3 Secret Muscles You Should Be Working

woman doing back exercises on a balance ballWe all know about the “big” muscles like thighs, glutes, abs, chest, back and shoulders. The most popular exercises at the gym will typically hit on those we see in the mirror.

But you are missing out on an opportunity to take your strength and fitness to the next level if you skip these three smaller “hidden gems.” Don’t keep them in hiding!

Forearm/Wrist Extensors

In your everyday life, you’re gripping and lifting things all the time—and if you’re lifting weights at the gym, you’re strengthening your forearms in many of your exercises. However, most of that strengthening is likely to hit your forearm through the wrist flexors. Those are the muscles that work when you form a fist, and they get extra work from curls, pull ups, etc.

But the muscles that perform the opposing movements, which would be extending your fingers and pulling your wrist back, typically don’t see as much action. And yet, it’s not a good idea to let your wrist extensors remain underdeveloped. Your body performs better when it’s in balance, so be sure you’re targeting your extensors, too.

Workout: Reverse Wrist Curl
The reverse wrist curl directly hits your extensors. The movement is extremely simple, but you should go slowly with it. No reason to try and make a power move out of this, or to put too much strain on your tendons. Start with a weight you can easily handle and perform several reps to get started. See how you feel later, and increase over time.

How To: Start by sitting on a bench and leaning forward with your elbows on your knees, or use a bench to stabilize your elbows and isolate your forearms. Use an overhand grip (palms facing the floor) to grip a barbell. Curl your wrists upward using a smooth, controlled motion, then lower to neutral again. That’s all there is to it!

Tibialis Anterior

When you go up on your “tip toes” you are flexing your calf muscle. Everyone tends to like well-developed calf muscles so you might be including exercises targeted for your calves, such as the popular calf raises. The opposing movement, which targets tibialis anterior at front of the calves, is rarely worked.

You’ll know when it’s not working as well as it should, though, if you ever experience the injury known as “shin splints.” Runners, walkers and other athletes who don’t balance the strength of their lower leg may compensate unknowingly, slapping the foot harder on the ground than it should be, causing micro-tears to the tibialis anterior. These tears almost feel like splintering along the shin bone, causing pain and tenderness.

Workout: Lower Leg Extensions (or Toe Raises)
Toe raises work the tibialis anterior in a functional way. Like reverse wrist curls, this movement is extremely simple. Keep it controlled, especially if you perform it standing, so you won’t lose your balance. Working up to three sets of 10 to add to your regular workouts is a smart idea. You might alternate these sets with calf raises, too.

How To: Stand with your feet flat on the floor about hip width apart. Alternatively, you can stand with your heels on a platform or stair and your toes out over the edge, or you can do this exercise seated as well. Then raise just your toes and ball of your feet off the floor, keep your heels planted. Lower them back down, in a slow “tapping” motion.

Erector Spinae

There are plenty of larger muscles on your back that you might be quite familiar with. There are the lats, or the latissimus dorsi, which fan out from their origin lower on your spine all the way up to your arm bone. Also the traps, or trapezius muscles, found along the upper back and shoulder girdle.

However, even though the less glamorous (but no less important) erector spine can’t be seen on the outside, this bundle of muscles and tendons deserves attention because it literally supports the upright stability of your spine. Good posture and a strong spine tend to be underrated.

Workout: Back Extensions on a Ball
If you have an interest in avoiding sports or training injuries, you should definitely pay attention to erector spine, which basically runs the full length of your spine—back extensions help keep it strong and supple. While the exercise can be done with a back extension machine, this version makes use of a stability ball, which literally adds to the stabilizing benefits of the movement.

How To: Lie face down on a stability ball with your pelvis and lower abs more in contact with the ball than your ribs and chest and the balls of your feet on the floor. Anchor your feet behind you along a wall baseboard or under a low piece of furniture. Alternatively, ask a partner to hold your ankles. Place your hands behind your head and your elbows out wide and drape your torso down over the ball. Then hold those abs and extend your back upward, to make a plank shape, creating a straight line with your legs, hips, torso, neck and head. Lower back down slowly and repeat for 8 – 12 reps. Add a second and third set over time.

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