One of the worst things to see in a gym (in my humble opinion) is a dude ripped from the waist up walking around on scrawny little chicken legs 🐓. You wonder how those popsicle sticks can even support his upper body weight, but then you realize that they’re reinforced by his similarly oversized ego.
Not only is this sight unpleasant but persistent muscular imbalance in the body can also cause serious harm in the long run. The “mirror muscles” always seem to get all of the attention, much like the first-born child, while some other very important muscles in the body don’t get the love they need (middle child syndrome, anyone?). I think it’s high time to call a family meeting and bring unity to the body. So put your phone down, turn the TV off, and sit nicely with your ears open and hands folded in your lap.
The term ‘mirror muscles’ typically refers to the chest, triceps, biceps, abs, and quads. These are the muscles that will make every guy in a gym stop and check himself out whenever he passes a reflective surface. While these muscles are important for functional movements (i.e. picking up a box, reaching for a high shelf), working them to the exclusion of your other, less sexy muscles can be detrimental to the body.
In this post, we're going to give some much-needed love to the workhorse muscles that help you all day, everyday.
Pencil Neck ✏️
Let's kick off the list of the most underrated muscles with one of my favorite 19-letter words — the sternocleidomastoid ! This muscle originates at the sternum (sterno) and the clavicle (cleido) and has an insertion at the jaw (mastoid). The primary actions performed by the sternocleidomastoid are rotation of the head and flexion of the neck. Despite the fact that this muscle is responsible for holding our heads up all day long, very few people think to train it. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have exercised my neck muscles other than texting while walking, so don’t feel bad if you fall into the same category!
That being said, a strong neck is crucial for everyday activities. Strengthening your neck muscles will improve forward head posture, protect you from concussions in sports, a car accident, or even in self-defense situations. Do not mistake the trapezius muscle as a part of the neck muscle for our purposes. The neck muscles must be targeted directly, so here are a couple of great exercises to get you started.
Note: For the exercises on the 4-way neck machine, start with light weights and opt for a high number of reps (15-20). Slowly ease into these exercises – as with the lower back, you need to be careful not to overload the muscles.
Rear Neck Extension on 4-way neck machine – Pushing weight with back of head
Forward Neck Flexion on 4-way neck machine – Pushing weight with forehead
Lateral Neck Flexion 4-way neck machine – Pushing weight with side of head (ear to shoulder)
Resistance band flexion and extension – No 4-way neck machine?! Don't worry, you're not alone. The good news is that any TheraBand type tool can be used to provide resistance as you work your neck in all four directions.
The rear deltoids are another under-appreciated muscle group. Having strong rear deltoids will help you bench heavier weights and assist your shoulders in stabilizing exercises. By strengthening the rear deltoids, you will improve your posture and protect your shoulders from injury. This is one of my favorite muscles to work out because there are so many variations and different exercises! Here are a few to get you started:
Rear Delt Machine - Pretend you are trying to crush a grape between your shoulder blades 🍇.
Face Pulls – Keep a soft bend in your knees when you do these.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise – This one is easy to do with free weights.
Having strong rear deltoids can also improve your deadlift, along with the other olympic lifts. So don’t forget about this little guy because he can help you overcome big obstacles in the gym!
Work That Booty! 🍑
I haven’t forgotten about you, ladies! For the men among us, if you have sisters, lady friends, or have ever walked past a dressing room in the mall, you've probably heard the infamous “Do these pants make my butt look big?” If you’re a married man, that question is a trap, but let's get back to the merits of strong glutes. And the last time I checked, guys have glutes too, so listen up dudes.
We do a lot of sitting in our day-to-day lives: desk work, commuting, classes – you name it. Whether you like it or not, the fact is that humans sit a lot, and without strong glutes, the rest of your body will take a hit.
Some of the benefits of strong glutes are:
– Prevent and protect you from lower back pain
– Help avoid hamstring injuries
– Generate more force in power lifts
– A great asset to show off 😉
There are many great glute exercises, but I am a fan of the classics. You can’t go wrong with the Back Squat and Deadlift. Both of these lifts cause your glute muscles to fire. Hip Thrusts, Glute Bridges, and Glute Kickbacks are perfect for tightening those cheeks and producing an ample amount of force from your behind.
So guys, don’t be ashamed to do the same glute exercises as the girl next to you in the gym. Chances are, she can out-squat you and your buddies – and look good doing it!
A Climber’s Grip
I used to rock climb competitively in college, and I quickly grew to appreciate strong forearms because they were the difference between reaching the next hold on the wall and a not-so-enjoyable fall to the ground. Even if you don’t climb, strong forearms can help improve many of your day-to-day lifts (and help you heroically open that impossible pickle jar). You can only lift as much as you can hold, so let me share with you the exercises that helped my forearm and grip strength the most:
Farmer's Walk – You already perform the aptly named Farmer's Walk every time you carry your groceries inside. With a little work in the gym, you might be able to carry the whole load in at once! 😉
Dumbbell Forearm Curl – Both this exercise and the next one also strengthen your wrist, which can help prevent injuries.
Dumbbell Reverse Forearm Curl – This move and the previous one are best performed slowly and with a fairly light weight. It's easy to rely on momentum, but slowing down the move really gets into the muscle.
Plate Pinch – This move in particular will really build your grip strength, especially in your fingertips.
Forearms play a big part in many sports, and neglecting them can put you at risk of a potentially avoidable injury (like elbow tendonitis). Day-to-day tasks also constantly call for grip strength. Moral of the story: don't neglect these bad boys any longer!
Your Six Pack is Empty
When you think about your core, your mind typically goes straight to your abs – that quintessential sexy six-pack! In my mind, however, a six-pack is incomplete without defined obliques. Toned obliques will grab the attention of any wandering eye at the beach, but more importantly, they play a crucial role in supporting the rest of your body.
Strong Obliques help improve the lock-out at the top of a squat or deadlift and protect your lower back during the movement. They contribute to overall back health and can even help your balance. Not to mention, they are the icing on the side of your six-pack cake 🍰.
Some of my favorite oblique exercises:
Try these out – your core will thank you! The next time you sneeze the day after a tough ab workout and instantly recoil in pain, I hope you feel the same immense joy that I do (and think of me).
🎖 Honorable Mentions 🎖
There are a few muscles that just missed the cut but still deserve a shoutout. The shin muscles (anterior and posterior tibialis) can be a runner’s worst enemy if not strengthened and stretched properly. Rolling out the calf and shin muscles, along with elastic resistance band exercises, will keep you pounding pavement for years to come.
Hamstrings merit honorable mention because while they typically make their way into the leg day routine, they often do not get the proper attention. My hamstrings are tighter than the strings on an Irish fiddle, so I've learned the hard way the importance of foam rolling before and after exercise.
The next time you are at the gym, and see Mr. Flamingo legs curling his brains out, approach carefully with a protein bar (to gain his trust) and share what you just learned from this article. He'll probably thank you in the long run!