Ranking The Best Muscle Building Exercises: From Beast To Least

It's time to sort through your muscle building workout routine and see if your exercise selection suck. This article will rate movements from beast to least.

It's time to tune up your training routine. This article will rate exercises for each muscle group from "beast" to "least." Here is the scale:

  • Beast - Typically a compound exercise that allows the use of heavier weight, provides a long term opportunity for progressive overload, and has a reputation for yielding big results.
  • Better - Not the most potent movements on the block but still very effective and can build plenty of muscle mass. A good choice to further punish a muscle after the hard work has been done.
  • Least - These exercises should only be used to end a body part workout, or when no other options exist. Typically "least" exercises do not allow for much progressive overload, and/or offer little bang for your buck.

To maximize the muscle building process, you need to make better choices. Start by looking at your current training routine to see if it's peppered with a fair amount of beast exercises. I recommend at least 2 beast exercises per major muscle group, per week, and at least one beast exercise per minor muscle group, per week.

Beast exercise recommendation
  • Major muscle groups: 2 beast exercises per week. Major muscle groups include back, shoulders, chest and quads.
  • Minor muscle groups: 1 beast exercise per week. Minor muscle groups include hamstrings, triceps, biceps, calves, abs, and traps.

For the back, I typically recommend 3 beast exercises per week. It is good to have a deadlift variation, heavy row, and some sort of pull up or inverted row. You may also choose to use 3 beast mode exercises for quads each week.

After the insertion of beast mode movements, it's now time to consider the rest of your exercises. If you are using any movements found in the "least" category, consider removing them and swapping in a "better" category lift. Only use "least" category movements when you have no other options, or to finish off a muscle group after a hard workout.

Each section below contains exercise recommendations for each body part. They are minimum, but reasonable recommendations. If you want to add in another exercise for major body parts per week because you feel it's necessary, have at it.

Bench Press

Chest exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise and 1 least exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1 better or least exercise.

It should be no shocker that the bench press (and variations) are at the top of the list. Dips fall into the beast category as well. They were once considered the "upper body squat", and should not be dismissed.

You will also notice that I rank exercises such as machine bench presses above dumbbell flyes and cable crossovers. Understand that I am not telling you to never use these "least" exercises. My main point is to choose the beast and better movements first.

If you want to finish off your workout with flyes, pec dec or crossovers, have at it. You've already destroyed your chest, so a finisher using a least exercise won't be a bad thing at all.

  • Beast - Bench press, incline bench press, dips, dumbbell bench press, incline dumbbell bench press.
  • Better - Machine bench press, decline bench press, Smith machine bench press.
  • Least - Dumbbell flyes, cable crossovers, pec dec, push ups.

Shoulder exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise and 1 least exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 1 beast exercise, 1 better exercise and 1 least exercise.

Most trainees give a half-hearted effort on shoulder training day. Make sure you blast your shoulders with at least some form of heavy dumbbell or barbell press before moving on to upright rows or Arnold presses.

Front delts are hammered hard during chest training and require no real direct work. You're better and beast exercises will do a good job blasting your side delts, so if you do use a least exercise, consider bent over reverse flyes.

  • Beast - Military press, seated barbell press, seated dumbbell press, clean and press.
  • Better - Upright rows, seated Arnold press, machine shoulder press, Smith machine shoulder press.
  • Least - Side laterals, cable laterals, bent over reverse flyes.

Dumbbell Rows

Back exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 3 beast exercises, 1 better exercise. 
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1 better or least exercise.

Beast exercises should include a row, pull and deadlift variation. I recommend starting your workout with the deadlift variation. You can choose either deadlifts, low rack pulls, the low rack pull and power shrug combo, or snatch grip deadlifts.

Next add in a row and a pull. Use barbell or dumbbell rows and pull ups or inverted rows.

Pick a better exercise that you enjoy, or that addresses a weak body part. Least back exercises have little value. Avoid them at all costs unless you have no other options.

  • Beast - Deadlift, low rack pulls, pull ups, inverted rows, dumbbell rows, barbell rows, low rack pull and power shrug combo, snatch grip deadlifts.
  • Better - Seated cable rows, lat pull downs, machine rows, T-bar rows, chest supported rows.
  • Least - One arm cable row, one arm Smith machine row.

Quad exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1-2 better exercise. Least exercises optional.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1 better or least exercise.

Quads are a no-brainer. Squats are the king of all barbell exercises. Do them. After squats add in front squats or leg presses. You can also add in paused-squats after your main squat workout is complete, but be warned - they are the holy bringer of DOMS (muscle soreness).

After your squat-o-thon, pick assistance exercises that fit your needs and available equipment. I happen to like leg extensions, as did Tom Platz, so if you do utilize a least exercise it gets my vote.

  • Beast - Squats, front squats, leg press, pause squats.
  • Better - Lunges, hack squats, goblet squats, jumping squats, overhead squat.
  • Least - Leg extensions, dumbbell step ups, Smith squats.

Step Ups

Hamstring exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 1 beast exercise, 1 better exercise.

Hamstrings are the red-headed step child muscle group of bodybuilding. Too many gym rats throw in a couple of hamstring movements but give them a half-assed effort. Don't do this. You need to build and strengthen both your quads AND hamstrings.

Really any combination of beast and better exercises will do. Try them out, see which you prefer, and get crazy strong on them.

Least hamstring exercises typically suck, so I would avoid them unless you are out of options.

  • Beast - Stiff leg deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hack squats.
  • Better - Leg curls, good mornings.
  • Least - Dumbbell leg curls, lying cable hamstring curls, Smith machine stiff leg deadlift.

Traps exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 1 beast exercise, 1 better exercise.

I have to be honest here...I've never seen natural lifters build quality traps using only mind-muscle connection, controlled bodybuilding style movements. In my opinion the traps need heavy weight and/or explosive reps.

My traps really started to come in when I began focusing on power shrugs and deadlifts. Explosive Olympic style lifts like cleans are a good addition to this equation. I also prefer upright rows as the final nail in the traps building coffin when I don't feel like going too heavy on a given day.

  • Beast - Power shrugs, barbell shrugs, power cleans.
  • Better - Upright rows, dumbbell shrugs, behind the back barbell shrugs.
  • Least - Cable shrugs, cable upright row, seated dumbbell shrugs.

Push Ups

Triceps exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 1 beast exercise, 1-2 better.

You can never have enough triceps strength. Focus on the big hitting exercises as much as possible. Then and only then, when your triceps are trashed, should you add in better or least exercises.

The triceps are worked hard during the week from bench and shoulder pressing movements, so there is no real need to perform an excessive amount of direct tricep work. With that said, you should still focus on quality when you do hit this muscle group.

  • Beast - Close grip bench press, dips, two arm seated dumbbell extensions.
  • Better - Skullcrushers, cable tricep extensions, bench dips, French press, seated single arm dumbbell extension, Tate press.
  • Least - Dumbbell kickbacks, cable tricep kickbacks, diamond push ups, overhead pulley extensions.

Biceps exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise or 1 least exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1 better or least exercise.

We all know most gym rats overtrain their biceps. Please don't do this. The biceps are one of the smallest muscle groups in the body. You don't need to hit them with 40 sets each week.

If you can, make chin ups a staple. Understand there is a difference between chin ups and pull ups. Chin ups are performed with your palms toward your face. Pull ups are palms away from the face.

  • Beast - Chin ups, dumbbell curls, barbell curls, EZ bar curls.
  • Better - Pull ups, preacher curls, hammer curls, barbell drag curl, machine curls.
  • Least - Concentration curls, cable curls, Zottman curl.

Bicep Curl

Calves exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise or 1 least exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 2 beast exercises, 1 better or least exercise.

If I had a dollar for everyone that complained their calves wouldn't grow, I'd have a lot of dollars. The problem, as I see it, is that most lifters rarely attack calf exercise progression with rabid intensity.

Try this...using lifting straps, hold a barbell in front of you like you were going to shrug. Instead, perform standing calf raises. Try 3-5 sets of 8 reps, adding weight each workout as long as your reps are quality. See just how strong you can get on this movement.

Jump squats are another amazing calf building option. Give them a try.

  • Beast - Standing barbell calf raises, jump squats, donkey calf raises.
  • Better - Seated calf raise, leg press calf press, standing machine calf press, hack squat calf raises, 
  • Least - Standing one leg dumbbell calf raise, seated barbell calf raises, Smith machine calf raises.

Abs exercises: beast to least

  • Split training weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise or 1 least exercise.
  • Full body weekly minimum recommendation - 1-2 beast exercises, 1 better exercise or 1 least exercise.

If your ab workouts consist of 1,042 crunches per day, please stop the violence. Add non-spinal flexion core work as a staple. After you finish hitting your abs with planks and/or roll outs, then move on to something with resistance like cable crunches or weighed sit ups.

  • Beast - Ab wheel roll outs, barbell roll outs, planks, side planks.
  • Better - Weighted sit ups, decline sit ups, bench jack knife, chair knee raise, hanging knee raise, cable crunch.
  • Least - Crunches, decline bench knee raise, lying floor leg raise, Russian twist.

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29 Comments+ Post Comment

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Posted Sat, 02/13/2016 - 04:23
Kayhan

Hi Steve,

I feel its the best thing to understand this ranking of yours, before constructing a plan.

Thanks.

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Posted Tue, 10/28/2014 - 07:29
Joseph

hi steve, for how many sets and reps each exercise?
Hope you can answer my question ASAP. Im gonna start this workout this week
Thanks

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Posted Fri, 10/24/2014 - 11:11
Alejandro A Aguilar

This is now one of my new favorite articles. Great list to help with variances and good explanations. Thanks a lot Steve!!!!

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Posted Fri, 10/24/2014 - 02:17
Bill

Hi Steve, just wondering what to replace deadlifts with that's reasonably beast? I herniated L3/L4, L4/L5 and L5/S1 in the past and every time I start doing deads again I go alright for a a few months and then end up blowing out a disc or two and end up needing to take a couple months off lifting completely. It'd be great to find an exercise that gives me similar results but a lot easier on my discs. If it makes a difference I alternate between Wendlers 5/3/1 and Westside for Skinny Bastards.

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 10/24/2014 - 09:03
Steven

I personally love dumbbell rows. I think they are more back-friendly than barbell rows and and an excellent choice.

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Posted Fri, 10/24/2014 - 21:43
Bill

Thanks Steve, they're going in my back routine on Monday!

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Posted Tue, 04/15/2014 - 20:33
Nick

You had dumbbell flyes under least for chest?!?! If you knew anything about building muscle, you would know that chest flyes build more chest than bench presses do. Any bodybuilder would agree with me.

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Posted Sun, 04/06/2014 - 17:57
Camilla

Steve, how are squats for abs?

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Posted Thu, 03/13/2014 - 14:41
Rye

For shoulders, what is the difference of "Beast - Military press, seated barbell press, seated dumbbell press". Military Press referring to standing?

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Posted Tue, 01/14/2014 - 10:20
Mesuti

IT HAS BEEN SAID,GREAT ARTICLE. IT GIVES A OVERSTANDING OF WHAT IT REALLY TAKES FOR ACHIEVEMENTS. ON WHICHEVER LEVEL YOU ARE SEEKING. THX SO MUCH FOR THAT. KEEP UP THE AWESOME WORK. NOW ALLOW ME TO PUT IT INTO EFFECT.

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Posted Sun, 01/05/2014 - 14:40
Dan

Wait so references for why these exercises are great ? lol or we just talking on your scientific knowledge and not actual research of muscle stimulation ...

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Posted Fri, 01/03/2014 - 06:00
nick

Great article Steve, fantastic information for people to put themselves together an excellent training program.I think I'm going to leave out some favourites for some more ' beast ' exercises. Thank you for the info Nick

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Posted Sat, 12/28/2013 - 16:38
Bo Brussen
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Posted Sat, 12/28/2013 - 05:35
Mike Odysseos

What about reverse Skullcrushers ? My opinion it must be a beast.
wonderful article

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Posted Thu, 12/26/2013 - 16:04
Dan

What's the best rep and set range for these excerises more a skinny guy to gain mass and muscle

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Posted Wed, 12/25/2013 - 22:36
Cris

What are your powerlifting stats? Just asking

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Posted Wed, 12/25/2013 - 23:04
Steven

I hit close to an 800 deadlift, 700 squat and 450 bench this year.

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Posted Tue, 12/24/2013 - 22:14
David

This is one beast of an article :)

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Posted Sat, 12/21/2013 - 18:50
Derek

"I have to be honest here...I've never seen natural lifters build quality traps using only mind-muscle connection, controlled bodybuilding style movements" - this is actual the way I can build them

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Posted Sat, 12/21/2013 - 16:58
Abhay

What do you recommend for forearms??

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Posted Sat, 12/21/2013 - 11:19
yanivb

if i do dips, should i add another beast excercise for the triceps?

if i do jumping squats, should i add another beast excercise for the calves?

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 22:08
Max

Hi steve .... Floor press that the category would place ?

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 20:15
Laura V. Downs

This was a wonderful article and very informative. TY. :-)

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 19:36
Jonas

Where would you rank dragon flags or Swiss-ball plank as abs exercises?

Steven's picture
Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 22:11
Steven

Beast. Those are 2 good choices.

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 18:12
Eif

Some great pointers here that I will take on-board. A lot of what I'm already doing fits in with the pointers here. However, I'm looking to set up a 3 day (Mon, Wed, Fri) split to hammer the whole body, with ab work split across all 3 days. Chest/triceps/shoulders back/biceps/traps, Quads/hams/calves is the split I'm thinking of but I'm concerned over pairing chest and shoulders. Any suggestions on the best 3 day split would be welcome!

FYI - I'd love to add in a 4th day to blast shoulders independently, however I'm not able to commit every week to that due to other commitments, so I need to fix a stable routine that I can stick to.

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 17:00
Devan

You didn't even add in Deadlifts for Traps?!?!

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 18:32
Steven

I already told them to add deadlifts for back training, so their inclusion was a given.

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Posted Fri, 12/20/2013 - 16:52
jason

Nice