For athletes, the primary purpose of training is to become bigger, faster and stronger. There’s also a strong, primal urge to just build the biggest muscles as you can using classic staples such as squats, bench presses and deadlifts.
Thinking of developing muscle groups first and movement second is a common approach to bodybuilding. It’s perfectly understandable that most people will do bench presses to get a bigger chest, and bicep curls to get bigger biceps, but sometimes it’s great to put some movement-type exercises in for rounding up your thigh and arm muscles.
There’s no denying the importance of isolation work. After all, it helps sculpt a well-rounded physique, and it has some of the best exercises to develop awesome quads (squats), huge chest and shoulders (bench) and solid a posterior chain (deadlifts).
Yes, there are dozens of muscle-building exercises out there, but today I’ll be highlighting the ones that deserve more love. I’m talking about underrated anabolic movements, which gives you three amazing benefits:
- Encourages HGH, testosterone and IGF-1 hormone production
- Eat up plenty of metabolic costs
- Stimulates tons of muscle growth
In essence, intense exercise and doing them in rapid succession is what makes your body produce all these good hormones and expend high metabolic costs.
Take note that I’ve included side lateral cables, which does not do the things mentioned above, but you’ll know the reason why later. That said, here are 5 underrated muscle building exercises you should try today.
The Sled Push
Sled pushes have become quite popular recently. Before, it was solely the domain of football players who wanted to condition their bodies for the season. Now, it’s used by CrossFitters and even appears in the weight loss niche.
This type of movement is excellent for burning fat and conditioning. Also, the equipment you use is versatile in that it can hold all the weight you want.
Remember, when doing the sled push it’s best to take things slowly. This is the key factor to building plenty of muscle. Time under tension is good, but time under tension plus a heavy load is better. Pushing weight will exercise just about every muscle you have, bigtime.
Self-limiting exercises like the sled push will make you expend energy until you can’t do them anymore. It’s a safe way to reach failure and there’s virtually zero learning curve- just load it up and start pushing!
Use your legs to drive, stay compact and try to retain good posture. For those who have joint problems and are unable to deadlift, you’ll find this movement to be an excellent alternative.
CableSide Lateral Raises
An exercise that doesn’t exert enormous stress over time and won’t cause your body to produce essential hormones (compared to the sled push, anyway). So why does it warrant a spot in my list?
It’s an underrated exercise that deserves your consideration. It’s fallen off the radar in most workouts, but those who know better keep cable lateral raises and get to enjoy its benefits. More often than not, coaches and enthusiasts will tell you that the press should be your go-to for developing big shoulders but there’s a fundamental flaw to that belief.
In a press, most of the work falls on the traps and front delts, while the medial deltoid head gets off easy. Focus only on presses and you won’t get that cannonball shoulder look that fills out a shirt nicely.
On the other hand, a cable lateral raise taps that medial head and makes it bigger. There’s no other exercise that can do this- ask any serious bodybuilder and they’ll tell you this is true. Take a look at their routine and you’ll see side lateral raises appearing in regularity.
Also, there’s a reason why I prefer cables rather than dumbbells. Cables are more in the realm of ‘time under tension‘ than dumbbells, and they allow less vector displacement and cheating compared to holding weights.
So, take my advice and do side lateral raises. Your medial head will thank you for it.
The Farmer’s Carry
It may sound crude, but the farmer’s carry is anything but in terms of building muscle. It’s great for the upper back due to the movement taking a heavy muscular toll and making you hold that stress for long periods of time.
Studies have shown that it makes the body produce hormones that are conducive for muscle growth. It’s similar to good old-fashioned bodybuilding workouts and makes you churn out high amounts of testosterone naturally.
Remember what we said about time under tension being a key factor in building great muscles? This applies to the farmer’s carry. Therefore, you should focus on loads you can carry for a longer time or over greater distances so you can get the highest possible anabolic stimulus.
In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated exercises out there among the bodybuilding community. They just don’t see the potential it brings as a powerful muscle builder. But when you integrate it into your routine you’d be surprised to find out how much further your back and shoulders have developed.
The farmer’s carry also has a hidden benefit of increasing your work capacity. It’s been coined under ‘fitness conditioning’ but that doesn’t really do it justice. Mel Siff, author of Supertraining defines the term as ‘the body’s ability to produce work using its energy systems.
So, all in all, you get improved work capacity, conditioning and mental toughness. By putting yourself under immense load and keeping good posture puts pressure on the chest and abdomen which challenges your breathing. This will also carry over into ample muscle growth.
The Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is one of my favorite exercises. In fact, if I would be forced to pick only one move to do forever, it’d be the ‘bell.
The swinging movement gives your body so much to work with. A single motion involves the joints and fires up a large percentage of your muscles. You’ll just have to focus on doing it correctly or else your lower back will suffer.
In order for the swing to work, the shoulders need to be stable, hips need to be mobile and hinge, the thighs need to be locked and engaged at the top of the motion,
and the core and spine need to create a stiffness to handle the load.
The ‘bell swing is one of the best conditioning exercises there is. Increasing the reps provide much-needed cardio output. In high rep swings, the time under tension box is checked and your muscles get a nice workout. Up the challenge by favoring heavier swings and you add backside mass as well.
And while the kettlebell swing is mostly known for torching fat, it’s underrated in terms of adding functional muscle. Add it to your pull and posterior days and you’ll be packing serious muscle.
The Inverted Row
To get a super sharp physique, bodybuilders usually had to rely on barbells, dumbbells and cables. Then came inverted rows, which eliminated the weakness of these equipment-reliant movements.
Those who pull on free weights tend to sacrifice their form for heavier loads. The inverted row solves that problem by putting the body on a self-limiting exercise. If you can, use a strap suspension instead of bars so you’ll know when you’re doing it wrong.
Keep your core stable and use the lever-arm to either decrease or increase the intensity level. The row allows you to hit that upper back area and the biceps, forearms, teres minor, rhomboids, rear delts and lats with impunity.
The inverted row is tough and can quickly make you eat humble pie, especially when combined with weight vests or feet elevation setups. Unfortunately, the movement is largely ignored by bodybuilders ever since it became popular in metabolic-type boot camps.
Forget for a moment the hype and try it for a set. You’ll feel your hormones and the metabolic cost kicking in. Continue as you like, then integrate it into your routine.
The inverted row is also an excellent finisher for the back. It’s great for working up every bit of muscle fiber in the upper back with less chances of injury even to the point of failure. If you think your upper back lacks thickness, this is what I would recommend.
Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
Bodybuilders are humans who are also creatures of habit. That said, don’t be shoehorned into just one type of movement for too long or you’ll experience diminishing returns.
It’s great to explore every now and then and look for new angles on gaining muscle. Yes, I know it’s a pain to write up a new routine, but what’s the worse that can happen?
Sometimes a movement doesn’t seem to directly affect muscle growth, but there’s a reason why they still exist. When it puts an enormous tax on the body and work a lot of muscle groups, you can bet that it’s good for you.
I encourage you to try out these underrated exercises and check out the results!
Ryan is a former college wrestler and lifelong fitness fanatic. He has run half marathons, done mud runs, placed in body transformation contests, coached wrestling and now coaches girls soccer. Not to mention he has also tried literally hundreds of supplements over the years and has a vast and thorough supplement knowledge. He has written for Muscle & Strength, Testosterone Junkie, The Sport Review and other publications. He is also the editor in chief of this website. Feel free connect with him on his LinkedIn page below.