People who just want to look jacked tend to follow a similar training path… a path that ultimately leads to the same problems. Most of their training emphasizes the same muscles and movement patterns while neglecting others. The result? Imbalances, excessive wear and tear, and injuries.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, their focus on building only the vanity muscles causes them to look worse.
The solution? Get stronger at lifts that aren’t traditionally done for the mirror muscles. Practice the lifts that won’t just make you look better (overall) but feel better so that you can continue lifting without having to take time off for injuries.
Here are ten exercises your aesthetics-focused workouts need so you can look better and feel better long-term.
1. The Chest-Supported Face Pull
Build big, healthy shoulders and a stronger bench press. This chest-supported variation is more of a targeted movement that keeps your other muscles from helping.
Face pulls come in different forms and can be used for a variety of different purposes. You can’t really go wrong with any of them. Their appeal is largely in their ability to train your shoulder external rotators without having to use a bunch of light-weight “rehab” exercises.
Poor rotator cuff strength, and balance between your internal and external rotators, can limit your pressing strength. Your body doesn’t want to get stronger if it means compromising your joint stability through strengthening your “mirror muscles” without also strengthening the muscles you don’t see.
Depending on the variation you use and the angle of your pull, face pulls target your rear delts, rhomboids, and different portions of your traps, alongside your neglected external rotators.
2. The Body Saw
Develop anti-extension core strength… and have an alternative for the roll-outs you’re sick of.
The body saw is as effective as the ab roll-out, producing similar (high!) levels of core muscle activation, especially for your rectus abdominis and external obliques (1). It can be done using either core sliders (as shown) or a suspension trainer. Add a weighted vest to make it even harder.
3. The Barbell Wrist Roller
Build forearm strength and eliminate weak links in certain big lifts.
Puny forearms don’t just look sad, they can also prevent you from building the python arms you’ve always wanted. If your forearms always give out before your upper arms, then your biceps and triceps are missing out on extra stimulation.
Granted, the exact forearm exercise isn’t as important as actually training them, but some exercises are better than others. The wrist roller is an old-school favorite, but not every gym has one.
So instead, wrap a band around an Olympic bar with a weight hanging off it. Grab the thick end and start reeling it in for the biggest forearm pump of your life.
Stronger, thicker forearms will also mean better pulls, presses, extensions, and curls. Even your deadlifts will benefit. If your grip or forearm strength is no longer holding you back, your mirror muscles will get bigger and stronger, faster.
Not to mention, your grip strength is a powerful predictor of future mobility, mortality, and morbidity (2).
4. The Box Step-Off
Get strong and athletic in ALL directions.
When you’re focused mainly on training what you see in the mirror, you end up moving mostly forward and backward. Sure, to build maximum muscle, direct most of your training volume towards those exercises, but not at the expense of doing things that help build a more complete package.
To be strong and injury-resistant in all directions, you need to be training in all directions. Box step-offs still allow you to lift relatively heavy. They also use a movement pattern that’s easy to grasp if you’re not used to moving sideways.
Side lunges and Cossack squats are all good choices. Like Derek Zoolander, you can turn left and right and a bunch of other directions too!
5. The Sissy Squat
Build bigger quads and make your knees injury-resistant.
Sissy squats are one of the best, but most neglected, muscle-building exercises. While lifts like squats and leg presses do a great job at hitting three of your four quadriceps muscles, they leave your rectus femoris untouched. Even the leg extension machine does a greater job than squats at activating this area of your quadriceps (3).
The sissy squat has a unique ability to target your rectus femoris in its lengthened state, making it a useful addition to your routine for both healthy knees and bigger quads. If you’re feeling sadistic enough, try using them as a drop set as shown in the video. Lightly hold onto a dowel or bar for balance.
And no, pushing your knees over your toes isn’t inherently “bad.” If this were the case, walking up stairs and riding a bike would also be bad.
Your knees should be healthy enough to travel over your toes, and resilient enough to handle the extra torque in exercises like sissy squats. That’s not to say you should “drop and sissy” right now, but it should be a goal to demonstrate a handful of pain-free reps at some point in the future.
Start with assisted and partial range reps. Always work within a pain-free range of motion and only increase ROM if you’re still feeling good.
6. The Chest-Supported Triceps Kickback
Build bigger triceps and make your elbows happier.
This is an undervalued triceps-builder. Kickbacks give your cranky elbows a break while taking your triceps growth up a level.
Most hardcore lifters avoid kickbacks because they don’t want to look wimpy using light dumbbells… the kind of dumbbells they actually need to be using to keep their form in check!
Ask most meatheads how to hit the long head of their triceps, and most would say overhead triceps extensions (skull crusher, French press, rope overhead extension, etc.). While these variations do load your long head in a lengthened (stretched) position, kickbacks activate it even more (4).
The kickback works because the angle of your shoulder helps to maximally shorten your triceps long head, while the load from the dumbbell is maximized at roughly the same point where your long head is fully shortened. This is why kickbacks, especially done with your chest supported, are one of the best exercises for maximally activating your triceps.
Most lifters with angry elbows also find they can keep at them pain-free, without otherwise having to skip direct tricep training.
7. The Glute Bridge
Develop a stronger butt, a bigger deadlift, and a better-looking backside.
Most guys know the benefits of glute bridges yet still aren’t doing them. For a better butt, stronger back, and bedroom moves, here’s the reminder you need.
First, you’re not going to look great naked if you’ve got a bad case of a pancake ass. The glute bridge will help solve that problem.
Second, if you play any sport then it will carry over to anything where you need to produce force horizontally, like sprinting. Glute bridges also improve your deadlift lockout strength.
Third, your glutes are part of your core and influence lumbar and pelvic positioning. Weak glutes can increase your likelihood of low back pain as well as a host of other issues with your hips, knees, and ankles.
8. The Landmine Single-Leg RDL
Build better muscular balance and stronger hips.
The hamstrings are often an afterthought. It’s not often that a lifter will do Romanian (RDL) or stiff-legged deadlifts before squats, or hamstring curls before leg extensions. It’s even more rare for someone to do a single-leg exercise before a two-legged exercise in a hypertrophy program.
The single-leg RDL hits your hammies hard one leg at a time. It’s everything you don’t do in your bodybuilding-style workouts all wrapped up in one exercise. Get strong with it and your back and hips will feel great, you’ll be moving better, and your hamstring size will skyrocket.
Landmine versions, like the one shown in the video, are good for intermediate to advanced lifters who aren’t that great on one leg. The landmine provides an element of support – your balance is less challenged and you can lift heavier.
Adding a pause at the bottom of each rep can challenge your hamstrings even more. Try swapping one of your regular hammy exercises with this for a few weeks and you’ll not be disappointed.
9. The Cable Chest Press
Get more scapula freedom and healthier shoulders.
Look at any bodybuilding program and most pressing movements involve keeping your scapula locked down onto a bench. There’s a time and a place for fixing your scapula, but most of the time you want to let them move freely. For example, letting them glide around your ribcage as nature intended during some chest press variations.
It’s a hot topic of discussion right now whether you should be actively fixing your scapula into retraction while barbell bench pressing. I think there’s merit to both sides of this argument, and it depends on who you are and why you’re actually bench pressing.
However, during lighter presses geared towards building maximum muscle, you should without a doubt be allowing your scapula some freedom.
One of the easiest ways to start doing this is to use a standing cable chest press. Since there’s no bench behind you, this automatically results in more scapula movement.
As your scapula are allowed to move, you’ll feel a better contraction in your pecs (especially the deeper pec minor), while also activating more of your important shoulder stabilizers.
That’s not to say you’ll build bigger pecs using them over more traditional bodybuilding-style exercises, but a few sets thrown in here and there will benefit your chest development and the health of your shoulders.
10. The Dead-Stop Skater Squat
Gain more single-leg strength and bigger quads.
Those with great mobility, ideal limb lengths, and favorable hip structures are automatically drawn to single-leg squats, especially pistol squats since they’re a good party trick.
On the other hand, those who aren’t as well-suited try them once, fail, then tell everyone how bad they are. Yet there’s not much that separates any single-leg squat variation from a well-executed split-squat, which has nowhere near the amount of haters.
Single-leg strength is important, and being able to squat on one leg is just as beneficial as being able to split-squat and lunge. While everyone can improve their ability to pistol squat, if you have an unfavorable structure you’ll always struggle to do them well and in a safe enough way to load. For that reason, skater squats are a better fit for a lot of people.
A good way to start doing skater squats is to practice them as part of your warm-up. If you’re pretty good, then try doing the unthinkable and replace your heavy barbell squats with them for a few weeks. You’ll be surprised how good your back will start feeling while your quads continue to grow.
The Long-Term Perspective
Any good program can get you looking better with your shirt off. Picking a handful of big basic lifts and progressively loading them over time with good form and tension will get you stronger and more muscular. But those will be temporary gains if you’re not careful.
Focusing solely on the same muscles and exercises will lead to imbalances and excessive wear and tear. In the long run, this will lead to less time under the bar and more inconsistency.
So do the exercises you’ve been neglecting to help fill in the gaps so you can look great naked, for longer.
- Cugliari, G & Boccia, G. (2017). Core Muscle Activation in Suspension Training Exercises. Journal of Human Kinetics, 56 (1): 61-71.
- Sayer, A & Kirkwood, T. (2015). Grip strength and mortality: a biomarker of ageing?. Lancet (London, England), 386(9990): 226-227.
- Ebben, W., Feldmann, C., Dayne, A., Mitsche, D., Alexander, P., & Knetzger, K. (2009). Muscle activation during lower body resistance training. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 30(1): 1-8.
- Boeckh-Behrens, W., Beier, P., & Buskies, W. (2001). Fitness Strength Training: The Best Exercises and Methods of Sport and Health. Rowohlt paperback publishing house.