Fitness / Strength Training

Why Are Some Muscles Harder to Target Than Others?

Here's looking at you, lower abs.

In a perfect world, you would be able to target a muscle on your body that you want to improve, do a few exercises, and—voilà—become stronger, leaner, and more toned. You can do that with some muscles, but others are notoriously hard to hone in on. It seems like no matter which exercises you try or how many reps you do, you don’t see results. Certain muscles are simply harder to strengthen than others. Here we explore why that is and how to hit those hard-to-reach spots to see the results you really want.

Why Some Muscles Are Harder to Target Than Others

When it comes to effectively strengthening a muscle, bigger is better. “What makes a muscle easy to train is size. Because of [a larger] size, there is greater strength and therefore dominance over the smaller muscles,” says Aaptiv Trainer Mary Onyango.

Smaller muscles get lost in the shuffle, so to speak. They’re surrounded by larger muscles, which end up doing all the work, making it harder to actually work the smaller muscle you’re going after. “The main reason for certain muscles to not activate is overcompensation from bigger muscles in surrounding areas,” says Aaptiv Trainer Mike Septh. In a nutshell, the smaller the muscle, the harder it is to target and strengthen.

Flexibility issues can make it challenging to target certain muscles too. “Flexibility also plays a large part in strength and weakness,” Onyango says. “If a muscle cannot be fully lengthened, then it reduces its performance. So if a person lacks flexibility, they cannot fully achieve the muscle’s maximum potential.”

The Usual Suspects: The Pesky Muscles That Are Especially Hard to Target

Now that you know why certain muscles are harder to target than others, let’s talk about which muscles they are. While everyone’s body is different, there are a few usual suspects that are notoriously hard to target and strengthen. They include:

Posterior Deltoid (Back of the Shoulders)

When you work on your shoulders, you’re going to see results. But reaching the posterior deltoids in the back can be tough. “This third head of the deltoid is so tied into the rhomboids (middle back) and upper trapezius (the area where the neck meets the upper back and shoulders) that … [it] requires a lot of focus and specific movement in order to target the smaller third head of the deltoid,” Onyango says.

Gluteus Minimus and Gluteus Medius (Butt)

When you’re rocking those squats, you want to work all of your booty—but there are two muscles that can be especially hard to target. “The gluteus minimus and gluteus medius tend to be hard parts of the glutes to target because they work and perform in planes of motion that most civilians don’t move through every day,” Septh says. Another reason these glute muscles can be so tricky? Your quad and thigh muscles, which are more dominant and make it harder to access these two (important!) parts of your butt.

Abductors (Inner Thighs)

“Because of the location, and even more specifically each muscle (the brevis, longus, and gracilis) being dominated by the larger and more powerful quadriceps and hamstrings,” your abductors (workout speak for inner thighs) can be really tough to train, Onyango explains.

Transverse Abdominals (Lower Abs)

Your lower abs are one of the trickiest areas to target on the body. “Transverse abdominals (lower abdominal region) become hard to target because they’re below the superficial layer of muscle in your abdominal wall,” Septh says. Not only that, but most ab exercises activate the top part of the abdominal muscle rather than the bottom.

How to Target These Muscles and See Results

Now onto the good stuff. How do you target these difficult muscles to see results?

Focus on form.

Form is key when you’re trying to strengthen a specific, hard-to-target muscle. If your form is off, the muscle you’re aiming for will be off, and you’ll inadvertently work one of the larger, easier-to-reach muscles nearby.

Do isometric exercises.

When you think of weight lifting, you usually picture a concentric contraction, which happens when you lift weight and the muscle tenses as it gets shorter, or an eccentric contraction, which happens when you lower weight and the muscle tenses as it gets longer. But there’s another type of contraction called isometric, which occurs when the muscle tenses without shortening or lengthening at all. As it so happens, this is a great way to strengthen hard-to-target muscles. “Working isometrically is a fantastic place to start … to get a smaller or nonfunctional muscle working,” Septh says.

Isometric exercises such as planks or wall presses are great for targeting smaller muscles. The key? Squeeze! The benefit comes from tensing the muscles, so make sure you tighten as hard as you can.

Focus on overall strength and health.

We wish we could tell you there’s a single magic exercise that yields glutes of steel or the six-pack you’ve been pining for. But when it comes to getting results, there is no perfect solution. If you want to see developments—with easier-to-strengthen and harder-to-target muscles alike—you need to focus on the big picture. “In order for any muscle group to be seen, it takes excellent nutritional intake and consistent cardiovascular and strength training for fat loss,” Onyango says. “Only with proper nutrition and a challenging exercise regimen will the body produce visible results.”

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Fitness Strength Training

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