tough, depending on your mobility. But the guys who have the most trouble with it should do it most of all, as a dynamic warmup for every upper-body workout. Lie on a mat on your stomach, arms extended above your head. Engage through the abs and press the tops of feet into the ground while lifting your arms, head, and chest up off the ground, forming a Y shape with your body. Lower down, shift your arms out like a T and lift and lower again. Bring the arms by the sides in a A position, and lift and lower once more. Repeat the series without stopping for at least 6 reps.
You don’t need us to tell you about the myriad benefits of this art of movement and breathing. What you do need is a way to make it easier—and avoid that fish-out-of-water feeling of taking a group class as a newbie. Alexandra Pony, a yoga teacher based in Victoria, Canada, recommends a very simple sequence, done five times in a row. Start in a downward dog, hands and feet on the ground, hips in the air to form an inverted V for five breaths. On the final exhale, move forward into plank position, shoulders over hands. Hold the pose for five breaths. On the final exhale, lower yourself down in a narrow pushup, elbows grazing sides (option to do up to five pushups on your breaths). Inhale as you press your chest up and open into upward dog, keeping your hips down and your legs long. Finally, on an exhale, lift your hips back to downward dog. Repeat. “Stretching and breathing are often neglected when working out so it's a great way to remind your body to breathe through each movement and stretch while strengthening,” Pony says. It’s great as a warm-up or cool-down.
25. Post-Workout Foam Rolling
Cooling down is ignored enough, but this form of post-workout stretching is sorely neglected by far too many (sore) men. “I know, this looks like a waste of time,” says fitness expert Holly Del Rosso. “Trust me, two sets of 30 seconds on each major muscle group is worth it for the increased range of motion and blood flow and reduced recovery time and risk of injury.” Take a bottom to top approach: calves, then hamstrings, quads, IT bands, glutes, and mid back.