A guide to the muscles you forget to exercise

TO MAINTAIN a healthy level of physical fitness, everyone should commit to at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or strength training a day. That’s easier said than done. With running errands, working a desk job, and fulfilling family obligations, the modern lifestyle does not leave much time for regular exercise. If you do prioritize working out, you might still be neglecting key muscle groups that support posture, movement, and overall health. Keep reading for a list of the most ignored ones, exercises to strengthen them, and the reasons you might need more variety in your routine

Healthy fitness goals

Before you start switching up your workouts, Christopher Geiser, an exercise science professor, physical therapist, and trainer at Marquette University, has a few important reminders.

First, “If you’re having trouble, don’t wait too long to get help,” he warns. Physical therapists and trainers can design a regimen specific to your needs. Everybody’s built a little differently, and unique personal histories make it difficult to give general advice. Working out various areas of the body with different types of activities is a surefire way to improve health. Remember to start off slow and careful if you haven’t exercised in a while—too much too soon might backfire on your muscles. 

Second, it’s important to know the difference between exercising for overall health and exercising for performance. “If you wanna be healthy, then you’re trying to get as variable activity with a nice even distribution of the loading across different areas as you can,” Geiser says. 

In contrast, “If you’re trying to run the Boston Marathon, you’ve got a really specific something that you’re working on and [your exercise regimen] is going to focus on that,” he explains. “And it isn’t always the most healthy for you.”

In other words, don’t sacrifice your well-being for better performance. “You want a balance across all of the conditioning exercises that you’re doing,” Geiser says. “And that variability across your system is probably what’s gonna give you the most bang for your buck healthwise.”

Target muscle area no. 1: Rotator cuffs

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and their connected tendons that attach the shoulder blade to the upper arm, stabilizing the shoulder and allowing 360-degree movement. Strengthening the area can prevent shoulder injuries, some of which can lead to permanent loss of function. 

If you already have shoulder pain or a rotator cuff injury, however, you could exacerbate it by exercising those muscles. See a medical professional for treatment instead.

Recommended exercises:

  • Doorway stretches
  • Reverse flies with dumbbells
  • Wall angels 

Target muscle area no. 2: Abdominal core and back

In addition to helping you avoid accidents from, say, moving furniture, having a strong core boosts posture, balance, and movement. Each abdominal muscle has to work in harmony to control your back and pelvis, although “you don’t necessarily need them to do a lot of your everyday activities,” Geiser says. “But when you do need them, they’re not always in shape and ready to go.” 

Recommended exercises:

  • Planks
  • Bridges
  • Deadlifts

Target muscle area no. 3: Neck flexors

These deep muscle groups rest in the front of the neck and are responsible for holding its position, contributing to posture. “We abuse the flexors when we stare at computer screens with our head forward all the time,” Geiser says. “They are notoriously weak because we haven’t built them up.” 

If you’re experiencing neck pain after staring down at a phone or laptop for a long period, it might be worth it to train these muscles. And at the same time, remind yourself to straighten your posture while doom-scrolling on the couch or working at a desk.

Recommended exercises:

  • Supine neck retractions
  • Active assisted neck flexions
  • Supine cervical flexions

Target muscle area no. 4: Glutes

Though they get a lot of attention, the muscles underlying your butt are often improperly exercised. Strengthening your glutes helps with proper body alignment, movement, and athletic edge. Weak glutes can cause other areas of the body, such as the lower back or knees, to overcompensate when you’re walking, running, or climbing stairs. A stronger set also corrects posture and spinal alignment, reducing the risk of back pain and injuries.  

Recommended exercises:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Bridges

Target muscle area no. 5: Tendons

Most casual gymgoers don’t think of flexing these parts. Tendons aren’t muscles: They’re connective tissue that attaches muscles to bones, controlling movement of the skeleton. While they’re strong and flexible, injuries can occur from overuse, repetitive strain, or aging. Tendon-specific training can improve joint health, reduce pain and stiffness, and promote speed and agility. Use two different types of exercises to strengthen them—prolonged weight holds and quick, fast contractions—but not in the same workout. Vary your routine daily to keep from overloading these crucial parts, and be sure to take at least one day off from working out each week.

Recommended exercises:

  • Eccentric movements
  • Isometric movements
  • Plyometric movements

Read more in the Workout 360 series: pre-workout ingredientsthe best basic routine, and post-workout soreness. Or check out these other PopSci+ stories.