This is an invaluable post for absolutely anyone seeking to gain muscle and strength.
I’m going to detail the BEST exercises for each body part.
This is based on 2 things: Scientific findings and my own years of lifting experience.
The scientific results come from electromyography tests. This involves placing electrodes on the skin of a trainee while he or she performs a lift. The percentage of muscle fibers recruited and working can then be seen.
PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT to say that these are the ONLY exercises you should do. All these movements must be complemented with others for full muscular development.
If you want the best FULL training system for total muscular development – Targeted Hypertrophy Training, download it free below…
TOP 12 EXERCISES TO BUILD MUSCLE
(1) LEGS OVERALL No doubt. No question. Squats are the king. Some taller people actually do better with a leg press. It’s pretty much the same mechanics. I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts this. But now let’s look at specific leg muscles…
WINNER – SQUATS
(2) QUADS – Leg extensions are the best quad exercises. The reason is that the quadriceps are forced to do all the work in this isolated movement. Furthermore, one of the quadricep muscles, the vastus medialis, will not even come into play until the legs are almost in their fully extended position and there is resistance forcing them to contract intensely. The leg extension gets this job done perfectly.
WINNER – LEG EXTENSIONS
(3) HAMS – Only an isolation exercise can place maximum resistance on the hamstrings in their fully contracted position or peak contraction point (PCP) as I call it. Standing leg curls surprisingly tops the list here in a study conducted by Tudor O. Bompa, PhD and Lorenzo J. Cornacchia. Lying leg curls came second.
WINNER – STANDING LEG CURLS
(4) CALVES – Calf raises are where its at for the calves. But standing or seated? Having the legs straight allows for more muscle fiber recruitment, so a standing calf raise will maximize muscle fiber recruitment. One study actually showed the Donkey Calf Raise beating regular standing raises by 1%. But this difference is not significant and I doubt it would be repeated if more studies were carried out.
WINNER – STANDING CALF RAISES
(5) SHOULDERS – Full shoulder development comes from a few different exercises (all covered in THT). However, if you had to pick one movement to hit the deltoids overall, it has to be Overhead Presses. Alex Hormozi of the Transformation Center Huntington Beach did a great job in explaining this and other EMG results here.
Interestingly, for the side delts, an Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise shows slightly higher fiber activation than performing this movement in a standing position. So try your dumbbell lateral raises while seated on an inclined bench.
WINNER – OVERHEAD SHOULDER PRESS
(6) BICEPS – I’m tempted to say cable preacher curls here, but I’ll go with the latest available science  and say concentration curls. It came top in a July 2014 study of 8 bicep exercises.
WINNER – CONCENTRATION CURLS
(7) CHEST OVERALL – There are some great exercises for full muscle fiber recruitment, included the pec deck, but for sheer load coupled with fiber activation, it’s going to be some pressing movement for the chest. Now there is some controversy over whether a barbell or dumbbell is best. The Bompa, Cornacchia study showed a small 4% difference in favor of dumbbells. And the decline position recruited most fibers.
- Decline dumbbell bench press — 93%
- Decline barbell bench press——- 89%
- Push-ups between benches ——- 88% (disadvantage is not enough weight can be employed)
- Flat dumbbell bench press ——– 87%
- Flat barbell bench press ———– 85%
- Flat dumbbell flies —————– 84%
WINNER – DECLINE DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
(8) TRICEPS – Decline Tricep Extensions tops the list with pushdowns (with a v-bar) coming a very close second. No surprise really here. I’d personally say they’re equally effective.
WINNER – DECLINE TRICEP EXTENSIONS
(9) TRAPS – The Barbell Shrug. Nothing fancy here. A basic shrug has you fully covered as far as trap development is concerned. Strength coach Bret Contreras did a great piece on this here.
WINNER – BARBELL SHRUG
(10) ABS – Although the bicycle crunch maneuver came first in the Bompa, Cornacchia study in terms of activation (since they work the whole abs from top to bottom) the big problem comes in adding weight, which us hypertrophy-focused trainers need. And we need an easy way to progressively overload the abs over time to ensure progress.
Coming second was the Hanging Leg Raise, which also has the huge advantage of being able to easily add weight more weight over time. Therefore we increase the overload on those recruited fibers to stimulate growth. So for us Muscle Hackers, the most effective abs exercise seems to be…
WINNER – HANGING LEG RAISES. Here’s a video of me performing this movement…
Note that you can’t simply exercise your way to a ripped six-pack. You must also reduce your total body fat percentage below 10% – see Total Six Pack Abs.
(11) BACK OVERALL – Deadlift. Goes without saying. There is no competition and not even a suitable replacement exercise to rival the deadlift.
WINNER – DEADLIFT
(12) LATS – The good old bent over barbell row wins this one as far as current EMG data goes. However, I couldn’t find any data on the pullover machine. I am confident that if tested with EMG, it would show even better activation due to the fact that it totally isolates the lats along the path of its function and places full resistance at the bottom of the rep where there is maximal contraction. The function of the lats is to pull the arms down towards the body. Either way, THT has you fully covered here. Both exercises are great.
WINNER – BENT OVER BARBELL ROW
So there you have it! Get your butt in the gym and start training!
And get excited about your best gains ever!
If you want to share, or have any questions, I’ll be happy to help you below in the comments section.
Train With Intensity!
 ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises. Young S, Porcari JP, Camic C, Kovacs A, Foster C et al. Acefitness.org. July 2014.
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Again, great work Mark. Started THT in July and have had the best gains of my life! Going to add the concentration curls and hanging leg raises to my next cycle.
My physiotherapist absolutely hates deadlifts. She says it’s too hard on your back, and that there are other exercises that can stimulate the same muscle groups. What do you think?
@Scott. There aren’t any. If she wants to make that point, have her tell you what the exercises are.
Scott, maybe it’s because she’s a w-o-m-a-n. I don’t say that in a derogatory sense, but physiologically and skeletally woman are substantially different from men and she may hate exercises that would work for you. Center of gravity, reach, strength, pelvis….if you don’t believe that, try the old trick of standing with the small of your back and your heels against a wall, then try to pick up a coin off the floor.
YOU won’t be able to do it, but she WILL.
I have a parabody exercise machine, can u tell me wants the best exercise I can do on this machine to gain muscles fast
@Mike. I think you can do pretty much all the exercises listed here with your equipment, with the exception of deadlifts and bent over barbell rows. All you need is a barbell for those movements.
dead lifts are the boss, but only if done correctly after a decent warm up,
incorrect and your back could be ruined for life
Can u tell me the exercises I need to do on my machine to get bigger fast
Step by step please