If you’re confident in the gym, you’re likely familiar with bench presses, squats, and deadlifts. They’re hard, yes. But they aren’t necessarily the most difficult exercises. In fact, the moves that challenge you most might actually look easy—until you try to do them properly.
Because men like to focus on those heavy lifts or moves that specifically bulk up their chests or arms, they tend to skip over the moves that work on things like flexibility, mobility, and stability—all of which are crucial elements of being able to move well (and to perform those more ‘manly’ exercises). But because these sound like key elements of yoga, pilates, and dance classes, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a bunch of dudes, guys brush them off as no big deal. But if you don’t have good range of motion to begin with and you keep doing all those strength-building exercises, the tightness just keeps adding up.
The exercises below tend to be the toughest for men, not just because they’ll seriously tax your muscles, but because you need solid flexibility and mobility to do them correctly. Top trainers weigh in on why these moves are so challenging, plus how to make them easier so you can reap all the muscle-building rewards.
1. Single-leg Hamstring Curls
How to do it: Position a Swiss ball in front of your feet. Lie down with your back and palms flat on the floor. Place your heels on top of the ball, then lift one leg straight in the air (or bend it with toes flexed toward your head). Press your hips and glutes off the floor. Keep your back straight and abs engaged. Dig your working heel into the ball as you curl it toward your glutes. Reverse the motion, then press the Swiss ball away from your glutes to the start position. *Note: Image shows traditional Swiss ball hamstring curls.
Why it’s so hard for men: “Most men don’t work out their legs, and when they do, they opt for heavy lifting like deadlifts or leg press, because they look and feel manly,” says Alonzo Wilson, the founder of Tone House in New York City. “They don’t isolate one leg or do single-leg work, which neglects the hamstring.” And unilateral, or one-sided, exercises are so important because they make it harder for your dominant side to compensate for your weaker side, which can lead to muscular imbalances.
How to do it better: Form is crucial here. “Make sure you don’t arch your back,” says Wilson. “When your back is arched or if you drop your hips, you take most of the hamstring work out of the exercise—which is the point of the hamstring curl!”
2. Barbell Back Squat
How to do it: Load a bar with 85-100 percent of your bodyweight. Place the barbell across the middle of your traps, and pinch your shoulder blades together. Inhale, contracting your abs tight, then lower into a squat. Then drive back up by pushing through your big toe and heel, exhaling at the top.
Why it’s so hard for men: The average guy struggles with this for two reasons, says Adam Rosante, trainer and author of The 30-Second Body. “First, most guys don’t train their lower body regularly with free weights. So when they attempt a loaded barbell squat, their legs start screaming, their hearts start pumping like crazy. and their balance is all over the place. The second issue is a lack of mobility in their hips and ankles. Most guys I see working out in the gym give almost zero priority to mobility.”
How to do it better: It’s time to start incorporating mobility work into your fitness regimen. “Give yourself 10 minutes of mobility work on your hips, glutes, quads, and ankles before you start your workout,” says Rosante. Try these five stretches to open up your hips before lifting. And if you can’t do a bodyweight squat with proper form, don’t throw a heavy barbell on your back. “Maybe you start with 4 sets of 12 reps of a bodyweight squat in your first 2-3 weeks, then progress to an empty bar, then start to incrementally load weight over time,” he suggests. “Start by nailing the form, and build from there.”
3. Tuck Planche
How to do it: Place your hands on a set of parallettes or aluminum workout bars, then rock your weight forward onto your shoulders and hold your legs tucked under your body. Your pelvis should be on the same plane as your shoulders, parallel with the ground.
Why it’s so hard for men: “The planche is so challenging because it’s such a complex and advanced isometric move that engages a lot of muscles most men aren’t familiar with using—plus it requires mobility, strength, and activation in almost every muscle in your body,” explains Stephen Cheuk, the founder of S10 Training in New York City. The only people who tend to nail it consistently? Gymnasts.
How to do it better: “Start a prone full hollow back hold—like a plank with a rounded back—and get used to shifting your whole body forward so wrists are almost level with your hips,” says Cheuk. “Really focus on engaging your core and squeezing your glutes.” From there, you can move up to the bars and use an elevated surface (like a yoga block) to support your feel until you can master the whole hold.
4. Lateral Lunge
How to do it: Step to your left side, and lower your hips by squatting back and down with your left leg, making sure to keep your right leg straight. Return to the starting position by pushing up with your left leg. Switch directions and repeat. Do with or without weight.
Why it’s so hard for men: “Most of our daily movements are forward and back, even though moving in different planes keeps us more mobile,” says Joey Thurman, C.P.T., author of 365 Health and Fitness Hacks That Could Save Your Life. “The side lunge is particularly hard for men because we don’t do them often; they’re looked at as a ‘girl’ move. Plus, they challenge our hip flexibility, which is generally crap because a) we sit all day, which causes the muscles in our hips to shorten and b) we overload our quads, which also causes our hips to tighten up.”
How to do it better: Foam rolling your hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quads will go a long way in opening up your hips. “Doing a deep bodyweight squat will truly help you with your hip mobility, too,” says Thurman. “This requires 90-130 degrees of hip flexion (how much your hips bend) and 110-165 degrees of knee flexion (how much your knees bend).” Once a day, squat down as low as you can without letting your heels come up, then hold for 30 seconds and rise up—keep doing this until your butt can almost touch the ground. “This will help you push your hips back enough in the lateral lunge that your hip bones touch your abs while maintaining a neutral spine,” he says.
5. Pistol Squat
How to do it: From a standing position, extend one leg out in front of you, keeping it straight. Bend your other knee and, with control, lower to the ground so your hamstring touches your calf. Press through your heel to stand up.
Why it’s so hard for men: “Guys rarely forget to train things like their arms and chest, but focus less on their legs and even less on unilateral, stability, and mobility challenges,” says Albert Matheny, C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. “The pistol squat not only challenges the strength/stability of one leg to build muscle, but you also need sufficient lower back and ankle hamstring mobility to do it properly. Rarely do I see a guy who has good mobility—along with strength—in all these areas.”
How to do it better: Improving your pistol squat is all about progressive training. “You want to reduce the depth of your pistol squat until you can perform as least 3 rounds of 5 successful reps,” says Matheny. “Increase the depth when you can get 3 rounds of 10. To help with the motion, you can add a counter balance by holding a weight in front of you.” Including basic mobility work of your hamstrings and low back (like walkouts) will also help, Matheny says.
5. Strict Pullup
How to do it: Grab a pullup bar and hang so your arms are fully extended. Tighten your core and pull yourself up as hard as you can until the bar touches your collar bone. Slowly let yourself down while keeping your core and lats engaged.
Why it’s so hard for men: “Average dudes struggle with strict pullups—no swinging, no arching—because of limited shoulder and lat mobility,” says Angelo Grinceri, a trainer at Performix House in New York City. “This usually stems from three things: training partial ranges of motion adopted from the bodybuilding mentality, the lack of full-body exercises, and sitting too much, which creates tighter pecs and shoulders, as well as weak lat muscles.”
How to do it better: First, roll out your lats with a foam roller or use a Theragun to loosen them up. “Next, stretch the lats by hanging from a bar for 30-60 seconds at a time a few times each day,” says Grinceri. “Start with just one rep; when you can do that with perfect form, you can progress to more.”
7. Single-arm Overhead Squat
How to do it: First, clean the kettlebell to the rack position. Then, with your palm facing forward and the kettlebell resting against the back of your wrist, lift the kettlebell overhead and lock your arm. Keep your arm steady with a few inches of space between your ear and bicep as you squat down as low as you can, while keeping your back flat, shoulders up, and knees out. Push through your heels to stand, and repeat on the opposite side.
Why it’s so hard for men: “This is particularly challenging for men because you need to have full overhead extension and flexibility in your shoulders and hips,” says Roman Siromakha, a Crossfit coach at CrossFit Outbreak in Brooklyn, New York. A lot of men are limited in overhead movements because of the bench press we love so much, and men tend to have tighter hips that they don’t spend much time stretching.”
How to do it better: To warm up your overhead flexibility and stability, Siromakha suggests overhead passthroughs: Stand holding a PVC pipe with a wide grip in front of you. Keeping arms straight, bring the bar over your head, then behind your back until it touches your glutes. Once that gets easier, move the hands in one finger-width. (Shoulder activation drills like shoulder touches and even downward dog also help with range of motion.) Then, “make sure you’re able to squat with your hips below your knees,” says Siromakha. “If you’re unable to, practice squatting onto a box or bench, slowly progressing to lower and lower surfaces in order to get that full range of motion.”
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