Choosing the single best exercise for every body part is like trying to pick the best ice cream flavor, sport, or world's most beautiful woman -- opinions vary, and arguably, there's more than one "right" answer.
So any time someone attempts to name the absolute 10 best exercises, as we're admittedly doing right here, take it in the spirit in which it was intended — to outline some great moves, ones which are unquestionable difference makers in the quest for more muscle mass.
With that said, we confidently make our picks, based on exercise physiology and years of in-the-trenches experience, and also offer advice to help you best use each particular exercise in a workout. Some of our choices you may agree with, some you may not, but we guarantee every single one is an excellent muscle-building move that should occupy a place in your training playbook.
Sure, the flat bench press would be the purist's choice, but it's not the perfect one. The bar limits your range of motion, while the angle (or lack thereof) focuses on the meaty middle of the pectoral muscles. It's sometimes argued that the popularity of the bench press has led to a prevalence of guys with well-developed middle pecs and flat upper pecs, but really, the problem is more likely due to the fact the upper region is just harder to develop.
The incline dumbbell press doesn't allow you to move as much poundage as the barbell version, but dumbbells do allow you to get a better stretch at the bottom while not letting a stronger side of your body overcompensate for a weaker one. Thus, while it's a close horse race, dumbbells get the nod.
In this sample workout, presses come first, followed by flyes. The three main angles are covered '" incline, decline and flat -- with upper chest getting hit right off the bat because it's usually lagging in size, as mentioned above, meaning you want to work that area when you're at your strongest and can push the most weight.
Perfect 10 Chest Workout
|Incline Dumbbell Press||1-2||15-20 (warm-up)|
|Barbell Bench Press||4
|12, 10, 8, 6
12, 10, 8, 6
|Decline Dumbbell Press or Smith-Machine Press||3||10, 10, 8|
|Incline Dumbbell Flye||3||10|
2) Back: Bent-Over Barbell Row
This choice could have easily gone to the ultimate exercise, the deadlift. The issue is, the dead is hard to categorize, because it works the legs, back and other ancillary muscles exceptionally well. As you'll see, we include it in our sample workout, but we crown the barbell row as b st move for specifically targeting the back. In pure terms, the row blasts the back exceptionally well -- with the barbell version, you can pull a lot of weight once you learn the move and practice it regularly, meaning every muscle from the inner back outward, including the rhomboids, teres major and minor, and latissimus dorsi, receive plenty of stimulation.
For a balanced workout, you'll want to include both rows and pull-up and/or pulldown exercises -- we've also included the barbell shrug, as the traps, while a separate muscle group, do make up a significant portion of your overall back development.
Perfect 10 Back Workout
|Pull-up||3||10, 10, 10|
|Bent-Over Barbell Row||5||12, 10, 8, 8, 6|
|Pulldown To Front||3||12, 10, 10|
|One-Arm Dumbbell Row||3||12, 10, 8|
|Barbell Shrug||4||15, 12, 12, 10|
|Deadlift||4||12, 10, 8, 6|
Once again, the best exercise comes down to a compound movement (i.e., an exercise that calls multiple muscle groups into play, as opposed to isolating one particular muscle or part of a muscle). With the seated press, you recruit the anterior (front), middle and posterior (rear) delts to hoist a heavy weight overhead. The dumbbell and machine variations are valuable too, but dumbbells are awkward to get into place without the help of a spotter, while machines lock you into a set range of motion that may or may not be appropriate for your particular biomechanics.
Any good shoulder workout will include a press, and also isolation exercises to target each of the three deltoid heads. The following routine does just that, emphasizing the rear delts, as they are most often underdeveloped of the three heads among aspiring bodybuilders.
Perfect 10 Shoulder Workout
|Barbell Upright Row||2||20, 15 (warm up)|
|Barbell Military Press||5||
12, 10, 10, 8, 6
|Bent-Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise||2||10-12|
|Reverse Pec-Deck Flye||2||10|
|Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise||3||10|
|Alternating Dumbbell Front Raise||3||10|
This shouldn't be a surprise. One of the most ubiquitous exercises in gyms worldwide (and one of the simplest), barbell curls allow for the use of plenty of weight, and work the biceps through their full and natural range of motion. After all, if you want to work biceps, you curl -- no fancy methods exist to circumvent this fact.
There's also a lot to be said for other moves, like the incline dumbbell curl, which puts your bi's under a pre-stretch at the bottom, making the contraction that much stronger, and the alternating dumbbell curl, as the twist of the wrist as you lift engages multiple sections of the biceps. We work all three into our suggested routine.
Perfect 10 Biceps Workout
|Standing Barbell Curl||1-2
12, 10, 8, 8
|EZ-Bar Preacher Curl||3||12, 10, 8|
|Alternating Dumbbell Curl||3||10|
|Incline Dumbbell Curl||2-3||10|
Plenty of good triceps exercises exist -- close-grip benches, skullcrushers and cable pushdowns to name a few '" but for basic mass building, the dip is hard to surpass. Once you master the movement using only your bodyweight as resistance, you can use straps to attach additional weight, meaning you can never outgrow the dip: No matter what level of experience and strength you ultimately reach, it can and should be a valued part of your triceps training.
The following routine incorporates the dip, along with the other three moves mentioned above; together, they equal a thorough tri routine that leaves no part of your horseshoes untapped.
Perfect 10 Triceps Workout
|Cable Pushdown||2||20, 15 (warm-up)|
|Close-Grip Bench Press||4||12, 12, 10, 8|
|Dip||4||15, 15, to failure, to failure|
6) Forearms: Barbell Wrist Curl
Ideally, to thoroughly work your forearms you should employ wrist curls, reverse wrist curls, and some type of hammer-style curl. But to hit the meaty side of your upper arm -- where you can squeeze the most growth out of your efforts '" nothing beats the barbell wrist curl.
Don't fall into the easy trap of only tacking a forearm movement lackadaisically to the end of your biceps workout '" for optimal size and development, they need some concentrated focus of their own. The following routine can be added to the end of any other workout in your arsenal without a huge time commitment, but will yield results.
Perfect 10 Forearms Workout
|Barbell Wrist Curl||3||10-15|
|Barbell Reverse Wrist Curl||3||10-15|
|One-Arm Hammer Cable Curl||2||10-15|
7) Abdominals: Double Crunch
The most obvious exercise for abdominals is the crunch, today's more direct version of the old-fashioned sit-up. But the crunch, while it does work both the upper and lower abs (as almost all abdominal exercises do to some degree), focuses on the upper portion. Meanwhile, exercises that involve bringing your legs toward your body, such as the reverse crunch, are exceptional choices for the lower abs.
The double crunch combines the best of both worlds -- simultaneously bringing your upper body and lower body together in a crunching movement is an efficient way to blast the entire length of your six pack. Below, we use it as an anchor of a complete routine.
Perfect 10 Ab Workout
|Hanging Leg Raise||2||15-20|
|Decline-Bench Twisting Crunch||2||20|
|Plank||2||30 second hold|
8) Quadriceps: Barbell Squat
Of all the exercises we had to choose for this article, this one was the easiest. The squat is unquestionably the best leg exercise ever devised. Huge, tree-trunk thighs can be had no other way than paying your dues in the squat rack. Difficult, often uncomfortable, and when done to parallel with a near-maximum weight draped across your upper back, they're the hardest challenge you may ever face in a weight room. But they're essential, so if you've been avoiding them for the relative sanctuary of the leg press or selectorized machines, it's time to step up and take your punishment. The rewards will be worth it.
Perfect 10 Quad Workout
|Leg Extension||2||15-20 (warm-up)|
|Barbell Squat||5||15, 12, 10, 8, 6|
|Leg Press or Hack Squat||4||12, 12, 10, 10|
9) Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlift
If lying, seated or one-leg curls are the hamstring options you rely on exclusively, you're missing out on some massive gains. All those aforementioned moves work the hams at the knee joint -- to work the muscle from the hip too, you need the Romanian deadlift.
By combining the Romanian dead with a curl in a routine, as we do below, you create a complete workout, one that will develop your hamstrings from top to bottom. On the Romanian, be sure you keep the barbell as close to your body as you can on the ascent and descent, and tighten your lower back and abdominals for stability and protection of the spine.
Perfect 10 Hamstrings Workout
|Seated Leg Curl||2||15-20 (warm-up)|
|Romanian Deadlift||4||15, 12, 12, 10|
|Lying Leg Curl or One-Leg Curl||4||10-12|
10) Calves: Standing Calf Raise
For complete calves, you need to incorporate both a standing and seated calf raise into your workouts. But as far as a ranking of the best overall calf exercise, the standing version wins in a landslide. That's because it engages the largest muscle on the back of your legs, the gastrocnemius. The seated raise works the soleus, which is smaller but still important if you want the best set of calves you can possibly build.
Perfect 10 Calf Workout
|Standing Calf Raise||5||20, 15, 15, 15, 10-15|
|Seated Calf Raise||3-4||15-20|
There you have it: The No. 1 best exercise for every body part, and sample workouts of how you can work each into a complete routine. Now it's up to you -- you can either integrate each of them into your own existing regimen, or combine the workouts suggested above into a full program. The following split is a basic way to train each body part once per week:
Monday: Back, Biceps & Forearms
Tuesday: Chest & Triceps
Thursday: Quadriceps, Hamstrings & Calves
Friday: Shoulders & Abs
Sunday: Off (or, if you prefer, start again with Monday's workout)