One of the most common questions we get asked is, “What exercise is best to grow my small chest (or arms, shoulders, abs, etc)?” It’s a surprisingly large question, since there are so many things to consider. There are a ton of studies looking into the best exercises for activating certain muscle groups, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So we’ve put together a guide showing you the best exercises for each muscle group. These exercises represent your best chance of safely building muscle as rapidly as possible for your experience level. We’ve selected these exercises based on a few factors: muscle activation, efficiency, learning curve, risk:reward ratio, etc.
Before we get to the infographic, we’ll break down how we went about selecting these exercises by explaining a few of the things we considered:
Experience level is a really important factor. Let’s say you’re trying to build up the beastliest shoulders possible. Just like an advanced lifter, you’d want to optimize the “three M’s of muscle” (mechanical tension, metabolic stress, muscle damage) in all of the muscle fibres in your shoulders (study). This makes a case for building a workout program around heavy compound lifts done through a large range of motion. The best study to date found that the dumbbell overhead press better stimulates your shoulder muscles than barbell overhead presses, military presses, seated dumbbell presses, etc (study). Bret Contreras even found that overhead pressing also better activated core and oblique muscles than squats and deadlifts. So it would make sense that this would be the best lift for you to choose, right?
To reap the rewards of that advanced lift you need solid shoulder strength, stability and mobility. If you’re a lanky limbed and lanky torsoed beginner with iffy posture and shoulder mobility, you should use an easier, lighter and safer exercise to stimulate growth in your shoulders. Something like a lateral raise. Otherwise you’ll risk injuring your shoulders and lower back without even properly stimulating the muscles you’re trying to grow.
Equipment. As a beginner you don’t need much equipment to build muscle. If you have access to a fancy equipment, great, but as a skinny dude you can build 30+ pounds of muscle with just a couple dumbbells and a bench. Dumbbell exercises are often the best exercises for building muscle. A simple setup will allow you to build muscle optimally well. This makes it easy to train in a wide variety of gyms, and also easy to train at home. (Here’s our guide for building a simple home gym.)
As you become more advanced your training options expand, it becomes harder and harder to build muscle, and due to your ever-growing strength you need to lift heavier and heavier weights. As an advanced lifter it helps to have a barbell, weight plates, a power cage, etc.
Compound vs Isolation lifts. Compound lifts are shown in regular text. We’ve also included exercises that specifically target that particular muscle group (typed in bold italics) for muscles that you really really want to grow quickly (perhaps your biceps) and muscle groups that don’t activate easily (perhaps your chest).
For example, if you’re torso dominant like me, the bench press will be the best exercise to build up your chest because it will allow you to press a ton of weight with your chest. I grew my chest pretty much exclusively with dumbbell and barbell bench presses. If you’re limb dominant though, like Jared, a bench press will mostly grow your shoulders and triceps, making it a poor lift to plumpen up your lagging pecs. He’s grown his chest by adding in a ton of pullovers and flys.
Assuming you want to grow every muscle quickly, I’d recommend doing a mix of both compound and isolation lifts for your entire body. This has been shown to build more evenly developed muscle mass, more muscle mass overall, and more strength (study, study).
You’d begin your workout with the heavy compound lifts, and then finish with the lighter accessory/isolation lifts. For example, you may find that doing chin-ups will grow your biceps just fine, but if you want to build truly burly biceps I’d recommend doing bicep curls too:
Muscle Group illustrations. Each muscle is shown as a few mock muscle fibres. These are simplified, but show you which directions these muscles can pull. We thought this would be helpful, since it also shows which parts of muscles you can target.
As you can see, the muscles in your chest run horizontally. You can target the lower fibres with a decline bench press, the upper fibres with an incline bench press. (A regular bench press will target both.) However you probably won’t have as much luck targeting your “inner” or “outer” chest, since the same muscle fibres span all the way across.
Conversely, your bicep muscles run vertically. You can target your inner biceps (short head) with in-front-of-the-body lifts like the preacher curl and concentration curl, or your outer biceps (long head) with behind-your-body lifts like the incline curl and drag curl. (A regular curl will work both.) However you can’t really target your upper or lower biceps.
We kept this in mind when putting this diagram together. Your best bet for stimulating every part of every muscle group is to use a wide variety of exercises that work your muscles in slightly different ways. Comparable (somewhat interchangeable) exercises are on the same line, and complementary exercises are shown on different lines.
So if you’re a beginner who wants to build up a big chest, you might want to do dumbbell bench presses and push-ups and dumbbell pullovers, and then either the dumbbell pec fly or the pec deck.
Example. To give you an idea of how all these factors come together, a goblet squat activates virtually every major and minor muscle group, it optimally stimulates several of them, it’s relatively easy to learn, and it requires just one dumbbell. When the heaviest dumbbell is no longer heavy enough, or muscle gains begin to slow, it’s then easy to transfer your newly acquired skills, coordination and strength towards a front squat (and eventually a back squat). This makes the goblet squat the best skinny-boy exercise for a few different muscle groups, and a great exercise for many others.
Conversely, a Smith Machine back squat does a poorer job of activating many muscles, proper technique is more difficult to learn, it’s more likely to result in injury, it requires a fancy piece of equipment that isn’t very versatile, and it doesn’t allow you to easily progress to a more advanced variation later on. (You wouldn’t have built up your stabilizer muscles or practiced the movement pattern that would allow you to smoothly progress to a barbell front or back squat.) Smith machine squats aren’t necessarily a “bad” exercise, but they certainly aren’t good enough to make the cut.
This is not an exhaustive list. Just good solid examples that will get the job done incredibly well.
Okay. Here we go:
We hope that helps!
Note: We made the image for our new Pinterest page. If you have Pinterest, it’d be great if you followed us. We’ll be posting a ton of cool new ectomorph muscle-building graphics there over the next few months 🙂