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The best exercises for every muscle group

The best exercises for every muscle group

Do you ever feel like there just aren't enough hours in the day to fit in a good workout? Or perhaps you struggle to muster the motivation to go to the gym and/or then just wander around aimlessly because you don't know what to do?

These are common struggles, but the good news is that you don't have to sacrifice your fitness goals just because you're short on time or knowledge.

The benefits of resistance training

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you'll know that I'm a proponent of resistance training and believe most people should do more of it.

The benefits of resistance training are undeniable, it can increase your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), help counter the natural loss of muscle mass after age 30, and have a significant impact on your hormone production.

However, understanding these benefits means little if you lack a structured program to help you build muscular strength and/or endurance. That's made more difficult if you're a busy person who doesn't know where to start, cannot afford a personal trainer, and/or doesn't have the time to research what exercises to do and how to do them.

While any exercise is better than no exercise, exercise executed poorly can do more harm than good.

But it's so important! Perhaps the least helpful things you can do are to follow misleading or fad workouts from social media (that will waste your time) or just focus on "mirror muscles" (the ones that are most visible when you flex in front of the mirror) that will likely lead to imbalances in the body and neglect of other important muscles.

That's where ACE comes in

On several occasions, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) has commissioned a team of researchers to identify the most effective exercises for strengthening different muscle groups in minimal time. The result? A collection of simple but highly effective exercises that anyone can do.

This collection is a game-changer for people who struggle to make time for fitness or cannot afford a personal trainer. By focusing on the most effective exercises, you will see results and achieve your goals faster.

Important considerations

Before I reveal the best exercises for each muscle group, it's important to address a couple of things.

Sets and reps

The intensity (RPE), volume, frequency, and recovery of load-bearing exercises should change throughout a progressive program.

Whether your goal is general muscular fitness, muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, or power, general guidelines exist for the correct training volume for different resistance training goals.

A table showing the recommended sets and reps for different training goals

Technique and safety

Before you begin any program that involves load-bearing exercises, you should have a good foundation of strength and be able to:

  • Consistently maintain a stable and balanced body position when standing, sitting, or performing any other activity (good postural stability).

  • Move the joints and muscles within the body freely and efficiently in coordination with each other (good kinetic chain mobility).

  • Move the body in various ways to perform daily tasks, such as pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging, bending, and twisting.

If you're unsure about any of these, or you're anxious about the types of movements you will do as part of a resistance-training program, you should engage the services of a personal trainer (or at the very least watch YouTube videos) to help determine your abilities and/or ensure you can safely perform load-bearing exercises.

The best exercise for every muscle group

The aforementioned ACE studies typically involved adult volunteers who had experience in resistance training. They were asked to perform several exercises on specific muscle groups while having electrodes attached to their skin around the target muscle to test muscle activation levels. Reports ranking the most effective exercises for different muscle groups were then published online.

Here are the top 3 exercises for most muscle groups. You can also read the published study online if you want to see the full results.

Top 3 for chest

  • Barbell bench press

  • Pec deck (interchangeable with cable/dumbbell supine fly)

  • Bent-forward cable crossover

Top 3 for back

  • Barbell bent-over row

  • I-Y-T raises

  • Pull-up (use a resistance band if you cannot lift your body weight)

Top 3 for shoulders

  • Dumbbell shoulder press

  • Dumbbell 45-degree incline row

  • Seated rear lateral raise

Top 3 for biceps

  • Concentration curl

  • Cable curl

  • Chin-up

Top 3 for triceps

  • Triangle push-up (also known as Diamond push-up)

  • Tricep kickback

  • Tricep dip (use a resistance band if you cannot lift your body weight)

Top 3 for quadriceps

I couldn't find an ACE study. Learn the correct technique for each exercise

  • Barbell front squat

  • Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat

  • Belt squat (not commonly available but replicable using a cable crossover machine)

Top 3 for hamstrings

  • Kettlebell swing

  • Single-arm/leg Romanian deadlift (Barbell Romanian deadlift are also fine)

  • Prone leg curl using a machine

Other muscle groups

Some muscle groups not listed here should be part of a comprehensive, structured resistance-training program, including the abdominal, gluteal, calf, and hip flexor muscles. However, many of these exercises are compound movements that will still activate many of these.

Workflow to create your program: determine your goal, assess your ability, create your program, and reap the benefits.

What to do with this information

You now know what reps and sets you should aim for depending on your desired goal and which are the most effective load-bearing exercises for most muscle groups. Ultimately, I created this to ensure you are not led astray by the poor advice one so frequently encounters on social media or receives from bad personal trainers.

I hope this empowers you to create your structured program and begin reaping the benefits of resistance training.

If you'd like to stay updated on my workouts and nutrition, you can follow or contact me on Instagram.


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