Four Must-Try Exercise Upgrades!

When continued improvement is the goal, the details matter. Here are 4 simple changes that make popular weight-room staples better than ever!

Smart exercise selection is just like making smart business decisions. You evaluate the potential risks and rewards of each exercise, and you choose the exercises that offer you the biggest return on your training investment.

Looking at exercises this way helps you get the most out of your valuable training time and effort. It's also the philosophy that guided True Muscle, the nine-week training program I created with pro football player Steve Weatherford. We wanted to build a program that helped build muscle in an honest hour or less, and athleticism and grit along with it. That requires both a critical eye and an open mind.

To help show you how simple it can be to get more bang for your training buck, I'm going to walk you through four "upgraded exercises" from the popular True Muscle training videos. They're similar to some conventional moves you might be doing now, but they're also better in some subtle but important ways.

To make these as easy to implement as possible, I've also included the way they were originally programmed, with links back to the workouts. Watch the technique breakdown, and then put it into action!

You've been doing Crunches and sit-ups
You should try Ab walk-outs or roll-outs

How To Ab Walk-Out Abs Exercise Guide
Watch the video - 1:56

With all the available abdominal and obliques-focused exercise variations out there, which moves offer the most benefit?

Research actually gives us some guidance here. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy compared several abdominal-exercise options to figure out which one offers the most bang for your abdominal-training buck.1

The researchers in this study looked at the EMG activity of several Swiss ball abdominal exercises like pikes, knee tucks, and the roll-out, along with two traditional abdominal exercises, the crunch and bent-knee sit-up. They looked for the exercises that created the highest EMG activity in the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques) while creating the lowest EMG activity in the lower back and hip-flexor muscles.

The researchers found that the ball pike and ball roll-out exercises forced the abdominals to work the hardest while almost completely leaving out the back and hip flexors. As I explained in my article, "Combine These Exercises for Insane Gains," I love to combine the two movements on a Swiss ball. However, roll-out variations are also fantastic on their own.

So what do you do if you can bust out sets of 5-10 on the ab roller or barbell roll-out? The next step, in my opinion, is to get rid of the roller entirely and do the motion on your hands.

In True Muscle, I direct Steve through two brutal roll-out variations: The walk-out and the medicine-ball walk-out. The same cues for roll-outs apply here: Keep your butt tight, your spine neutral, and resist the urge to cheat back with your hips.

Even if you're a pro at the roller like Weatherford is, you'll find that the asymmetrical action of walking your arms out and back in provides all the core challenge you could ever want.

Paired set

Bent-over rear-delt fly (shown on bench)

3 sets of 8-10 reps
Bent-over rear-delt fly Bent-over rear-delt fly

Ab walk-out from knees (shown with barbell)

3 sets of 5-6 reps
Ab walk-out from knees Ab walk-out from knees

View the full workout in the True Muscle trainer.

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You've been doing Pistol squat
You should try Single-leg knee-tap squat

How To Single-Leg Knee Tap Squat Legs Exercise Guide
Watch the video - 1:30

It's no secret that adding single-leg exercises is a great way to make your lower-body workouts more comprehensive and effective.

Single-leg training is not only a great way to add a new challenge to your workouts and add variety to your training, it's also just what the muscle doctor ordered to bring up your weak side—we all have one—and improve your muscle symmetry.

Although the pistol squat is a popular, cool-looking, and old-timey exercise, it's not an exercise I use or recommend to clients or athletes. Don't get me wrong—I don't feel the pistol squat is bad, nor do I feel it's inherently dangerous. I'm in no way trying to convince anyone to stop doing pistols. If you enjoy doing them, go right ahead! Pistols are a very challenging exercise that can certainly help you get stronger.

That said, since strength is task-specific, and because the universal principle of specificity dictates that the adaptations to training will be specific to the demands the training puts on the body, I think the single-leg knee tap is a better option.

This movement—aka the skater squat, shrimp squat, King deadlift, or airborne lunge—outduels the pistol in a couple of key ways:

  • It more closely resembles the body positions (i.e., joint angles) and force-generation patterns of common sporting positions performed in field, court, and combat sports.
  • It allows you to improve your lower-body (strength) symmetry while performing a single exercise, which more closely resembles optimal double-leg squat form than the pistol does.

In short, the single-leg knee-tap squat more accurately matches the body position and force generation patterns I'm looking to improve with clients and athletes.

You can perform it at different heights, at different rep ranges, and either weighted or unweighted. Whatever you do, just don't let that back foot touch the ground!

Paired set

Single-leg squat with knee tap

4 sets of 6-8 reps per leg
Single-leg squat with knee tap Single-leg squat with knee tap

Reverse-grip lat pull-down

4 sets of 3-5 reps
Reverse-grip lat pull-down Reverse-grip lat pull-down

View the full workout in the True Muscle trainer.

You've been doing Prowler push
You should try Plate push

How to Plate Push Conditioning Exercise Guide
Watch the video - 3:34

Prowler-style sleds with parallel-bar handles have become a very popular piece of equipment for conditioning, and rightfully so. The prowler is an awesome tool for the job for several reasons:

  • It's simple to use, and most anyone can do it with little to no learning curve.
  • It's self-regulating. When you get tired, you simply stop and rest before starting again.
  • There's little danger of hurting yourself.
  • It's just plain tough and a great way to push people to work hard in a controlled manner, particularly at the end of a workout.

However, these sleds are prohibitively expensive for folks on a budget. They also take up plenty of space—far too much for most private training studios or gyms.

Luckily for you, the "I would use a prowler if there were one here" excuse is now off the table. Plate pushes allow you to reap the same type of conditioning benefits without the added cost or storage space associated with a prowler sled. They may sound easy—after all, it's just a 45-pound plate or two compared to hundreds of pounds, right? Trust me, and trust Steve: It's not easy.

Plate push 3 sets of 40-50 yards (or 20-25 yards each way), resting as little as possible but as much as necessary.

View the full workout in the True Muscle trainer.

You've been doing Barbell Military Press
You should try Dumbbell Rotational Press

How To Dumbbell Rotational Shoulder Press Shoulder Exercise Guide
Watch the video - 1:49

As I wrote in my book, "Strength Training for Fat Loss," any good program should have enough consistency to allow you to see progress, and it should have enough variety to prevent boredom and potential repetitive-stress injury. This involves using the same basic exercises, but in slightly different ways.

This applies as much to the shoulders as any other body part. I certainly won't say that the conventional dumbbell and barbell overhead press aren't effective vertical-pressing exercise options; they most certainly are. But I will say that you won't find any other overhead-pressing exercise that offers more benefits to your body than the dumbbell rotational press.

Not only does this exercise help you to build upper-body strength, torso strength, and stability like the conventional dumbbell and barbell version, it helps you improve your rotational strength and hip-rotational mobility. It can also increase your ability to more effectively transfer force across your body, which is key in rotational athletic actions like punching, batting, throwing, swinging, and even sprinting.

Plus, if you've been using the same old overhead-pressing variations, the dumbbell rotational overhead press may increase your gains by adding training variety to your workout.

Paired set

Dumbbell rotational shoulder press

3 sets of 4-5 reps per arm
Dumbbell rotational shoulder presss Dumbbell rotational shoulder press

Dumbbell single-arm farmer's carry (shown with carry bars)

3 sets of 20-30 yards
Dumbbell single-arm farmer's carry Dumbbell single-arm farmer's carry

View the full workout in the True Muscle trainer.

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  1. Escamilla, R. F., Lewis, C., Bell, D., Bramblet, G., Daffron, J., Lambert, S., ... & Andrews, J. R. (2010). Core muscle activation during Swiss ball and traditional abdominal exercises. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 40(5), 265-276.