This list was inspired by the hundreds of times I’ve heard a client tell me how hard some easy-looking exercises are. But don’t take their (or my) word for it; try them for yourself and let me know if you agree that these are both easy-looking and hard.

    1. Bird dogs. It was the best of exercises; it was the worst of exercises. The bird dog truly is a tale of two exercises. When done properly it’s impressively challenging for most people. Unfortunately it’s often not done well, and when it’s not done well, it’s not that hard. The key with a bird dog is that it’s about stabilizing your torso first and foremost.

The biggest mistake I see with this exercise is trying to get the arm and leg up as high as possible, which is often accomplished by arching the back or rotating the pelvis. Focus on keeping the torso completely still and you’ll see why this exercise made this list.

The second most common mistake I see is shifting the body onto the planted leg as you lift the other leg. It’s pretty easy that way. Keep your body in the exact same position as you lift the limbs very slowlys. Once you get to your top position (as high as you can with zero movement in the torso), hold for five to ten seconds. The video above demonstrates this, and also provides some regressions for those who aren’t (yet) able to do this without torso movement.

  1. Dead bugs. You’re lying on your back; how hard can it be? This is actually one that is probably either really hard or fairly easy, depending on your movement style. If you’re someone who tends to arch their back a lot, this one is probably going to be tough. If you’re a back-rounder, it’s probably going to be fairly easy. Make sure you keep your back touching the floor throughout the exercise.
  2. Seated wall slides. Sometimes known as wall sit with shoulder press, this is an excellent exercise for the mid and upper back.

    In fact we actually start our clients with a floor version because the wall sit version is often too hard. If you are extremely flexible then you might not find this one too hard, but virtually everyone else wwill.

  3. Pallof press. I remember when I used to do these at the Y and I got looks that said ‘you’re just standing there, why do you have exertion face?‘ If you’re not familiar with the Pallof press, sometimes just called an anti-rotation press, then you should thank me right now for writing this blog post, because this exercise is amazing.

    It works the side of your core impressively well. Or at least it should. If it doesn’t, or if you feel it on the same side in both directions, then stay tuned as I’ve got a core training guide coming soon that you don’t want to miss. It’s about why some people can do core exercises in a way that looks exactly right, except instead of feeling the core working, they feel their shoulders, or their back, or even their knees. In fact this was the core (hahaha – I had to) of a talk I recently gave at the Professional Power Summit at The Sport and Speed Institute in Chantily, Va. If I just described you (or your clients), then add your name to the newsletter subscription form below so you get notified when I publish the core guide. I kind of suck at marketing, which means you can subscribe without worrying about being inundated with emails.

    Conversely, if you’re trying the Pallof press and you’re thinking, sure, it works my core, but it’s not THAT hard. Okay cool, you’ve got a strong core, so maybe you should take it up a notch and try the walking Pallof press. You can thank Tony Gentilcore for this variation:

  4. Bear crawls. Thanks to Joe Bonyai for this great video demonstration of the bear crawl.

    Notice how Joe keeps the “steps” small? And he moves opposite hand and leg at the same time. These are key coaching points. As you get better at them, try the bear “paws” version that Joe demonstrates so nicely. Or stay with the bear crawls but line up a couple of two-by-fours on the floor and do them while balancing on those. Once you master the bear crawls on two-by-fours, maybe it’s time to challenge someone to a bear crawl joust?

  5. Stability ball partial ball wall squat. This one is a bit finicky, but there’s an easy way to tell if you’re doing it right: if it doesn’t feel really hard; you’re not. You want to feel this primarily in the outer glute region. It’s possible you’ll feel it on the leg that’s pressing the ball into the wall, but it’s also possible you’ll feel it in that same spot on the stance leg..

    If you find you feel it more on the outside of your leg (versus outside of your hip) or the front of the hip, then play around with the position of your hips a bit until you feel it in the outside of your hip(s).

  6. Side plank with leg lift. This one is a nice double-duty exercise as it works the obliques (side of your core) on the side of the body that’s closest to the floor, and it works the glutes on the other side. The video below includes a version from the feet and also one from the knee because the one from the feet is so hard that most people will want to start with the knees.
  7. Mini-band lateral walks. It’s impressive how much thin little slices of plastic can add to an exercise. We switched to the two-band version of the mini-band walks a few years ago after seeing it at a fitness seminar. The reason I like the two bands more than one is that it cleans up form nicely. Depending on the client, we start with either two yellows, a yellow and a green (yellow at the ankles), or two greens. But keep in mind it’s pretty hard with two greens, so don’t start with that version unless you’re fairly strong. And of course, feel free to progress up to blues or blacks. I’ve had very few clients who progressed to two black bands, but it is possible.

    Our gym is about 40 feet long, and we typically have clients walk the length and back for this exercise. Make sure you stay facing the same direction both ways so that you end up alternating the lead leg.

    As an aside, if you have access to the Perform Better mini-bands, I suggest them over other brands because they seem to be the perfect length for these exercises. I have purchased some other brand bands but they all seem to be a bit longer, which I think makes them less effective. There’s no science behind that statement; just experience.

What do you think? Do these all fit the bill of being easy-looking? And did you actually find them hard? If you didn’t, did you double-check that you are doing it correctly (especially the bird dogs)? Am I missing any? Let me know in the comments below if there are exercises that you think belong on this list.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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