I’m a fit guy. At least I thought so. That changed earlier this week while doing a video workout called Combat Cardio, which was designed by B.J. Gaddour, one of Men’s Health’s top fitness advisors.
Gaddour specializes in metabolic training—that is, fast and intense exercises that not only build muscle, but also boost your metabolism and blast fat. Combat Cardio, part of our all-new Speed Shred workout program (pictured at right), is no exception. In the video, Gaddour tirelessly demonstrates a mix of boxing and karate moves for 40 minutes straight. Even 35 minutes in, he looks ready to take down a gang of thieves.
I, on the other hand, looked like I was trying unsuccessfully to ward off a swarm of gnats. Not only did I get progressively weaker throughout the workout—my jabs to the face became more like pokes to the chest—but by the end I could no longer lift my arms over my shoulders or my feet above knee level.
“I’m out of shape,” I told Men’s Health fitness director Adam Campbell, C.S.C.S., the next day.
“No you’re not,” he said. “You’ve just been ignoring your small muscles.”
I’d fallen into a common trap, explained Campbell. Abs and biceps receive all the glory, so we work them hard. But it's the little-known muscles—those deep in your core, hips, and shoulders—that make the big ones stand out. Target those areas, and your whole body benefits. Not only will you look better, but you'll also have more strength and suffer fewer injuries.
The four muscles below may never earn top billing, but building them will rejuvenate your workouts and ignite new growth. Use the exercises below to target them.
This muscle, located on the side of your chest along your ribs, attaches to and allows you to rotate your shoulder blade (a.k.a. scapula). It plays a vital role when you raise your shoulder to flex your arm and move it away from your body; that's why it's prominent in boxers but not your average guy. Blame the bench press. Because of the support provided by the bench, the serratus anterior doesn't receive much direct challenge during this popular exercise, says Mike Robertson, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Indianapolis.
Test yours: Do a pushup without wearing a shirt and have someone look at your back during the move. If you have a winged scapula, your shoulder blade will stick out; this means your serratus is weak, says Robertson. A strong one suctions your scapula in during the movement, eliminating the winged look.
Build yours: Standard pushups strengthen the muscle, but doing pushup variations is the quickest way to correct a weakness, says Robertson. Use a power rack to perform incline pushups on a barbell. (Or just use a table or chair at home.) Start with your body at the lowest incline that doesn't allow your shoulders to wing—which means placing the bar relatively high. Perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. As you become stronger and learn to control your scapular motion, work your way down the rack until you're doing regular pushups with perfect body alignment.
The psoas (so-az) muscle runs through your hips to connect the lower portion of your back to the top of your thigh. It's one of your body's main back stabilizers and hip flexors (the muscles that line your hips and allow you to bring your knees toward your chest). If you sit all day, the psoas becomes rounded like a banana; then, when you stand up, the psoas pulls on your back, making you more prone to pain and lower-back injury. “A weak psoas also means you'll end up with assorted knee issues, because other secondary hip flexors take over and cause pain,” Robertson says.
Test yours: Lie on your back and pull one knee to your chest. Keep your other leg straight. If the psoas is of normal length, your straight leg will rest on the floor. If your leg sits above the floor, your psoas is either stiff or shortened, says Bill Hartman, C.S.C.S., a strength coach based in Indianapolis.
Build yours: The only way to strengthen a weak psoas is by bringing your knee above 90 degrees. Sit with your knees bent on a low box or bench (6 to 10 inches high). Maintaining good posture and keeping your abs tight, use your hips to raise one bent knee slightly higher than your hips. If you lean forward or backward, you're not performing the exercise correctly. Hold for 5 seconds, and return to the starting position. Complete 3 sets of 5 repetitions per leg. To help release some of the pressure you may feel, you can use your thumb to press on your hip flexor; it'll be on your side and a little lower than your belly button.
The supraspinatus is one of the small muscles at the top of your shoulder that makes up the rotator cuff; the subscapularis is a large muscle on the front of your shoulder blade. Blame your desk job for weak shoulders: If your upper body is rounded, it's most likely because your chest is tight, which means the opposing muscles in your shoulders are weak. Strengthen the stabilizing muscles, and you'll see improvement on your bench press and in overhead sports like swimming or tennis, as well as in your overall upper-body power.
Test yours: Bring your arms straight out in front of you at about a 45-degree angle, your thumbs pointed up—like you're about to hug someone. Have a friend stand in front of you and push your arms downward with moderate pressure. (The friend's hands should be positioned above your wrists on your forearms.) If you feel soreness in your shoulders or can't resist the pressure, you probably need to strengthen your supraspinatus, says Jeff Plasschaert, a strength coach based in Florida.
Build yours: A simple move is all you need, says Robertson. Stand holding a light pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs, palms facing each other. Keeping your thumbs pointed up, raise your arms up at a 30-degree angle to your torso until just above shoulder height. Hold for 1 second, and lower to the starting position. Do 2 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions. The exercise will help you add pounds to your bench by improving the stability of your shoulders.
If targeting each of these muscles seems like a hassle, there is an easier way: Do a whole-body routine like Men’s Health’s all-new 82-Day Speed Shred program, which was designed by Gaddour (that's him at right celebrating the end of one of the workouts). The 8-DVD, 18-workout program, which includes Combat Cardio, eliminates all the guesswork. How so? Every workout hits every muscle in your body.
And for more high-intensity workouts that blast fat, supercharge your metabolism, and ignite every muscle in your body, check out Men’s Health DeltaFIT, the one-stop destination for everything you need to know about metabolic training.