Many factors go into putting together an effective weight lifting workout, and one of those factors is selecting the best exercises. This of course explains why I get at least a couple of emails per day asking me what the best exercises are for your chest, back, shoulders, legs (quads and hamstrings), arms (biceps and triceps) and every other muscle group you can possibly think of.
The thing is, I always have 2 answers to these types of questions. The first revolves around the exercises that are the best in general, while my second answer has a lot more to do with what’s best for YOU. There’s a very big difference there and it should most definitely be paid attention to.
Before I explain what I mean by that, let me first give you my more general answer. Here now is a list of the best exercises for your chest, back, shoulders, legs, and arms…
The Best Chest Exercises
- Barbell Bench Press (flat, incline or decline)
- Dumbbell Bench Press (flat, incline or decline)
- Dips (with slight forward lean)
- Chest Press Machine (flat, incline or decline)
- Dumbbell Flyes, Pec Deck Machines, Cable Crossovers
- More about them here: Chest Exercises
The Best Back Exercises
- Pullups & Chinups
- Lat Pull Downs
- Bent Over Barbell & Dumbbell Rows
- Seated Cable Rows
- T-Bar Rows
- Chest Supported Machine Rows
- More about them here: Back Exercises
The Best Leg Exercises (Quads)
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Leg Press
- Split Squat
- Step Ups
- Leg Extensions
- More about them here: Leg Exercises
The Best Leg Exercises (Hamstrings)
- Romanian Deadlift
- Stiff Legged Deadlift
- Glute-Ham Raises
- Pull Thrus
- Leg Curls
- Good Mornings
- More about them here: Leg Exercises
The Best Shoulder Exercises
- Overhead Barbell Press (seated or standing)
- Overhead Dumbbell Press (seated or standing)
- Arnold Press
- Overhead Press Machine
- Lateral Raises
- Front Raises
- More about them here: Shoulder Exercises
The Best Arm Exercises (Biceps)
- Barbell Curls
- Dumbbell Curls (seated or standing)
- Preacher Curls (barbell or dumbbell)
- Incline Dumbbell Curls
- Hammer Curls
- Cable Curls
- More about them here: Bicep Exercises
The Best Arm Exercises (Triceps)
- Close Grip Bench Press (flat or decline)
- Laying Triceps Extension/Skull Crushers (flat/decline, barbell/dumbbell)
- Overhead Triceps Extension (barbell or dumbbell)
- Cable Press Downs
- More about them here: Tricep Exercises
So there’s my very simple first answer, a big general list of the best exercises for each muscle group. Pick your favorites, put them together intelligently using a proper workout plan that allows for sufficient workout frequency and volume, and do it consistently.
Unfortunately, Weight Lifting Exercises Are Not That Simple
Now for my second answer, which is geared less towards what’s better in general and more towards what’s better for YOU specifically.
First of all, the exercises you pick need to match your goal. If your goal is being a competitive powerlifter or increasing performance at a certain sport, your potential list of exercise choices would be different than someone who is only working out to build muscle, lose fat, and just look really good overall.
That should be obvious, and for the sake of keeping this article to a sane length, the rest of this is geared towards that second group of people… the ones whose goal is just looking good.
Now, if you posted a question on a typical weight lifting forum asking what the best exercises are for each muscle group, you’d get a list like this the majority of the time:
- Chest: barbell bench press
- Back: pullups or bent over barbell rows
- Legs: squats or deadlifts
- Shoulders: standing overhead press
- Arms: dips or barbell curls
Now that’s definitely a fantastic list, and those are all exercises that were on my own list above. People have used them all for years with tremendous success. But… are they REALLY the best exercises for YOU? To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story about me.
Squats are great, they really are. Most people would agree that squats are the king of leg movements. Tons and tons of people have built some awesome quads thanks to nothing but squats. Here’s the thing though. When I do the traditional back squat, it tends to serve as much more of a hamstring and glute exercise for me than it does a quad exercise.
Why? It could just be the mechanics of my body. It could also be that my hamstrings/glutes are stronger than my quads and tend to take over during the movement. It could be other things, too.
Whatever it is, the back squat for me never really worked as one of the supposed best exercises for my quads, and my legs always sucked because of it. You know what, though? At some point I started squatting a lot less, and started doing single leg work (like split squats and lunges) and leg presses a lot more. And, wouldn’t ya know, my legs finally began to suck a whole lot less. For me, THESE were my best leg exercises. Not squats.
Want more examples? Ok, parallel bar dips are always at the top of the list of the best triceps exercises. But, for many people (myself included), dips cause shoulder pain. Are dips still the BEST for these people? No. Maybe skull crushers and press-downs are. For some people, the flat barbell bench press hits their triceps and shoulders much more than it hits their chest, but dumbbell presses, machine presses, and flyes hit their chest just fine. Some people never feel certain rows in their back at all, but other rows hit their back perfectly.
This list could go on and on. My point here is that while it’s very easy to make a list of the best exercises because they tend to be the best in general or in most cases, it doesn’t mean they are the best exercises for you and your body.
Instead, the real best exercises for a person only interested in building muscle and looking good are exercises that A) you can do safely, B) allow you to properly use the intended muscle group(s), and C) you can progress at consistently.
Look at that big list above and pick the exercises that will best allow these 3 things to happen. For you, those are the best.
***NEW*** Still have questions about your workout routine? Confused about your diet? Need help putting it all together? Well, after nearly 10 years of requests, I’ve finally created the ultimate solution.
I call it The Ultimate Fat Loss & Muscle Building Guide, and in it I provide all of the answers, details and facts that make up the highly proven workout and diet system I’ve used to help countless men and women completely transform their bodies. Now it’s your turn. Learn more here.