The Six Best Exercises You’ve Never Heard Of

Move over bench press, biceps curls and bent-over row. Spice up your training — and increase your gains — with these novel moves.
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It’s the unofficial first rule of the gym: Monday is always bench-press day. Always. Go to almost any gym in the country on a Monday at 5:30 p.m., and you will find a line of guys waiting their turn for the bench press. As if they couldn’t think of another effective chest exercise to do. The sad thing is, they probably couldn’t. And the bench isn’t the only exercise that people get hung up on. In fact, the only guys not waiting their turn on the bench press are likely waiting to do barbell curls. And the fallout from all this lack of imagination is that if you monitored those same men over the span of a year, you’d probably notice little change in their physiques.

There certainly isn’t anything wrong with either the bench press or the barbell curl. In fact, a solid training program should include those and other tried-and-true mass builders. However, variety is the key to making good progress in the gym. You need to use a wide variety of exercises to hit muscles from different angles to keep them growing. So when you’ve run through your toolbox of exercise variations for the major muscle groups, pull out these six to kick-start some new muscle growth. Do ’em right, and the only line you’ll see in the gym will be made up of people trying to figure out what you’re doing.

Exercise: Biceps Ladder

Biceps-Ladder

Muscles targeted: Biceps

Why do it: This is a great exercise for the biceps that will force even the most stubborn arms to grow. The novel movement of this exercise will stimulate muscle fibers that you likely have been ignoring. This exercise also places a high load in the negative part of the rep (especially on the lower rungs) on the biceps, which induces a lot of muscle damage for stimulating new muscle growth.

How to do it: Stand in a power rack or Smith machine. Set the safety bars on one side at a height that allows you to hang from the bar, like during an inverted row, so that your back just clears the floor with only your heels making contact with the floor. Hold the bar with an underhand, shoulder-width grip and bend your elbows to pull your body up toward the bar, focusing on bringing your face to the bar. Slowly lower back to the start position. Do as many reps as you can until you reach muscle failure, then immediately raise the bar up one notch and continue. Each time you reach muscle failure, raise the bar up one notch until you have reached the very top notch. Each time you raise the bar, it reduces the resistance that your body provides, making it easier to continue the set, so in essence, this is one long extended set. On the lower rungs where the resistance is the greatest, you may need to cheat yourself up (by using your lats) on the positive part of the rep and focus just on the negative part of the rep. Try to get at least five reps on each position even if you have to cheat.

Sample Workout

Exercise: Band Roundhouse Elbow

Band-Roundhouse

Muscles targeted: Obliques, Core

Why do it: If you’re an athlete who regularly performs rotational movements (think: swinging a bat, swinging a club or swinging your elbow, such as in the roundhouse elbow strike common in MMA and martial arts), then this exercise is a must. That’s because it allows you to build explosive power in this movement, which can parlay into more power and better performance when you compete. And if you don’t compete — or frequently need to rotate your torso — it can help you build a strong core and ripped obliques.

How to do it: Take a strength band and wrap it around a power rack, machine or post at just below shoulder height. Slide the handle of the band up your forearm so that it sits in the crook of your elbow. With your elbow held directly out to your side (and forearm across your chest), walk away from the connection point until there is tension on the band. You can grasp your wrist with the opposite hand for stability. Take a shoulder-width stance, pull your abs in tight, and use your hips and obliques to quickly turn at the waist in a violent but controlled fashion, contracting your abs during the turn. Use your elbow as the focal point to complete the turn: Picture turning and elbowing an opponent in front of you against the resistance of the band. Do three to four sets of six to 12 reps per side when you normally do ab and core training.

Sample Workout

Exercise: Face Pull

Face-Pull

Muscles targeted: Rear Deltoids, Middle Trapezius

Why do it: If you want to build well-rounded shoulders, then you need to focus on your rear delts in addition to your middle and front delts. Yet many people find that despite doing plenty of the typical rear-delt moves, like bent-over lateral raises, they aren’t making much in the way of gains on their posterior deltoids. The problem is that most rear-delt exercises are single-joint exercises, which severely limits the amount of weight you can use and therefore the overload placed on this head. The face pull, on the other hand, is a multi-joint exercise that involves movement at the shoulder joint and the elbow joint. This lets you use some real weight to pack real mass onto your rear delts, hitting your middle traps in the process. 

How to do it: Place a rope attachment on the pulley of a lat-pulldown station and grab the ends of the rope with an overhand grip so that your palms are facing each other. Place your foot up on the seat or knee pad to anchor your stance and allow you to use more weight. With your arms extended directly in front of you, lean back so that your upper body forms about a 45-degree angle with the floor. Using your rear delts and middle traps, bend your arms at the elbow and out to your sides, bringing the rope to the sides of your ears. Then return your arms to the start position and repeat for reps. Because this exercise hits the rear delts and middle traps, it’s a good one to put at the end of your delt workout as a segue exercise between shoulders and traps. Follow this exercise with some form of shrugs, like dumbbell or barbell shrugs, to hit the upper traps.

Sample Workout

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

Barbell Shoulder Press

4

6-8

1-2 minutes

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

3

8-10

1-2 minutes

Cable Front Raise

3

8-10

1-2 minutes

Face Pull

3

8-10

1-2 minutes

Barbell Shrug

4

6-8

1-2 minutes

Exercise: Reverse-Grip Bench Press

Reverse-Grip-Bench-Press

Muscles targeted: Upper Pectoralis Major

Why do it: The upper pecs tend to be the toughest area of the chest for many guys to build, which might just be because most guys use the incline bench press to focus on their upper chest. Research shows that, compared to the standard flat bench press, the incline bench press increases muscle activity of the upper pecs by only 5 percent. That’s not much. The same study found that the incline bench press increased the muscle activity of the front delts by more than 85 percent compared to the flat bench. Meaning that the incline bench press may be a better front-deltoid exercise than upper-chest exercise. However, research also shows that, compared to the standard flat bench press done with an overhand grip, the reverse-grip bench press (also done on a flat bench) increases muscle activity of the upper pecs by 30 percent. Now we’re getting somewhere.

How to do it: Lie on your back on a bench press in the normal way. If you have a spotter, hold the bar with a reverse (underhand) grip with your hands spaced wider-than-shoulder width and have your spotter help you lift the bar from the rack to over your chest. Lower the bar to your lower chest/upper abs and immediately press it back up in an arcing pattern back over your upper chest. Repeat for reps. 

If you train alone, unrack the bar with the usual overhand grip and lower it to rest on your chest. Switch to an underhand grip and perform the exercise from there. It’s easier to rack the bar with an underhand grip than to unrack it.

Sample Workout

Exercise: Dumbbell Power Row

Dumbbell-Power-Row

Muscles targeted: Latissimus Dorsi

Why do it: The lats are one of those muscle groups that many find hard to feel when they train, which subsequently makes it hard to get them to grow. And although dumbbell bent-over rows are one of the best exercises to do for building wide, thick lats, many people have trouble doing them correctly. They often end up pulling too much with the biceps and don’t lift their elbows high enough in the finish position to fully engage the lats. In addition, bent-over rows can place a lot of stress on the lower back. The dumbbell power row helps to get more out of the lats and reduces the stress on the lower back. 

How To do it: Place a dumbbell on the floor between your feet. Stand using a slightly staggered stance, with your right leg in front of the left with slightly bent knees. Bend forward from the hips so that your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Brace your right hand on your right thigh to support your upper body, then squat down and grab the dumbbell with your left hand using a neutral grip. Maintaining the position of your back, extend explosively at the legs to start the dumbbell moving up from the floor and then use your lats to pull the dumbbell up toward your left hip as fast and as high as possible. Keep the dumbbell as close to your side as possible and then lower it all the way back to the floor. Repeat for five to eight reps and then do the same on the right side. Because you build momentum with the help of your legs, the biceps are less involved and you can get the dumbbell higher in the top position so that the lats can contract with maximal force. The momentum generated by the legs also allows you to use heavier weight, which places more overload on the lats. Because you lower the dumbbell to the floor between each rep, the exercise places far less stress on the lower back.

Sample Workout

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

Dumbbell Power Row

2

5-8

2 minutes

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

3

6-8

2 minutes

Lat Pulldown

3

8-10

2 minutes

Seated Cable Row

3

10-12

2 minutes

Seated Cable Row

3

12-15

2 minutes

Exercise: Standing Calf-Machine Shrug

Standing-Calf-Machine-Shrug

Muscles targeted: Upper Trapezius

Why do it: Take a look around your gym and watch how most people shrug. They use their legs, arms and just about any other muscle group but the traps. To better isolate the traps, you need to allow them to do the work while letting your arms simply hold onto the weight, which can still prove difficult. Doing shrugs on a standing calf machine removes the arms from the exercise completely so that the traps are the direct link to the weight. You can’t help but feel the traps working on this exercise, and we bet you’ll still be feeling them days after.

How to do it: Stand in a standing calf machine with the shoulder pads resting on your shoulders. Drop your shoulders down as low as possible, getting a good stretch in the traps. Then contract the traps to shrug your shoulders up as high as possible, being sure to contract them as hard as you can in the top position for one to two seconds before lowering back down into a full stretch. Repeat for reps.

Sample Workout

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

Barbell Shrug

3

8-10

1-2 minutes

Standart Calf-Machine Shrug

3

10-12

1-2 minutes