There’s a nearly endless variety of different exercises that you can use in the weight room, and with so many options to choose from it’s a virtual certainty that some won't get the attention they deserve. I’ve chosen to highlight the following four exercises because I think that they tend to be under-utilized by most gym goers, but this isn’t to say that any of them are some sort of magic bullet. Not to dash anybody’s hopes right from the start, but there is no such bullet. Any program, even the best ones (especially the best ones) take serious work. And furthermore, inclusion of any exercise into a larger program is no small task. Make sure you know how to include these, or any, exercises into your program before attempting to do so. Or alternatively, work with a coach who can do that with you.
That being said, here are some gems that I think can pay some real dividends.
The idea of doing an assisted pushup isn’t exactly revolutionary, but how you do them can make a big difference. By far the most common way that I see people perform these is by doing ‘knee-pushups’. While knee pushups may be convenient and look like the real thing, the bad news is that they’re not actually as similar to a regular pushup as you’d think. Or to put it another way, you could spend a very long time practicing knee pushups without actually getting much closer to a standard pushup. When you do pushups from the knees there’s a very strong chance that you’ll negatively alter the mechanics of the shoulders and/or elbows, which makes them less effective at strengthening the triceps. Knee pushups also tend to make it more difficult to engage your glutes and abdomen, which detracts from the importance of a stable trunk that you have with a standard pushup.
So instead of the standard knee pushup, do pushups with your hands on a box or a barbell. This adjustment is far superior because your posture remains virtually identical, but the incline makes the movement easier. Another advantage of this modification is that you can adjust the ‘weight’ by adjusting the height. As you get stronger, use a lower box or move the barbell down a peg.
Now with the barbell version, you can also spin your hands around so you have an underhand grip, which has some really important benefits (This may come up again shortly).
Yes, front foot elevated split squats. Not the other kind. If there’s one exercise that’s been done and done-to-death without any real regard for why, it has to be the rear-foot-elevated, or Bulgarian split squat. Sure, they may be hard and they may look badass, but elevating the rear foot removes what I consider to be the most important element of a split squat: iit allows you to train at deeper ranges of knee flexion than other squat variations.
Before going any further, let there be no doubt that squatting is not bad for your knees. And having your knees travel past your toes while squatting is not dangerous. It’s only dangerous if you don’t know how to do it right (so make sure you know), but if you’re doing it correctly it’s not only safe but necessary. Any coach that says otherwise is in the wrong line of work, but I digress…
The advantage of doing a correct split squat is that you can squat far deeper in the working leg than you (generally) can while doing a standard squat. The trouble is that when you shift your weight forward with a split squat, you put a tremendous stretch on the anterior hip of the non-working leg. If you lack adequate mobility, this can cause an over-arching of the lower back, which causes the exercise to be less effective. By elevating the front foot, you alleviate the amount of stress on the non-working leg, which allows you to squat super deep and keep your hips and back properly aligned (I appreciate that this is very difficult to conceptualize from the written word alone, but that’s why we have the videos. View the link above and it will make more sense).
The bench press is probably the most common exercise in any gym setting. Unfortunately, it’s also among the most poorly executed movements. As I heard one famous strength coach say recently, “finding a correctly executed bench press is harder than finding an astrophysics book in Paris Hilton’s library”. Joking aside, countless gym goers have paid the price for poor mechanics with the bench press. Ask anybody who’s injured their rotator cuff or labrum (and there are a lot of them), and you can bet the bench press played a serious part. And while poor technique with the bench press is a big problem, a properly executed bench press can be the cornerstone of an upper body strength program. One way that you can truly dummy-proof the bench is to flip your hands around and perform the lift with an underhanded grip.
This will almost certainly feel pretty bizarre at first, but what this adjustment does is forces the barbell into the correct pathway to maintain a healthy shoulder. One of the most famous cues with strength coaches with the bench is to ‘break the bar’. Imagine you’re trying to bend the barbell into a horseshoe shape, with the arch going over your head. What this does is cue the lifter to externally rotate the humerus, which creates stability in the shoulder joint. When the shoulders are properly set the elbows stay relatively close to the rib cage as opposed to flaring out wide. When you hold the bar with an underhand grip, it’s impossible to let your elbows flare out wide, so your shoulders are locked into a nice safe position.
And not only is this posture safe, it’s also more powerful… in the long run, anyway. It may feel odd at first, but having your shoulders set in this way is critical to maximizing the load on your bench. So if this variation of the movement feels dramatically harder, it’s probably a sign that your current bench press needs some adjustment.
Exercises where you work one side at a time have some tremendous benefits, but while there are unilateral versions of squats, rows and presses, hinging from the hip is often neglected. Not only is the SL deadlift an exceptionally useful exercise for strengthening the glutes and hamstrings, it also has the added bonus of being very difficult to do incorrectly.
Any competent coach knows the importance of keeping a neutral back when moving heavy loads with an exercise like the deadlift. And while try as you might, invariably a heavy enough load often results in a dangerously rounded back. Having a disproportionately weak lower back is quite common, particularly if you spend more than a few hours sitting at a desk. If the lower back is the weakest link in the (posterior) chain, it may give way under a heavy enough load. But with the single-leg deadlift, you only have the benefit of using one leg. You can challenge yourself as much as you may like on that one side, but since the weight will only be about half (at most), your back will be strong enough to stay stable.
But still, there’s yet another fail-safe built in to this exercise. Keeping a neutral spine isn’t just important for safety, but also for balance. And with only one leg to stand on, balance is pretty important with this exercise. While this exercise can be challenging, even frustrating at first, it virtually necessitates that you maintain a solid posture so you can stay balanced. Or to think of it another way, if your back isn’t in the right place, you’ll simply lose your balance and start over. If the balance is still problematic, consider adjusting the height of the barbell using risers (shown in the video above).
Noah is Co-Owner, Head Coach and General Manager of CrossFit Praxis in Washington, DC. Between years as a coach and competing in the CrossFit Mid-Atlantic Regional Competition every year since 2012, Noah is relentlessly enthusiastic about refining and improving workout programs for elite athletes, teams, and beginners alike.