What the…? Cool exercises you’ve probably never seen before


Muscle Beach, 1950s. Bustin' out the side press.

After being immersed in weight training for so long, it’s rare that I see a new, interesting exercise. However, a new exercise is often a great way to alleviate workout boredom. Interestingly, many of the “new” exercises I discover are in fact quite old ones that were part of the physical culture of previous generations, and were forgotten with the advent of “modern” training methods.

With the resurgence of interest in older, pre-steroid era training methods, these exercises are reappearing. Many of these exercises are excellent, functional exercises with various applications to sport. I’ve also included one that I came up with on my own. These probably already existed in some form or another, so I don’t flatter myself that I’m the Leonardo da Vinci of training or nuthin. If you’re looking for some novelty and a new challenge, give these a try.

dumbbell swing

The dumbbell swing is a very easy exercise to learn, but a challenging exercise to do once the weight increases. It’s pretty much a full body exercise, but primarily it involves the hip extensors (hips, hamstrings, and glutes), shoulders, torso, and grip. Have you ever noticed how little kids throw a ball? They sort of squat down and fling it underhand with both hands. The dumbbell swing movement is much like that. Start with a light weight, perhaps 5 pounds, to learn this one. You’ll likely find that you can manage more weight than you think once you mistress the movement, but for now, take it easy.

Grip the dumbbell with both hands. It’s up to you whether you want to place one hand over the other or, if you have small hands, adjacent to one another along the handle’s length. I don’t recommend interlacing your fingers unless you dig the sensation of your knuckles grinding together. Keep your arms relaxed and straight. Squat down. Let the weight hang between your legs naturally. This is the starting position, as shown in the left hand picture. Ascend explosively and powerfully, driving through your heels, and swing the dumbbell up and out, focusing more on out than up (it’ll go up on its own steam if you focus on swinging it out).

Control the part just at the very top so you don’t fling it through the back wall. The right hand picture shows the top position. Then, let the dumbbell drop naturally, but under control, down to the starting position. The only thing to remember is to squat down and bend from the hips as the weight comes down, rather than bending over from the waist and hunching the back.

These can be done with quite a heavy weight, for low-rep sets, but it’s also an excellent challenge to do them for high-rep sets, to build strength-endurance and improve conditioning levels. They make an excellent warmup/cooldown exercise with ligher weight. 25 reps is about 1 minute. One thing I like to do for a quick and dirty conditioning workout is alternate 1 min sets of these with 30 to 60 seconds of jumping rope. I set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how energetic I feel, and just go at the swings and rope jumping, resting for perhaps 10 to 20 seconds in between, until the time’s up.

These can also be done with one hand instead of two, as shown here, but I’m not as partial to that style, as my shoulders don’t seem to dig it. Anyhoo, it’s your call.

one-hand side press

This is one of my all-time favourites. It builds shoulder, grip and torso strength and stability and depending on how far you bend over, hip flexibility. I recommend starting with a very light weight to get the hang of this one. In my experience, it’s risky to use a weight that’s heavier than about your 5 to 6 rep max for this one, as the stabilization of the shoulder joint is so critical. Heavy 5 rep sets are fine, but I wouldn’t max out on this particular exercise. Err on the side of one or two fewer reps, and slightly lighter weight, than you think you can manage.

This can be done with a barbell or dumbbell, but I prefer the barbell. It seems to balance easier, and plus it looks cooler. Many gyms have lighter pre-loaded barbells, and that’s what I use. My dream is to press the full sized 45 pound bar just once. In this photo I’m using a standard barbell, which is only 15 lbs. You could even start with a broomstick.

Grip the bar at its centre so that it feels balanced. The position of your palm is up to you. When I initially learned this movement, my shoulder was a bit dodgy from being a stupidass on the bench press, so I found it more comfortable to have my palm facing the midline of my body. Now I turn the palm slightly more forward, as you can see in the leftmost photo.

Press upward and lean down, away from the bar, bending from the hip. Think of pressing yourself downward and away from the bar, rather than pressing the bar upward. As you press upward, your weight will naturally shift to one side, so also think about pushing the hip outwards on the pressing side, as shown in the centre pic.

This movement takes some practice, so don’t get discouraged. Start with light weight and don’t go down too far right away. You can even start with a fairly upright press and focus on shifting the hip out. Other descriptions of this lift that I’ve seen recommend looking up at the pressing hand. Doing that makes me want to fall over, so do whatever works for you.

Here’s the little bit extra for your obliques. Keeping your pressing arm straight, return to the fully upright position, as shown in the right hand picture. Then lower the bar under control, returning it to the starting position. Be quite careful and slow with this bar descent. For some reason it’s easy to let this descent get unbalanced, so take care with it until you’re familiar with the movement.

1-hand snatch

Yes, yes, I said snatch. Hee hee hee. Hilarity ensues.

The snatch is one of the two Olympic lifts (the other is the clean). The “real” version is quite a technical lift and requires some coaching to perfect. However, the one-hand power version is much easier, particularly with a dumbbell. This lift is founded on the same concept as the dumbbell swing, namely, that the lower body powers the movement and the upper body is just sort of along for the ride. The dumbbell snatch, like the dumbbell swing, is a good full-body lift to do either for multiple low-rep sets for power, or for higher reps for strength-endurance and conditioning. A friend of mine calls this one the “Hooray for everything!” exercise. It takes a few attempts, but actually isn’t very difficult to figure out.

To get the hang of what the one-hand snatch one feels like, try these two practice movements first. For the first practice movement, stand with arms loosely at your sides. No weight. Squat down, then jump up. Keep your arms really relaxed and floppy. You’ll notice that as you jump up, your arms flap upwards on their own, because of the drive from the lower body. You need to put very little effort into making them flop almost fully overhead. This lower body drive with relaxed arms is the idea behind the one-hand snatch.

For the second practice movement, just work on shrugging your shoulders upwards at the same time you come up on to your toes. Get the hang of doing these two things together.

Once you have those two things down pat, grab a weight and give it the real lift a try. Squat down with the dumbbell hanging between your knees. As you can see in the left hand picture below, I like to place the non-lifting hand on my leg for stability. The lifting arm stays relaxed and straight. This is not an upright row or a curl. Driving with the legs, explode upwards and on to your toes. Shrug up as you come up on your toes, as shown in the middle picture. This will help drive the dumbbell upwards. Keep the weight close to your body throughout the first part of the lift, until it passes about the level of your waist. It should travel upwards in more or less a straight line, not in an outward arc like the dumbbell swing. Once you’ve shrugged it explosively, the dumbbell should be travelling fairly nicely on its own steam, so all you need to do is “catch” it at the top, as shown in the right hand picture. Drop down a little bit to do the catch, as if you’re shrugging the dumbbell up, then squatting down quickly underneath it. Think about getting under it to catch it at the top. Try to avoid making it into a one-hand press. The arm should stay fairly straight. If you’re having problems at the top, try a lighter weight, and/or ducking underneath the dumbbell as it clears the level of your head. Just like the dumbbell swing, make sure you hang on to this one at the top!

The barbell one-hand snatch is a variation on the dumbbell version. It adds a bit of grip work to the challenge. The movement is the same, although the starting position is slightly different, as shown in the left hand picture below. The top position is the same as the final position of the one-hand press (and in fact, since I am lazy, it is the same picture as the top of the one hand press). For some extra fun, and by fun, I mean dementia and pain, try a one-hand barbell snatch plus side press combo. Snatch the bar up, steady it, lower it under control to the start position of the one-hand press. Perform a one-hand press. Return the bar to shoulder level, then let it drop under control to the start position of the snatch

flapping bird

This one should be done with fairly light weight; it’s not a max-lift type exercise, but rather a conditioning, balance, and flexibility type of exercise. The goal is to get a nice deep lunge with good form, as well as a full range of motion with the arms overhead.

Holding a weight in each hand, and with arms relaxed at your sides, step forward into a lunge position. Drop down into a split squat, as shown in the picture on the left. Weight should be firmly planted and primarily on the heel of the front foot. Upper body has a good upright posture and does not droop forward.

Ascend smoothly from the split squat, driving through the heel of the front foot. As you do so, raise straight arms up and to the sides, forming an arc, until they are overhead. Don’t step back from the lunge, but keep feet planted. Lower arms under control. Once arms are down, drop into the split squat again. Aim to make this a seamless movement. When you ascend, everything goes up, and when you descend into the squat, everything goes down.

There are lots more where these came from. Stay tuned for more creative lunacy…