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One of the keys to a well-rounded strength and conditioning program is exercise variability, aka tossing some movements you don’t do all that often into your standard routine for some variety. Adding in exercises that challenge different muscle groups in different ways is the fastest path forward to strength gains.
Now, when you’ve been training ever since you can remember, it’s not always easy to keep coming up with new things — plus, there’s often the assumption that the most popular exercises are the best by default. Below, we take you through some less common but seriously effective exercises that prove this misconception wrong.
Adding one or two of these into your routine is an excellent way to confuse muscle groups and create lasting change. Keep in mind, muscle growth (aka: hypertrophy) takes at least 8-12 weeks to accomplish, so try sticking to a strength cycle for 6-8 weeks before you decide it’s not working for you.
While some of these require a little bit of planning when it comes to setup and breakdown, they will for sure leave you feeling sore and accomplished the next day.
1. Barbell/Dumbbell Hip thrusts
If you’re not doing these in your training program, you need to be. This is a fantastic exercise for lighting up your posterior chain, meaning your glutes and hamstrings will thank you. An athlete with a strong posterior chain should be able to hip thrust more than they deadlift.
You can perform this exercise with either a dumbbell or a barbell, but my personal preference would be the barbell. You will also need a bench to lean against as well as a hip thrust pad to protect your pelvic bones (the heavier you go the more necessary this becomes).
2. Lunge Squats
The lunge squat is another lower-body exercise that can be done with a barbell or dumbbell and is excellent for building lower-body shape and definition. The lunge squat can also improve balance, coordination, and stability.
With a barbell in the back rack position, kickstand one of your legs behind you in a tandem stance. In this position, drop down vertically with your knee stacked over your ankle while keeping your hips square. As you come up from the lunge, drive up through your front heel, squeezing your glutes at the top.
Perform all reps on one leg before switching to the other, adding weight to the barbell as you gain comfort with this movement.
3. Single-Leg Dumbbell Step-Ups
The single-leg dumbbell step-up requires a set of dumbbells and a box. This exercise targets the posterior chain and the quads and taxes your cardiovascular system with lower-body conditioning. You can manipulate the box height to your comfort/ strength level, as well as the dumbbell weight.
Hold both dumbbells at your side and step up onto the box, driving through your front heel and standing up all the way at the top of the box (full hip extension). Return to the ground with a controlled landing and repeat all reps on the same side before switching to the other.
4. Single-Leg Squat
The single-leg squat is another unilateral lower-body strengthening exercise (you might notice a trend here) that targets glute control concentrically (on the way up as you complete a squat) and eccentrically (on the way down).
Choose a surface to squat onto that’s at a height you can comfortably lower down to without letting your knee collapse in. Make sure you can keep your whole foot in contact with the ground, and don’t collapse onto the surface. Slow and controlled movement is key here.
To make this more challenging, you can lower the surface height or add weight to this exercise.
1. Strict Toes-to-Bar
An upper body, lat and core-dominant movement that is totally underutilized is strict toes to bar. This movement requires a rig or pull-up bar to hold on to and sounds exactly as it is. From a dead hang, bring your toes up to the bar — like a hanging leg raise, but all the way up to your hands instead of stopping at waist-level.
If this is too difficult to achieve, you can scale it by bringing your toes to waist height or performing a strict hanging knee raise (knees to waist height).
2. Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press is a great way to focus on working the smaller muscle groups in your triceps. Take the traditional bench press and narrow your grip so that your hands are close together and your triceps stay close to your body. This position creates a triceps and anterior shoulder-dominant exercise.
As you set up for this exercise, keep your feet planted on the floor and think about walking your shoulders toward your feet, and your feet toward your shoulders. This will create a good stacked position for your shoulders when pressing and increased spinal extension though your lumbar spine. Make sure you’re setting up with your eyes under the barbell and that you use full range of motion, bringing the bar all the way down to your chest before pressing it back up. As you press up, keep your shoulders planted into the bench and keep your elbows alongside your body.
3. Half-Kneeling Landmine press
The half-kneeling landmine press requires a barbell and a landmine set up.
In a half-kneeling position with the end of the barbell on your shoulder to start, press the bar overhead at about a 45-degree angle. Pause overhead for 1-2 seconds, then return the bar back to your shoulder. As this gets easier, you can begin to add plates to the bar.
Use this exercise to develop overhead strength in a different plane of motion primarily targeting your deltoids and mid back. Because this is a single-arm exercise, it leaves very little room for the compensation commonly seen with overhead pressing.
4. Supinated-Grip Ring Row
The supinated-grip (palms facing up) ring row is an essential exercise to build strength for pull-ups/chin-ups. A supinated row demands strength in the biceps while also fortifying your core. While pulling, you need to keep your abs engaged and mid back braced to keep from breaking at the midline. This exercise mimics the same pulling strength needed in a pull-up.
5. Behind-the-Neck Snatch-Grip Press
This is a great upper-body exercise to train your overhead position and improve mobility and posterior chain strength. Using a barbell set up on a rack at shoulder height, grip the barbell as if you were going to back squat but with your hands wide — the knurling on the barbell is a good indicator of how far apart to place your hands.
Keep your core engaged (ribs down) and press up overhead, engaging your mid back (mid and lower traps), and deltoids. Start out with a very low weight if you’re not used to this overhead position to begin building flexibility and strength.