Before going to the gym what I usually like to do is configure my workout plan for the day. And more specifically, I am talking about choosing the right set of exercises that would best allow me to train my chosen muscle group of the day. I am sure that a lot of you guys and girls do the same thing, it’s a form of tradition if you will. Quite often I figure out my workout as I am at the gym, but that’s another topic.
However, we all do this, no matter whether in the gym or an hour before going there, or a whole week before going there (I personally know an individual who plans his workout plans weeks beforehand) we all love picking out the best exercises that would allow us to best target those muscles and thus grow bigger in those areas.
The obvious problem is that with such a diversity of exercises available and especially with different fitness gurus advocating different exercises and tagging them as the best of the best, it often gets confusing at one point doesn’t it. “Which one should I choose and why should I chose that one” are often the questions that we ask ourselves.
So why should you listen to me? To tell you the truth you shouldn’t listen to anyone that is on the internet, no matter what they claim of themselves – most people lie, looking at you Simeon Panda. The difference that I offer, when compared to other fitness experts, is that I provide you with the scientific and mechanical reasoning behind why these exercises are the best for each muscle group.
Before reading this article, however, you need to understand one fundamental thing. This does not mean that there is one exercise for each muscle group that you need to do and you will automatically start seeing results, I wish it were that simple.
All exercises are equally important, they are interchangeable. Different exercises target different areas of the muscle and they work the same muscle group in a different way, which drives growth. If you were to change so much as the supination of your palms when performing one exercise, you automatically hit the targeted muscle group in a different way.
The list of exercises that I am about to share with you are referred to as the best mainly because they are responsible for driving and improving muscle growth in the selected area of your body. These are exercises that you would want to integrate in your workout plan, but not use them in excess as you are going to hinder their effect on your muscle growth and will ultimately lead to a plateau.
The Best Exercises For Each Muscle Group
The trapezius, or traps for short, is often an overlooked muscle group by many. The truth about it, however, is that it plays a key role in forming your aesthetic physique as it really helps you improve your back’s thickness and increase your upper body’s width. It’s all about those Viper traps, baby!
Function: The trapezius muscle is responsible for the rotation and lift of the scapula – which is also known as your shoulder blade.
Best exercise: Dumbbell shrugs.
The dumbbell shrug is the one exercise that will use both activations of rotation and lifting of the shoulder blades, allowing for full activation of the trapezius muscle group. And the reason why I have chosen dumbbells instead of barbell for the proper execution is because the dumbbells will allow for more range of movement of the scapula, whereas the barbell would limit that range.
DO NOT USE ROTATION SHRUGS! There are multiple recorded injuries each year from people who believe that rotating the shoulders why doing this exercise will benefit them more than the traditional shrug.
Other exercises that you really need to consider for your traps are – upright barbell/dumbbell rows, barbell shrug behind the back and the snatch shrug.
How to perform:
Start from a normal standing position with the dumbbells held by each hand to your sides. Keep your legs slightly apart, at about hip level, so that you have better balance. Important notice should be made as to not bounce up when using this exercise and not to use your shoulders to aid your traps in the execution. This will allow to fully target the traps and ensure that every single gram of weight falls on that specific muscle group rather than any other.
Begin shrugging your shoulders upwards. A good depiction of the movement is to try and imitate the whole “Um, I don’t know” movement, that’s pretty much what you’re going for. Shrug the weight all the way up and slowly release to the starting position.
Check out this video by Scott Herman to better understand how to properly carry out the dumbbell shrug exercise.
The shoulders are your body’s widening tool and is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body. Wider shoulders will not only grant you the look of a shredded individual but will also make you look leaner. The combination of wide shoulders and a slim waist, automatically makes you look 10 – 20lbs lighter than you actually are.
Function: The deltoid (shoulder) muscle group made up of three different heads that all have a special purpose.
The middle part of the deltoid is responsible for the adduction of the arm which raises the arm to the horizontal level.
The anterior part (front) of the muscle group flexes and medially rotates the arm – or in other words helps you raise your arm in front of your body.
And the posterior section extends and laterally rotates the arm – raise your arm backwards.
Best exercise: Arnold Press
Due to the complex structure of the deltoid muscle group, training your shoulders with just one exercise should usually be out of the question! This, however, does not mean that there isn’t one exercise that would help you improve muscle growth in that area.
The Arnold press is the one exercise that will help you target your shoulder muscles through every single angle.
Other exercises that must be included in your workout are – single arm linear jammer, push press, side laterals, reverse flys and many more exercises that truly train every single deltoid head separately and properly.
How to perform:
Start off from a sitting position preferably on an exercise bench that has back support. I have also seen people doing this exercise while standing up, however, that is something that I would not recommend to any living soul as that just increases your chances of damaging your back or spine.
Hold two dumbbells in front of you at about upper chest level with your palms facing your body and your elbows bent. Your arms should be next to your torso. Your starting position should resemble the contracted position of the sitting dumbbell curl to some extent.
Start to rotate the palms of your hands until they are facing forward as you are bringing the weights up from the starting position. Continue pushing the weight until your arms are above your head and almost fully extended with a very slight bend in your elbow (never fully extend the elbow as you would be putting too much unwanted pressure in that joint area and 1) reduce the weight pressure falling on your shoulders; 2) increase chances of elbow damage).
When returning to the starting position just repeat the same motion, just in reverse.
The Pectoralis muscle is one of the most frustrating muscles in the whole body. If you have genetics for it, then in the clear. I know people that just by doing bodyweight push-ups and dips have managed to develop an extraordinary chest.
Then you have the unlucky people, one of whom is me, who struggle just to get some definition in their pecs.
If you are one of those people, I understand your frustration!
The Pecs are important, however, as they really help bring out the aesthetic look from the front. They… just make you look bigger, that’s just about it.
Function: First of all, you need to understand the anatomy of the chest area of the human body consists of two main muscle groups. The two pectoral muscles are the Pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor.
The Pectoralis major consists of two heads: the Clavicular and the Sterno-costal head.
The main function of the pectoralis major is internal rotation (moving your arm to the center of your body) and adduction of the arm (moving you arm closer to middle sagittal plane of your body)(Read more about the pectoral muscle anatomy here).
Best exercise: Dip
Shock and horror, it’s not the bench press. The bench press is an amazing exercise for developing overall mass in your pectorals, however, the bench press does not allow of a full range of motion to be used, something that the dip can provide for.
The whole idea when training your chest is to achieve a full stretch of the pectoral muscles. As I mentioned above the two heads of the pactoralis major are trained by 1) moving your arm next to the plane of your body and 2) moving your arm towards the center of your body.
To achieve the full range of motion you need to first deliver a good stretch from where you bring your arms in those two positions, just like any other exercise, basically.
Other exercises that will help you pack on chest size worth mentioning: flat bench press, incline bench, decline bench, chest flys, chest extensions, dumbbell bench press.
How to perform:
Firstly, you need to remember that there are two variations of dips – chest dips and triceps dips. We are going to be covering chest dips.
You would want to position yourself on some parallel bars otherwise known as the dipping station. If the handles are moveable, which nowadays about 95% of them are, you would like to start of from shoulder width. As you execute this exercise more and more you will start building up the necessary strength and as soon as you feel confident enough you can switch the handles to the more wider grip so that you target the pectorals more than your shoulders/triceps.
All you need to remember is that when you are emphasizing on your chest with this exercise you would want to lean forward when you are dropping yourself down so that you achieve that full stretch in your pectoral area. I like to tuck my legs in as it helps me retain balance, but that does put an extra load on your abs.
On your way down make sure that you flare out your elbows a bit, just enough so that you feel a good stretch in your chest.
As you reach the top (the starting position) make sure that you flex your chest, so that you achieve the maximum benefit out of the exercise and remember to not lock your elbows at the top because that will shift the weight from your chest and triceps to your elbow joints increasing your chances of injury.
ScottHerman defines the difference between the triceps dip and the chest dip. I have also identified that in a recent article that you can check by following the link.
This one’s going to be a hard one. The back muscle group of the human body is probably one of the most complex muscle groups in the whole organism. There are different sections and different muscles that make up the back itself, for example the traps that we covered above is a part of the upper and middle region of your back area.
All of this means only one thing – determining the perfect exercise that will allow you train your back to perfection is nearly impossible, right? Well not exactly, there is this one exercise that we all know in love that will train your muscle wings like no other exercise!
Function: The primary function of the back is simple – it is activated with any pulling motion that is associated with scapula (shoulder blade) elevation, (the one exercise covered for traps) rotation, contraction, and dispersion. All of these movements train the thickness of your back and are a part of the trapezius muscle group.
The difference here, however, is that for the trapezius training we covered the visible parts of it, where the traps would actually need to be considered as a separate muscle group – the upper/neck area of the body. But we have not yet mentioned how, the traps as a part of your back muscle group, can help you improve your overall back thickness trough rotation and contraction of your scapula.
There are also two other muscle groups that determine the width of your back – the teres major and minor and the latissimus dorsi (the lats) which are responsible for arm adduction and shoulder extension and contraction.
Best exercise: Parallel pull-ups
Wait, WHAT!? No deadlift? No barbell back rolls? Parallel pull-ups?
Yes, parallel pull-ups are definitely at the top of my list and for a couple of obvious reasons.
- This exercise is one of the few that will allow you to train your upper, middle, and lower section of the back simultaneously.
- It also trains your teres major and minor and your latissimus dorsi as you are lowering your body to achieve arm adduction and shoulder extension on the way down and contraction on the way up.
- You also train your traps (the most visible area) as you go up because you activate the scapula elevation, rotation, and dispersion.
- You also train your back’s thickness because your are training the trapezius middle and lower fibers on the contraction point at the top of the movement.
- It trains your lower back and abdominal muscle group as you need to maintain constant balance along the way.
- And a bonus element is the fact that this exercise also trains your brachialis and is literally the only compound exercise that does that, allowing you to develop not just a huge back, but also huge arms in the process
Keep in mind, this does not mean that other famous exercises such as the lat pulldown, deadlift, backrows or any of those must be excluded, on the contrary, if you want a big back you need to hit it with everything you have in your arsenal, but this exercise is the best of the best that will allow for a full range of motion of every single fiber of your back muscles.
How to perform:
Try to locate convient bars where you can grab on where your palms are going to be parallel and point to each other.
If there is no such thing in your gym then you can try and locate a parallel grip triangle grip row bar that you can place on a regular pull-up bar, which will allow you to mimic the motion.
You can also attach the triangle to a pull-down machine, but this will take away the stress from your abdominal and lower back region.
Once you’ve found your holly grail, grab on to it and begin pulling yourself upward in a smooth control manner. Once you’ve reached the top, make sure that you hold the contracted position for a couple of seconds before going back to the starting position. Make sure that you control yourself as you release and don’t just drop yourself down – the idea is to fully stretch the muscle.
Don’t just go half-way down, release yourself to the point where your shoulders are almost fully extended, this is to ensure that you are reaching the full range of motion and are really activating the width of your back.
As soon as you start noticing that this exercise is getting easier and easier for you to execute, that’s when you would want to start adding on weight by using a belt or grabbing a dumbbell between your thighs (the belt is more comfortable).
Don’t let the thumbnail deceive you, I know it did that to me!
The triceps muscle group as I love to call it the horseshoe muscle is responsible for the majority of the size of your arms. According to some, the triceps makes up 70% of you arm. In other words, if you want bigger arms, you’d want to train those bad boys.
Function: The muscle group is compiled of three heads: long head, lateral head, and the medial head. All three heads insert into the elbow.The superficial part of the triceps is formed by the long and lateral head, while the inner or core section of the muscle is where the medial head lies.
The primary function of the triceps is extension of the elbow.
Best exercise: Behind the neck tricep extensions
This exercise is great for building overall mass in the triceps muscle as it allows you to pack on some serious weight. The exercise does not hit all three heads of the muscle group and it prioritizes the long-head, which is responsible for the overall mass of the muscle.
This exercise can be executed with either a dumbbell or a E-Z barbell.
Other exercises that will help pack serious tricep size worth mentioning: scull crushers, cable push-downs, close grip bench.
How to perform:
Start off from a sitting position preferably on an exercise bench that has back support. Grab the weight of choice – dumbbell, E-Z bar, or cable – with both hands and lift it up above your head so that your arms are extended, but not fully. Your palms should be facing up toward the ceiling. This is going to be your starting position
Keeping your upper arms close to your head with your elbows in, lower the resistance behind your neck to the point where your forearms touch your biceps. Your upper arms should remain stationary and only your forearm should move.
By this point you probably think that I am an affiliate with Scott Herman or something like that, rest assured, I am not, he just explains every movement very accurately and I honestly believe that if you hear one exercise’s performance mechanism from two people, you’d understand it far better.
Ah yes, the biceps. The world’s most impressive muscle group, the one muscle that we all think of flexing whenever representing our masculinity and strength. Everybody wants to have mountain peeks on their arms, but only a few are lucky enough to have the right set of genetics for growing impressive arms.
The good thing is that even without genetics you can still make your arms big and aesthetic with the right set of tools.
I’ve already written an article about the 4 best biceps workouts, but I have never mentioned which exercise is the single best one of training the double-headed beast that’s laying on your arms.
Function: The biceps muscle groups is compiled of two muscle heads. The long-head (located on the lateral part of your arm) and the short-head (located on the interior part of your arm).
The primary function of the biceps is to pull where the short-head is activated when there is a wide-grip pulling motion and the long-head is activated where there is a close-grip pulling motion.
There is also a third player in there that is called the brachialis. Not a lot of people are aware of that muscle, considering the fact that it is not directly a part of the biceps, but still plays a major role in your arm’s size.
The brachialis is located right between your biceps and triceps, i.e. it’s an internal muscle, not external, however, its growth will have a serious indirect impact on your overall arms size.
Best exercise – Supinated alternating dumbbell curls
I know that a lot of people would expect to see the barbell biceps curl here, but no, not this time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing exercise for building the bulk of your biceps as it allows you to go really heavy, but nothing will work your biceps as the supinated alternating dumbbell curls.
How to perform:
The whole idea here is that you train the three muscles that make up your biceps at the same time. By maintaining a shoulder-width grip you ensure that both the short and long head are being worked and as you are coming up you go from a hammer curl to a regular curl. The supination at the top will allow for maximum activation of the biceps.
Start off in a standing position with your legs at hip width apart for balance and with a dumbbell in each hand – choose an appropriate weight where you can control the full range of movement and do about 8-10 reps to failure. Make sure that your palms are pointing inwards to your body. This will be your starting position.
As you being raising the weight upwards you would want to begin and rotate the arm from a hammer curl to a regular curl where your arms go from pointing inward to pointing upward to the ceiling. Lift the weight to the point where the dumbbells are at shoulder level.
Make sure that you maintain that muscle-mind connection so that you feel the contraction that is going on in your biceps. If you curl the weight too high you lose that biceps concentration as you are allowing for your biceps to sort of rest.
Here’s another tip, always make sure that your upper arm is completely stationary and that only your elbow is doing the movement! There are tons and tons of people who seem to forget that the moment they start raising their elbows upward, they start to lose control over their biceps and fewer stress is going there.
Once you’ve reached the top of the exercise, where your palms are at shoulder level, you would want to supinate your hands, where you try your best to push your pinkie finger outward so that your pinkie goes up in the air. That will allow you to achieve a full contraction in your biceps muscle.
Hold that position for a couple of seconds and lower down the weight in a controlled manner.
Forearms, luckily, is one of those muscle groups that is literally being trained without with every other exercise that you are doing where you are challenging your grip. With this in mind, you don’t really need a specific isolating exercise that only explicitly targets your forearms, I mean why bother?
However, there is one exercise that I believe is just perfect that will really help hit those bad boys!
Also, keep in mind that your forearms are pretty much like your calves. They are both muscle groups that are packed with slow-twich muscle fibers. What this means is that they are going to grow similarly to other muscle groups like your chest or your biceps and triceps. Slow-twich muscle fibers are usually located in the strongest bits of your body – your abs, your calves, and your forearms. This does not necessarily mean that you cannot improve your forearms, but there wouldn’t be an insane improvement as if you were training your biceps.
Function: I personally believe that the forearm does not require any specific explanation. Only one thing that you need to remember about this muscle group is that it is responsible for the strength of your grip.
Best Exercise: Farmer’s walk
Yeah, that’s right! No wrist curls, no pronations or supinations, just your good ol’ Farmer’s walk exercise.
The reason why I personally believe that this exercise is perfect is mainly because it allows you to use really, really heavy weights to test your grip’s power, something that you cannot really do with those isolated exercises. Plus, the exercise is a really good compound one that will really elevate your metabolism and your testosterone and to a certain extent train your traps and legs along with your forearms.
How to perform:
Farmer’s walks are relatively simple to complete. Stand in a neutral position with two dumbbells siting beside your legs. Keep your feet apart as if you are about to do squats and the reason why you would want to do that is because the starting position and the starting movement of the Farmer’s walk is basically a squat.
You are now going to lower yourself down to grab the dumbbells, keeping your back straight and your chest pointing forward. While maintaining good form you lift the dumbbells up, similar to a dumbbell squat motion.
As soon as you get all the way up you start walking forward, hence the name Farmer’s walk. And there is no specific number of steps that you need to make, I personally do about 8-15 depending on the weight.
When you reach the end of your steps, you just lower yourself as if you are doing a dumbbell squat. You leave the weights, you turn around and you do the same thing in the opposite direction.
Good ol’ dudes from buff dudes show you how the farmer’s walk’s done!
Your abdominal muscles are the only ones in your body that will not grow and will not change their initial size no matter how much you train them. The only difference training your core will bring you is a more defined belly region with your obliques popping from the sides and your abs just looking better compare to what they would look if you paid no attention to them.
This, however, does not mean that if you want visible abdominals you need to do a ton of crunches and leg raises. If your muscle is covered by a huge layer of fat, the only way to make it visible, is by reducing your body fat percentage!
Also, there isn’t a direct exercise that I would personally regard as a good ab exercise. I don’t even train my abs, or at least not with isolated exercises.
Your abs are a very powerful muscle group that is activated with literally every movement that challenges your balance. I’ve already written a lengthly article here at THEBODYBUILDINGBLOG about the top 14 best ab exercises, give it a look, I’ve explained everything over there!
This is an area of discussion that I am not really found of and the main reason for my negative attitude towards it is because I’m a bloke, a guy, a freaking man, I don’t really care if I have a “big booty” as J-Lo would so gracefully incline.
Ironically, for some goddamn reason, I have “butt genetics”. To the point where even my girlfriend has told me how much she is jealous of my “onion ass” – an ass that can make you cry.
It wouldn’t make sense for a dude that doesn’t give a damn about training his butt to give you proper advice as to how to properly develop your glutes. However, I have assisted a number of ladies in their quest to a rocking behind and I am sort-of adept in the field. I guess you can call me an “ass-man”, pun strongly intended.
There are a few main functions for which the gluteus maximus (The full latin name of the buttocks) is well known for:
- Hip Extension
- Femoral external rotation
- Femoral external adduction
- Knee stabilization
Best exercise: Deep squats
Oh yeah baby, ass to the grass, now that’s what really trains your butt.
The Squat in general is a really good exercise that will train your ass like no other out there.
But if you really want to focus on your butt, then you need to go deeper than your traditional, generic squat.
The reason behind this exercise is fairly obvious – it allows you achieve a full range of motion (ROM) where you fully stretch the gluteus maximus on your way down and fully flex it on your way up by using hip extension.
How to perform:
Just like your traditional squat! Stand in a position where your feet are about hip width apart from one another. Stand in a squat rack, of course, and place the barbell on the upper portion of your back – you traps (as we now know). Make sure that you maintain a straight back and puffed chest for proper form and that you keep your abs tight to ensure absolute balance and control of the weight.
As you lower the weight down you would want to go to a below 90° position where your buttocks is almost, as if, going to touch the ground.
Make sure that you do not rest once you reach this position and do not lower yourself to the point where you take away the weight strain from your glutes and legs. You want to feel the tension that is placed on your muscles during the full range of motion, just like any other exercise (muscle-mind connection).
As you are returning back to your starting position you would want to push your hips towards (hip extension). A lot of people tend skip this bit of the exercise, which is a mistake, as 50% of the ass’s function is hip extension.
The quadriceps is basically the representation of your legs. When we think of big legs we think of big quads peaking out of your shorts, am I right?
As impressive of a muscle that it is, the four headed monster is quite the pain to develop as the most influential exercises are compound and really bring you to the sensation of collapsing to the ground in exhaust.
It’s quite the complicated task to choose which one of the more infamous exercises like the lunge, squat, or deadlift is more appropriate when looking for the best of the best and reason why this is so, is simply because they are all awesome exercises and deserve to be acknowledged.
Function: The three main functions of the quadriceps (Vastus Medialis, Vastus Lateralis, Rectus Femoris, and Vastus Intermedius) are knee extensions, hip flexion and knee stabilization.
Best exercise: The one, the only jumping jacks… kidding. The one, the only – Squats.
I know what you’re thinking “I could have guessed that on my own” and you are right, because the squat as an exercise has become the religion of legs. If you want larger legs, you need to integrate squats in there, not every single workout session of course, but it needs to be a part of your arsenal.
And the reason why I’m giving squats as the number 1 place holder, is not because I am too lazy to analyze any other exercise, but simply because it just incorporates all of the three main functions of the quads, in one smooth movement.
How to perform: Basically the same form of execution as the deep squats. The only difference here is that if you want to target your quads more you need to lower your body down to where your knees form a 90° angle.
The Hamstring and the Quadriceps have a special relationship going. It’s the Robin to its Batman, it’s the salt to its pepper, it’s the jam to its.. you get the idea.
The Hamstring is often overlooked and not a lot of people really think of this muscle group as an important one when it come to leg size.
It is true that the Quadriceps is the bulk of your legs and in fact they truly are responsible for the majority of your legs’ size, however, your hammmies are as important especially when you are trying to achieve that impressive side leg shot.
The hamstring has three primary functions:
- Deceleration of the knee;
- Flection of the knee; and
- Hip extension
Best exercise: Manual Hamstring Curls
The reason why I chose this exercise instead of just saying – machine hamstring curls is because this one does not require any fancy equipment and expensive machinery to do.
You can literally perform this exercise anywhere where there is a comfortable place where you can place your feet so that you “trap” them underneath a counterweight.
Practically speaking, you have no excuse for lacking hamstring growth considering the mobility of this exercise.
How to perform:
Quite a simple exercise, and nothing too extraordinary to remember.
Begin by starting from a position where you are kneeling down and your legs are underneath a counterweight. This counterweight, logically, needs to be heavier than you are so that as you are lowering your upper body, you are not going to facepalm yourself to do the ground.
Once you have ensured that everything is set and ready you would want to start lowering your upper body downward.
As you start noticing how your hamstrings cannot retain control, you drop your self down into a push-up position and you push yourself back in an explosive motion to your starting position.
For safety measures you can have something soft beneath you to make sure that you do not drop your weight and hurt your face during the landing.
The calves are a muscle group that you either are genetically predisposed to having or you’re not and you have to go through hell and back to some sort of definition down there.
I am not lucky enough to say that I have genetics for calves, unlike my for my ass. However, trough vigorous training and exercise experimentation I’ve sort of managed to develop some definition on my sticks, still not as impressive as I want them to be, but something is better than nothing.
Function: The primary function of the calves is plantar and dorsi flexion (extension) – i.e. it’s the one muscle group in your body that allows you to stand on your toes and incorporates movements such as jumping, running and even walking.
Best exercise: Elevated Standing Calve Raises
This exercise is perfect as it allows you fully activate the calve muscle group as you engage in plantar flexion on your way up and dorsi flexion on your way down.
You can this exercise, again, practically anywhere where you can elevate yourself enough and pack on some extra weight on your back to make things harder.
How to perform:
There isn’t much to explain about this exercise. You would want to start out in a standing position where you are standing on an elevated surface – hence the name Elevated Calve Raises.
You either use a barbell or dumbbells, it’s all up to your personal preference.
Lower yourself down to the point where your heels are lower than the elevate surface and almost touches the ground – this is where you achieve dorsi flexion.
Trough slow and controlled movement raise your weight to the point where you are standing on your toes – i.e. plantar flexion.
Make sure that you do not hold in one position for too long as this may result in muscle cramps and even more painful damages of the muscle tissue if necessary care is not taken.