It’s easy to get stuck in a world of redundancy in the weight room, and if you’re anything like me, you’re quick to default to the stuff you’re good at before challenging yourself with what you know will do your body good. It takes real discipline and a much needed ego check to humble yourself and submit to an exercise that delivers plenty of bang for the buck—even if that means the amount you can lift is pitiful.
On that note, here are 10 moves that should make your list when it comes to delivering a challenge that you probably need.
This may not seem like it belongs on this list, let alone first—but rest assured that this movement is not only underused, it’s also underappreciated. People often avoid the front squat, because it’s just plain harder to do, making lift numbers suffer. If it’s not that, they avoid it due to it exposing plenty of mobility restrictions throughout the body.
Since we’re not here to inflate the ego, it’s worth gaining the requisite mobility and strength to perform these well. Do your best to use a clean grip to avoid imbalances.
The Olympic lifts are demanding, complex movements that are suitable for a very select crowd of weight-training enthusiasts and athletes. However, the demographic opens up drastically when simplifying one of these lifts to a single dumbbell variation.
People who have difficulty with overhead squats or general shoulder issues may not fare too well with traditional barbell snatches. Grabbing a moderate-to-heavy dumbbell and performing snatches with one hand allows a lifter to trigger similar explosiveness while finding much more shoulder-friendly finish positions as you work on your mobility. Focus on sets of eight reps or less.
Let’s face it: You’ve heard about the Turkish Getup before, probably several times. Chances are, you’ve written it off as useless too, since it’s not a squat, deadlift, or chinup. But where conditioning, general joint health, and mobility are concerned, you can’t get much better. Whether you’re someone specifically looking for the above, or you have plenty of restrictions, you’re going to benefit from doing these to help open you up and jack-up your heart rate in the process.
A great basic conditioning guide would be to start with any weight (kettlebell, dumbbell, or sandbag) you want, and do five minutes straight, alternating arms each time. Take a two-minute break between rounds, and continue for as many rounds as you can. Too easy? Just increase the weight, and decrease your rest interval between rounds by 30 seconds.
Hanging Leg Raise
Doing hanging leg raises instead of situps, crunch variations, or rope flexions for the abs are not only more challenging, but also healthier, especially if you’re a big guy. It takes a lot to hang from a bar and use your core to pull your heavy legs up to the chest for reps. But the added benefit of choosing this move is the fact that your ribcage and thoracic region don’t lose their position of extension.
Hanging leg raises are also one of the few trunk flexion movements that actually works from the bottom-up and not the top-down, promoting the maintenance of good posture and no strain on the neck and thoracic vertebrae. If true hanging legs raises are a bit too tough, there’s no shame investing in sleeves to attach to your pullup bar to support your upper arms while performing the movement.
Floor presses can serve as a supplement to your chest and triceps training, or a complete substitute for your bench press for a lifter with cranky shoulders. The fact that the elbows are blocked by the floor prevent joint discomfort from a deep finish position, and the fact that dumbbells are being used allows for changes in elbow positioning, so a lifter can find his sweet spot that causes no pain.
As a bonus, each arm has to work for itself, without the presence of leg drive, which can prove deadly for chest and triceps stimulation.
Paused Back Squat
If you’re on this site, chances are you already back squat. If you want a humbling experience to be made even more humbling, add two-second pauses at the bottom of each rep.
Something so simple is so effective at building muscle and making light weight feel heavy, due to the removal of any momentum or transfer of forces. It makes each rep much more “honest” and reliant on true strength, and not exchanges of energy. Be prepared to lower the weight you’re lifting by about 20 percent if you’re looking to match your typical rep ranges.
It’s already a rarity to see people do strict barbell overhead presses at most commercial gyms. But asking for proper form in that movement is equivalent to asking too much. The Z press allows for no shortcuts, since the seated position eliminates the potential for a “push off” or legs drive, and there’s no backrest to the seat either. That means your hip mobility has to be on point to create a neutral spine position while sitting tall.
If you can’t achieve this, it’ll show right away. Moreover, a seated overhead position asks for healthy shoulders, or else the bar will end up in front of the body. A quick tip for people who aren’t mobile enough: Try sitting on a step platform to start; the hips will be more open and this will make it easier to keep a neutral spine.
Sparingly applying overhead squats to your routine is a good way to gauge your general mobility and give your conditioning a kick while you’re at it. As I said, it’s not recommended as a main lift, but is worth its weight in gold when applied correctly.
This movement exploits shoulder, hip, ankle, knee, and lumbar restriction the second you do your first rep (and there’s a reason it’s the first test in the popular FMS assessment protocol). Remember to squeeze outward on the bar as hard as possible while keeping it over the mid-foot the entire time.
Kettlebell Angled Press
To target the mid-back and lower traps, the angled press works well since the deltoids don’t get much chance to enter the movement and take it over.
Starting with a tucked position close to the chest, aim to maintain the same angle of the torso with the arms (like an extension of the torso itself), and hold position for a full second before sliding the weight back in. Compare this movement to a face pull or trap raise, and you’ll note that in both cases the deltoids get the chance to contribute concentrically to the lift. Eliminating this from the start by using constant tension is the key here
Most people who say they can crank out dozens of chinups or pullups in a row are lying about it, especially when reviewing good form. But whether you’re good at pullups or not, exploiting the negative reps will prove challenging, mentally and physically, while delivering huge benefits for hypertrophy and strength.
The fast-twitch fibers get trained a whole lot more when slowing down eccentric phases of training, so gunning for five-second, negative-only chinups have many pros, and very few cons. Use them for sets of six to eight reps at any point in your workout.
BY LEE BOYCE, CPT