20 Finest Workouts for Each Muscle, Based on Science

Everyone who’s into fitness has some methodology, piece of equipment, or program they like over anything else. Some men are ab exercise junkies, others are all about arm workouts. Some like to circuit train every day, some follow bodybuilding protocols. 

You might already know the importance of a full-body workout. Chances are, your routine targets all the necessary major muscle groups. But are you attacking those muscle groups with the absolute best exercises possible?

Certain strength strategies have withstood the test of time. And specific exercises have become staples in every serious lifter’s plan. If you want to make the most of your gym routine, make sure you add the best exercises for men into your workouts.

Best Shoulder Exercises, According to Science

With their multi-directional movement and corresponding muscles to power such movement, the shoulders can’t be properly targeted with just one move. The best shoulder exercises work your delts, upper trapezius, serratus anterior, rotator cuff muscles, and levator scapulae. By working these muscles in different planes of motion and targeting smaller stabilizing muscles, you fortify your joints against injury and build the ultimate aesthetic. Researchers from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) set out to find the best moves to target these specific shoulder muscles. Caveat: The study was small, with only 16 male volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 included.

Best Front Delts Exercise: Dumbbell Shoulder Press

For the most muscle activation in the front delts, researchers found the dumbbell shoulder press reigns supreme, besting pushups, cable diagonal raises, dips, dumbbell front raises, battle ropes work, barbell upright rows, bent-arm lateral raises, 45-degree incline rows, and seated rear lateral raise.

When performing dumbbell shoulder presses, avoid using momentum to keep the tension on your shoulders.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Hold dumbbells by your shoulders with your palms facing forward and elbows bent 90 degrees, to start.
  2. Engage your core and knit your ribs down so they don't flare out as you press the weights overhead, maintaining good posture without leaning back.
  3. Slowly lower to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Medial Deltoid Exercise: 45-Degree Incline Row

The medial deltoid gets the biggest workout from the 45-degree incline row, according to Jessica Matthews, M.S., D.B.H, and associate professor and program director in the College of Health Sciences at Point Loma Nazarene University.

The key to getting the most from an incline row is squeezing and holding at the top of the movement.

James Michelfelder & Therese Sommerseth

How to Do It

  1. Straddle the seat of an incline bench set to 45 degrees and lie chest down, holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing in, toes on the floor, to start.
  2. Retract your shoulder blades to engage your lats, then row both dumbbells parallel to your hips.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades and hold for a count of two at the top, then slowly lower with control to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Rear Delts Exercise: Seated Bentover Lateral Raise

To light up the posterior deltoid, researchers found the seated bentover lateral raise and the 45-degree incline row both provided the most muscle activation for the rear delts.

Seated rear lateral raise is a great way to work the rear delts by isolating the upper body.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells and sit on the edge of a flat bench, to start. 
  2. Let the dumbbells to hang by your sides. Keeping your back straight, bend forward until your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the ground.
  3. Maintaining a slight bend in the elbows, raise your arms up and out to the sides until they're parallel with the ground, palms facing down. 
  4. Pause, then slowly return the weights back to the starting position. That's 1 rep.

Best Traps Exercise: Shrugs

To strengthen the traps, Matthews wholeheartedly recommends shrugs, leaving behind upright rows, which can cause shoulder impingement.

Fight the urge to let your legs assist the shrug. Use only your traps.

James Michelfelder

How to Do It

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding dumbbells in each hand by your sides, to start.
  2. Look straight ahead, engage your core, and pull your shoulders back and down.
  3. Without rotating your shoulders or bending your elbows, pull your shoulders up toward your ears. Make sure to keep your head and neck aligned with your spine.
  4. Lower to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Arm Exercises, According to Science

You need a multi-faceted approach to work your arms. Targeting the triceps, biceps, and forearms isn't as simple as doing bicep curls all day long. In an ACE study, 16 men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 were recruited. Participants completed a maximum-voluntary contraction for the biceps by doing an isometric one-arm cable curl, followed by four of the best arm exercises, including: concentration curls, cable curls, chinups, barbell curls, wide-grip EZ-bar curls, narrow-grip EZ bar curls, incline curls, and preacher curls. 

Best Biceps Brachii Exercise: Concentration Curl

To acutely target the biceps brachii, ACE researchers found the concentration curl to be most effective. “Having the upper arm fixed against the leg [or on a bench, as shown below] results in minimal activation of the anterior deltoid, which results in more muscle activity in the biceps brachii,” explains Matthews. 

Concentration curls hit your triceps, the brachialis muscle that flexes the elbow joint, and your forearm's brachioradialis muscle.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Sit on a bench or on a pad designed for concentration curls (pictured above), to start. 
  2. Without lifting your upper arms and elbows from the cushion, curl the bar toward your chest. 
  3. Lower with control to the start position. That's 1 rep.
  4. If using dumbbells, rest your elbow against your same side's inner thigh. 
  5. Engage the bicep to curl the dumbbell, squeezing at the top of the movement. 
  6. Lower with control to the start position. That's 1 rep. Complete all reps on one side, then switch.

Best Triceps Brachii Exercise: Triangle Pushups

In another ACE study, exercise scientists placed electrodes on the long and lateral heads of each subject’s triceps brachii to determine the efficacy of the eight most common triceps exercises. The triceps get quite the boost from triangle pushups, while dips and triceps kickbacks are a close second. “I would use this variation over the traditional pushup because it also strengthens the chest, shoulders, and core,” Matthews says.  

Triangle pushups are a great way to add three-dimensional muscle to your arms, as they hit the triceps more than traditional pushups.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Get in a pushup position, maintaining a straight line from your head down to your heels, to start. 
  2. Position your hands to form a triangle with the space between your fingers. 
  3. Lower yourself until your chest touches the ground.
  4. Push yourself up to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Forearm Exercise

The forearms comprise quite a few extensor (i.e. carpi radialis) and flexor muscles (i.e. brachioradialis). Dedicated forearm exercises help to strengthen them to improve nearly all lifts and grip strength.

Best Brachioradialis and Wrist Flexors Exercise: Wrist Curls

Wrist curls put a huge emphasis on the forearms, creating more well-rounded arms.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Hold dumbbells in either hand and sit on a bench, allowing your elbow and forearm to rest on your thigh, to start.
  2. Your hands should dangle off your knees, palms up, elbows bent at 90 degrees.
  3. With the dumbbells hanging down, curl your wrists so your palms face your biceps. 
  4. Lower with control to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Glute Exercises, According to Science

Being consistent with leg workouts includes dedicated glutes work. They're arguably the body's most important muscles, as they help stave off muscle dysfunction and tightness. Your backside is made up of three important muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The following best glute exercises will keep them strong, according to ACE research, which compared traditional squats, single-leg squats, vertical leg press, quadruped hip extensions, horizontal leg press, stepups, lunges, four-way hip extensions.

Best Gluteus Maximus Exercise: Quadruped Hip Extensions

If you want to target the mighty glute max, quadruped hip extensions (and their weight-loaded cousin, pendulum quadruped hip extensions) will give you the most mass.

Quadruped hip extensions, aka donkey kicks, are a great way to target your gluteus maximus. Make it plyometric and you'll torch calories at the same time.

James Farrell

How to Do It

te: This image depicts a plyometric quadruped hip extension, which is a great way to turn this muscle-building exercise into a fat-burner, too.

  1. Start in a tabletop position, core tight, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, to start. 
  2. Shift your weight into your left side as you elevate your right knee off the ground. Maintaining the 90-degree bend in the knee, extend through your hip with your foot flexed, elevating your foot toward the ceiling. 
  3. Squeeze your glute at the top of the movement, then lower with control to the start position. That's 1 rep. Repeat all reps on one side, then switch.
  4. To do a Plyometric Quadruped Hip Extension: Begin in a high plank, core tight, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, to start. 
  5. Draw left knee toward chest, as if doing a mountain climber. Then, in an explosive movement, kick left leg out and bend knee so foot points toward ceiling, and allow right foot to come off floor momentarily. (Keep the air time low to make it lowest impact, as shown here, or kick higher and land lightly if it feels OK.) 
  6. When landing, straighten right leg, then straighten and lower left leg to return to start. Do all reps on left side, and switch to right for the next set.

Best Glute Medius Exercise: Squats

If your aim is to train functionally (i.e., getting the muscles to work together), Matthews suggests any type of loaded squat. “It trains a primary movement pattern, while focusing on joint stability and mobility along with core integration, and utilizes external load to promote hypertrophy.” 

Barbell back squats are a great way to load the glutes for size and strength gains.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. In a squat rack or cage, grasp the bar as far apart as is comfortable and step under it, to start.
  2. Place it on your lower traps, squeeze your shoulder blades together, push your elbows up and nudge the bar out of the rack.
  3. Take a step or two back and stand with your feet at shoulder width and your toes turned slightly out.
  4. Take a deep breath in and bend your hips back, then bend your knees to lower your body as far as you can without losing the arch in your low back.
  5. Push your knees out as you descend.
  6. Drive vertically through your hips to come back up, continuing to push your knees out, exhaling with the effort. That's 1 rep.

Best Glute Minimus Exercise: Lateral Band Walk

Lateral band walks are excellent as a warmup prior to heavy lifts and runs as they activate the gluteus minimus.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Step in a mini band and position it mid-way up your shins, to start.
  2. Squat down and take a wide step out to create resistance on the band.
  3. Step your other foot in 4 to 6 inches, so there's tension on the band.
  4. Repeat this lateral shuffle for all reps in one direction. That's 1 round. Pause and complete in the other.

To target all three muscles of the glutes, there's one move in particular that's great for total stimulation.

Single-leg hip thrust targets the hamstrings for total burnout.

James Michelfelder

Single-Leg Bench Hip Thrust 

How to Do It

  1. Prop your upper back and shoulders on a bench, to start.
  2. Place your feet flat on the floor, sitting your hips low.
  3. Lift one leg, bending your knee and flexing your toes toward your head.
  4. Drive your anchor foot into the ground as you press both hips up toward the ceiling.
  5. At the top of the movement, squeeze your glutes and hold for two seconds.
  6. Lower to the start position. That's 1 rep. Repeat all reps on one side, then switch.
  7. Use just your bodyweight, or add weight for a greater challenge.

Best Ab Exercises, According to Science

Core strength is essential to everyday life. It helps posture, protects the spine, and acts as a foundation for many recreational activities (basketball, anyone?) The best ab exercises target all the important muscles in your midsection: the rectus abdominus, obliques, and transversus abdominis.

Best Rectus Abdominus Exercise: Swiss Ball Crunches

suspense here: The traditional crunch tested highest for both lower and upper rectus abdominis activation, per ACE research, and hand position (behind head or across chest) makes no difference. Doing it on a Swiss ball ups the challenge by forcing the stabilizing muscles to fire and letting you get a greater range of motion. While researchers found crunches on an exercise ball activated the obliques and rectus abdominus less than bicycles and the captain’s chair, it also generates far less activity in the thigh, putting greater emphasis on the abs.

Swiss ball crunches are an excellent way to work the rectus abdominis, plus the stabilizing muscles of the hips and back.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Lie back on a Swiss ball with feet shoulder-width apart on the floor, to start.
  2. Your lower back should be supported by the ball. Place your hands behind your ears and tuck your chin.
  3. Curl your body up off the ball until you’re sitting up.
  4. Slowly lower with control to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Transversus Abdominis Exercise: Plank

Planks are a terrific exercise to target the transversus abdominis.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Get into pushup position and bend your elbows to lower your forearms to the floor, to start.
  2. Hold the position with abs braced for desired amount of time.

Best Obliques Exercise: Side Plank

The lowest ranked exercise in the ACE studies was the side-plank for targeting the six-pack and V muscles. But vanity isn’t (or shouldn’t be) everything in core training—especially when it comes to health and safety. “It’s important to also include other exercises that effectively target the core’s deep musculature to enhance spinal stability, which is important for movement and everyday life, and can help to lower the risk of developing back issues later down the road,” says Matthews. The side-plank, among other exercises, does just that.

Side planks are challenging for the obliques, shoulders, and hips.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Lie on your left side resting your left forearm on the floor for support, to start.
  2. Raise your hips up so your body forms a straight line and brace your abs—your weight should be on your left forearm and the edge of your left foot.
  3. Hold the position with abs braced for desired amount of time. That's 1 round. Repeat on opposite side.

Best Back Exercises, According to Science

Don't let your chest and biceps hog the limelight. Your back muscles—including your lats, as well as delts and obliques—support your body's entire structure. Here are the best back exercises to build those key muscles.

Best Middle Trapezius Exercise: Bentover Row

James Michelfelder

How to Do It

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell or dumbbells in either hand, palms facing your body, to start.
  2. Expand your chest and pull your shoulders back and down.
  3. Maintain a neutral spine as you lower the weight down your thighs, shifting your hips and butt back, as you would in a deadlift.
  4. Your torso can be parallel to the floor or more upright, depending on your mobility. Row the weight toward your ribs. Squeeze your shoulder blades, then release as you slowly descend. That's 1 rep.

Best Lower Trapezius Exercise: I-Y-T Raises

Among bentover rows, chinups, inverted rows, lat pulldowns, seated rows, and pullups, I-Y-T raises yielded the greatest activation of the lower trapezius.

I-Y-T raises are among the best exercises to work the lower trapezius.

Justin Steele

How to Do It

  1. Straddle a bench set to a 45-degree incline, a light (3 to 10 pounds) dumbbell in each hand, to start. 
  2. Raise arms up and out to form the letters "I," "Y," and "T."
  3. That's 1 rep.

Best Latissimus Dorsi Exercise: Pullup

In the ACE study, pullups and chinups had significantly greater muscle activation in the latissimus dorsi.

Weighted pullups are a fantastic way to build a broader back.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Attach a weighted belt to your waist or hold a dumbbell between your feet, to start.
  2. Hang onto a pullup bar.
  3. Engage your lats by retracting your shoulder blades. Inhale, then pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Exhale at the top.
  4. Slowly lower yourself to the start position. That's 1 rep.

Best Hamstring Exercises, According to Science

Your hamstring muscles are begging for a good workout, as they're incredibly important for mobility and overall leg strength. The best workouts for your hamstrings bulk up every building block of the key muscle group: the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. In an ACE study, researchers set out to see how commonly performed hamstrings exercises would be most effective at activating the biceps femoris and semitendinosis.

Best Biceps Femoris Exercises: Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell swings and prone leg curls were among the top moves to stimulate the biceps femoris, beating out the seated leg curl, glute-ham raise, Romanian deadlift, Swiss ball hamstring curl, reverse hip raise, and glute-ham raise without equipment. 

Kettlebell swings are a dynamic exercise that torches calories while strengthening the entire posterior chain.

James Michelfelder

How to Do It

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart and a kettlebell on the floor in front of you, to start.
  2. Grasp the weight with both hands (palms facing you) and, keeping your lower back flat, tilt the bell toward you so it's resting on its side.
  3. Inhale, then explosively send your hips back, allowing the weight to swing between your legs.
  4. Explosively extend your hips and exhale—allowing the momentum to swing the weight up to shoulder level.
  5. Control the descent. That's 1 rep. Use momentum to begin the next rep.

Best Semitendinosus Exercise: Stability Ball Leg Curl

Swiss ball hamstring curl is among the best move to target the semitendinosus muscle of the hamstrings.

Beth Bishoff

How to Do It

  1. Lie down and place your heels on a Swiss ball, to start.
  2. Brace your abs and raise your hips into the air as described above, but keep your knees straight. 
  3. From there, bend your knees and roll the ball back toward you. Keep your hips elevated. That's 1 rep.

Best Calf Exercises, According to Science

Want bigger legs? Well, you have to add in calf workouts. They're a challenging muscle group to bulk up, and lifters often blame genetics. To bulk your gastrocnemius and soleus, the muscles that make up the calf, you just have to do the right exercises. Running and jumping are particularly helpful.

Best Gastrocnemius Exercise: Jumping Jack

Jumping jacks load the lower body. To boost their effectiveness on building the calves, wear a weighted vest and increase your speed.

Beth Bischoff

How to Do It:

  1. Stand with your feet together and arms at your sides, to start.
  2. Jump and spread your legs outside shoulder width as you clap your hands overhead.
  3. Jump and return your hands and feet to the starting position. That's 1 rep.

Best Soleus Exercise: Standing Calf Raise

Single-leg calf raises directly target the calf muscles to promote growth.

Beth Bischoff

How to Do It

  1. Use a standing calf raise machine or stand on a block or step. With your free hand, hold onto something sturdy for support, to start.
  2. Lower your heels toward the floor until you feel a stretch in your calves.
  3. Drive the balls of your feet into the footplate and contract your calves, raising your heels as high as possible. Control the descent. That's 1 rep.

Best Quad Exercises, According to Science

The moves on our best leg exercises list target everything: glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads. You have four quadricep muscles: vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris. When hones, they build that enviable teardrop above the knee.

Best Rectus Femoris, Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, and Vastus Lateralis Exercise: Bulgarian Split Squat

If you want the biggest bang for your buck, you need to be doing Bulgarian split squats. Research published in PLoS One shows this squat variation provokes high muscular recruitment in all four of the quadriceps muscles.

Dumbbell Bulgarian split squats are among the best exercises to target the hamstrings and glutes.

James Michelfelder

How to Do It

  1. Stand lunge-length in front of a bench, to start.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest the top of your left foot on the bench behind you.
  3. Lower your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Drive through your heel to stand.
  4. That's 1 rep.

Why You Should Trust Us

The exercises listed above are based on recommendations from experts and the result of clinical research from the American Council on Exercise.

“These studies are looking at which exercise in isolation causes the most activity in a particular muscle,” says Matthews. “But that doesn’t mean they’re the best exercise.” 

Your goals are a better guide of what exercises are right for you; if your end-all is bigger muscles and symmetry (say, as a bodybuilder), then, yes, incorporating these into your routine makes a lot of sense. If you’re more interested in increasing your overall fitness, though, you may be better served choosing exercises that improves the body’s function—i.e., how it moves on a daily basis. 

“And if you’re someone who only has time to train two to three times per week, it’s essential to have a well-rounded routine to train the whole body in one workout,” Matthews says. 

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