The Small Muscles That Will Make Your Lifts Bigger

From little things, big lifts grow...

There’s nothing more impressive than a massive lift, but it’s worth pointing out that even the biggest and strongest lifters can neglect the smaller, less sexy muscles in their quest for getting better.

I’m talking about the ones that help the larger muscles do their jobs better and keep you lifting longer and stronger, without having to pay a visit to the physical therapist’s table. I had the chance to speak to a few PTs and collect some tips and specific exercises to work smaller muscle groups.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

Serratus Anterior

Bo Babenko, DPT

The serratus anterior, which spans over the top of upper ribs, is an often-overlooked muscle in many training programs.

The serratus wall slide is a fantastic way to get it fired up. It is even more beneficial if you can add a solid brace through your core as you raise the arms up and bring them down.

Adding that tension is really where you make your money on this exercise, if you lose even a bit of tension, you’re not getting the full benefit of this exercise.  The serratus anterior plays a vital role in controlling the shoulder blade, which is an important cog in things like benching or snatching.” 

[Related: 7 moves for a strong, shredded serratus]


Regan Wong, DPT, CSCS, PT for Texas Rangers Baseball

“This often-overlooked muscle is important for core stability in powerlifting and Olympic lifts.

It’s the diaphragm.

It needs to fire first and provide intra-abdominal pressure to work with your abdominals, obliques, transverse abdominus, multifidus, erector spinae, and quadratus lumborum muscles to provide 360-degree circumferential core stability prior to any big lift.”

There are two ways to incorporate this into your training

  • A breathing exercises into your warmup to activate this whole area. For example 90/90 with Hip lift.
  • Breathe all the air out of your lungs to get your ribs down and then take a deep belly breath before you lift to enhance core stability.

Posterior rotator cuff /Lower trapezius

Mike Reinold, PT, DPT, CSCS 

 “The shoulder W exercise combines shoulder external rotation with scapular retraction and posterior tilt, definitely a great combo and advantageous for many people as it recruits the posterior rotator cuff (infraspinatus and teres minor) and the lower trapezius.

I’m a big believer of “activating” muscle groups by working them, or “turning them on” prior to performing larger multi-joint movements.  For example, I would perform shoulder external rotation prior to upper body movements like bench press, overhead press or snatches.” 

[Related: 10 exercises for stronger, healthier scaps]

Thoracic extensors

Dr. Zachary Long, DPT

“For many lifters, neglecting the thoracic spine extensors will decrease their lifting performance.

Weakness in this area is most commonly seen during a heavy set of front squats when towards the end of a set the athlete’s upper back rounds forward, causing a missed lift while the legs continue to try to drive upwards.

This breakdown will often result in a missed PR versus a successful lift, especially in the clean and deadlifts.

The Zercher Squat is a great squat variation to work on improving thoracic extension strength. By positioning a barbell in the bent of your elbows as you squat, the upper back has to work incredibly hard to stay upright.

For many, holding the barbell on the meat of your forearms can be painful, so a towel or squat pad can help improve the comfort of this exercise.”

[Related: A complete guide to performing the Zercher squat]  

Scapular retractors

Dr. Michael Mash, PT, DPT, CSCS 

“Strong scapular retractors, including the rhomboids and trapezius muscles, are vital for performance and injury risk reduction for the barbell athlete.

While the traditional barbell lifts such as the deadlift, clean, and snatch will provide a training stimulus for these muscles, isolating them can give the necessary additional volume for hypertrophy and shoulder health.

One exercise I recommend for this is the band pull apart. Try performing 3 sets of 12-15 at the end of your workout and you’ll be on your way to more stable shoulders.”

Gluteus Medius/Minimus

Ariel Osharenko, PT, CSCS

“The hip is a ball and socket joint that allows a wide range of movement.  

Injuries to the hip joint are quite common in athletes, since the hip absorbs a lot of forces from the ground up while, say, running or performing weightlifting movements. 

Some of the hip muscles that people forget to exercise are the muscles that allow for rotational movements to occur simultaneously with other hip movements such as the gluteus medius and minimus muscles (positioned under the bigger maximus muscle), tensor fascia latae, and piriformis.

The two exercises I recommend to decrease the risk of hip injury are the clam shells and the more advanced exercise, the single leg side step up.”

Wrapping up

By training the smaller, forgotten about muscles, you’ll be less likely to get injured and more likely to make that lift. The time investment is small, but the payoffs for you are huge. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.