Bodybuilding requires a tremendous amount of discipline, dedication, and determination for months at a time. But there’s a misconception that the exercises used by bodybuilders are all about aesthetics, not function, sometimes giving the sport and its associated exercises a bad rap.
Plenty of fitness professionals argue that most bodybuilding exercises support a wide variety of health and fitness goals. “Many bodybuilding exercises mimic the movement patterns we use during daily life outside of the gym,” says Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. “You can’t say that most bodybuilding exercises aren’t for the average Joe and Jane when they train ranges of motions and muscles everyone needs in their daily life.” Fair point, hmm?
Still, there are some exercises in many a training regimen that bodybuilders love to hate. You know, the one or two exercises you dread for your entire workout but know you can’t skip. Here, fitness pros dish on five exercises bodybuilders always make sure to hit, as brutal and taxing as they are. Read on to learn why they’re worth incorporating into your routine—and get ready to embrace those muscle quivers and quakes.
If you’ve met any bodybuilder, odds are you’ve met someone who loathes lunges. Actually, if you’ve met anyone who exercises, you’ve probably met someone who hates the movement. “Lunges are probably the most universally detested exercise commonly utilized in most programs,” says Harcoff.
Why do people hate lunges so much? Simple: They’re difficult. A unilateral exercise, lunges force the exerciser to support their entire body weight—plus whatever external load they’re using—with just one leg, which requires a tremendous amount of lower-body strength and stability, Harcoff explains.
Don’t let their trickiness deter you, however. Each rep calls on your glutes, quads, hamstrings, quads, core, and hip adductors. Most notably, it works these muscles unilaterally (a.k.a. one side at a time). “Working one side at a time exposes—and helps remedy—imbalances between your legs that bilateral lower-body movements like the squat and deadlift can hide,” he explains.
Of the wide variety of lunge variations you can try, Harcoff suggests starting with the unweighted lunge. If you can properly execute the exercise without your chest falling forward or front knee caving inward, up the difficulty by adding weight. Front rack barbell lunges, goblet walking lunges, and farmer’s carry lunges are all good variations for improving lower-body strength.
2. Bulgarian Split Squats
Those who want a perky peach include this tricky unilateral exercise to their programming. Executed by elevating your back leg on a bench or box, the Bulgarian split squat allows your back knee to travel further vertically than your standard split squat, so you strengthen your muscles through a greater range of motion. “The greater range of motion forces your body to call on more muscle fibers, which can result in a larger muscle growth,” explains Harcoff. Nailing the balance here is hard—but worth mastering.
According to certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., owner of Beyond Fitness Online, this exercise is also beneficial for people who don’t have physique or strength goals. “The majority of people spend their entire day sitting at a desk job, which can lead to very tight hips” he explains. “Even unweighted, the Bulgarian split squat can help open the hip flexors and counter the side effects of being sedentary all day long.”
Test your abilities by starting with three sets of 12 unweighted Bulgarian split squats per side, suggests Daniels. When you’re confident in the movement, you can add weight by putting a barbell in the front or back rack position or holding kettlebells in the front rack position or a farmer’s carry.
3. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Weight room junkies love to post videos of their recent max deadlift with celebratory captions like, “Finally part of the 500 club” or “Big boy, big weight”. But while bodybuilders may be able to brag about the weight they pull in a traditional deadlift, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is a different story. “You physically can’t load as much weight during this single-leg variation as you can during a traditional bilateral deadlift,” says certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a lower-body hinge exercise that looks very similar to a traditional deadlift. However, unlike the traditional deadlift, you’ll start standing on one leg, hinge at your hips until you feel the hamstring in that standing leg light up, and press through your standing foot to activate your entire posterior chain and return to standing.
“The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a great exercise for challenging the muscles in your posterior chain (the muscles that run along the back of the body), including the glutes, hamstrings, calves, lats, and spinal erectors,” says Gam. The exercise also recruits the core and small stabilizer muscles to maintain balance since it’s a unilateral exercise.
Indeed, the full-body nature of this exercise makes it ideal for anyone planning to hit the bodybuilding stage. Since this movement effectively and efficiently works the posterior chain, it’s another one that’s beneficial for non-competitors, too. “Most of the general population sits all day long, which results in muscle weaknesses and imbalances in posterior chain muscles,” she explains. Doing movements like the single-leg Romanian deadlift once or twice per week can correct these imbalances, as well as improve posture, and reduce the risk of lower-back aches and pains, which are often associated with a weak posterior chain.
Her suggestion: Start with four to five sets of 12 reps per side. Stick with your body weight at first and then add weight by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in the hand on the side of the planted leg.
Unfortunately, it’s common for bodybuilders and non-builders alike to avoid the pullup bar like the plague. Worse yet, even the exercisers who do utilize the pullup bar avoid the chinup.
Quick refresher: The chinup is a pulling upper-body exercise that involves hanging from the bar with an underhand grip (palms facing toward your body), then pulling yourself up to the bar, explains Gam. By prescribing an underhand grip, rather than an overhand grip (like the pullup), the chinup requires that your biceps and chest do more work. As such, people (commonly, women) who have under-developed arm and chest muscles find this exercise incredibly taxing.
However, because a strong chest and biceps are essential for completing everyday pushing movements, such as getting up off the ground and pushing everything from strollers to heavy grocery carts, it’s a beneficial exercise for anyone to master, according to Daniels. The chinup also strengthens your grip and forearm muscles, which can make everyday tasks like carrying groceries easier.
If you already have the prerequisite strength to do chinups, Daniels recommends hopping up there and aiming for three sets of four to 12 reps, depending on your ability. If not, you can prepare your body for the movement with exercises like the banded chinup, underhand row, and underhand lat pull-down.
5. Overhead Triceps Extensions
If you’ve ever seen a bodybuilder’s pose routine, you won’t be surprised to learn that triceps strengthening exercises make up a large part of their upper-body workouts. After all, the muscle that runs along the backside of the arm gets a lot of love on stage.
According to Harcoff, triceps exercises—like the overhead triceps extension—are something everyone should incorporate into their exercise routine. The reason: Strengthening your triceps can help improve shoulder stability and elbow health. “This means doing triceps strengthening exercises can help with pressing movements and pulling movements too,” he explains. In the gym, that translates to heavier deadlifts, overhead presses, cleans, and snatches. Outside of the gym, that means greater ease picking packages off the porch, lifting your child onto your shoulders, and rearranging your living room.
One of the best ways to strengthen your triceps is with a surprisingly exhausting exercise called the overhead triceps extension, says Harcoff. Start with a very light dumbbell that you can move for three sets of at least 12 reps. When you’re comfortable with the movement pattern, you can increase the weight.