The Best Lifts for Building Muscle

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. Yes, some exercises tend to be better for activating certain muscle groups, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Effectiveness: how well they build the target muscle groups
  • Efficiency: how many different muscles they bulk up at once
  • Learning curve: How easy they are to learn and master
  • Risk-to-reward ratio: How likely they are to strengthen versus injure us

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.

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.

Are You A Beginner?

Let’s say that you’re a beginner who’s trying to build the broadest shoulders possible. Just like an advanced lifter, you’d want to lift heavy weights through a large range of motion for a moderate number of reps, as detailed in our hypertrophy training article.

The best study to date found that the dumbbell overhead press is better for stimulating your shoulders than the barbell overhead press, military press, and seated dumbbell press. Bret Contreras even found that overhead pressing bulked up the core muscles than squatting and deadlifting.

So, given this information, it would make sense to choose the dumbbell overhead press as our main shoulder lift, right?

Maybe not.

To reap the rewards of that advanced lift you need solid enough shoulder strength, stability and mobility. If you’re a skinny guy with lanky limbs and iffy posture, it might make more sense to choose a lift that’s a little bit easier to learn. Maybe when you first start lifting, you focus on learning push-ups to develop the fronts of your shoulders (front delts), and you use lateral raises to bulk up the sides of your shoulders (side delts). Otherwise, you may be putting your shoulders and lower back at risk without even properly stimulating the muscles you’re trying to grow.

So, whether you’re a beginner, an intermediate, or an advanced lifter, there’s a good case for building a workout program around the “Big Five” compound lifts, but it might be better to start with easier variations and work your way towards the harder ones.

What Lifting Equipment Do You Have?

As a beginner, you don’t need much equipment to build muscle. If you have access to fancy equipment, great, but as a skinny dude you can build plenty of muscle with just a couple adjustable dumbbells. In fact, as we mentioned with the dumbbell shoulder press, dumbbell exercises are often the best exercises for building muscle. 

However, as you gain more and more strength, it can start to become harder to load dumbbell lifts heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth. A goblet squat is amazing for building muscle, but at a certain point, you’ll be able to goblet squat the heaviest dumbbell without even challenging your legs or upper back. It will stop being effective.

At that point, it can be a good idea to either get a gym membership or to build yourself a simple barbell home gym. Or perhaps you switch to doing one-legged squat and deadlift variations with your dumbbells. There are lots of options.

Compound Versus Isolation Lifts

Both compound lifts and isolation lifts are important. Compound lifts allow you to use the heaviest weights and to stimulate the most muscle groups at once. They’re also going to load your spine and connective tissues with more weight, making your body more robust. They’re fantastic.

However, isolation lifts have their place in a good bulking routine. Beginners benefit from isolation lifts because they’re simpler to learn and they make building muscle easy.

More advanced lifters benefit from isolation lifts because they give our muscles a more varied stimulus, helping us to build fuller muscles and a more attractive body. Furthermore, using a wider variety of lifts helps to prevent wear and tear on our joints.

So in addition to the big compound lifts, we’ve also included isolation exercises (in bold italics) for muscles that you’re especially eager to grow (such as your biceps) and muscle groups that don’t activate as 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. I grew my chest pretty much exclusively with the barbell bench press. 

If you’re limb dominant though, like Jared, the barbell bench press may only stimulate your shoulders and triceps, making it a poor lift to bulk up your lagging pecs. He succeeded in growing his chest by switching to the dumbbell bench press and then adding in chest flyes.

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 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:

The best exercises for building muscle in your biceps (curls or chin-ups?

Muscle Group illustrations. Each muscle has a few lines showing their direction of pull. These are simplified but they’ll still show you which directions these muscles can pull.

For example, 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 because 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 chest fly or the pec deck.

Why Are Some Lifts Better Than Others?

To give you an idea of how all these factors come together, let’s use the example of the goblet squat. A goblet squat activates most muscles in your body, it optimally stimulates several of them, it’s relatively easy to learn, and it requires just one dumbbell.

Then, when the heaviest dumbbell is no longer heavy enough, or muscle gains begin to slow, it’s easy to transition to the front squat, which is the best squat variation for helping intermediate lifters bulk up. As far as we can figure it, this makes the goblet squat the best squat variation for a beginner.

Conversely, a Smith machine back squat does a poorer job of activating many muscles, it’s more likely to result in injury, it requires a fancy piece of equipment, and the strength that you gain won’t transfer well to other lifts. After all, you wouldn’t have built up your stabilizer muscles or practiced the movement pattern that would allow you to smoothly progress to squatting with free weights. Now, Smith machine squats aren’t necessarily a bad exercise, but they aren’t the whey protein of the crop, either.

This is not an exhaustive list. Just good solid examples that will get the job done incredibly well.

The Best Exercises for Gaining Muscle Size

The best exercises for building muscle organized by muscle group

We hope that helps!

Update: Wow—this image has gotten over 70,000 shares on Pinterest! Thanks, guys.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping over ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

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  1. Muad on April 28, 2015 at 6:10 am

    oh Shane just what i needed! this whole article puts everything i had in my mind today along the journey of B2B. I’ve been thinking a lot about isolation lifts this week as i’ve added flys to my routine and i think it was a good move to see results on my stubborn chest. I wanted to know more about isolation lifts since i owe most of my gains, balance, and strength to compounds lifts (and to you guys of course) but it seems to get some muscles popping we need some isolation in the equation. having narrow frame means i most certainly will need some isolation lifts to improve my aesthetics. I’ve been gaining 1lbs/week steadily after my cut to 145lbs(january) now i’m sitting at 168lbs and i just finished phase 1 ! 30lbs to go or whatever my narrow frame can carry. i can’t wait to sign up again for more of the advancy fancy stuff. i think i’m an intermediate lifter when it comes to numbers but stability wise i’d fall in advanced weightlifter. killer content as always.

    • Shane Duquette on April 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm

      That’s awesome, man! Sounds like the bulk is going absolutely perfectly! Congrats 😀

      Really glad you dug the article. Keep it up 🙂

  2. Chet on April 28, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Great article! Wanted to ask if you guys aprove of high knee raises? Or is it just planks and ab wheel that are effective. Thanks

    • Shane Duquette on April 28, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      Thanks, Chet 🙂 There are TONS of effective core exercises and these are just some examples. Knee raises are also a hip flexor lift I think, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were rad for the abs as well.

  3. Michael on April 28, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Hey Shane, something I’ve always wondered about the program is why the standing Overhead barbell press isn’t utilized for the shoulders.

    • Shane Duquette on April 28, 2015 at 4:58 pm

      Hey Michael, did this post answer your question? We used it as an example in the text part above the diagram. Long story short, the barbell overhead press is a great lift, but it takes a lot of shoulder mobility/stability, and you need really strong core muscles and solid posture. Because of that, it’s very hard to make a program with standing barbell overhead press because only certain people can do it safely/effectively, even at an intermediate/advanced level.

      Later on in our programming though we do include overhead pressing… just not with a barbell (unless you want to use a barbell). That’s because it’s the DUMBBELL overhead press that wins when it comes to building muscle and strength (study on that in the article). The push press is pretty amazing too, since you get to incorporate your lower body and can thus use heavier weights / more muscle groups.

      (I should note that we’re always glad to customize the plan to fit an individuals training level / goals, it’s just the barbell overhead press isn’t a default lift.)

      • Michael on April 28, 2015 at 11:24 pm

        Oh man. Hahah, I’m sorry about that. I’m currently studying for finals and read this during a study break. And completely missed that paragraph….. right in the middle of the article. I know it’s frustrating when people ask dumb questions after you’ve explained something, so I apologize.

        Thanks for clarifying.

        • Shane Duquette on April 29, 2015 at 11:20 am

          Ahaha no problem, Michael. Good luck with your finals!!

  4. RM on April 30, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Really helpful information, and I appreciate the link to studies. Its great that you’ve made this info available for us skinny guys, love it!

    • Shane Duquette on May 2, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Glad you liked it, RM!

  5. Felipe on May 3, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Oh! That’s EXACTLY what I needed. Started couple months ago (+10 pounds) and I feel my workout to be so weak on back, especially lats. Definitely trying those exercises, since unfortunately I can’t afford the program right now. Strong dollar + small budget makes it harder to a 17 years old Brazilian 🙁 wish I knew about the program in 2014) however, I see on the “before-after”of your model facial changes. I guess this is quoted on the aesthetics article but I don’t get it. Can I grow the lower of my face (hormones?) ? That would be awesome cause I have a typical ecto-triangular face, but almost oval,almost square too (hard to describe :).

    • Shane Duquette on May 4, 2015 at 9:47 am

      Woot, congrats on the 10 pounds, Felipe. And in just a few weeks too—that’s amazing!

      Yeah. When you gain weight you’ll build a little muscle everywhere, including your face. There are a number of factors that could play into this, for example a higher testosterone output, or a protein-y calorie surplus causing muscle growth everywhere. You should notice that as you continue to build muscle that your face fills out as well 🙂

      Good luck, and keep it up!

  6. denis on May 10, 2015 at 5:38 am

    Can you descibre more accurately torso vs limb dominant body characteristics, to try applying it to myself.


    • Shane Duquette on May 10, 2015 at 10:19 am

      Hey Denis,

      The easiest way to figure it out is to give the exercises a try! If you do a set of 12-30 reps of the bench press, for example, are you feeling the burn / failing in your arms or your chest? The area that you’re failing on is going to get a large growth stimulus, whereas the area that’s already strong enough won’t. This will cause the failing area to grow larger. Sometimes things balance out. If you have weak shoulders, perhaps they grow strong enough to shoulder the load and you begin failing on your chest. However oftentimes someone will have strong shoulders, those strong shoulders will activate easily and do the heavy lifting, you’ll fail there, the shoulders will grow more, and your chest will lag way behind, since it’s never bearing its share of the load. This is what happens to Jared.

      For me, on the other hand, I feel the burn in my chest, fail on my chest, can grow a large chest very easily… but my arms and shoulders get almost no growth stimulus. I made it up to a 225 bench before making it up to 12″ arms.

      If you want to know for other exercises, do the same thing. Do a higher rep range and try to pinpoint which muscles are working the hardest and failing on the lift. Are you doing chin-ups with your biceps or back? Deadlifting with your butt or hamstrings?

      • denis on May 10, 2015 at 5:20 pm

        This imbalance test is more suited for compond movements, where 2 to 3 distinctive muscle groups are complementing big move, like bench press, overhead press, chin (pull) up.
        It is hard to do this big number of chins for testing purposes, even though my big max for the close grip chins was 20 reps some time ago. It is back to 8 now.
        I couldn’t define whether biceps or lats were more stimulated. Actually nothing was burning, just power to lift the body was gone. Development was none. Maybe too little stimulus for biceps, while still taking a big load off the lats, so lats got no stimulus also.

        About deadlift. What should be more activated. Its a so called full body exercice, or posterior chain dominant, so to speak.
        From DL’s I get sore lats, delts (squeezing on top, but not bending back) and some low back soreness.
        I’m a tad over 6 ft and dont have the body type to be able to begin from low squat and deadlift the weight, with little lean over.
        I do try to activate (squeeze) as many muscles as possible. It’s a concentration job, to squeeze glutes, abdominals towards spine, shoulders back and down, whole arms, finishing in tight bar grip, while not looking forward, but in line with spine.
        That’s why I only do 3 reps (strength) but go for 10 series.

        So probably lowering weight and doing hi rep range would show if I’m limb (hamstrings) or body (butt) dominant.

        • Shane Duquette on May 12, 2015 at 6:45 pm

          Well something was failing, so something was getting enough stimulus to grow. Perhaps another factor is limiting your muscle growth. Rest, nutrition quality, nutrition quantity (not being a calorie surplus). Could be you’re training too hard, not hard enough, etc. Perhaps you aren’t periodizing your training well and your body has hit a plateau. Hard to say without knowing all that much about your particular situation.

          If you can deadlift with your back holding really strong all over isometrically and your butt and hamstrings doing the lifting then you’re doing a pretty good job of it. Depends on your form and proportions though. Some guys will deadlift with a lot of quad, for example.

          High rep deadlifts aren’t necessarily the best. One reason is that you risk fatiguing your stabilizer muscles, and that can make it more dangerous. You could look at how your body is developing. Maybe your glutes aren’t developing at the same pace as your hamstrings, or vis versa. Otherwise you can just see where you fail on the lift and address it.

          You may find you’re overthinking it, too! Oftentimes it’s best to focus on the technique / squeezing / etc when practicing and doing warmups, but just to focus on lifting when you’re doing your working sets. Oftentimes that will have you executing a better lift.

          I hope something in there helps!

  7. Adam Trainor on May 11, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I would add one more critical lift to this list… the fork to your mouth, loaded with nutrients. So critical, but seriously… some good advice here on adds to your workout that will help you add size.

    • Shane Duquette on May 12, 2015 at 6:46 pm

      Ahahahaha I love it. So true!
      And thank you 🙂

  8. denis on May 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Food, correct. In my case this is big problem, not being ectomorph, with skinny, striated, vascular body, but rather skinny fat. Everything in excess calories transfers to singe area only. Belly&love handles. Some puffy nipples too.
    I’m 38, in peoples opinion visually and mentally 30 or less.
    But very critical to own body. Training alone in a garage, having proper squat rack and olymic weights. Also TRX is in use for targeted work. Occasional hi effort running and mountain biking. I’m a military family man.
    Right now and from past expirience, i’m back to intermittent fasting. Intake consists mostly of fats, meats, eggs, yogurt not skimmed, nuts (presoaked for nutrient release), veggies and some unrefined carbs, like buckwheat. All home prepaired. If I overdo with bread, sugars etc, quickly get bloated.
    Second meal is more loose, while still avoiding sugars, corn starch etc.
    Its gotten me so far, that I dont care about body as much as I try to get stronger and durable, so my resting time between sets is 30 – 45s max.
    Works for now and this guys here really helped me alot in few basic understandings.
    As long as I can now do a test as to which group is dominant in a move, so I can isolate lagging parts.

  9. C.B on May 15, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Concerning the study you sent us via e-mail about workout routines, which states that full body workout have more efficiency than triple split; does that apply to ectomorphs? Sounds a bit the opposit of what we have to do…

    • Shane Duquette on May 17, 2015 at 1:50 pm

      Hey C.B.

      We recommend three full body workouts per week, and I’d say that that’s probably the best (or at least equally as good as the best) for ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs. If you’re talking about skinny guys, i.e., guys who haven’t built up much muscle mass yet, then there’s even more research suggesting that it’s the best 🙂

      Keep in mind what we said at the beginning of the email too: that it’s a relatively minor factor. There are many things that combine to form an effective workout routine: exercise selection, exercise variety, form, total sets/reps, how close to failure you go, etc. Training frequency per muscle group is just one factor, and likely not one of the more significant ones.

      Wwhat sounds like the opposite of what we should be doing about full body workouts?

  10. Abdikarim on June 4, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Hi Shane I’m 14 yrs old and I’m currently around 90 pounds but whatever j do I can’t seem to gain fat or muscle can h please help me out with that my arms are skinny and legs thighs everywhere so yeah anything will do

    • Abdikarim on June 4, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      And can u give me a workout routine just for me that will help me gain muscles and become bigger. I’m tall and skinny so I would like to become kinda bulky you know so yeah workout routine at home or at the gym to build up my muscles and fat

      • Shane Duquette on June 5, 2015 at 12:33 pm

        Yeah man, we can not only give you a workout routine, but we can also help customize it to suit you in particular, and we can also help you figure out the nutrition side of things so that you can finally gain weight. Check out the Bony to Beastly Program 🙂

        You’re just 14 though, which is fine, but make sure to get permission from your parents (and of course your doctor—as you would with any exercise routine).

    • Shane Duquette on June 5, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      Hey Abdikarim, if you’re struggling with gaining weight, then it’s a calorie issue. Us skinny guys often really struggle to get into a calorie surplus because our metabolisms are huge compared to our stomachs and appetites. Check this article out. It covers why that’s happening and what you can do about it 🙂

  11. Joel Waters on June 4, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Great article, again!! I have a question as it relates to giving the body a break. I’ve been squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and bench pressing HEAVY for about 6 months. I’m 38 years old, 5’10” and am up to about 170 lbs. I’ve been eating a lot of food to gain weight and it’s been working (although I’ve definitely gained some fat in the process). I’m starting to feel pretty “beat down” and my motivation is diminishing. I’m considering a program of pushups, dips, inverted rows, pullups, one legged squats, and sprints (all bodyweight excercises) for a 2-3 month period. My concern is that I will lose the strength I’ve worked so hard to gain. Everyone says it’s nearly impossible maintain, let alone gain muscle from a routine like this. What are your thoughts? Thanks, again, for all of your insight on this website. Joel

    • Shane Duquette on June 5, 2015 at 12:39 pm

      Props on getting up to 170 pounds, Joel. That’s sweet 🙂

      If you switch to bodyweight workouts I think you’re right—you’ll probably lose a fair bit of muscle and strength. A better solution would be to switch to lower the intensity of your weightlifting, maybe increase your rep ranges a little bit, and perhaps lower the volume.

      So if you’ve been doing 6 sets of 3 rep squats and going to failure, you might want to switch to doing 3 sets of 8 rep squats, and leaving 2 reps in the tank (stopping two reps short of failure). If you do that to your entire program, you should be able to give your body the break it needs while maintaining all of your gains 🙂

      (If you want to learn a little more about this, check out this article. What you’ve want to do is switch from powerlifting style training to either bodybuilding style training, or a mixture of both.)

      Another thing you might enjoy is doing a professionally programmed program! If you do a program where the volume is designed to be right in that sweet spot where you’re stimulating your muscles well enough to grow but also able to properly recover, you might find that weightlifting starts suiting you a whole lot better 🙂

      • Joel Waters on June 8, 2015 at 3:26 pm

        Thanks – That makes perfect sense, Shane.

  12. Muskee on June 7, 2015 at 1:15 am

    Hey guys,

    Is there an option or possibility to get access to the program even without paying for it completely. I’m really keen on getting on this although due to budget restraints I can’t fully purchase the B2B as a whole but would really like to jump on board and make improvements to my body.


    • Shane Duquette on June 7, 2015 at 9:56 am

      I’ll shoot you an email with a payment plan option 🙂

  13. Matthaeus on June 10, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    I’ve loved your infographic. If I give you the translation in brazilian portuguese of these texts, would you edit a new version of it? It would be very interesting to share here in Brazil.

    • Shane Duquette on June 12, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Glad you like it, Mattaeus!

      Make the infographic in Portuguese? I don’t normally do this kind of thing, since it can take quite a long time, but in this case it sounds like you’d be doing a lot of the work for me. Your sharing it would be great too, especially if there’s a shortage of this kind of information in Portuguese. Why don’t you shoot me the text via email (us at and I’ll see what I can do 🙂

      • Matthaeus on June 14, 2016 at 4:12 pm

        Hi. Do you remember me?
        I’ve offer you to translate your infographic “The Muscle-Building Exercises” here in Brazil.
        I’ve completed the translation.
        Could you send me the PSD (photoshop file or similar) for edit myself with the new texts?

        • Shane Duquette on June 14, 2016 at 8:43 pm

          Hey Matthaeus, that’s awesome!! 😀

          If you send me the text at, I can pop it into the psd and then send it to you 🙂

  14. Sam on June 17, 2015 at 7:29 am

    Hi guys, thanks for these articles. Super helpful and just about the best sourced, well written and snazzily presented I’ve ever come across. So, I’ve got a specific question about deadlifts. They used to be a key part of my routine and their effect was incredible, especially on my butt, which was none existent before. However, I’ve got a chronic lower back problem–specifically a slipped disc that when herniates, presses on the sciatic nerve. Sometimes these flare ups are excruciating and I’m barely able to move, let alone workout. I know my form is good having been observed and corrected by trainers in the gym but I also know that deadlifting can aggravate this problem. My question is: is there an alternative to deadlifting that places less strain on/requires less motion of the lower back? I know that nothing else will match this beast of an exercise and perhaps there simply isn’t. I’ve used dumbbells instead of the bar before, but they are too light and awkward for my lifts now. Many thanks

    • Shane Duquette on June 17, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Sam. Really glad you dig ’em 🙂

      Not everyone can do every lift, so it’s possible that the deadlift is just not a good fit for you. If it’s causing an old injury to flare up, you might be better of doing an entirely different lift. You also don’t need to take a powerlifting approach to it, where you just try to build that number up ever higher. It’s not like a guy who wants to be fit and strong needs a 500 pound deadlift or anything.

      So there are very definitely tons of ways to build up a beastly body without ever going near a deadlift.

      However, if you’re deadlifting properly you shouldn’t really have any motion in your lower back. You’d want to maintain a neutral spine throughout, as you can see in our illustration here. If your lower back is bending at the bottom of the lift then you’ve gone past the range of motion you should be using. I would raise the bar up, doing rack pulls or raised deadlifts (with the bar raised, not your feet).

      If you want a deadlift variant that puts less stress on your lower back (and more on your quads) then the sumo deadlift would be a good alternative. You don’t need to bend over as far, so your back stays fairly upright throughout. A light version that most people respond well to is the dumbbell sumo deadlift, where you stand a dumbbell up on the floor and deadlift using that. You can see it presented at the end of our deadlift video here.

      Does that help / make sense?

  15. Cole on July 9, 2015 at 2:42 pm


    Thanks for all the useful insight it has helped me progress throughout the past year! Contemplating on doing either a split upper body/lower body workout or a 5-day routine where I hit legs, arms, chest, back and shoulders. What would you suggest for me who is an intermediate lifter and want to put on some size, but also does a decent amount of cardio?

    Another thing, I’ve been trying to get my arms/forearms bigger, but it’s very challenging. Any advice on how I could do that?

    Very interested in your program as well, but may wait until I can afford it due to being a broke college kid. 😛


    • Shane Duquette on July 10, 2015 at 11:37 am

      Hey Cole,

      We dig doing 3 full body workouts per week, albeit with a slightly different emphasis each workout. However, how many times we go to the gym isn’t that important. What’s important is that it allows us to hit each muscle group with a good frequency (3x per week) and with a high enough volume to stimulate good growth.

      For other lifting schedules the same is true. If you have four days available for training, an upper / lower split is great. It would allow you to hit each muscle group with a good frequency (2x per week) and with a high enough volume to stimulate good growth. (Both 2x and 3x per muscle group per week are great.)

      With your 5-day approach, for example, you’d hit your rear delts on both shoulder and back day, and your front delts on both shoulder and chest day… but many muscles would just get hit once per week. Volume would be good, since you have a whole workout to devote to a muscle group, but frequency would suck.

      I think you’d probably see better results by focusing more on both frequency and volume (full body or upper/lower), rather than hammering individual muscle groups with a split. These are relatively minor differences though. It wouldn’t be wrong to just pick the routine that you’re most excited by.

      How do you grow your arms and forearms? Do more work with them! More difficult sets per week. That means more sets per workout, or more workouts per week. Instead of 6 sets per workout for your arms twice per week (12 sets total), perhaps 6 sets per workout thrice per week (18 sets total). Or with your upper/lower split, perhaps that means going from 6 per workout twice per week (12 total) to 9 per workout twice per week (18 total).

      Does that make sense / help?

      And good luck! College is a great time for this 🙂

      • Cole on July 15, 2015 at 1:26 pm

        Yes absolutely makes a lot of sense! I think I am going to do the 3 full body per week to start and see how it works. Do you have any suggestions on specific exercises I should definitely be sure to include or advice on sets/reps per exercise?

        I appreciate you helping me out and getting back to me so quickly!


        • Shane Duquette on July 15, 2015 at 2:49 pm

          Beginning the workout with low reps big compound lifts works well. So starting the workout with 4-8 rep squats or deadlifts kind of thing.

          The assistance and isolation lifts work better later on in the workout with lighter weights. More like 8-12 reps.

          As for lifts to definitely include… I’d recommend the ones in the diagram! When it comes to lifting variety, the more the merrier so long as you start with easy enough variations and can actually get the practice in to get good at them.

          Include some lifts that you really love, too. If you really dig fat grip reverse bicep curls or whatever… toss those in so you have something to look forward to at the end of the workout 🙂

          • Cole on July 15, 2015 at 3:03 pm

            Awesome. Yeah I was looking at the diagram and liked the different variety of lifts per muscle. How many exercises per workout do you think would be sufficient? Maybe like 8-10 or is that too many?

          • Shane Duquette on July 15, 2015 at 3:45 pm

            I like doing 5-7 different exercises per workout. 8-10 isn’t necessarily too many if you aren’t doing that many sets… but it’s a lot!

  16. Daniel on July 12, 2015 at 3:16 am

    Thanks for the article 🙂 Goblet squat is my beloved exercise. And the infographic is great ! Something I can print out and put on my pin board as constant reminder 🙂

  17. Mike on July 25, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Hey Shane, is there any chance I could send you my current workout plan for a quick check over. for the last two weeks I’ve been eating 3000 calories a day (all whole foods and some home made shakes post workout) and I’ve been doing 3 full body workouts a week – I was considering switching to a 3 day push/pull plan with muscle grouping but I’m not sure of the set/rep ratios… Also, please can you send me details of the payment plan?

    • Shane Duquette on July 26, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Hey Mike,

      Evaluating workout plans is super difficult and time consuming, since there are so many factors that all combine together to make a good one. Same thing with nutrition. We literally wrote an entire book on that stuff! However I could take a quick glance and maybe give you some feedback to get started with 🙂

      I’ll shoot you the info on the payment plan and you can respond there 🙂

  18. Brian on August 12, 2015 at 4:00 am

    I’m 18years old ive been going to the gym now for about a year. Im 5’6 and i weigh around 130pounds.

    My routine is
    Monday – Chest/tri
    consists of bench press 145lb is my max
    incline bench press
    and for triceps tricep pulldown, dips/weighted dips

    tuesday – back/biceps

    lat pulldown, pullups and dumbell row

    dumbbell curls 35 is my max and 5 sets of 21s 15lbs on each side of barbell


    thurs repeat chest/tri
    friday repeat back/biceps
    sat/sun rest

    I definitely see results in myself, but i dont think its very effective.
    i was wondering what i should do in order to get bigger faster.
    i was thinking about trying the 5×5 program or the BUFF dude program.
    please help any advice will help.

    • Shane Duquette on August 14, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      Hey Brian,

      Your routine looks pretty decent. When Jared and I first got serious about building muscle we tried a triple split bodybuilding style routine as well and got pretty good results. You can see a tutorial video of that here. Since then we’ve learned a lot, and since then some new research has come out.

      For example, it seems like full body workouts can build muscle a little better than triple splits.

      What you’re already doing though is probably more effective than a 5×5. The simplicity of them is pretty cool. You don’t need to learn many lifts, the rep ranges are always the same, etc. However as far as results go they aren’t the best. Those programs aren’t even ideal for gaining strength.

      I think this article will help a lot 🙂

  19. Mark on September 4, 2015 at 3:40 am

    I am 14 and 131 and 5″9 and sort of rip but i need to get bigger muscles, can you please give me a good workout for my arms and legs weekly

    • Shane Duquette on September 5, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Hey Mark, have you seen the Bony to Beastly program? It has 5 months of workout programming with coaching throughout the process (along with everything you need to know about nutrition, videos teaching the lifts, recipes, and more). I think that’d serve you well 🙂

      If you wanted something free, make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter. We’re going to be trying to come out with a bunch of new free content for our subscribers this year 🙂

      I hope that helps!

    • Shane Duquette on September 5, 2015 at 1:21 pm

      Oh! This stuff can be really great for younger teenagers, but make sure to get the blessing of your parents and doctor first!

  20. William on October 10, 2015 at 12:15 am

    I’ve loved your infographic.Great. Really helpful information. Yeah. Goblet squat is my beloved exercise. I will bookmark this page. 😀

    • Shane Duquette on February 1, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      Really glad you loved it, William! Thank you for the kind words.

  21. Rohan Arora on December 16, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Great Articles.
    A hard-gainer should focus more on compound movements like deadlifts, squats and bench press as they involve more than one muscle at a time and help in releasing more growth hormone in the body.

    • Rafael Rondon on January 31, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      Yeah, that’s what everything I’ve learned has said and I’ve gotten great results so far. It sounds like this guy is angling to get people to buy his program, when all a beginner needs to do is the common compound movements for the first 6 months. Bench press, overhead press, chinups, squats are all you really need to get going.

      • Shane Duquette on February 1, 2016 at 8:31 pm

        Nope, this blog is free, and it’s totally independent from the program. Besides, how is giving guys all the best lifts for different muscle groups angling them to buy the program? We’re not exactly saying “if you want all the best lifts for building muscle… buy the program!”

        I disagree with your recommendations, unless you’re talking about a very athletic beginner with someone to coach them in person. Bench presses, overhead presses, chin-ups and squats are all lifts that are technically very difficult. A beginner being able to do a proper back squat on his first day in a safe or effective way is very unrealistic. If you start with regressions a beginner will build muscle just as quickly (if not more quickly), far more safely, and with way less frustration. (You’d probably want to include rows and deadlifts in your basic compound movement list also.)

        Even then, you’d be leaving a lot of gains on the table if you neglect isolation lifts. Studies looking into beginners have found greater gains if you also include isolation lifts. This becomes even more true the more advanced you get.

        Research has also very clearly shown that you make more aesthetic and more functional gains if you include a greater variety of lifts, as it causes more balanced, even muscle growth. More balanced muscle growth improves performance and also looks a helluva lot better.

        Doing just compound lifts also takes longer each workout and is harder to recover from.

        Because anecdotes make for better stories, during my first couple years of lifting I focused on the basic compound movements. I dislocated my shoulder from attempting to do an overhead press with awful form, awful posture, and lanky, clumsy arms. I also didn’t gain any size in my arms, because I was pulling with just my back and pressing with just my chest. I hadn’t yet developed the skill to use all of the relevant muscles when doing the compound lifts, so I wasn’t getting balanced growth. This just furthered my imbalances.

        What would the advantages be of doing just the bench press, overhead press, chins and squats?

        • K on June 21, 2017 at 5:01 pm

          I bulked up on a routine that was exclusively compound exercises, and I can say it was NOT enough. Forearms and calves were utterly neglected, undertrained muscles stayed undertrained and my biceps carried the load on almost every exercise. I ended up with a strong core, strong legs (sans calves), and strong biceps. The rest was meh at best.

          I spent quite a bit of effort since just fixing those imbalances. Once again, everything you said reflects my experience.

          • Shane Duquette on June 27, 2017 at 4:33 pm

            I feel ya, man. It was the same thing for me. I got up to a 225lbs bench press with 12″ arms and couldn’t figure it out. Then I did some more research, realized that I was skimping on the isolation stuff, and then as soon as I added in the compound lifts, all those neglected parts exploded in size. I gained a couple inches in my arms within just a few months. Really changed my perspective.

  22. Tyrone on January 5, 2016 at 7:52 am

    Love this article. But how would you how heavy the dumbells or barbells should be to start with? Is it something to do with what weight you are now? Thanks.

    • Shane Duquette on January 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      Hey Tyrone,

      That depends on what kind of program you’re following! With some more technical programs you’ll want to find out what your one rep max (1RM) is—the heaviest amount you can lift for one repetition. Then you can use percentages of that to figure out how much weight to use. So if your bench press 1RM is 100 pounds, your program might tell you to do 8 reps with 70% of your 1RM or whatnot. So you’d lift 70 pounds for 8 reps.

      The most important thing though is that you lift with enough “intensity”, i.e., that you close enough to failure. So if your program is telling you to do 8 reps, I would just make sure that you can’t do more than another 1-2 reps after that. So you’d choose a weight that you can do 8-10 reps with, then stop a rep or two before you fail. Some trial and error will be involved, but so long as you’re lifting within a couple reps of what your program is telling you, it should be okay. So if you’re supposed to do 8 reps and you nearly fail after 6 (or you get out 10 reps before nearly failing) that’s okay.

      Does that help?

  23. Gym Tips | Journey of a SFT Guy on January 10, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    […] Here for the best exercise for the different muscle groups (source: Bony to Beastly). Chose three exercise per muscle you wish to focus […]

  24. Sean Larson on June 6, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Hey Shane,
    I love your article and I think it would help me audience a lot. I am going to link to this article in a massive post on gaining weight for ectomorphs (my audience is busy young professionals who want help with their dating lives). Is it cool if I also use the infographic on which exercises are the best? You can contact me at



    • Shane Duquette on June 8, 2016 at 4:29 pm

      Hey Sean,

      So glad you like it! You can absolutely use the infographic so long as you link back to us 🙂


  25. Ric on August 6, 2016 at 2:12 am

    Hi Shane, excellent depth and analysis. But how is one to know if one is torso dominant or limb dominant? Not sure what it means, really.

    • Shane Duquette on August 6, 2016 at 6:09 pm

      As a beginner I would just pretend that you’re neither 😉

      So you’d do your bench press for your chest, shoulders and triceps. Then you’d add in tricep extensions, flys and, shoulder raises.

      It will become obvious as you become more experienced as a lifter. After a heavy bench day, your chest will be sore, telling you that you’re stimulating your chest quite a lot, for example. Or you’ll get a chest pump while doing higher rep bench press sets.

      • ric on August 7, 2016 at 10:43 pm

        for me the chest doesn’t become sore, only the triceps do (no matter which pushing exercise I do).

        • Shane Duquette on August 8, 2016 at 11:02 am

          What happens if you do higher rep pushing sets? Do you get a pump only in your arms? If so, I suspect you’re limb dominant.

          When I do a push exercise my chest will get pumped in the moment, sore a couple days later. No pump or soreness in my triceps whatsoever. That’s what a lot of torso dominant guys will experience.

          • ric on August 9, 2016 at 12:14 am

            for me it is the opposite. don’t feel anything in chest but chest grows. feel it in arms but arms don’t grow, lol. very confusing.

            one question out of curiosity. some ppl say pushing, any type of pushing, will always involve chest because u can’t push without using your chest. is this true?

          • Shane Duquette on August 9, 2016 at 2:09 pm

            Yeah, sounds confusing for sure, and I don’t really have enough information to make a more educated guess. This stuff happens, though. For example, could train your chest more frequently and with more volume than your arms but never to the point where you get a pump or damage it enough to produce noticeable DOMS.

            Can you push without much chest involvement? Sure! Overhead pushing won’t work your chest that intensely. Neither will pushing with a very narrow grip. Your chest will work a little, but not nearly as much as with some other pushing movements.

  26. Ric on August 10, 2016 at 7:21 am

    what do u think of dumbbell floor press for those who have shoulder issues? is it good for chest or only for triceps?

    • Shane Duquette on August 11, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      I think that’s a great choice, and it should work your chest, triceps and shoulders.

      • ric on August 13, 2016 at 4:26 am

        what do u think of unilateral press (one arm at a time) not only for db floor press but also for military press, lateral raise, curls, etc.? Some say unilateral sucks, others say unilateral will help u focus more.

        what do u think?

        • Shane Duquette on August 13, 2016 at 11:17 am

          They’re usually better at working the core at the cost being a little bit less good at working the other muscles. So with a one-armed floor press, your core will need to do a lot of anti-rotation work, which will probably limit the work your chest can do. So they can be very good, it just depends on your goals 🙂

  27. Erick on August 22, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Hello Shane. How r u doin?
    May I ask you for advice?

    I can’t squad or deadlift since I developed a knee problem (can’t bend it over 35°, doctor recommendations, but other than that it’s fine). Considering those are the best compond exercices, is it still worth to train only 3 times per week? Can you suggest anything instead?

    I thank you in advance.

    • Shane Duquette on August 22, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      Hey Erick, I’m doing really well! Thank you 🙂

      You can still train three times per week, yeah.

      As for not being able to bend our knees more than 35 degrees, you could probably still do a lot of deadlift and squat variations, just with a smaller range of motion. I’d see a physiotherapist about that one, though, and see what they recommend. Ideally, you could rehab it and get full functionality back.

      • Erick on August 23, 2016 at 9:12 am

        Thanks for your answer.

        I developed a problem in the cartilage, which doesn’t really heal. I did a MRI and all. All that can be done is not hurting it any further and i’ll have no problems in the future. So I got a loot on my mind when doing those excercices and I get really unsettled and unconfortable.

        When I train 4 times a week it seens like I’m gonna die. I guess our body is as fragile as it seens, hahaha.

        Anyways, best of luck.

        • Shane Duquette on August 23, 2016 at 2:34 pm

          If those are the strict rules that should help you avoid future injury, then variations like box squats and dumbbell sumo deadlifts should work quite well for your lower body health and development. Both can be done in a way where your knees never need to bend more than 35 degrees 🙂

  28. Chad Fourman on November 25, 2016 at 1:09 am

    I really was intrigued with your quizzes and feel as if I have now reasons why I was not seeing results as I wanted! THANK YOU! I am going to reduce my work outs. I do have a question… You did all of the quizzes on the upper body but nothing really for the legs. Is there a quiz or measuring technique also for legs? I realize that if you take the. Quizzes and figure out upper body it SHOULD apply for lower but just was curious.
    Again thanks for the great videos and information!

    • Shane Duquette on November 29, 2016 at 11:55 am

      Really glad you liked it, Chad! 🙂

      You’re talking about this article, right?

      With the shoulder breadth vs hip breadth stuff, that already applies to your entire body.

      For the bone thickness part, instead of measuring if your wrists are thinner than average you could measure if your ankles are thinner than average. You’ll likely find that your bone thickness is somewhat consistent throughout your body, but there can be a mismatch sometimes.

      For the muscle belly and tendon length part, you’d just look at the muscle bellies and tendons in your lower body. For example, in your quads, hamstrings and calves. Hamstrings can be measured in the same way as your biceps. Since every muscle belly/tendon relationship is unique, you may find differences all throughout your body. As with bone thickness, though, most people will find that testing one place gives very good clues about the others. Since the biceps are the easiest to measure and compare (and guys often care about their biceps more than their hamstrings), we opted for the biceps for this test.

  29. Marco on November 27, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    I just eat a lot of fast food and follow these guidelines. I’ve gained a lot of mass this way and almost no fat. I think I am going to clean up the diet for health reasons and switch to a mass gainer.

  30. Terry on January 5, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    I’m 62 years old. I had cancer and do to radiation I lost a lot of weight. Can I still build muscle?

    • Shane Duquette on January 5, 2017 at 10:42 pm

      It seems like the expert consensus, based on some studies done on 18–40 year olds, is that it becomes a little bit more difficult to build muscle once you hit 60 or so. So you’re just on the other side of that. Yes, you should still be able to build muscle, but another goal should be to maintain the muscle you already have, make your bones denser, strengthen your tendons, and stay mobile/flexible. That benefit may even outweigh gaining muscle, as that should help you feel far younger, even as you age 🙂

      So the more muscle you build, the better. And yes, it’s definitely still possible 🙂

      But don’t wait too long!

  31. Hassan on March 14, 2017 at 12:02 am

    I want to ask you something – i have allergy problems , is it okay to eat nuts for weight gain ?

    • Shane Duquette on March 15, 2017 at 10:50 am

      Is it okay to eat nuts if you’re allergic to nuts? That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me at all.

  32. Al on June 14, 2017 at 7:09 am

    This is a remarkable article, and I see the need for adding isolation to compound work.

    But … will it interfere with recovery process?

    For example, let’s say today I do bicep curls and the next day will my chin up performance suffer (bcus of the beating biceps got from curls) ? Then you get no benefit from either compound or isolation?

    • Shane Duquette on June 19, 2017 at 7:05 pm

      You’d want to structure your workouts so that you aren’t blasting the same muscle groups two days in a row. It’s not the biggest concern with arms, since they’re smaller muscle groups, but around here we normally structure things so that they have a day of rest before and after. For example, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday we train arms with both compound and isolation lifts… but they’re part of a full body workout. Then on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, everything is recovering.

  33. iqbal ahmed siddiqi on August 19, 2017 at 6:40 am

    what about side effects

  34. Jhanzb on September 19, 2017 at 4:53 am

    hey shane i hope you’re doing well! Im a 18 year old skinny bonny And also with a very skinny face i look so fking weak, my cloths dont even fit me and im 6 ft and 52 kg weight! tell if i start going gym does this will grow my facial muscles too? my shoulders are small too! i need help. i also dont have enough stamina! i smoke too not a chainsmoker but 1-2 time a day! so can uhelp me out im 12 standard student coudnt afford the gym fees but i will try just give me your opinion will i change?

    • Shane Duquette on September 26, 2017 at 2:19 pm

      Hey Jhanzb, I hope you’re doing well also, man!

      Gaining weight will affect your face shape as well, yeah. You’ll build some muscle there, and it will fill out with a little more fat as well (even if your overall body fat percentage stays the same). The result is a stronger, more masculine, healthier looking face. And you should be able to see changes there fairly quickly as well—probably within a few weeks 🙂

      It’s not just about going to the gym, though, but also about following a muscle-building diet. And it’s crucial that the diet makes it possible for you to eat enough to gain weight on the scale each week.

      Smoking isn’t great for your health, as you already know. It’s also not great for your appetite, which you might not know. It’s a little harder for smokers to eat enough to gain weight. It’s still possible, though, and it doesn’t sound like you smoke that much, either. You should be able to build muscle okay.

      Swapping out the cost of cigarettes for gym fees might be a good way to improve your quality of life while also extending your lifespan by a couple decades, but you know your situation better than I do, and there’s plenty of time to make these lifestyle changes one by one.

      Good luck!

  35. RapidFail on October 13, 2018 at 11:33 am

    My apologies if I’ve missed it, but has there been any discussion about rest times?

    I am very time-poor and do all my strength training in my home gym (nonadjustable bench, heavy dumbbells, chin-up bar).

    I currently work out for 30 minutes, 3x per week. To save on time, I do a circuit of 6 exercises and take about 15-30 seconds rest between each, so I usually end up doing the same exercises with about 10 minutes between each set. Are there any concerns with training this way.

  36. Richard Baker on August 24, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    My adventure with weightloss has been an up and down roller coaster kind of journey. Your post and information is awesome! It puts me into another perspective for my self update plan. thank you for this! BTW your infographic looks great.

  37. […] incorporating the principles of compound vs. isolation lifts, Shane Duquette does a fantastic job of evolving the ectomorphic […]

  38. How to Build a More Attractive Physique: Infographic on September 22, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    […] The best lifts for each muscle group […]

  39. Rob on February 2, 2021 at 8:18 pm

    Hello Shane,

    I have a question – can I do your bony to beastly program using just ‘big five’ exercises? I am not a complete novice, I’ve been working out on and off for 10+ years but this is first time I plan to stick to the program. I have some muscles but I belive I am still pretty skinny – I am 6’3′ and 176 pounds.

    • Shane Duquette on February 3, 2021 at 10:45 am

      Hey Rob, if you’re an intermediate lifter who wants more emphasis on getting stronger at the big lifts, I think you’d prefer our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. It sounds like exactly what you’re after.

      Not that we don’t recommend ONLY doing the big 5 lifts. You’ll get better results with a bit more variety than that, and that’s even more true as an intermediate lifter. But the program is built on a strong foundation of those 5 lifts, and everything is oriented around getting stronger at them 🙂

      • Rob on February 3, 2021 at 1:31 pm

        Shane, thank you so much for the quick response. I have to say, you guys seem to have the best understanding of what the average skinny guy wants to achieve and you keep it honest and realistic – more than I can say about most people in the fitness industry (Also, you’re one of few that use really aesthetic graphic design for your articles:)

        I wonder if the Outlift is really for me, I have a quite small frame (shoulder to waist ratio: 1,35, shoulders:15,94 inches, waist:11,8 inches).

        I have good muscle definition, but a huge head and I would like to add as many muscles as possible in shoulder girdle to create a better head to body proportions.

        Do you think I am still able to add enough muscles to change my head to body proportions after years of on and off amateur training and weighing 176 pounds at 6’3?

        (I apologize for not being word-perfect in English)

        • Shane Duquette on February 3, 2021 at 3:22 pm

          Yeah, at 6’3 and 176 pounds, I’m fairly certain you’re not at your genetic potential yet, or even particularly close. You can still build plenty of muscle once you figure out what’s bottlenecking your growth 🙂

          Outlift is our bulking program for intermediate lifters, and that certainly sounds like you. And, I mean, it’s still made by us, just like Bony to Beastly. It’s an intermediate bulking program written from the perspective of naturally skinny guys who have a hard time gaining weight. It sounds like it would fit you.

          Also keep in mind that we have a 100% refund policy. So if you take a look and realize that it isn’t for you, that’s okay—you can return it.

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