The Best Exercise for Every Muscle

Coauthor: James Walters

Head to Toe Hypertrophy

Want to build muscle? Don’t overcomplicate it. Here are the timeless exercises you can’t avoid if you want to grow.

Let’s be honest. Most lifters just need to stick with the basics and work at them for an extended time. What are the basics? The most effective exercises with the lowest risk of injury. No matter how fancy your training gets, these lifts always deliver.

Best Lift for Chest: Bench Press

The bench press recruits a lot of muscle, mainly the pecs, anterior delts, and triceps. It’s a great all-arounder to improve upper body strength, muscle mass, and endurance.

But it’s even better when practiced with the intent of building muscle rather than showing off. Maximize that stretch at the bottom. You’ve probably got too much on the bar if you’re not feeling it where you should.

If your shoulders don’t do well with a standard barbell, reduce the range of motion or use a Swiss bar (on Amazon) or dumbbells. Once you nail the technique and reduce the risks, you can progress with it for weeks using small weight increments.

Best Horizontal Lift for Back: Barbell Row

Barbell rows built some of the biggest backs in history. They build strength and size by targeting most of your back, including your traps, lats, and rhomboids. They also challenge your whole trunk and your hamstrings isometrically.

These strength improvements transfer to other lifts like squats and deadlifts. An overhand grip tends to work your upper back more, while an underhand grip with a more arcing motion towards your hips hits your lats a little more.

Need a modification for a cranky lower back? Try the seal row where you row laying face down on an elevated bench.

Best Vertical Lift for Back: Lat Pulldown

Use a wide-grip lat pulldown to target those wings and develop a wider back. And don’t give us that nonsense about how pulldowns don’t help you build a wider back. Tell that to just about every pro bodybuilder that uses them. Bonus: This exercise also improves your pull-ups.

Best Lift for Quadriceps: Leg Press

Target your legs with minimal joint irritation using the leg press. If you have specific lagging areas, you can focus on what you need to build most. Placing your feet high on the platform biases the hamstrings a bit more, and placing them low biases the quads.

To begin with, start closer to the middle with your feet around shoulder-width apart. From here, focus on keeping tight to the back of the pad and controlling the weight as you bring it down as far as possible before pressing it back up.

Use a full range of motion. No cheating with half reps just so you can show everyone how many plates you can selfishly hoard. Make this exercise as hard for yourself as you possibly can, with zero letup between reps.

Why not a barbell back squat? Many people find squatting difficult or painful and, hence, don’t stick to squats long enough for them to be a good hypertrophy exercise.

Best Lift for Glutes and Hams: Romanian Deadlift

The RDL is similar to a traditional deadlift from the floor but is more of a hip hinge with very little knee bend or quad activation. They simply build more muscle.

Keep your chest high. Don’t round your shoulders or lose that strong back position. Lower the bar, keeping it as close to your thighs as possible.

You should feel a good stretch of your glutes and hamstrings at the bottom, then a good squeeze of your glutes as you come back up. If you feel these more in your lower back, try RDLs using a trap bar, or just go a little lighter and adjust your form until the glutes and hams work harder than the lower back.

Best Lift for Shoulders: Overhead Press

You can do the shoulder press sitting, standing, using a barbell, dumbbells, plate-loaded machines, kettlebells, on a box, with a fox, you name it. The options are endless.

Most experienced lifters try to work around a cranky shoulder or not aggravate an old injury. The best meat-and-potatoes shoulder press is the one you can repeat and progress with without waking up the next day with pain.

Using dumbbells, the shoulder press works the stabilizer muscles, which help improve control and balance. Free weights also allow more free movement in your shoulders and wrists than a straight barbell.

Best Lift for Biceps: Curl

Bicep curls seem simple, but for maximal benefits, create a stable platform by keeping your body still and locked into position. Focus on your biceps doing the work rather than just moving as much weight as you can up and down.

A full rep goes all the way to the top with a hard squeeze. Then, lower all the way down, extending your elbow as much as possible to maximize the biceps stretch.

Best Lift for Triceps: Cable Pushdown

Cable pushdowns are a great finisher or warm-up to isolate your triceps and build thicker upper arms. The key? Keep your upper arms at the exact same angle relative to your torso, then isolate elbow extension by only letting your forearms move.

If you’re training biceps and triceps in the same workout, start with your triceps. You’ll have better range of motion in your elbows and a more intense biceps contraction afterward.


T Nation earns from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate. Read more about our policy.


Have to take issue ( as would Dr. Darden ) on the wide grip lat pulldown to build wide lats. This shortens the possible range of the movement wich makes it inferior to curl grip pulldowns. Ask Dr. D if you have any doubt. :slight_smile:

1 Like

Different horses for different courses. There are merits to using both underhand, neutral and overhand grips during pulldowns (and pull-ups). Regarding a medium-wide overhand grip, if you were to ask anyone that’s built respectable size in their back to only pick one grip then an overhand grip would get more votes. Ask them if you have any doubt :wink:

Is it the “best”? Not necessarily. And it depends on the context. But in this article we’re sharing what exercises should be making most people’s “meat and potatoes” lists.

I second this, or at least concur that there is no clear leading lat exercise. I did wides for 20 years because thats what all the experts said. 2 years ago I switched to underhand grip after hearing Mike Mentzer talk about them (as well as claim its the best bicep exercise). My lats have grown more in the last 2 years than in the last 20.

I also believe Dips are superior to bench.

Which leads me to finally conclude that some body parts have ‘best basic’ exercise based on limb length.

Agreed! There’s no one single “best”. If there were then everyone’s training would look the exact same.

We use titles like that of this article to engage, draw-in, and create useful discussions like these :slight_smile:

Arthur Jones and Dr. Darden would be correct. These exercises are bicep exercises because the bicep fails long before the lats are exhausted. Hence, the Nautilus Pullover machine.

Gymnasts will also inform you that chinups/pullups/pulldowns are bicep exercises.

If you were giving advice to anyone less experienced about what exercises they should spend time getting good at, what would that list include?

Pullover machine for back width?

Nautilus Pullover Machine, Nautilus Behind Neck Torso machine and REST! Do not do intense exercise every couple of days.

1 Like

Thank you for the insight. Both great pieces of kit.