Skip to main content

Top 5 Muscle-Building Exercises of All Time

Saguren Redyrs, Editor of SA Spotters .

Exercises That Build the Most Muscle


This article is targeted at bodybuilders and people who want to increase muscle size. I count down the 5 exercises that are the most powerful in transforming your body into the muscle-vicious machine it deserves to be. If you can only do a few exercises (time limits anyone?), make sure you do these exercises. They're listed in order of potency and are judged according to their ability to force the body into building muscle. Since they are ranked according to the rate at which they build muscle, these exercises might not be the top exercises for burning fat, increasing fitness levels or user-friendliness. If you want a list for one of these, let me know in the comments below. Since muscle strength and size are so closely related, these exercises are also among the best for increasing strength.

What All These Exercises Have in Common

Before we start, I'd like to let you know what these exercises have in common, besides the fact that they build muscle better than any other exercise.

  • They are Compound Exercises

All of these exercises are compound exercises. Compound exercises recruit more than one muscle group, as opposed to isolating exercises. For example, the bench press is a compound exercise because it uses your chest muscles along with your shoulders and triceps to move the weight. Bicep curls, on the other hand, are isolated exercises because they target only one muscle group: the biceps.

  • They are hard to do

Their fantastic muscle-building abilities come at a price: they are hard to do, especially if you are doing them properly. I've personally noticed that the exercises I hate doing the most produced the best results. They are also extremely draining. They are very hard on your body, which is why it gets such a big fright and builds muscle as a response. Also, the fact that they hit the body so hard is why they produce the next two muscle-building qualities listed below.

  • They Release Muscle-Building Hormones

These exercises force your body to produce hormones that build muscle more than other movements. These hormones include testosterone and growth hormone. For more information, see the relationship with exercise and hormones here.

  • They Burn a Lot of Calories

The toll that these exercises bring causes your body to burn fat, along with the muscle-building results we are after. These exercises burn a lot of calories during the activity, but also for a long period of time after you have done the exercise. This makes it important to eat enough calories if you want to build up as much muscle as possible, or your body might not have the nutrients it needs to build them guns.

Make Power Your friend


1. Dead Lifts

Dead-lifts are first on the list and are ranked number one. They are non-arguably part of the two top muscle-building exercises: squats and deadlifts. No other exercise comes close to these two. Many argue that squats should take spot one, whilst others say that dead-lifts are king. Deadlifts and squats should share the top rank. I decided to put dead-lift firsts because they involve your arms and shoulders more.

Muscles Involved

The dead lift activates over 20 muscles! Your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, lower back, upper back, traps, forearms, biceps and shoulder muscle groups are mostly stimulated in this exercise.


Standard, sumo, Romanian, stiff-legged and one-legged deadlifts are the most common variations. Beginners should focus on standard deadlifts.


  • Stiff-legged deadlifts are great to isolate your lower back, hamstrings and glutes. I do this variation to strengthen my lower back.
  • I use an alternate grip (one hand reverse grip and other hand standard grip) to prevent the bar from rolling out my hands.
  • Deadlifts carry a high risk of injury if you do them wrong. Make that sure your form is perfect and start off low. Build yourself up slowly to avoid injury.

See the video below to check you form and learn more about deadlifts.

How To Dead Lift and Mistakes to Avoid

Not Easy, But Worth It

Scroll to Continue

2. Squats

You must squat regularly. You don't want to be that top-heavy guy with skinny legs. I'd rank squats along with deadlifts at number 1, since both exercises are king. The squat is used to increase power and speed in many sports. It will also increase the height you can jump.

Muscles Involved

Squats also involve almost every muscle in the body. The muscle groups that get a lot of stimulation are the calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes and core.


Common variations include the standard, back, front, jump, one-legged, dumbbell, kettlebell, farmer, weightless, isometric, goblet and wall squat.


  • You can hurt your lower back if you don't squat right, so focus on using the right form.
  • There are things you can do if you feel light-headed or dizzy after squats or deadlifts (click for link more information).

The video below will show you the importance of squats, difference between front and back variations and the right way to perform both.

How to Squat and the Differences Between Front and Back Squats

Everyone's Favorite - For Good Reason


3. Bench Press

Unlike deadlifts and squats, people aren't as scared of the bench press. It is one of the most popular exercises because of its well-known ability to explode chest and triceps size. The bench press earns the number 3 spot on the list.

Muscles Involved

The main muscles involved are the chest, shoulder and triceps muscle groups.


The bench press can be divided into bar and dumbbell variations. You also get close-grip, wide-grip and reverse-grip variations. The push up and cable cross-over stimulates the same muscle mechanics as the bench press.


  • Try to use free weights (bar and dumbbell) instead of the machine bench press because it activates more muscle groups. Using the machine limits the challenge of stabilizing the weight, which recruits more muscles. For this reason, dumbbells challenge your shoulders more because they have to balance the weights individually.
  • When doing barbell bench presses, try to get someone to spot you in case you fail and cannot lift the bar. It happens. If you are pushing your limits then it might happen more often. I always ask for a spot because I often fail and need assistance with placing the bar back on the rack.

See the video below to make sure that you have the right form. The wrong form can hurt your wrists, elbows or shoulders.

The Proper Way To Perform a Bench Press

You Hate Them. That's Why They Work


4. Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are touted as one of the best exercises you could ever do, for good reason. Our number 4 exercise will help you get that V-shape torso that everybody wants. As much as I personally dread this exercise, I cannot do anything but thank it for the wonderful effects that it's had on my body.

Muscles Involved

Almost every muscle in your upper back responds to the pull-up. The main muscles worked are your upper back, biceps, shoulders, traps and forearms. The core is also considerably involved in stabilizing your body during the movement.


Chin ups are pull ups with reverse grip. They target the biceps more, but are still good for your back. You get chin-up, assisted, plyo, Australian, kipping, dead hang, close-grip, and wide-grip pull-ups.


  • The wider the grip, the harder the pull up will be and the more emphasis is placed on your lats.
  • Focus on getting your grip right, or else you will end up slipping and disrupting the rest of your set. When you hold the bar right, you will get fewer calluses.

See video below for the do's and don'ts, benefits of different types of pull ups and more info.

Executing the Perfect Pull-Up

Row (TRX Suspension Version)


5. Rows

Rows have made it to number 5 on our list (it was a close call between these, dips or shoulder presses). While pull-ups will widen your back, rows will add bulk muscle. Rows are a fantastic exercise that also involves almost every muscle in your body in one movement. The picture is if a TRX suspension version of the row, but the best versions for muscle growth are bent barbell rows.

Muscles Involved

Depending on the variation, muscle groups used vary. Bent barbell rows use your entire posterior chain (the muscles at the back of your body) and your biceps. Rows zone in on your upper back muscles, biceps and rear shoulders.


Machine, incline, decline, wide-grip, suspension, TRX, close-grips, barbell, dumbbell, and bent-over rows are the most common variations


  • Make sure that your lower back is straight and slightly arched in the right direction to strengthen it, promote good structure and avoid injury.
  • Fully extend your arms and bring the weight close to your chest to get the full range of motion of this exercise.

See video for the importance of rows and proper execution.

Row Importance and How-To

Runner Ups

The following exercises were too good for me not to mention for building muscle, even though they are not on the list:

  • Dips
  • Shoulder Press (Also known as Overhead Press)
  • Lunges
  • Abdominal Bicycle

These exercises are also great for packing on muscle.

One More Tip

  • The most common way for people to train is to start with their compound movements and end with isolate movements. For example, on my back and biceps day I start with pull-ups and end with bicep curls. Most people do this because compound exercises are draining and use a lot of your energy. Your muscles are fresh at the beginning of your workout. Imagine if your bench press was limited because your triceps are tired from triceps extensions. Your chest won't get to maximize its workout because the triceps fail too early. Compounds before isolates are most common, but some do it the other way around for reasons like muscle confusion or targeted growth. Beginners should start with compounds and end with isolates.

Do you think that there is another exercise that should knock out one of the power-house exercises listed above? I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below. As always, I'm also open to any other thoughts and questions.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles