Maximize Your Gym Time: A Look At The Most Productive Muscle Building Exercises

A detailed look at the most potent muscle building exercises, as well as a bodypart by bodypart breakdown. Stop wasting time in the gym and start getting results!

A workout is made up of only so many sets and exercises. Constructing a workout without a purpose, and without the use of the best available tools will only waste your time. If you want to gain muscle and strength at the fastest rate possible you will need to choose the best possible exercises.

The following exercises are the best of the best. You will notice that they generally fall into three categories:

  1. Barbell Exercises.
  2. Dumbbell Exercises.
  3. Bodyweight Exercises.

When you begin to explore the muscle building workouts on Muscle & Strength, you will notice that the bulk of these routines make use of barbells and dumbbells. These movements are often performed first for a bodypart, and are then followed by machine and cable exercises. While some machines and cables can be beneficial, they are rarely as good as their barbell or dumbbell counterparts.

A Smith machine bench press is not as good as a barbell or dumbbell bench press. A leg press is not as effective as deep squats. And lat pull downs are nowhere near as effective as pull ups.

The following exercises are considered the top seven. If you're goal is to build muscle, consider adding these to your workouts.

The Top 7 Muscle Building Exercises

Squats. Squats are the king of all muscle and strength building exercises. No workout should be without deep squats. They are performed with a barbell, generally in a squat rack. Squats not only build massive legs, but also stress most of the upper body. They are like a hormonal nuclear bomb – destroying the entire body, forcing it to get bigger and stronger with every rep.

Deadlifts. Second only to squats in effectiveness (and a very close second at that), deadlifts are another manmaker that will pack on slabs of muscle mass while helping you become as strong as a bear. Like squats, deadlifts are a barbell only exercise.

Dips. Dips are often called the upper body squat, and for good reason. Dips work the shoulders, chest and triceps very hard, and are a great overall exercises for building a beefy upper body. Dips should be performed at a parallel bar dipping station.

Pull Ups. It seems that even the strongest and most fit lifters can barely squeak out more than a few pull ups. The pull up is an excellent exercise for building the back and biceps, and should be used instead of inferior exercises such as the lat pull down when possible.

Bench Press. The bench press is an upper body staple. There are several highly effective variations including the flat bench barbell press, flat bench dumbbell bench press, incline bench barbell press and incline dumbbell bench press.

Overhead Press. As with the bench press, there are numerous quality variations of the overhead press that can be used. Nearly all seated and standing dumbbell and barbell overhead presses are solid choices. You may also use the Arnold dumbbell press, and behind the neck overhead presses. Another popular press variation is the standing push press.

Rows. Both barbell and dumbbell rows are tremendous upper back exercises. Old school barbell T-bar rows are also a solid choice. While cable and machine lifts are generally sub-par, seated cable rows can be very challenging and effective.

Barbell squats

Squats are the king of all bodybuilding exercises. No workout should be without them. They are like a hormonal nuclear bomb – destroying the entire body, forcing it to get bigger with every rep.

The Best Exercises By Bodypart

Now that you know which tools are the most productive, let's take a look at the best exercises by bodypart. This list will include some of the top 7.

5 Most Effective Chest Building Exercises

  • Bench Press. The king of all upper body muscle building movements. The bench press is so popular that it is often seen as having it's own training day - bench press Monday.
  • Incline Bench Press. The first choice of many top pro bodybuilders.
  • Dips. Once considered the upper body squat, dips are a great compliment to any bench press movement.
  • Dumbbell Bench Press. You will really be able to feel the chest work with this pressing variation.
  • Incline Dumbbell Bench Press. A solid alternative to the incline barbell press.

Decline variations didn't make the list because they shorten the pressing distance and tend to shift some of the focus to the triceps.

5 Most Effective Back Building Exercises

  • Deadlifts. Nothing builds beefy backs like the deadlift. The sheer act of holding a barbell with heavy weight places the lats under an incredible amount of stress.
  • Pull Ups. A far superior choice to lat pull downs. If you can do one, try for two. If you can do two, try for three! If you can't do them at all use rack chins.
  • Barbell Row. No back building workout should be without a heavy row, and barbell rows are at the top of the list.
  • Dumbbell Row. An excellent second choice to barbell rows, especially if you have a weak lower back.
  • Power Clean. The explosiveness of the power clean effectively works the back from traps down.

5 Most Effective Shoulder Building Exercises

  • Military Press. This exercise has been a staple of great workouts for decades on end.
  • Push Press. Very similar to the military press, but utilizing more of an Olympic lifting-style explosiveness.
  • Bench Press. Yes, you read that correctly. The bench press is an amazing front delt builder. In fact, if your chest day involves several pressing movements there's a good chance you won't need any direct front delt work on shoulder day.
  • Seated Behind The Neck Press. Go no deeper than arms parallel to the floor, and this is a rock solid choice.
  • Seated Dumbbell Press. A little easier on the shoulders for many because the dumbbells can be placed in a more natural position.

5 Most Effective Leg Building Exercises

  • Squats. The king of all muscle building lifts. 'Nuff said.
  • Front Squats. Another top choice of bodybuilding beef kings. Front squats can be tricky to learn, but you will be rewarded with big wheels.
  • Stiff Leg Deadlifts. Beef up your hamstrings!
  • Leg Press. If you don't have access to a squat rack this is your next best bet.
  • Barbell Lunge. Lunges are another quality leg-building staple.

5 Most Effective Arm Building Exercises

  • Chin Ups. A shocker, but chin ups (performed with palms toward the face) are a beastly bicep builder, perhaps even better than straight bar curls.
  • Close Grip Bench Press. This exercise allows for a heavy amount of weight to be placed on the triceps.
  • Dips. Much better than most tricep isolation exercises.
  • Barbell Curls. A classic. Just don't curl in the squat rack.
  • Seated Two Arm Dumbbell Tricep Extension. Allows you to lift heavy weight and reach a deep stretch. You will need a good spotter.

Honorable Mention

  • Weighted Sit Ups. Why do volume when you can add weight and also build thickness.
  • Power Shrugs. Performed with an Olympic lift style explosiveness, power shrugs allow you to move a lot of weight and tax the traps into massive growth.
  • Cable Crunches. Forget floor crunches - add some weight and thicken your six pack!
  • Side Bends. Side bends not only help to build core stability, enhancing your performance on other compound exercises, but they also target the obliques, helping to build an impressive midsection.
  • Seated Calf Raises. The easiest way to isolate and blast the calves.
About The Author
Muscle & Strength's Content Team is a group of fitness industry experts dedicated to publishing the highest quality articles, workouts and guides on the M&S Website.

94 Comments+ Post Comment

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Posted Tue, 10/11/2011 - 16:41

AWESOME article Steve , btw i know nothing replaces dips easily but what can i do instead of em since i have no dip station ( runnning your Real Results routine)

Steven's picture
Posted Tue, 10/11/2011 - 18:43

You lift at home or at a gym?

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Posted Sat, 10/25/2014 - 00:45
Kevin Jude Landers

Steve Shaw, Can i have your email address please?
argent matter... or please,
mail me!
woulld be much delighted

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Posted Sun, 09/16/2012 - 13:26
Darren White

Push-ups... Push-ups are another great bodyweight chest building exercise

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Posted Mon, 07/14/2014 - 06:50
Joe D

100%. No equipment needed, can be done practically anywhere, can move from wide to narrow stance, from horizontal to vertical hand-stand u-up.

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Posted Sun, 07/13/2014 - 17:38
Tyler Anderson

Grab two barbells and lay them across the safety bars of a power rack if the gym isn't too busy. Instant dip station.

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Posted Tue, 10/11/2011 - 17:14
Gareth Bedford

Great tips once again. I really want to do squats but I have a bad knee and my doctor told me squats aren't a good idea. I do leg presses which are ok but I don't feel like I'm working as hard. Do you have any tips for someone like me? My knee is weird, it comes and goes, like sometimes I can do lunges and sometimes I can't. Do you think strapping my knee up could help? Thanks in advance. Really enjoy your articles

Steven's picture
Posted Tue, 10/11/2011 - 18:45

What is the nature of your knee injury? Without knowing more it's hard to recommend replacement exercises.

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Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 00:50

Home , i have pretty much anything needed except of a dip station , and i dont seem to be able to find something that can work as one.Thanks!

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Posted Wed, 10/26/2011 - 18:52

I dont have a dip station either and have found out that by placing a heavy duty chair close to a wall and placing your hands on the edge of the chair, you are able to do dips this way. Although your entire body weight isnt used but its better than nothing.

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Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 04:31

its a great article Steve :) and i`m doing some of those on my workouts...
i`m just wondering, is it more effective if you do more reps or doing more set?

Steven's picture
Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 10:57

I don't recommend adding sets. Keep the sets you;re using and push for as many reps as possible. Add weight when you can.

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Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 04:39
Gareth Bedford

Hi Steve
Sorry I should of said its a cartilage issue. I twisted my knee playing football (soccer!) 20 years ago at school. Any help would be appreciated Steve thanks

Steven's picture
Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 10:59

Did you tear something? Did it require surgery? What types of limitations does it give you?

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Posted Thu, 10/13/2011 - 02:40
Gareth Bedford

I tore a bit of cartilage on my left knee but it was diagnosed as internal bruising so I've been walking round with it for 20 years, lots of natural wear and tear as well. When I do leg press I feel like my right leg is doing all the work. I do leg extensions 1 leg at a time like physio but it the compound movements I want to concentrate on. I had no surgery on the knee and it makes me limp in cold weather. Do you think I should do leg press 1 leg at a time, is it as effective? By the way I have no problems bending my legs for deadlifting. Thanks in advance Steve

Steven's picture
Posted Thu, 10/13/2011 - 10:37

This is a really tough question for me to answer. I certainly don't recommend pushing yourself on exercises that may lead to further injury. My best advice is to try and use higher reps for the exercises you can perform.

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Posted Thu, 10/13/2011 - 16:02
Gareth Bedford

Thanks Steve I know it was a tough question to ask and I just wanted to say thanks for sticking with it. I promise next time I'll ask something less awkward. Thanks for your help and patience with me

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Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 07:38

im training at home , i have squat rack (homemade) , bench etc etc .. but not a dip station . And i cant find anything i can use as one.Any suggestion or an alternate for dips?

Steven's picture
Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 11:00
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Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 09:45

My gym does not have a squat rack but they have 4 smith machine racks. Currently I squat 275 for 5 reps. I know this isn't as effective as regular squats but is it still beneficial or would it be better to use leg press machine? Thx!

Steven's picture
Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 11:02

I don't recommend the use of Smith machines, especially when heavy weight is involved. I would prefer that you use the leg press.

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Posted Wed, 10/12/2011 - 14:21

but the one works chest and the other one works triceps . Or im mistaken...?

Steven's picture
Posted Thu, 10/13/2011 - 10:41

No they are compound lifts.

Dips work chest, triceps, shoulders, etc.

Bench dips won't have the same chest activation, but it's still a great compound lift and excellent for triceps. If you are looking for an equal swap for chest and triceps you won't find one.

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Posted Thu, 10/13/2011 - 15:59

Thx for info Steve. I'm curious though, why would you not recommend smith squats with heavy weight? Also, would it be ok to use smith doing front squats with lighter weight? Thx again!

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 13:42

Smith machines force to to adapt to a lifting plane instead of keeping the lift natural. They are no where near as good as squats, and when you add heavy weight to the mix, you increase your potential for injury with Smith machine usage.

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Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 03:40

Steve i need to get bigger, I'm 17 and i wanna get big by the time i hit 18 , when can i do ?

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 13:43

You want to focus on two things to maximize results:

1) Pushing yourself in the gym. Using good form, always push yourself on every set. When you can perform the recommended number of reps for a set, add weight.

2) Eat to maximize muscle gains. Here are some articles that can help:

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Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 03:48

or can you make me a schedule , like what to do ? thanks

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 13:44

Hi Alex,

Check out the workouts in the M&S database. They will help you reach your goals.

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Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 13:20

Hi Steve,

What is your opinion regarding clean and jerk? Is it essential for shoulders, or are enough press variations sufficient? I usually start my shoulder routine with heavy sets of push press, but have been trying to gradually incorporate more clean and jerk with practice.

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 10/14/2011 - 13:45

Essential for shoulder? No. A good exercise? Yes. Definitely a great exercise choice.

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Posted Sat, 10/15/2011 - 14:20

I had a question reguarding the top 7 muscle building excersises. If you wanted to do full body workouts 3 times a week could you just make up a routine using those 7 excersies and a set range of 4-5 and rep range of 6-12. And would you hit every muscle. Thank you in advance

Steven's picture
Posted Tue, 10/18/2011 - 13:58

Hi Ali,

You are better off using a pull, squat and press movement and then adding a couple of assistance lifts.

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Posted Fri, 10/21/2011 - 11:24

I was wondering if you could help me out with this work out schedule I put together.. I always warm up by riding my bike to the gym and hitting the treadmill at the start and end of my work outs..

High intensity work week

                                        Monday & Thursday  

    -Barbell bench press ( 7 sets going up in weight each set by 10 pounds)
    - Dumbell incline drop sets.   ( 3 sets )
    - Dumbell fly drop set.    ( 3 sets )

    - triceps push downs drop sets.  ( 3 sets )
    - triceps Rope pull over head drop set ( 3 sets )  
    - tricep machine push down drop set. ( 3 sets ) 

    - Dumbell seated shoulder press /drop set
    - Dumbell lat raises / drop set
    -cable front raises ( 3 set each arm )

Legs ( on Monday  )
    - smith machine squats ( 4 set going up in weight each set )
    - weighted step ups ( 4 sets going up in weight each set )

Abs ( on Thursday )
                                    Tuesday & Friday 

      - lat push down drop set ( 3sets )
      - lat pull down drop set (3sets)
      - seated cable row (3sets)
      - smith machine stiff leg dead lift combined with smith machine shrug

      - ez bar arm curls
      - standing alternating Dumbell curl
      - machine preacher curl

Legs ( Friday)
       - machine leg press ( 4 sets going up in weight each set)
       - leg curls (4 set)
       - leg extension  ( 4 set )

Abs (Tuesday only)

                       Wednesday ( rest or do a leg work out )
   - 1 mile in the beginning and end of work out day  
   - smith machine squats 
   - weighted step ups
   - leg curls
   - leg extension 
   - leg press

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 10/21/2011 - 14:00

Hi Anthony,

Right now you have far too much volume, and aren't using a lot of the most effective exercises.

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Posted Sat, 10/22/2011 - 02:57

Well one of the problem that i am facing is that, for the last 8 month I have been using the more effective exercise that you have listed and they have worked really good. In fact I have dropped from 285 to 235... And now I'm trying to switch things up... that was the goal of this work out that I'm trying to put together.. When you say I have for to much volume. Do mean I have to many exercises per body part? And what is your opinion on doing drop sets..

Steven's picture
Posted Sat, 10/22/2011 - 09:18

There is no need to switch things up. That's a myth. Stay focused on thepo0gression of weight using the most effective exercises.

Regarding volume, limit your sets to around 15 maximum [per major bodypart and 9 for minor bodyparts.

Drop sets...they aren't needed for most lifters. I don't recommend techniques like that until you have already gained a quality amount of muscle and strength.

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Posted Mon, 10/24/2011 - 08:34
Gareth Bedford

Hi Steve
I've just done a leg workout and I thought I'd give squats a go and see what my knee was like. However there was a twinge in my bad knee just using empty bar! However I thought I would give hack squats a go and it was fine. In my gym the hack squat machine is set at about 45 degrees and I managed to increase the weight. I'm telling you this because when I asked you about alternate routines it was a tough question and I just yhoifht if anyone else wrote to you with a similar cartilage knee issue maybe you could advise them to carefully try hack squats. Thanks for your help Steve

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Posted Fri, 11/04/2011 - 04:51

hey steve, i am trying to find a workout that would best fit my goals..i read and read and read again all the articles and worouts offered by m&s but the more i read, the more confused i became...but of everything i read, i liked ur articles and workouts so i thought i should ask you for an advice. im looking for a workout that will help me build muscle size, definition and well as strength. i only found one but it said the workout was designed for advanced ppl..i consider myself somewhere in the middle...if you could plz help me out i would forever be in your debt..thank you in advance

Steven's picture
Posted Thu, 11/17/2011 - 11:06

My best advice is to use a fullbody workout for the first 6 months. It will serve you well. Start with the basics, build muscle, and move on to a move advanced workout as needed.

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Posted Sat, 11/12/2011 - 13:48

Hi Steve,
For the exercise "behind the neck presses" you say go no further then arms perpendicular to the floor. I'm not sure I understand that. Could you please explain further? Thanks.

Steven's picture
Posted Thu, 11/17/2011 - 12:15

Sorry I meant parallel. Arms parallel to the floor.

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Posted Tue, 11/15/2011 - 19:44

hey im still just a kid and im a volleyball player but im not good enough to play on the national volleyball team that plays near me how could i get a higher verticle while increasing my over all strength and speed?

Steven's picture
Posted Thu, 11/17/2011 - 12:16

Weight training can help, specifically squats.

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Posted Sat, 12/17/2011 - 15:19
Santos Calderon Jr.

Steve just wondering if you could design a work out with how many execise an rep. Looking to build strenght and get rid of some fat. My work out goes like this Monday and Thursday Chest (flat bench, incline bench and decline bench) (Triceps close grip bench, overhead kicks 2 hands and tweeker( flat dip)on Tueday and Friday I work shoulder seated shoulder over head press DB seated lateral flies DB barbell shoulder press Military. On Wednesday Legs (squat, leg curls and leg extension abs crunches knee bent and incline knee bent I also do back barbell incline press front hands and reverse hand. I gotten stale in would like to find a new routine. I'm 47 just looking to get and better shap. Thank you for your time. My set is free weight with dumb bells, my bench has a squat rack and leg execise and curl bar.

Steven's picture
Posted Tue, 12/20/2011 - 09:53

Are you familiar with Wendler's 531? This might be a good choice for you. If not post up your question here and we can help you out a bit more:

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Posted Mon, 12/19/2011 - 23:46

Hey just wondering why pressups/pushups isn't on the list? Is it because it is somewhat difficult to progress it after a point?

Steven's picture
Posted Tue, 12/20/2011 - 09:55

The body will adapt to them quite rapidly, and it's not an exercise you can easily add extra resistance too.

It's a solid bodyweight exercise, but not good enough to make the list.

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Posted Tue, 01/03/2012 - 13:20

My favorite comment...
Barbell Curls. A classic. Just don't curl in the squat rack.

Hate it when people do that!! Outta my way and let me squat!

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Posted Fri, 01/06/2012 - 17:18

it's ok if I use 3x5 3x7 heavyweight with these exercises????