My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle
Several years back, T Nation contributor Chad Waterbury wrote a cool article about what he believed to be the best exercises for each major muscle group. I really liked the idea because I’m always interested in how different coaches think, so I thought I’d take a stab at it myself.
However, a small catch – I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ubiquitous “best” exercise, so instead I’ll simply share my favorites for each group.
Narrowing it down to one exercise though is like trying to pick the hottest girl out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are just so many good choices. In the end it boils down to basically my opinion, but I’ll also share the why behind my choices to give you a look into my rationale.
I’ve also shared a couple runner-ups in case you can’t do one due to injury, equipment limitations, etc.
When it comes to back development, I could’ve picked any heavy deadlift variation and felt good about my choice – but since I had to narrow it down to one, I chose the snatch grip rack pull from mid-shin height.
The wider grip puts significantly more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts, while pulling from the pins with the bar elevated a few inches off the floor allows for heavier loading.
I’m generally a huge proponent of full range of motion lifting and usually advocate increasing the range of motion before increasing the load; however, I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons:
To that end, a snatch grip deadlift from the floor is really more like a conventional deadlift from a deficit, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, most people just don’t have the requisite hip mobility to do it safely without rounding their lower back something awful.
If you can, more power to you, but if I’m making a general recommendation for the majority, then elevating the bar a couple inches is a much better and safer option.
Deadlift variations aside, my runner-ups for back are chin-ups and inverted rows.
The overwhelming majority of my chest work comes from heavy pressing and push-ups, but if I had to single out the best exercise for chest development, it’d be ring flyes.
I thought long and hard about a good rationale. Sure, I could talk about how the scapulae is free to move, compared to where it’s pinned down during bench press variations, or the fact that it doubles as a hell of a core exercise, but we’re talking more about chest development here.
To that, I’d just ask that you try them for yourself – because I think after just one shot you’ll realize exactly where I’m coming from. These will fry your pecs like no other.
It’s a very advanced exercise though, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation or you’ll end up hurting and/or embarrassing yourself. Before you even attempt ring flyes, you should be able to do at least 25 ring push-ups first.
From there, begin with bent-arm flyes with your arms bent to approximately 90 degrees. That may seem easy, but it’s actually a big jump, so you may want to start on your knees. Don’t laugh; I’m dead serious.
Once you can manage those, progress to full flyes, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect the shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
The video below shows all three variations in reverse order: full flyes, bent-arm flyes, and push-ups. Each of these exercises is great in its own right, so take your time and don’t rush the progression. Once you can knock out full flyes though, this makes for one hell of a mechanical drop-set.
If you don’t have access to rings, you can do something similar using Valslides or furniture sliders. These may be even harder due to the increased friction.
My runner-ups for chest are low incline dumbbell presses (both single and double arm) and weighted push-ups.
Let me preface this one by saying that I don’t do a whole lot of curls, and I have the results – or lack thereof – to show for it. Let’s just say that if I started selling tickets to the gun show, my water pistols would draw a smaller crowd than a WNBA game.
It’s not that I’m anti-curls by any means, it’s just that I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with chin-ups and find that when I try to add curls into the mix on top of all the chin-ups I do, my elbows quickly start to hate me.
That brings up an interesting point, though. Many people will tout chin-ups as the best biceps exercise going and tell you curls are a waste of time. To that I’d respectfully disagree. About two and a half years ago I ditched curls altogether and went on a steady diet consisting of approximately a shitload of chin-ups each week.
My lats grew a ton, as did my forearms, but my biceps stayed about the same size.
I’d even argue that if you’re feeling chin-ups a ton in your biceps, you probably aren’t doing them right. My goal is to feel them almost entirely in my upper back and lats – of course the biceps will be working, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a superior biceps exercise when done correctly.
Moral of the story: if you want big biceps, do curls. The majority of your workout should obviously be based around heavy compound movements (such as chin-ups, for example), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tacking on a few sets of curls afterwards.
What type of curls you choose is up to you. In my mind, they’re all basically the same. I like barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, and hammer curls.
As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of doing tons of direct arm work. It’s not that I’m opposed to it or think it’s detrimental by any means, I just don’t enjoy doing it very much so I look for any excuse I can to skip it. Just being honest.
With that in mind, I generally let all the heavy pressing I’m doing for chest and shoulders take care of the triceps as well, but if I’m looking to really smoke the triceps, my number one go-to exercise is bodyweight triceps extensions using suspension straps.
I like this exercise because it also serves as a great anti-extension core exercise, and since I’m also not a big fan of doing tons of core work either, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If you don’t have suspension straps, it’s not the end of the world and you can get a similar training effect using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine. However, the straps add a nice dimension to the exercise if you’ve got them.
When using a bar, the range of motion is limited because you’re forced to bring your forehead to the bar, much like traditional skullcrushers. With the straps though, you can extend your arms out further away from your body, which increases the demand on the core while also enhancing the stretch on the long head of the triceps and taking stress off the elbows.
It also allows you to rotate your hands as you move through the rep, which I find feels better on the elbows and increases the contraction in the triceps.
Be sure to keep your body straight and avoid piking at the hips. While this is ostensibly a triceps exercise, from a core standpoint, it should feel similar to an ab wheel rollout.
This one also lends itself very well to burnout sets at the end of the workout. Start with the straps adjusted lower and step forward as you start to fatigue. You’ll probably be cursing my name after that.
My runner-ups for triceps are close-grip bench presses and chain bench presses.
I love the overhead press and think it’s the best exercise going for building big shoulders, but it can be tricky for folks with shoulder and/or lower back issues.
If the overhead press doesn’t bother you, definitely do that.
If it does, the staggered stance landmine press can be a great joint-friendly alternative since it allows you to press on an angle and use a neutral grip.
I also really like this band pullapart variation that I picked up from Joe Defranco. It’s much harder than it looks, so don’t knock it until you try it.
This one was a toss-up between Bulgarian split squats and front squats, but in the end, Bulgarian split squats get the nod.
I know this won’t sit well with some of you – and I myself would’ve considered it blasphemy a few years ago before I really tried them – but the more I do them and use them with my athletes, the more I’m convinced that it’s a better way to load the legs for most people.
We’re consistently seeing athletes do Bulgarian split squats with 70-90% of the loads they can front squat, and sometimes more. Here’s a video of a college hockey player doing Bulgarian split squats with 235 pounds for 5 reps like it’s an empty bar.
As a point of reference, he back squats 300 for 5. I think it’s clear the legs are getting more loading in the Bulgarian split squat.
Furthermore, with the front squat, the limiting factor is usually the upper back, whereas with Bulgarian split squats you’re able to hone in more directly on the legs. What’s more, since you aren’t loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, meaning you can do them more frequently, which could potentially lead to greater gains.
The big caveat is that you have to take the time up front to get good at Bulgarian split squats before they’re a viable size and strength builder, but that’s true of any exercise. Truth be told, most people get good at Bulgarian split squats much faster than they become good squatters.
If you have a good build for squatting and can squat well, it’s an absolutely phenomenal quad exercise, but if you aren’t built for it, well, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. It’s easier to target the quads in a Bulgarian split squat regardless of your anthropometry, making it a good choice when I have to choose one exercise to fit everyone.
I’m often asked if I think you could build absolutely massive quads using Bulgarian split squats; the kind of size you see from elite bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. I’m honestly not sure because I’ve never known anyone to do it, so at this point it’s mere conjecture.
My hunch though is that huge guys may not do as well with it – at least initially – because they tend to struggle more with balance and coordination, so the transition may take longer and it may not end up being the best choice. Again, I’m not sure though because I don’t know many huge guys that use them.
As for Olympic lifters, I think their massive legs are more a result of their loading parameters than their exercise selection. If they did Bulgarian split squats extremely heavy on a daily basis like they do their squats, I bet their legs would be just as big, if not bigger.
For the average-sized guy reading this article though, I think Bulgarian split squats are an awesome choice for building up the quads. Even if you think I’m completely off base, at least give them an honest try before calling for my head. I think you might be singing a different tune once you do.
My runner-ups are front squats and reverse sled drags.
While quads were my toughest choice, hamstrings may be my easiest. It’s hard to argue against RDLs.
The biggest drawback of RDLs is that they can be tough on the lower back. If that’s the case, try doing them with a trap bar, or if that’s not possible, from a dead stop in the power rack.
You can also try doing them for higher reps at the end of your workout so you don’t need as much weight, which even with lighter loads serves as one hell of a brutal finishing exercise.
I make no bones about it; glutes are my favorite body part. As such, I feel they warrant their own section.
You may feel the glutes get more than enough work from your quad and hamstring exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that if you aren’t doing specific glute exercises like bridges and hip thrusts, you’re leaving a lot on the table as far as glute development is concerned.
My personal favorite is single-leg barbell hip thrusts.
I like the single-leg version because even though the loads pale in comparison to what you can handle in the bilateral version, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them, all without feeling any stress in the lower back.
Moreover, because the loads are lighter, it’s more comfortable on the hips and you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading such a heavy bar.
The bodyweight-only version is a great exercise in its own right, so start there and add weight slowly as you improve.
My runner-up is the single-leg shoulder and foot elevated hip lift. It can be tricky to add weight to these, so if you’re looking for a way to make them tougher, try using “1.5” reps, like this:
If these two exercises don’t have your booty begging for mercy, I don’t know what to tell you.
I’ve never been able to crack the code to get my calves to grow much. I’ve tried a slew of different exercises and techniques, but to no avail.
I think the next thing I’ll try is getting some new parents.
(Don’t worry mom, I’m totally kidding.)
Seriously though, don’t go to a guy with puny calves for advice on how to get huge calves.
That rules me out.
And I’m Done
These are some of my favorites. Give some of them a try if you aren’t already and see how you like them.
I believe in rotating exercises from time to time though, so I’m always on the market for new choices to keep in the ol’ toolbox. So I now turn it over to you. What are some of your favorites?