The Most Neglected Muscles — And How to Train Them

Leave no muscle behind

Jamie D Stacey
Mar 22 · 8 min read
Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

“My goal always was to even out every single point so that everything is perfect, which means that if I want to increase one muscle by half an inch, the rest of the body has to increase” — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron

The human body is a choreography.

When it works well, it’s the explosive power of a Shaolin monk form, the sheer strength of a deadlift, or the graceful movements of Swan Lake. It is in, in essence, a moment of perfection where the whole body comes together. Poetry in motion.

Yet most of us have imbalances, biomechanical issues, and a unique body where some of or muscles lack training, lack strength, or lack attention.

We can be forgiven. With an impressive 600+ muscles, these bodies of ours are an intricate interplay of many dancers that work together in the beautiful harmony that we call movement, even life. Of these many muscles, some of us are even missing a few or have a few extra (e.g., the Palmaris Longus). And like any optimized machine or mammal or musical score, engaging every single one of these fine-tuned units of power throughout the course of our life is essential for a strong and healthy body.

In reality, of course, putting on a grand spectacle isn’t easy.

“I don’t do this to be healthy, I do this to get big muscles” — Markus Ruhl, bodybuilder.

We either over-train some (think of those ‘beach muscles’, how the biceps curl to point in the direction of the sea…), or neglect others (‘leg day’). But it’s also runners with weak and tight hamstrings, the yogis with poor grip strength, or most of us sat at home with hunched backs and weak rotator cuffs. Sometimes we simply don’t know that a muscle exists (have you heard of the rotator cuff muscles, or name them?), forget about others, or become so focused on a goal that we see only that and nothing else.

And our bodies suffer, the choreography within us begins to break down.

So, let’s ask ourselves — what are we neglecting, what are our imbalances? What can we do? Whether you’re using weights or your own bodyweight, there’s a weakness to overcome.

Let’s train. Let’s gain strength through harmony.

#1 Rotator cuff muscles

“It will improve your posture, make you look better aesthetically, and help you to avoid injuries.” — Jeff Cavaliere, on the beauty of training your rotator cuff

The human body evolved with an incredibly mobile and powerful shoulder apparatus. It allowed us to throw, hunt more efficiently, and climb the top of the food chain.

And today our shoulders are woefully unsupported.

Thinking of the shoulders we often think of the ‘delts’, but the shoulder in turn is supported by the rotator cuff muscles, a group of muscles that stabilize the shoulder (the supraspinatus muscle, the infraspinatus muscle, the teres minor muscle, and the subscapularis muscle).

Since the shoulder can easily be damaged due to its incredible mobility, strong rotator cuff muscles are necessary to support it.

How to train them?

The rotator cuff muscles are small, and shouldn’t bear excessive weight — but they can still and should be strengthened.

Facepulls are a favorite of strength coach and physiotherapist, Jeff Cavaliere, who argues that you should be doing them after every workout. Not only does it strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuff (following his video demonstration), but also strengthens the rhomboids, another commonly neglected muscle that manifests in our ‘slumped’ posture.

Reverse flies, wall pullups, and bodyweight Ts, Ys and Ws on your yoga mat are also effective in strengthening the rotator cuff.

#2 Glute muscles

According to the British Journal of Family Medicine, one of the least trained muscles in the gym (especially for men) — and the poor muscles that spend most of their time being sat on rather than being used — are the gluteal muscles.

And yet their importance can’t be overstated.

“The glutes are also one of the most important muscle groups for proper biomechanics and optimal sports performance. They’re also connected to your spine, so weak glutes muscles can lead to back pain and injury.” Mark Greenfield, massage therapist and personal trainer.

Poor glutes can therefore not only limit our strength, but also cause pain due to muscle imbalances across the body.

How to train them?

Made up of the familiar gluteus maximus (sometimes referred to as, interestingly, the ‘anti-gravity’ muscle for its true strength), as well as the less familiar gluteus medius and minimus, there are many options available.

The hip thrust, Cossack squat with weights, or the bridge pose and extended hand-to-big-toe pose in yoga are amongst some of the most useful exercises to strengthen the glutes.

#3 Adductor muscles

Poor leg day.

Legs often get left behind — the irony given that they are the ones that move you forward in a literal sense. Classically, they’re just not ‘beach muscles’.

In addition to the glutes, the adductor muscles — those on the inside of the thighs that move the leg inwards towards the centre of the body, as well as assist in hip flexion and extension— are often neglected.

Weak adductors in particular can compromise our knees and hips, limiting performance but also increasing our risk of injury.

How to train them?

Lateral lunges are a great way to develop strong adductor muscles (as well as work the glutes and overall mobility. It also stretches the adductors on the other side of the lateral lunge, for added bonus). Another smart option are Isometric Ball Squeezes, wherein:

“The athlete lies on their back and squeezes a soccer ball between their knees as hard as possible for 10–20 seconds in a bridge position,” Aaron Bonaccorsy, performance coach.

#4 Grip muscles

Ever dropped the bar on a deadlift? Wrestled with someone stronger than you? Or even just struggled to carry the groceries home?

Underrated, grip strength is a prime indicator of true strength, from the dead hang to the deadlift. It’s something we need for our every day lives as well as our workout lives. Many disciplines lack an exercise for true grip strength entirely (even yoga fails to truly train grip).

Furthermore, solid grip strength has even been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attack. Strengthening our forearms and our hands (including fingers), therefore, will improve both our overall health as well as ensuring that every time we grip a bar there is no weak link in our body, and instead we lift with everything we’ve got.

How to train them?

In the gym with weights, plate pinches and wrist curls are effective in training the forearm and finger muscles. Hanging from a bar (in a pullup position) is, furthermore, a great use of bodyweight.

There is, of course, another tried and tested method, this time for young parents — carrying children. Carrying my baby, later toddler, now bigger toddler, was my own natural “progressive overload” for forearm training. My grip has never been stronger.

#5 Eye muscles

Perhaps not what you expected next (eye muscles aren’t really for lifting weights, as such), but general eye health has emerged as yet another concern during the pandemic.

“A survey commissioned by Fight for Sight, a charity in the United Kingdom devoted to eye research, reveals that one in five adults in the U.K. are less likely to visit an eye doctor during the pandemic. This is despite finding that one-third of adults have reported deteriorating eyesight since the pandemic began.” — Clint Witchells, Health and Medicine Editor for The Conversation

Whilst there is very little credible scientific evidence to support the claim that eye exercises can improve our vision, it is well documented that they can help with eye strain and fatigue. “Digital eye strain”, related to excessive use and concentration of screens, is particularly concerning, leading to headaches, fatigue, and general lack of motivation to continue with tasks at hand.

How to relax them?

There are several common exercises, including moving the eyes “up and down, left and right”, “near and far” (focusing on a close object for 10–15 seconds, then changing focus to an object far away, again for 10–15 seconds), and the yoga technique of “palming” (gently rubbing your hands to produce warmth and then laying them over your eyes).

Moreover, in our screen lives:

“To ease the strain, follow the 20–20–20 rule. That means every 20 minutes, you should stop staring at your computer and look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.” — Healthline.

Eyes, then, feature another neglected set of “muscles” in our life. Learning to use them for longevity, through giving them breaks and relaxing them more, might just be one of the most important things you do.

Create Harmony in Your Body — And Dance Your Choreography

“The human body is a thing of wonder. When everything works in harmony, it’s like an orchestra in which each player knows his or her part. But when something’s out of whack, it can throw off the whole performance.”— Brandon Hall, Strength and Conditioning Specialist

We all neglect something.

In my quest to embrace as much as I can, I took a ballet class. After just an hour class, I realised that one specific point of my body was sore. It was like jelly. I just wobbled. It turned out that the muscles were deep in my glutes (turning out the legs at the hip socket is a classical ballet position — and works those neglected external rotators) and something that, apparently, I clearly hadn’t been paying much attention to in my regular weight training at the time.

Beyond some sore external rotators and gluteal muscles, it was an eye opening experience. It was one of my first real experiences wherein I learned that, despite what I thought as having a great training program, there was always something I was neglecting.

And we all do this. It’s important, every now and then, to remind ourselves of this. Ask ourselves — is there something missing in my training? Are there any muscles I’ve forgotten, or aspects of fitness that I’m avoiding?

From the rotator cuff muscles to looking after our eyes, these are some of the most common. I could have mentioned others (the hamstrings, Serratus Anterior or the Tibialis Anterior, for example). But really, our most neglected muscles are unique to all of us.

“It is vital not to neglect certain muscles when creating and executing an exercise or sports-specific training program…. With that said, each person usually has his or her own unique compensatory patterns that should be assessed and addressed with a customized strategy. It’s not enough and can be counterproductive to just target these muscles with a one-size fits all approach.” — Mark Greenfield, massage therapist and personal trainer.

And if you’re not sure?

Learn. Take a mentor, a personal trainer, a physiotherapist. Diversify and play. Take a ballet class. Or go for a swim. Do something a bit different and let your body tell you what’s weak or tired or tight.

Fitness is a conversation with our body — and we need to remember to listen to every cue, every movement. It is a journey, a complex and incredible one, and a choreography that’s always changing.

© Jamie D Stacey 2021

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