There’s nothing more impressive than someone (in the gym) ripping a big weight off the floor, squatting heavy and deep or pushing a humongous weight off his chest.
Those impressive feats of strength stop you in your tracks as you gaze upon them in awe. However, don’t stare too long as those big guys might get the wrong idea.
Getting strong is a process and one that takes time, effort and commitment. Heck, I’ve been striving for a double bodyweight deadlift for years now. However, I will achieve it one day because I will not let that kid beat me.
Even if you don’t strive to rip big weights off the floor you can still benefit from getting stronger. Some of those benefits include
- increased muscle mass
- better joint mobility
- better flexibility
- stronger bones, joints, and connective tissue
- improved performance on and off the field
The muscles generally associated with strength are the chest, lats, shoulders, quads, arms and glutes. In my experience, men want a strong and great looking upper body while women concentrate on the glutes, hamstrings and arms.
However, both sexes tend to overlook the smaller muscles, in their quest to get bigger, stronger and sexier. Whether you’re new to the lifting game or you’re an experienced lifter, please don’t forget about the smaller muscles that make it happen.
1. Upper back muscles
We live in a look down culture. We look down at our smart phones, tablets and computers. We also sit too much and move too little, which is a recipe for disaster when it comes to our upper back muscles and posture.
For every inch the ears are forward from the shoulders (forward head posture) you increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds. (Kapandji, Physiology of Joints, Vol. 3)
This is not the ideal situation because it leads to the muscles of the upper back such as the Trapezius and Rhomboids getting weakened and inhibited and increases the likelihood of back pain.
The upper back muscles also play a huge role in the big lifts such as squats, deadlifts (by keeping the spine in neutral position) and even the bench press, so this is a big deal for gym goers and everyday desk jockeys.
Hopefully, you’re already doing exercises such as seated rows, lat pulldowns and chin ups to build those muscles between the shoulder blades. However, consider adding the following exercises to further strengthen those important muscles.
Single arm TRX row
TRX I, Y, T
You can pair these exercises with any upper body exercise. For example
1A. Single arm dumbbell bench press
1B. Batwing row
1A. Single arm dumbbell row
1B. TRX I, Y, T
2. Hands and fingers
Did you know that 34 muscles move our fingers and thumb? That’s a lot of muscles to neglect.
Your fingers can be incredibly strong – strong enough for some people to climb mountains, while supporting their entire weight at times by a few fingertips. There’s a lot of power in those fingers, just ask Spock.
However, you can lose grip strength if it’s not trained and it can lead to some functional limitations and disabilities as you age. Yes, it’s that important. (1)
And it goes without saying that lifting barbells and dumbbells require high levels of grip strength and sometimes it can be the number one limiting factor. You can either grip it and rip it or you can’t.
It’s one of those skills that’s vital in and out of the gym. Here are some must do exercises to train your grip and finger strength, so you can open that pickle jar with ease.
Farmers carries variations
Pairing these with an exercise that doesn’t require a ton of grip strength is ideal. For example:
1A. Bench press, squat, shoulder press or hip thrust.
1B. Dumbbell farmers walk- 40 yards.
Or you can include it in a core training superset. For example:
1A. Side plank or Front plank variations 30- 60 seconds
1B. Dumbbell farmers walk 40 yards.
Or when you’re looking for some extra biceps work, do this tri-set two to three times per week at the end of your training.
1A, Dumbbell biceps hammer curl 15- 20 reps
1B. Barbell wrist curls 15-20 reps
1C. Plate pinch (with 5-10-pound plates) to failure on both sides
You stuff them in socks and shoes and then you usually forget about them and that’s a mistake. The human foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons and they need some love and strengthening too. (2)
And when your shoes are off, your feet are free to receive more feedback from the ground because you’re re engaging your nerve endings and muscles that have previously been neglected. That makes your feet very happy.
Furthermore, the ability to create an arch in your feet while squatting and deadlifting helps keep your ankles, knees and hips in alignment. However, if you don’t, especially under load, your knees and hips will be very unhappy with you.
Arch No arch
Photo credit- Jeremy Ethier
The following two exercises might seem simple, but they will go a long way to strengthening those overlooked muscles of your feet which will help you get stronger from the ground up.
A. Shoe lace touch
I stole this exercise from Taylor Lewis and you’ll be thanking me later.
Stagger your stance, (right foot back, left foot forward) heel to toe, shift your hips back and touch your right hand to the shoe laces on your left foot. Take your right foot off the ground and balance until you stumble forward, or you lose your balance. Repeat on the other side. Do two-three reps on each leg.
B. Single leg KB swap
Here’s another exercise I borrowed from a super smart and creative fitness professional Joel Seedman.
The simple act of swapping the KB away from your working foot forces you to maintain your arch or else you’ll lose your balance and shake like a leaf on a windy night.
Both these exercises can be included into your warm up or supersetted with a leg exercise that requires a strong arch. For example:
1A. Barbell squat or Deadlift variation
1B. Single leg KB swap – 6 reps
1A. Any lunge or single leg variation
1B. Shoe lace touch- 3 reps on each foot
It’s not all about the big showy muscles in the gym, the small muscles need some love and attention too. And although those muscles don’t look great in the mirror, they help the muscles that do.
Thinking small will pay big dividends.