From stubborn muscles that just won’t pop to secret spots you didn’t know you should (or could) hit, we reveal how to train your body's trouble zonesBy: Greg Presto
No matter how much you try to train or target them, some muscles never seem to grow, pop, or get stronger. What’s more, there are other problem muscles you don't even know you're not sculpting—your training may miss them, or strength imbalances may keep them from being targeted.
The problem with this is that these muscles are also vital to keeping you healthy, strong, fit, and injury-free.
If you want a true total-body workout—and you do—fret not: Our experts are here to explain how to make the tough muscles pop, and the secret muscles grow stronger to protect you and sculpt the fittest you—the fittest total you—ever.
Get the only fitness book you'll ever need.
Buns of Steel, butt-lift jeans, toning shoes … your backside is the money spot that everyone wants to tone. So why you don’t have great glutes yet? Blame your hamstrings.
Many exercises that should target your butt don't work it as hard because the backs of your thighs wind up doing most of the work, says Mike Wunsch, performance director at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, CA. But there's a solution: When your quadriceps are engaged, your hamstrings are turned off—in the same way that your biceps and triceps work in opposite ways. So turning on your quads during a glute move will make sure your posterior gets pumped, Wunsch says.
To accomplish this, try this tweak of a traditional hip raise: While lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, dig your feet into the ground and act as if you are trying to push your feet forward (in the direction of your toes) before you start and throughout the hip raise movement. Wunsch says this will create an isometric hold for your quadriceps, turning off your hamstrings.
Continue the isometric hold—trying to push your toes forward—as you complete the glute bridge, raising your hips to the ceiling until your body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders.
If you've heard of your piriformis, it's probably because you've read how to massage it with a foam roller. But just because it's tight enough to be massaged doesn't mean it's getting a workout, says Jessica Cassity, fitness editor at Prevention magazine.
The piriformis is used for rotating your leg so that your knee goes from pointing forward to pointing to the side, Cassity says. As such, most workouts miss it: "Because it's not something you work in a linear path—in squats, lunges, and other exercises, your knees are facing forward throughout," she says. "If you were doing ballet, then you'd be working it a lot more."
Challenging this muscle is important, though: If you suddenly have to turn—in a sport like soccer or to avoid a speeding cab in the street—a strong piriformis will allow you to make split-second changes in direction. And you can work it with a simple, Pilates-inspired exercise called a clamshell, Cassity says. To do it, lie on your side on the floor, with your hips and knees bent 45 degrees, almost like a fetal position. Keeping your feet touching, raise your top knee as high as you can without moving your pelvis (as the name suggests, your legs should resemble a clamshell that's opening). Pause, and return to start. Repeat, then flip over and try it on the other side.
A quick warning: When you're working your piriformis, Cassity says, you run the risk of sciatica symptoms and pain. To avoid this, perform the figure-4 stretch: Lie on your back with both legs extended straight out, feet and knees pointing up. Bend one knee to place that foot just above the knee of your other leg, so that your legs form a figure-four. Bend your still outstretched knee, and grasp your shin just below the knee—one hand should go through the hole between your legs, the other outside your outstretched leg. Slowly pull your knee toward your chest and feel the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Lots of workouts promise you a sexier body. But one exercise tweak—and one set of muscles—can make your sex sexier, says Cassity.
"Your pelvic floor muscles are basically your kegel muscles," she says. "But studies show that for men, it can help out with erectile dysfunction. Bottom line: It's going to make sex better, for men and for women."
A Pilates class will work this lowest part of the abdomen almost throughout, Cassity says, because you're constantly squeezing this pelvic floor. "You can try it in a chair right now—try to bring your belly button to meet your spine, as if you were trying to zip up a pair of pants that are too tight, she says. "You'll feel it right away."
This sucking-in can be applied to almost any exercise to work your core and pelvic floor throughout any workout, Cassity says. Try pulling your belly button in as you perform planks, lunges, pushups, or any other exercise for muscles that your partner can't see … but they'll be happy you worked.
Sculpt the muscles she loves. Find out how to get rock-hard abs.
If you're interested in building them, you probably think you've got your trapezius muscles covered: You do shrugs, and they get bigger.
That's true, but only of your upper traps, says Mike Wunsch. The trapezius extends about halfway down your back, and most people miss the lower half of the muscle. But you can train this part of the muscle, which is used in throwing and vertical pressing movements, with these two exercises.
If you're already performing lat pulldowns, try adding scapula pulldowns, says Wunsch. To do them, sit at a lat pulldown station and grasp the bar overhead with an overhand grip. Keeping your arms straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together and down. The movement is very slight. Pause, and return to start.
Wunsch's second exercise for the lower traps is the wall "y" and rotate. To do it, stand close to a wall, facing it with feet shoulder-width apart. Raise your hands up so they form a shallow "y" and place your palms on the wall. Keeping in contact with the wall, rotate your hands outward so the sides of your hands are on the wall. Now pull your shoulder blades down and back, as if you were trying to tuck them into your pocket. Your hands should move down the wall very slightly, but don't bend your arms. From here, lift your hands away from the wall a few inches, and return. Repeat the movement, mixing it in between other exercises in your workout.
You've almost certainly heard before that your core is more than just the six-pack area of your abdominals. But it's also more than just your front.
"Your core really involves your back muscles, too," says Cassity. Specifically, she says, the erector spinae, which run alongside your spinal cord. "Those are the muscles that are going to help you get extension in the spine—when you gaze at the ceiling, for instance—but they also protect the lower back. You're tightening your abs, but you're also using these muscles." (Search: See more abs exercises.)
Cassity suggests two similar exercises to work these muscles. The first is a Pilates move called "swimming." To do it, start in a face-down "X" position, with your arms extended above your head at shoulder-width, and your legs spread to shoulder-width, so that your body forms an x-shape. In this position, draw your abs in and hover so your hands, face, and legs are off the ground. Still hovering, "perform a pretend dog paddle," Cassity says. "The erector spinae are used here to keep everything but your torso hovering off the ground."
The locust pose in yoga, is similar. Lie face-down, but with your legs together and your arms at your sides, fingers pointing towards your feet. In this position, lift your head, chest, legs, and arms off the floor. Gaze slightly forward and maintain this position for 30 seconds.
In pursuit of Popeye-style forearms, lots of men have spent hours doing wrist curls—which can work, but waste precious time in the gym on a small movement that isn't the most effective solution.
To grow forearms worthy of a can of spinach—and improve your grip to lift heavier weights to build up the rest of your body—try fattening the grip you use for barbell, dumbbell, or pullup exercises, suggests Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass. If there's a fat barbell available in your gym, use it once in awhile on exercises like bench press and bent-over rows to improve your grip while you work your chest and back. If there's not a fat bar around, Cressey says, use a towel to fatten the grip of pullup bars, dumbbells, and barbells. "You'll be developing the forearms, but developing the grip in a way that's more functional," he says. As a result of the heavier loads your wrists and hands will ultimately handle, "you'll be able to build your whole body better."
Rotator cuff injuries are not just for baseball players, and they may not always manifest as pain, says Cressey. "At least 34% of people have partial cuff tears," he says. "Over the age of 60, more than half of people have partial tears."
The partial tears may not be causing a lot of pain … yet. To strengthen the cuff and increase mobility to avoid more series injury, Cressey suggests a side-lying external rotation with 30-degree abduction. The abduction "makes the exercise a little easier on the rotator cuff," he says.
To do it, lie on your side with your head propped up on your bottom hand or on a foam roll. Hold a light dumbbell in your top hand and bend your elbow 90 degrees, so the weight is in front of your belly button, palm facing your body. Place a small towel under your top elbow to create the 30-degree abduction. In this position, while keeping your upper arm against your side, rotate the weight up until your palm faces forward, instead of towards your body. Return the weight to start, and repeat.
Your shoes are like crutches. Your legs, hips, and the rest of your body get stronger, and your feet don't always get strong as quickly because of your shoes, says Cassity.
"Doing things in bare feet, you learn to better transfer your weight, and your feet learn to support themselves," she says. "This can improve your balance, and can prevent conditions like fallen arches."
To feel your feet working, Cassity suggests trying this setup from yoga: Stand barefoot with your feet together, as in mountain pose. Then, with feet planted, raise your toes up. "If you do that, you can feel your arches are up and active, and you can feel the fronts of your legs," she says. You'll get tired quickly, so try this exercise from Cassity to strengthen your feet. Put a towel on the floor, and put one bare foot on it. Scrunch the towel up in your toes, as if you were trying to grab it. Continue grabbing and releasing the towel, then switch feet.
Stand up straight? It's kind of tough when your pelvis is tilted forward or backward, as our chair-bound ways can make us. Learning to control the position of your pelvis to keep it neutral can help undo the damage done by your office chair, and it can set you up to generate more power in your golf swing, says Anthony Renna of Fire Iron Fitness.
First, Renna says, you need to feel the tilt in your pelvis. To do so, lay on your back with knees bent, at the bottom of a situp position. Collapse your lower back to the floor to feel what it's like when the bottom of your pelvis is tilted forward. Then raise your upper back to feel the opposite tilt. Maintaining the neutral position—between these two—is the key, Renna says.
To train to maintain, Renna recommends a core exercise called "dead bug." To do it, lie in the classic situp position, with your arms stretched overhead. Push your lower back down to get into neutral pelvic position. From this position, lift your right leg and left arm off the mat and bring them toward one another. Lower back to start and repeat, this time lifting the right arm and left leg.
Your office posture also affects your upper body, Renna says. "We get that computer-man posture," he says. "We're really tight throughout the thoracic [upper] spine."
Thoracic spine mobility is important to his golfing clients, so Renna prescribes a side-lying rotation stretch. To do it, lie on your left side, with a medicine ball in front of your belly button. Bend your right knee and put it on top of the ball, pressing down with your knee. Bend your elbow to 90 degrees. Maintaining this leg position and keeping your arm bent, rotate backward as if you were trying to touch your shoulder blade to the ground behind you. "Because your knee is above the pelvis, you won't rotate in the lumbar spine," Renna says. "You'll get really good thoracic rotation, and a nice little chest stretch."
Calves are notoriously difficult to grow. The reason may be how often they're used, says Kelly Baggett of Faster Higher Sports.
"You're using them all the time—when you're walking, running, or just standing up," Baggett says. "So they're very adaptive."
That adaptivity means that when you do the same leg exercises every time you hit the gym, you’re not really challenging these muscles—you need to mix it up. If you've been trying to build your calves in one way, do the opposite, the jumping expert says. "If all you do for them is calf raises, work on sprints or jump rope," he says. "If you jump rope, try the calf raises."
When doing traditional calf raises, Baggett says to be sure to get a full stretch of the muscle in both directions—go all the way up, and accentuate the lowering portion of the movement. "You see a lot of people just jackhammering the exercise," he says. "Try to take 3 seconds on the eccentric [lowering] portion of the lift."
Or try donkey calf raises. "This exercise put the stretch on the fast-twitch muscle, so it helps with speed and jumping as well as strength," Baggett says. To do it, set up a block or step to stand on for the calf raise, and place a chair or other waist-high implement about a foot in front of the chair. Stand on the rear edge of the block or step, and lean forward onto the chair. Perform calf raises as you normally would while in this position.
Copyright© 2013 Rodale Inc. "Fitbie" is a registered trademark of Rodale, Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction, transmission or display is permitted without the written permission of Rodale, Inc.