Stop using someone else’s top-10 muscle-building exercises! The popular trend is to have bodybuilders and fitness influencers share their top-10 exercises. As with most things fitness, this is interesting, but rarely helpful. Instead of trying to use someone else’s best exercises, here is how you can find YOUR top-10 exercises for building more muscle.
Start with the Big-6
Forget about the big-3,4, or 5 exercises. If you want to strong, balanced muscular physique, do the Big-6. The 6 most important movements for building strength and size are:
- Squat (squats, lunges, step-ups and single leg squats)
- Hinge (deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, back extensions)
- Vertical Pull (pull-ups, chin-ups and pulldowns)
- Vertical Push (shoulder presses and high-incline presses)
- Horizontal Pull (bent over rows, chest supported rows, bodyweight rows)
- Horizontal Push (bench presses, dips, push-ups)
Personalize your exercise selection
Remember, while you want to select exercises from the Big-6, there many exercises options in each movement category (check out my YouTube Exercise Video Library for ideas). For building muscle, there is no one exercise you “have” to do. Don’t worry if your exercises are not the same as some famous fitness influencer. Instead pick exercises that:
- You can do without joint pain – during or after training. No matter how good an exercise is for someone else, if it hurts you, it will beat you up, not build you up.
- Suit your joint structure and body proportions. For example, depending on your shoulder structure (acromion type to be specific), you might not be able to do direct overhead pressing and a high-incline press might be a better option for you. If you have long legs and a short torso, you will have a tough time building your squats with back squats. (See Squat Right for Your Body Type and Deadlift Right for Your Body Type)
- You feel comfortable and competent performing. If you feel unsafe or incompetent with an exercise, you will not train hard and heavy enough to build muscle. Either learn the movement and get over your fear, or pick a different exercise.
- Has a good benefit-to-cost ratio. If an exercise is excessively taxing on your nervous system or joints, the benefits of doing that exercise and the inroad it makes to your recovery may not be worth the benefit you get from that exercise.
- Lets you use big weight. All else being equal, more weight on big movements usually means more muscle.
- You can feel the target muscle. If you can’t feel it, you can’t build it. If you get stuck between 2 similar exercises, pick the one that your feel the best mind-muscle connection.
- Are easy for you to progress. Building muscle without drugs requires you to get substantially stronger on your main movements. If an exercise feels great, but is very difficult to progress, it won’t be a good muscle building exercise in the long run.
- Focus more on your natural weaknesses and less on your strengths. For example, I have really long arms. As a result, I naturally use (and thus develop) my lats more than my arms when performing pull-ups. By using chin-ups, I can shift the focus to my lagging biceps.
Then Pick Your Final 4
Now that you have your big-6 movements, you have 4 exercises remaining. Here is where you need to take an honest look at your physique and consider your previous training experience. Remember, you have hit most of your muscles with the Big-6. Not every muscle will require an isolation exercise to grow. What muscles on your body need to the most work and are the most difficult for you to develop? Select 4 isolation exercises to target the muscles that need the most work right now (these can change in the future). To select your final 4, the above criteria we looked at for selecting your Big-6 is still helpful. However, with isolation exercises, big weight is less important, and a strong mind-muscle connection (all else being reasonably similar) is most important. Although you will not be able to progress isolation exercises as much as you can your big movements, you should still focus on gradually adding reps or weight over time.
Finding your best muscle-building exercises requires you to stop worrying about what works for others and do what works for you. This takes time, patience and careful record keeping. If you have the disciple to ignore distractions and keep progressing your exercises, you will enjoy building your body.
While finding your top-10 exercises is great, most people will need more than 10 exercises to maximize muscular development (more on this in an upcoming article). You will have seasons of life where pursuing other important goals will limit the time you can devote to training and recovery. Knowing your top-10 will help you focus on your most important exercises and maximize your limited training time. Other times you will have the time and recovery ability to add more exercises. If you do so with wise restraint and an extra focus on recovery, you will further enhance your muscular development.
For a complete guide to building muscle without drugs, check out my book: Size for Skinny Guys: A Hardgainer's Guide to Building Drug-Free Muscle.