The forgotten muscles
Quads, abs, biceps, pecs — chances are, your strength routine involves these muscle groups. And while they’re indeed important for functioning (and looking fit), they’re far from the only muscles that deserve attention. In fact, says Sean Kuechenmeister, a certified athletic trainer at the New York Sports Science Lab in Staten Island, the hard-to-see muscles often play a big role in posture and movement. “If these muscles are neglected in training, they can diminish the appearance of the glorified beach muscles, because they aren’t able to support your structure,” he says. Here are eight of those oft-forgotten muscles, and how to strengthen them:
It’s easy not to notice the strip of muscle wrapped around your upper ribs — unless you, say, raise your hand too fast and pull it. But the serratus anterior, as it’s called, is important for shoulder blade mobility, posture and breathing since it attaches to the scapula (your shoulder blades), ribs and spine, Kuechenmeister says. Neglecting it can lead to the shoulder blades “winging out,” he says, “which is not a good look on the beach or in the gym.” To keep them fit, tap your opposite shoulders while in a plank or do the cat-cow yoga pose — breathing in while your back is arched and out when your tailbone is tucked.
The pelvic floor
When you think of your abs, you probably think of the coveted six-pack muscles. But many of the muscles in a partnering system known as the pelvic floor are critically important to prevent incontinence, pelvic pain, bowel dysfunction and much more, says Lindsey Vestal, a pelvic floor therapist with Icon underwear and founder of The Functional Pelvis, a physical and occupational therapy practice in New York City. While some people need to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles (kegels can help), many actually need to learn how to lengthen and relax them. Doing so may involve working with a specialist, but you can begin with gentle variations of foam rolling or deep breathing — just focus on expanding your belly and sinking your pelvic floor when you inhale.
Gluteus medius and minimus
The glutes are just two big butt cheek muscles, right? Wrong. “Few muscles get as much attention as the gluteus maximus, but it can’t reach its full potential without (the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus), which serve to stabilize the pelvis,” says Alexander Erlikh, an exercise physiologist in New York City. You need them to walk, climb stairs, rotate your hips, prevent knee and back pain, and — if you’re only motivated by appearance — keep your gluteus maximus perky. To activate them, try side lying banded hip clams (essentially raising and lowering your bent knee with a strap) or squats with a mini band around your knees, Kuechenmeister suggests.
Vocal fold muscles
What’s one of the most frequently used muscles in your body? If you named one in your throat, Dr. Pali Shah, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina’s division of voice and swallowing disorders, would be pleasantly surprised. “There are multiple tiny muscles of the voice box that we use more than any other muscle in the body,” she says. “These muscles are used to open and close the vocal folds for speaking and breathing, and to prevent aspiration.” To keep them healthy, drink plenty of water, follow a low-acid diet, don’t smoke or abuse alcohol, and use noisemakers instead of shrieking at sports events and concerts, Shah recommends.
Are you a slumper? Blame your weak rhomboids, or the muscles connecting your upper spine and your shoulder blades. “Suboptimal rhomboid function is a major contributor to forward rounded shoulders,” Kuechenmeister says. To strengthen them, incorporate face pulls into your gym routine, or a standing exercise in which you use both hands to pull a high pulley toward your face. You can also do prone T’s, or a movement on your stomach during which you lift up your outstretched arms. Already have good posture? Take a “prehab,” rather than rehab, approach, Erlikh recommends. “By focusing on imbalances, you can correct deficiencies before they become serious or lead to injuries,” he says.
These muscles aren’t typically underworked, but they are neglected in that they’re often subconsciously overworked. Teeth grinding, nail biting and gum chewing can all “put stress on muscles and, if frequent, can result in muscle pain,” says Dr. Karyn Kahn, a dentist at the Cleveland Clinic. Overusing them can also lead to headaches, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (or TMJ) and trouble fully opening your jaw. Aim to consciously relax these muscles during the day by telling yourself “lips together, teeth apart and tongue resting gently against the palate,” Kahn suggests. If you’re already sore, soft tissue massage, heat compresses, a softer diet and physical therapy when necessary can help, she adds.
These muscles — basically, the inner thighs — tend to get neglected by men, since the exercises that strengthen them have an unfortunate “girlie” reputation, Erlikh finds. But both genders should pay attention to the adductors, since they help your thighs move laterally, and are needed “to perform just about any leg movement both in and out of the gym,” Erlikh says. Try single leg squats or adductor squeezes, which involves squeezing a ball between your knees while lying on your back. “To maximize strength and build a body that’s sculpted all over, give a little more love to the muscles that you don’t see in the mirror,” Erlikh says.
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