People hit the gym for all sorts of different reasons. Some folks want to get stronger, others want to live forever, and a rather large group simply wants to look good naked (nothing wrong with that!). Often, the people who fall into the “look good naked” category follow some sort of bodybuilding-esque strength training routine. This doesn’t mean they turn into the massive muscle monsters seen on bodybuilding competition stages but that they adhere to a training style designed to, well, build their body.
Most bodybuilding routines involve numerous strength-training exercises performed for moderate (think eight to 12) repetitions. A good portion of these plans involve both compound and isolation exercises—but if you’re on a tight schedule (like everyone these days), you might not have time for many isolation movements.
Thanks to time restrictions and physique priorities that many bodybuilders have, bodybuilding routines often neglect certain muscles. Here’s what you should know about your training regimen’s potential weak spots—and whether they could set you up for injury down the road.
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
First off, let’s review the concepts of compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises are also called multi-joint exercises because they involve multiple joints and work multiple muscle groups. Movements like the squat, bench press, and deadlift are staple compound exercises every routine likely involves.
Isolation exercises, on the other hand, are used to target a specific muscle group and only involve movement at a single joint, hence their other name, “single joint exercises.” Moves like biceps curls, leg extensions, and calf raises are all considered isolation exercises.
Each type of exercise has its pros and cons. Compound movements save you time by training multiple muscle groups in a single movement. Moreover, you can usually push more weight and expend more energy during these movements. However, they’re often more difficult to master and may not effectively target all of the muscle groups involved in the exercise. That’s where isolation movements come in.
But what if you solely stick to compound exercises? In short, only doing compound exercises can actually lead to the underdevelopment of certain muscles. While this may not sound that important if you don’t have the goal of gracing a bodybuilding stage, neglecting certain muscles can actually increase your injury risk if the muscles around them get much stronger.
Often-Forgotten Muscle Groups
With that in mind, I’m going to cover three of the muscle groups most bodybuilding plans neglect, as well as why you should make sure to give them some attention in your training plan.
1. Triceps Brachii
First, we’ll start with a muscle that’s more about aesthetics, rather than injury risk: the triceps. (The triceps are the big horseshoe-shaped muscle on the back of your arm.) People usually train biceps with the goal of developing Arnold-sized arms, but your triceps are actually about twice as big as your biceps and constitute much more of the upper arm. Therefore, if you want nicer arms, triceps training is a must.
Most people assume the bench press is great for training triceps. And for beginners, that’s probably true. However, research shows that doing just the bench press isn’t enough to grow all portions of the triceps. Why is this the case? Well, during the bench press, you generate a ton of momentum when pressing the bar off of your chest. By the time the load gets to your elbow extensors (a.k.a. the triceps), this momentum helps you complete the movement, meaning your triceps get a lot of extra help and don’t have to work quite as hard as you might think.
Long story short, if you want big arms, you need to grow your triceps. And if you’re trying to grow your triceps, you need to perform isolation exercises. Try adding triceps-specific movements with a variety of shoulder angles, like cable pushdowns, skullcrushers, or overhead extensions.
The hamstrings often get left behind in traditional leg training programs, which can certainly affect the aesthetics of your lower body but also severely impacts sports performance and injury risk.
A big mistake people make in many programs is assuming they’re training their hamstrings sufficiently with exercises like squats, lunges, or leg presses. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Any time your hips and knees bend simultaneously, your hamstrings aren’t able to help out much. Research has shown very little hamstrings activation in squatting exercises, as well as no noticeable hamstrings growth following several weeks of squat training.
If you neglect hamstrings training, your risk of lower-body injuries may increase—especially if you’re a sports athlete making change-of-direction movements. Additionally, having weak and tight hamstrings is associated with greater incidences of chronic low back pain, which is definitely not fun to deal with.
So, what’s the fix? Direct hamstrings training! Focus on movements that isolate and/or emphasize hip extension or knee flexion. Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, and stiff-leg deadlifts are all great hip-extension movements—and you can do all sorts of leg curls for knee flexion. Strong hamstrings are mobile hamstrings, and your lower back and daily function will thank you!
3. The Core
The last muscle group I want to touch on is the core, which is a broad term that includes your abs, obliques, and spine erectors (all the muscles tasked with stabilizing your spine and pelvis).
Don’t get me wrong, the average gym goer trains their abs all the time with sit-ups and crunches. However, that’s just one function of the abs—and quite possibly their least important. The core muscles are responsible for basically every movement in your spine. Flexion (think crunches), lateral flexion (think side bends), extension (think supermans), and rotation (think Russian twists) are all actions of the core muscles. Moreover, the core muscles also resist all these actions. We term the opposite of each movement as anti-flexion, anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation. Sounds fancy, right? Turns out, these “anti” movements are crucial.
Ultimately, spine stabilization is the most important job for the core and is what its muscles are truly designed for. Compound movements like squats and deadlifts are great for training anti-flexion, but you need to add movements like dead bugs and bird-dogs to improve anti-extension. Single-arm carries, landmine presses, and most unilateral exercises will also train anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion. These exercises are must-haves for developing a strong, well-rounded core that can withstand hard training in the gym as well as all the crazy things you plan on doing in real life.
The Bottom Line
A well-planned resistance training program is one of the best things you can do to improve your quality of life and enhance your strength and physique. However, not everyone has enough time in the gym to fully develop each muscle group. While this may not cause problems for most folks, if you’re serious about your physique and strength gains or want to stay injury-free in your slow-pitch softball league, paying attention to neglected muscle groups is worth the effort.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.