7 Muscles You Should Stop Ignoring & Start Working Out
Some muscles get all the glory. So at the gym, it’s usually the biceps, abs, pecs (for men), and butt (for women) that people work out without question. But if you’re short on time—or don’t care—you may skip out on back exercises or only work your six-pack muscles rather than targeting your deep core stabilizers.
That’s OK once in a while. You don’t need to work or stretch every single muscle every single time you work out. However, if you continually ignore some of your muscles, you may experience imbalances, weakness, and tightness, and be more susceptible to injuries. Since the goal should be a healthy body from head to toe, be sure to regularly pay some attention and love to these muscles.
“The calf muscles [gastrocnemius and soleus] get used all day and can be tight,” says strength coach Pete McCall, host of the All About Fitness podcast. To relieve that tightness, perform downward facing dog to lengthen the muscle under resistance, helping reduce injury, he recommends.
Downward Facing Dog
- Start on all fours, with your knees directly below your hips, and wrists a few inches forward of your shoulders. Point your fingertip forward and spread your fingers wide.
- On an exhale, tuck your toes, press into your hands, straighten your arms and legs, and lift your hips up toward the ceiling. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart, and feet are hips-width apart.
- Rotate your shoulders outward to avoid scrunching them. Keep your arms straight, and engage your biceps to keep your elbows from locking out. Look back at your toes and keep your ears in line with your arms.
- Hold the pose.
2. Latissimus Dorsi and Rhomboids
“The latissimus [lats] play several roles in your body—mainly in the articulation of the shoulder joint, while also playing a supporting role in breathing,” explains certified exercise physiologist John Ford, ACSM. And while the rhomboids aren’t A-list muscles, they play a crucial part in the support and movement of the shoulder blades, he adds.
The bent-over row targets both, loosening the lats and strengthening rhomboids. Plus, a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that, after the much-harder chin-up and pull-up, the bent-over row is the next-best exercise to activate the lats. But you have to perform it properly.
“Pull the elbows straight back—your shoulder blades should pinch together at the end of the motion,” Ford says. At the same time, keep your neck relaxed and avoid shrugging up your shoulders.
- Stand with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell with your palms facing your legs.
- Brace your core, push your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel to the floor.
- Let the barbell hang at arms’ length. Engage your shoulder blades to keep your shoulders pulled back (i.e., don’t hunch). This is the starting position.
- Without moving your torso, and while keeping your elbows tucked and back flat, row the barbell up toward your belly button as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Pause, and then lower the barbell back to the starting position.
- You can also do this exercise with dumbbells.
3. Rotator Cuff
Most exercises for the rotator cuff—the group of muscles and connective tissues in the shoulder—isolate the rotator cuff muscles, McCall says. But you want to work all of the shoulder muscles together, not only because that’s more efficient, but also because that’s how they naturally work to move the shoulder through the various planes of motion. McCall recommends the bottom-up press, which, as a bonus, requires more grip strength. “The tighter the grip, the more stability in the shoulder,” he says.
Single-Arm Bottom-Up Press
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in one hand by the handle with your palm facing in.
- Hammer curl the dumbbell up to your shoulder, so the bottom of the bell faces up. This is the starting position.
- With a firm grip, press the dumbbell overhead until your arm is straight.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the starting position.
- Do all of your reps with one arm, then switch sides and repeat.
“The most common leg exercises often work our quadriceps primarily, so it’s important to choose exercises that specifically target your hamstrings and glutes as the primary muscles,” Ford says. For the hamstrings, one exercise he recommends is the kettlebell swing. Another study by ACE named the swing one of the best hamstrings exercises. Compared to the prone hamstrings curl, the swing activates the biceps femoris muscle more and activates the semitendinosus muscle almost as much.
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in front of you at arm’s length in your left hand.
- Keeping your back flat, arm straight, and core braced, push your hips back, bend your knees slightly (don’t squat!), and “hike” the dumbbell between your legs.
- Reverse the movement, swinging the dumbbell up to shoulder level as you thrust your hips forward.
- As the dumbbell falls back down, guide it between your legs to begin your next rep.
To properly work your obliques, get on your feet. “The right external oblique works with the left internal oblique to create rotation to the left,” McCall explains. “Lying on ground doesn’t allow that to happen.” However, doing a reverse lunge with rotation uses the obliques with the hips and glutes. “The way the muscles work together in real life,” McCall says.
Reverse Lunge with Rotation
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell vertically in both hands in front of your chest.
- Keeping your chest up, back flat, shoulders back, and core engaged, take a large step back with your right leg.
- Lower your body until your left thigh is parallel with the floor. Your knees should be bent about 90 degrees, with the right knee hovering a couple of inches above the ground. From this position, twist your torso to the left, so the dumbbell goes over your left leg.
- Twist back to the center, and then push off your back foot to return to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both sides. When you step back with your left leg, twist to the right.
6. Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus
It’s essential to work all three muscles of the glutes—maximus, medius, and minimus. But we typically do a lot of forward and backward movement (think forward and reverse lunges) and up and down movement (think squats) and not as much side-to-side movement. That’s why the gluteus medius and minimus tend to play second fiddle.
But these muscles are an athlete’s best friend, Ford says. “They support explosive movements and also lateral and change-of-direction movements,” he explains. Target them with lateral and diagonal lunges, or try lateral squat shuffle walks with resistance bands.
Lateral Squat Shuffle Walks
- Loop a small resistance band around your legs, just above your knees, and stand with your feet hip-width apart, creating slight tension on the band.
- Keeping your back flat and abs engaged, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body into a squat, shifting your weight toward your heels.
- Step right with your right foot, and immediately follow with the left, maintaining tension on the band so that your knees don’t cave inward.
- Continue sidestepping in a slow, shuffling motion. Then stop and take an equal number of steps in the opposite direction.
7. Deep Core Stabilizers
The rectus abdominis may give you that six-pack, but don’t overlook your transverse abdominals and thoracolumbar fascia. “Think of them as the foundation for the body,” McCall says. “You would not erect a tall building without a stable foundation. The same is true for the body—core stabilizer strength is the foundation for all other strength.” To target this area, he recommends the farmers walk. “The deep core muscles will work hard to stabilize the spine while carrying the weights, especially when on one leg during the gait cycle,” he explains.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of heavy dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in.
- Draw your shoulders back, and pull your head back as if making a double chin. Hold this position throughout the movement.
- Keeping your core engaged and your gaze ahead of you, walk for 20-30 seconds to complete a set. Avoid the tendency to sway from side to side.