The Best Muscle Building Exercises

"There is a lovable quality about the actual tools. One feels so kindly to the thing that enables the hand to obey the brain. Moreover, one feels a good deal of respect for it; without it the brain and the hand would be helpless."

-Gertrude Jekyll

To succeed in anything in life, you need the right tools.

And having your best physique possible is no different. You'll need the best exercises to accomplish this.

Some, however, are too damn dangerous for me to recommend. Clean and Press, for example, uses so many different directions of motion and muscles that it could easily wreak havoc on your joints. Heck, even normal Cleans can be deadly.

Explosive bar movements like that have a place in athletes' programs, but if you're just trying to gain muscle, there are safer and more effective movements.

Other exercises, however, are a waste of time. Instead of doing a leg workout of Leg Extensions, Leg Curls, and 3 other machines, simply performing Squats and bodyweight movements will earn you more bang for your buck in much less time.

Without further ado, here we go!

1) Deadlift

The King of all exercises.

This beast of a movement literally uses EVERY muscle group. In terms of what muscles it hits best, it's fantastic for building some of your leg muscles (hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors) since your legs are doing the pulling. Other muscles (abs & lower back) remain erect to stabilize your body as you pull. 

Although your major back muscles (lats & traps) don't actually pull, their eccentric tension during the Deadlift hits them pretty well.

Now, there are a few options for making it safer

  • Pick your most comfortable stance (sumo or conventional)
  • Use straps instead of a mixed grip
  • Use a belt

In a powerlifting meet, straps would be disallowed and belts would be encouraged. I'm not here to train you guys to be powerlifters, however. My goal is to help you develop a strong, healthy body to last your lifetime.

Regarding the belt, I've used it before and it never seemed to help much. Some people view it with a false sense of security and end up bending their lower back even with it on. Focus on keeping your abs tight above all else.

2) Barbell Back Squat

The most basic and effective leg exercise there is. Whether performed parallel or A.T.G. (ass-to-grass), the Squat will hit ALL of your leg muscles.

Complimented with Deadlifts in your routine, you won't have to do much else to build some big wheels. 

Some people like to use variations like Front Squats or even Overhead Squats; personally, I feel the risk outweighs the reward for those movements. To each his own though.

If you're Squatting High-Bar, I wouldn't worry too much about a belt; Low-Bar Squats, which are much harder on the lower back and core, would probably require it. Just like Deadlifts, however, belts cannot replace bad form.

3) Standing Barbell Overhead Press

Overhead Press... instead of Bench Press?!?! What?!

My reasoning is this; many of you probably toss this exercise aside since it doesn't build up your chest the way bench does. Others might avoid it to avoid stress on the shoulders.

The truth is, a properly performed Standing Overhead Press is ESSENTIAL to any muscle-building program. It builds your traps, triceps and delts in a way no other exercise could. Furthermore, it even stimulates your upper chest to an extent. The stabilizing muscles (abs, glutes, lower back) get quite a bit of activation from it too.

If you have long arms though, I would stop the bar at chin level rather than your chest. Many people's shoulders just can't take the stress of tapping your chest on each repetition.

4) Flat Barbell Bench Press

Yeah, this one is still one of the best. It hits your chest, delts and triceps very well.

Though people tend to focus on it too much and it has little application in real-life scenarios (when would you need to lie down flat and push something straight up with your chest?), the bench press is pretty freaking good.

If you have long arms, however, I would recommend stopping at 90 degrees with your elbows rather than touching your chest on each repetition; going all the way just isn't feasible for some people.

5) Single-Leg Squats

Frankly, most of the leg machines at the gym suck. You'd be far better using variations of bodyweight leg movements. When Lunges and Single-Leg-Romanian-Deadlifts just don't do the trick anymore, hold dumbbells in each hand to increase the load.

Lately, I enjoy performing ATG (ass-to-grass) Single Leg Squats. Not only is this less stressful on your spine since it's only one leg, but it REALLY hits your hip flexors well. Single-Leg Squats to parallel and ATG Barbell Back Squats both involve the hip flexors; combining the two into this movement really hammers them.

If you're going to perform these, I would use one of the platforms or boxes at your gym. Pistol Squats are just too stressful on the spine for most people to perform correctly.

6) Chin-Ups

As an avid fan of Rocky, I simply have to incorporate these in my routine. I like to lower myself just shy of joint lockout and pull my chest almost up to the bar. This increased range of motion REALLY hits the back and biceps; honestly, it hits my back overall more effectively than Deadlifts.

7) Chest Dips

Referred to as "the squat of the upper body" by some, dips are awesome.  These target your chest, triceps and shoulders; in some ways, it's an even better exercise than Bench Press (as long as you do it at a dip station; the variation where you have your feet out straight on a chair isn't very useful).

Unfortunately, dips can really wreck your shoulders. I would stop at 90 degrees when performing these (for people with preexisting shoulder injuries, that might even be too low).

8) Pushups

These are fantastic, provided you do them correctly. Since many of you are far past the point where these provide resistance, try placing a 45 lb plate on your back and see how it goes.

If that still isn't enough resistance, give Dumbbell Pushups or Decline Pushups a go. By keeping your shoulders retracted on these movements, you will stimulate your chest as effectively as you could on Flat or Incline Bench Press.

9) Barbell Rows

Rows are another greater back builder. Focusing on the mid traps, these will also hit your lats and biceps pretty well.

Truthfully, intermediate and advanced lifters should be limiting the amount of stress they induce on their Lower Back during the week (rowing, deadlift, AND squatting on different days could lead to overtraining pretty quickly). Dumbbell and inverted variations are safer AND just as effective.

10) Dumbbell Farmer Holds

Not Farmer Walks?

Yeah, that's right. Most gyms don't have the space for walking laps with heavy, freaking dumbbells.

That's no issue though! Simply grab some dumbbells from the rack and stand near it for 30+ seconds; your traps and forearms will get a nice burn.

Be careful about putting them back on the rack, however; the dumbbells for this movement tend to be pretty heavy.

Wrap Up

There you go! 10 awesome muscle building exercises.

Implement these into your routine and you'll find yourself safely getting bigger and stronger.