Exercise Selection: Which Lifts are Best for Building Muscle?
What are the best exercises for bodybuilding and hypertrophy training—for building muscle? How do we sort those exercises and pick between them? Which lifts complement one another, building a balanced routine, and which lifts replace one another, serving as options to pick between?
To find the best exercises, we’ll look at hypertrophy research, with the gold standard being studies that compare different lifts and then measure muscle growth. We can also look at the biomechanics of the lifts, seeing which lifts have the best dynamics to engage different muscles. And when we have no other choice, although this path is fraught with peril, we’ll also look at muscle-activation (EMG) research.
Then we’ll break the exercises down into the main lifts that serve as the foundation of our workout routines, the assistance lifts that train the same movement patterns but that emphasize different muscles, and the accessory lifts that target the muscles that aren’t properly stimulated by compound lifts. That way we aren’t just talking about the “best” lifts, we’re talking which lifts complement one another to give us a balanced workout routine.
So, which exercises should you build your workout routine out of? Let’s see.
- The Principles of Exercise Selection
- Free Weights vs Cables vs Machines
- Structure: Main, Assistance & Accessory Lifts
- The Best Exercises for Hypertrophy
- How to Know if an Exercise is Stimulating Muscle Growth
The Principles of Exercise Selection
Big Compound Lifts for Overall Efficiency
Imagine trying to fill a bucket with rocks of various sizes. Some of those rocks are enormous, some are as small as sand. Which rocks do you focus on first? If we start with the smaller rocks, yes, it might be easy, but we’d need to carry quite a few rocks to the bucket before making a noticeable impact. Worse, by the time we get to the bigger rocks, they won’t fit properly. It’s often wiser to start by filling the pail with the biggest rocks. After that, we can add as many smaller rocks as we need to fill in the gaps, and then finally the sand, which will trickle down around the other rocks, filling every little nook and cranny.
So, the first thing we want to do is built our program around big compound lifts that engage the most amount of overall muscle mass. This takes care of most—but not all—of the muscle mass in our bodies. Once we’ve picked our compound lifts, we can see which muscles aren’t being stimulated properly, and then add in the smaller lifts to fill in those gaps. For example, if we compare the bench press against the dumbbell fly, both lifts work our chests through a similar range of motion with a similar strength curve. For our chests, the two lifts are quite similar. But the bench press also works our shoulders and our triceps. So in this case, the bench press is the bigger stone. We prioritize it over smaller lifts like the dumbbell fly.
Given how efficient these big compound lifts are, we can train most of the muscle mass in our bodies with just a few movement patterns:
- Squats, such as front squats, back squats, and split squats, work the quads and glutes—the two biggest muscles in our bodies. Our hamstrings, calves, spinal erectors, and adductors will be worked as well, but not always hard enough to stimulate muscle growth.
- Horizontal presses, such as the bench press, push-up, and dip, work the chest and shoulders, and to a lesser extent, the triceps. A number of different core muscles will be worked as well, but not always hard enough to stimulate muscle growth.
- Hip hinges, such as the conventional deadlift, work the glutes, hamstrings, adductors, spinal erectors, traps, and grip. Most of our upper back muscles will be worked as well, but not necessarily enough to stimulate muscle growth.
- Vertical presses, such as the overhead press and landmine press, work the shoulders, traps, and abs. Most of the muscles in our bodies will be worked to some degree, but likely not enough to stimulate muscle growth.
- Vertical pulls, such as chin-ups and pull-ups, work the upper back, biceps, forearms, and abs. A number of other muscles are worked as well, but usually not enough to stimulate much muscle growth.
These five big compound lifts don’t give us a complete hypertrophy program, but they bring us about 80% of the way there, at least for our torsos. (As we’ll cover below, not all of the muscles in our limbs engage properly during compound lifts, and so it’s common for some of the muscles in our arms, legs, and necks to lag behind.)
What about horizontal pulls? You’ll see some programs including horizontal pulls as a main movement pattern, and that’s perfectly fine, but vertical pulls work those same upper back muscles at longer muscle lengths and through a deeper range of motion. The main benefit of horizontal pulls, then, is that they engage our spinal erectors. However, hip hinges, such as the deadlift, do an even better job of that. That doesn’t mean that horizontal pulls aren’t useful, they’re just a bit further down in the hierarchy.
For more, see our article on the Big Five hypertrophy lifts.
Isolation Lifts for Overall Development
There are two reasons why isolation lifts are so important in bodybuilding, and hypertrophy training in general:
- Not all of our muscles are trained properly with compound lifts, such as our biceps, triceps, quads, and hamstrings, and some muscles aren’t trained at all, such as the sternocleidomastoid in our necks.
- If you look at the muscles being worked by the big compound lifts, you’ll see that some muscles are being worked hard enough to stimulate muscle growth, but that most of the muscles serve as stabilizers and supporting muscles. For instance, our hamstrings and spinal erectors are worked by the back squat, but not enough to stimulate much, if any, muscle growth. This means that to stimulate muscle growth in the prime movers—the quads and glutes—we need to tire out a bunch of other muscles, without necessarily stimulating any extra muscle growth. That’s not a bad thing by any means, and it’s great for our general health and strength, but it means that compound lifts are quite tiring. Isolation lifts allow us to add in extra training volume for the muscles that need it without driving our overall fatigue too high. If we want to give our quads a bit of extra work, yes, we could do another set of squats… but we could also do a set of leg extensions, which are much easier.
For an example, let’s take a look at the bench press. The bench press is a great lift for stimulating our chests. We get a deep stretch on our chests at the bottom, we press the weight through a great range of motion, and we’re (usually) limited by the strength of our pecs. If we look at the dumbbell fly, it does exactly the same thing, working our chests with the same strength curve and through the same range of motion. The difference between the bench press and the dumbbell fly, then, is just that the bench press also works the shoulders and triceps.
So from that perspective, it might seem we can accomplish all of our goals with just compound lifts, right? I mean, the bench press is the better lift overall, no doubt. The dumbbell fly doesn’t have any unique muscle-building advantage. It’s just an easier way to add in extra training volume for our chests.
But if we look at our triceps, the story changes. The long heads of our triceps have two functions: they extend our elbows and they flex our shoulders. The bench press extends our elbows, so no problem there, but it also extends our shoulders. That means that if we fully engaged the long heads of our triceps during the bench press, they would pull the barbell down. As a result, the long heads of our triceps aren’t worked very hard with the bench press (study):
Fortunately, the fix is fairly simple. We need to find exercises that either focus on elbow extension, such as triceps extensions, or shoulder flexion, such as pullovers. The main role of our triceps is to extend our elbows. They have much better leverage there. So the better choice is triceps extensions, such as overhead extensions or skull crushers.
By combining the bench press with triceps extensions, we get full development of both our chests and triceps. This is the value of isolation lifts. We can work the muscles that aren’t able to contribute properly to the big compound lifts.
Here are some examples of isolation lifts that train muscles that aren’t worked properly by the big compound lifts:
- Triceps extensions work the long heads of our triceps, which cross both the elbow and shoulder joints, and so aren’t stimulated properly by the bench press (study).
- Biceps curls work our biceps, which cross both the elbow and shoulder joint, and so aren’t worked fully by compound lifts like the chin-up, pull-up, or row (study).
- Leg extensions work our vastus medialis and rectus femoris, which cross both the knee and hip joints, and aren’t worked fully by the squat (study).
- Hamstrings curls work our hamstrings, which cross both the knee and hip joints, and so aren’t worked fully by hip hinges (study).
Other muscles are focused on just one joint, such as our chests (shoulder joint), lats (shoulder joint), spinal erectors (spinal vertebrae), and glutes (hips). They’re already isolated at just one joint due to their insertions, allowing them to contribute fully to the compound lifts. We can still isolate them with isolation lifts, but they don’t need to be isolated to see full development.
And then we have the muscles that aren’t worked at all by the big compound lifts:
- Our necks aren’t trained with any compound lift, and so if you want to build a thicker neck, you’ll need to add in neck curls and extensions.
- Forearm curls and extensions aren’t a part of any compound lift, and so if we want to build bigger forearms, we need to add in forearm curls and extensions.
- Our calves help us balance during the big compound lifts, but they aren’t worked hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. If we want to bulk up our calves, we need to add in calf raises.
- Our side delts aren’t trained very hard with any compound lift, and so if we want to build broader shoulders, it helps to add in upright rows or lateral raises.
So, as you can see, it tends to be the muscles in our limbs that can lag behind if we focus on just the big compound lifts. If we neglect our isolation lifts, we can get fairly complete muscular development of our torsos, but our arms, legs, and necks won’t get anywhere close to their genetic potential.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you need to do all of these isolation lifts. For instance, if you don’t care about fully developing each head of your quads, you don’t need to do leg extensions. Plus, you don’t need to do these isolation lifts all of the time. For example, you might want to do plenty of biceps and triceps exercises for a few months while focusing on bulking up your arms, but then take a break from while you spend a few months focused on bulking up your chest.
For more, see our article on isolation lifts and muscle growth.
Deep Range of Motion for Faster Growth
As a general rule of thumb, lifting with a larger range of motion yields more muscle growth. However, not all parts of the range of motion are equally important. Getting a deep stretch on our muscles at the bottom of the lift increases muscle growth by quite a lot, whereas fully contracting our muscles at the top of the lift does not.
When we stretch our muscles, they behave almost like elastics, passively pulling themselves back to their resting lengths. That tension gets added to the tension we actively generate contracting our muscles. This combination of both passive and active tension puts more overall mechanical tension on our muscles, stimulating much more muscle growth. So if the sticking point of the lift occurs at long muscle lengths, where we get both passive and active tension on our muscles, it has a much better strength curve for building muscle (study).
When we challenge our muscles at shorter muscle lengths, our muscles are weaker, and mechanical tension is only coming from our ability to actively contract our muscles. As a result, it stimulates quite a bit less muscle growth. Plus, we’re often able to keep constant tension on our muscles by avoiding taking our tension off our muscles in the lockout position (of the squat, bench press, deadlift, and so on), which research shows can boost muscle growth by quite a bit (study).
So as a general rule, we want to select exercises that allow us to challenge our muscles in a deep stretch, but we don’t need to worry very much about whether a lift gives us a full contraction at the top of the lift, especially if it means taking tension off of our muscles.
If we look at the main movement patterns, we can choose exercises that use a deep range of motion and challenge our muscles at longer muscle lengths:
- All deep squats challenge our quads at long muscle lengths. Of the squat variations, front squats and goblet squats give our quads an even deeper stretch than back squats, especially if we “sit down” instead of “sitting back.” (Low-bar squats work our hips through a deeper range of motion, but we have hip hinges for that.)
- Horizontal presses, such as the bench press, push-up, and dip, all work our chests and shoulders through a deep range of motion. With the bench press, the trick is to bring the barbell all the way down to our chests. With the push-up, we can raise our hands on push-up handles or weight plates to extend the range of motion, doing “deficit” push-ups. With dips, we can lean forward to get a better stretch on our chests. The main thing is to avoid shallow chest lifts, such as floor presses and pin presses.
- Hip hinges, such as deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and good mornings, challenge our glutes and hamstrings through a deep range of motion. Other hip hinges, such as glute bridges and hip thrusts, do not.
- Vertical presses, such as the overhead press, don’t do a great job of challenging our shoulders at long muscle lengths. We can partially fix this issue by exploding the barbell off our chests, fully engaging our shoulder muscles right from the beginning of the range of motion. Fortunately, the bench press—especially with a narrower grip width—challenges our front delts through a deep range of motion.
- Vertical pulls, such as chin-ups and lat pulldowns, do a fairly good job of working our lats through a deep stretch. The strength curve isn’t perfect, but the range of motion is enormous, making them great lifts overall. Pullovers challenge the lats through an even deeper stretch, making them a good isolation lift for our upper backs.
If we look at the isolation lifts, some use a deeper range of motion than others. Here are some examples:
- For our biceps, we can choose exercises that use a full range of motion and that are harder at the beginning, such as incline curls and sissy curls. But even standard barbell and dumbbell curls are quite good. The trick is to avoid doing curl variations that intentionally make them harder at the top of the range of motion, such as spider curls.
- For our triceps, any isolation lift that bends the elbow will stretch the triceps, making almost every triceps extension variation good for stimulating muscle growth. However, triceps pushdowns involve the least stretch, skull crushers have a moderate stretch, and overhead extensions have an enormous stretch. All of them are good for building bigger triceps, though.
- For our chests, we can favour exercises that challenge our chests in a deep stretch, such as the dumbbell fly, and avoid exercises that challenge our chests at short muscle lengths, such as cable crossovers.
- For our abs, there’s a type of crunch called a myotatic crunch, where we lay our lower backs down on a Bosu ball or cushion, using it to get a deep stretch on our abs. It’s a weird exercise, and it isn’t very common, but thinking logically, it should be better at stimulating ab growth. On the other hand, some spinal experts, such as Dr Stuart McGill, recommend training our abs with a more neutral spinal position, which we can do with planks and hanging leg raises. Those may be a bit safer on our backs. Other experts, such as Dr Brad Schoenfeld, argue that crunches are safe for most people, even when done routinely over several decades.
It’s also worth noting that free weights (such as barbells and dumbbells) and exercise machines (such as cables and Hammer Strength machines) tend to be much better at challenging our muscles at long muscle lengths than resistance bands, and thus should stimulate quite a bit more muscle growth. (Resistance bands are easiest at the beginning of the range of motion, hardest at the end. That’s the opposite of what we want for stimulating muscle growth.)
For more, see our article on why challenging our muscles in a deep stretch stimulates more muscle growth.
Stimulus-to-Fatigue Ratio for Recovery
The next thing to consider when picking bodybuilding exercises is how tiring they are. If we can find exercises that stimulate more muscle growth and less fatigue, then we’ll be able to stimulate more muscle growth more easily. Put another way, we get more muscle growth per unit of fatigue that we spend.
There are a few things that tend to improve our stimulus to fatigue ratio:
- Selecting exercises that allow us to use a deeper range of motion. For instance, choosing front squats instead of low-bar squats. Even though front squats are around 25% lighter, our quads are worked through a much larger range of motion, resulting in an equal amount of quad growth while using less weight.
- Lifting through a larger range of motion. For instance, if we do a half-squat, stopping before our thighs are parallel, then we aren’t reaching the sticking point of the squat. We’ll be able to use more weight, yes, but it won’t stimulate more muscle growth, and it will put much more wear and tear on our hips, shoulders, and backs.
- Keeping the tension on our muscles instead of our joints. The more tension we put on our muscles, the more muscle growth we can stimulate. But the more stress we put on our joints, the harder it is to recover from our training. So we want to choose exercises that are hard on our muscles but easy on our joints. For instance, the low-bar squat tends to bang up people’s hips and shoulders without stimulating any more muscle growth than the front squat. The front squat keeps more tension on our muscles while being easier on our joints.
Putting all of these factors together, compare something like an above-the-knee rack pull against a wide-grip deadlift. The rack pull is incredibly heavy, but it trains our muscles at short muscle lengths and through a short range of motion, reducing the growth stimulus. But we still need to hold that heavy barbell in our hands and support it with our spines, generating a ton of fatigue. The wide-grip deadlift, on the other hand, allows us to sink deeper into the deadlift, stretching our hamstrings and increasing the range of motion. This increases the growth stimulus while reducing the weight we can lift, improving the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio.
The more exercise variety we use, the more general strength and athleticism we’ll develop, the fuller and more balanced our muscles will look, and the lower our risk of injury will be (study, study, study, study). This varies the stress on our joints and connective tissues, preventing repetitive strain issues. And it also varies the stress on our muscles, stimulating different muscle fibres in different ways, and thus getting more balanced muscle growth.
There are times when it’s best to specialize in certain lifts. For instance, a powerlifter will need to orient their training around the low-bar back squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. But even then, the longer we can go before specializing, the better. This concept is often called “building a wide base.” The idea is to build muscle mass using a wide variety of good lifts instead of focusing on just a few lifts.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that our training should be haphazard. Quite the opposite. If our workouts are similar from week to week, it’s easy to know how much weight to load up on the bar and how many reps we need to aim for to beat our previous performance. Can you front squat more than last week? If so, great, the program is working. Keep going. If not, it’s time to adjust. Furthermore, if we have staple lifts that we keep somewhat constant in our training overall, then it’s very easy to see if we’re gradually getting stronger over time. Can you front squat more than last year? If so, great, you’re getting bigger and stronger over time. If not, it’s time to adjust.
So we want a wide variety of exercises in our workout program, but we generally want our workout programs to remain quite consistent from week to week, and to have some common exercises from phase to phase, and even from year to year. For instance, instead of doing 10 sets of front squats every week, we might do 4 sets of front squats, 3 sets of leg presses, and 3 sets of leg extensions. Same volume, more exercise variety. But we can still compare our progress from week to week, since every week we’ll be doing front squats, leg presses, and leg extensions. Then, every few weeks, we might change some of those exercises, change some of the rep ranges. Maybe now we’re doing front squats, Zercher squats, and split squats. We can still measure our progress by looking at the front squat, but 2/3 of our exercise selection has changed.
We need to balance structure with variety. As a general rule, doing 3–4 different exercises per muscle group per week is a good thing, but we also want to keep those exercises constant from week to week so that we can measure our short-term progress (or lack thereof) and adjust our workouts accordingly. Every few weeks, we can adjust our training variables and begin a new training phase, making steady progress in a new way. But as we do that, it’s good to keep at least some aspects constant so that we can measure our longterm progress.
Relevance & Limit Factor
When selecting exercises, we need to make sure that they challenge the muscles we’re trying to grow. For an obvious example of that, if you’re trying to build a bigger chest, then we aren’t just trying to find good exercises, we’re trying to find good exercises that challenge the chest. It could be that the close-grip bench press is a “better” exercise—longer range of motion, deeper stretch, more overall muscle engagement—but if it doesn’t bring the big, meaty muscles in your mid chest close enough to failure, then it isn’t the best exercise for building a bigger chest. At that point, might be wiser to go wider:
For a slightly less obvious example, let’s consider a bodybuilder who doesn’t ever plan on deadlifting. How much lower-back work does he need to do? Not very much. Not unless he specifically wants a bigger lower back. He probably does want a bigger lower back, but even so, he won’t need to put a big emphasis on it. Now consider a powerlifter. Deadlifting is part of his sport. He absolutely needs a bigger lower back. He needs quite a lot of dedicated lower-back training, ranging from deadlifts to reverse hypers to good mornings, and so on.
As you can imagine, then, people with different goals should be picking different exercises. This is what we’ll refer to as relevance—we should be picking exercises that are relevant to our goals. For building a bigger chest, the bench press. For building bigger triceps, triceps extensions. For building a bigger upper back, chin-ups. For building bigger biceps, biceps curls. And we so on and so forth.
Now, how do we know if an exercise is relevant to our goals? One of the most important factors is which muscle group limits our performance. If we’re limited by our chest strength on the bench press, then we’re bringing our chests close to failure with every set, and so they’ll get the largest growth stimulus. That makes the bench press highly relevant to our goal of building a bigger chest.
Now let’s say that you’re trying to build bigger lats. The deadlift does engage our lats. They help pull the barbell in close to our bodies. However, our lats aren’t our limiting factor. Rather, we’ll be limited by the strength of our hips, spinal erectors, or grip. Our lats, then, might get some growth stimulus, but probably not very much. With the chin-up, on the other hand, our lats are a prime mover. It’s very likely that we’ll bring them close to failure with every set. And so the chin-up is a better lift for specifically bulking up our lats.
So this is all to say that we don’t just need to find great exercises, we need to make sure they’re great at helping us accomplish our specific goals. For most of us, we want to start with a well-rounded foundation. We can choose a variety of exercises that allow us to bulk up all of the major muscle groups in our bodies. Let’s talk about how to do that.
Individual Variation & Risk Avoidance
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to select exercises that we can perform safely, that we have the mobility for, that feel good on our joints, and that don’t beat us up over time. The idea is to gradually get bigger and stronger without causing any longterm damage. The tricky thing is that everyone is built a little bit differently, and so everyone responds best to different variations. The good news is that our bodies have a built-in mechanism that tells us if we need to change anything: pain.
For example, sumo-stance low-bar back squats, as are common in powerlifting, are known for beating people up. The shoulder position is quite extreme, and it’s common to crash into our hips at the bottom of the lift. But many people are able to do them for a lifetime without any problems, and if they aren’t experiencing any pain, there’s no reason to think that anything bad is happening under the hood.
Even so, there are some exercises that tend to be safer. With squats, front squats tend to be the safest and healthiest squat variation for stimulating muscle growth for most people. But even then, individual variation can come into play. Some people will need to use a cross-grip if they don’t have the mobility to use a clean grip (yet).
The other thing to consider is choosing exercises that match our skill level. Going back to the example of the squat, both low-bar and front squats are fairly advanced variations. Most new lifters aren’t able to do them properly, especially to a deep depth, which can increase the risk of injury… and also down muscle growth. In that case, choosing beginner variations, such as the goblet squat, can help a great deal. Not only is it a safer beginner variation, but it’s also a great way for a beginner to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth while learning how to squat with proper technique.
Free Weights vs Cables vs Machines
When choosing exercises, there’s actually not as much difference between barbells, dumbbells, cables, and exercise machines as you might think, especially when it comes to gaining muscle size and general strength.
It’s true that free weights tend to result in higher muscle activation as measured by EMG (study, study). Thing is, EMG research is just a proxy for muscle stimulation. It isn’t a reliable way to estimate how much muscle growth an exercise will stimulate (study, study). If we look at actual muscle growth, as measured by a new study by Schwanbeck et al, we see that exercise machines stimulate the same amount of muscle growth as free weights:
Now, I don’t mean for this to sound nihilistic—like it doesn’t matter which exercises we pick. It’s just that sometimes free weights are better for certain movement patterns, such as the deadlift for stimulating hip and back growth, whereas other times machines happen to be better, such as with leg curls for stimulating hamstring growth. We want to look at what we’re trying to accomplish and then pick the best tool for the job, whether that’s a barbell, dumbbell, cable, or exercise machine.
With the big compound lifts, it’s generally best to default to the barbell lifts. The squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up. There’s nothing wrong with doing Smith machine squats or bench presses instead, and some people might need to use the assisted chin-up or lat pulldown machines instead of doing chin-ups. That’s fine. But the big barbell lifts make for a good default.
When it comes to assistance and accessory lifts, though, the options are endless. You can do them with a barbell, dumbbell, cable, or exercise machine—whatever best suits the movement you’re doing. The leg press is a great assistance lift for the squat, the machine press is a great assistance lift for the bench press, and t-bar rows, cable rows, and lat pulldowns are great for building a bigger upper back. A lot of machines that are quite good. Feel free to use them. Or not. It’s not a major factor.
Free weights, cables, and exercise machines are similarly good for gaining muscle size and strength, and so we can choose according to our needs and preferences. As a general rule of thumb, though, we recommend doing your main lifts with free weights and then mixing in some cables and exercise machines (if desired) for your assistance and accessory lifts.
Structure: Main, Assistance & Accessory Lifts
As we’ve covered above, a good way to structure a bodybuilding or hypertrophy workout program is to start with the biggest compound lifts, then fill in the gaps with smaller lifts. These smaller lifts can be lighter compound lifts that train the same movement pattern, such as adding push-ups to the bench press—both of which are horizontal presses. This helps to strengthen the movement pattern without accumulating as much fatigue, while shifting the emphasis to a target area, and while lowering the risk of injury, Or they can be isolation lifts, such as skull crushers, which train muscles that aren’t properly stimulated by the horizontal press—the long heads of the triceps. This allows us to boost the volume of target muscles, and it allows us to build more balanced musculature overall.
That allows us to sort our exercises like so:
- Main lifts: these are the biggest compound lifts that make the foundation of our hypertrophy program. As a rule of thumb, the big compound lifts tend to emphasize the big muscles in our torsos—our chests, shoulders, glutes, and backs. As a default, we recommend the front squat, bench press, conventional deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up. But you can customize them as desired.
- Assistance lifts: these are the secondary compound lifts, usually lighter, that are complementary to the main lifts. Oftentimes, these lifts shift the emphasis slightly more towards our limbs—the short heads of our biceps, triceps, hamstrings, quads, and some of our forearm muscles. For instance, adding the Zercher squat, close-grip bench press, Romanian deadlift, incline bench press, and row. These can be varied from phase to phase, and there’s tons of room for individual customization.
- Accessory lifts: these are the “isolation” lifts, often working just a single joint. These normally focus on the muscles that aren’t worked properly by compound lifts. Oftentimes, that means focusing on our limbs—the long heads of our biceps, triceps, quads, and hamstrings, as well as our necks and forearms. For instance, leg extensions, skull crushers, leg curls, lateral raises, biceps curls, neck curls, and neck extensions. All of these exercises train muscles that won’t be fully developed by compound, multi-joint lifts. You could also use them to boost volume on exercises that the compound lifts are already working quite well, such as adding the dumbbell fly to the bench press to give the chest even more emphasis. These are entirely customizable. Optional, too.
A minimalist hypertrophy program might focus on just the main lifts. That’s often enough to make good progress, but it won’t give ideal results. A standard program might have a main lift, assistance lift, and accessory lift for each movement pattern, like so:
- Squat: front squat + Zercher squat + leg extensions.
- Horizontal press: barbell bench press + dips + skull crushers.
- Hip Hinge: conventional deadlift + Romanian deadlift + leg curls.
- Vertical press: barbell press + one-arm dumbbell press + lateral raises.
- Vertical Pull: weighted chin-up + cable row + biceps curls.
But we can get creative, too. A specialization program might have just a main lift for some movement patterns—totally minimalist—while having tons of accessory lifts for other movement patterns. Once we have a solid foundation, and a default way of adding extra exercises to it, we can fully customize it to suit our goals.
The Best Exercises for Hypertrophy
The squat works our quads and glutes—the two biggest muscles in our bodies—through a deep range motion with a great strength curve, making it perhaps the single best lift for stimulating overall muscle growth. If we choose to do front squats or goblet squats, it can also be a great lift for stimulating growth in our spinal erectors.
Best Main Variations
There are a few great squat variations. The back squat is the most popular, with both a low-bar and high-variation. It’s done by holding a barbell on your back, like so:
The low-bar squat is popular in powerlifting because it allows people to lift more weight. The high-bar squat is popular because it allows for a deeper range of motion with a less extreme shoulder position, and is thus a little bit better for general strength training.
For hypertrophy training, though, we’re more interested in stimulating overall muscle growth, and so instead of trying to limit the range of motion, we want to increase it. Plus, if we can choose variations that give us more upper-body growth, that’s a boon. That gives us the goblet squat for beginners, which is done by holding a dumbbell or weight plate in front of you, like so:
And then once you’ve mastered the movement pattern and/or gotten too strong for the heaviest dumbbell you have access to, you can switch to the front squat. The front squat is done by holding a barbell in front of you, in the crease of your shoulder joint, like so:
The front squat allows the deepest range of motion for our quads, it stimulates growth in our upper backs, it’s one of the safest squat variations, the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio is better than with back squats, it’s often best for our joint health, and it even helps to improve our posture. As a result, it’s a great default squat variation when you’re training for muscle size (bodybuilding, hypertrophy training, general strength training, and so on).
But, as with all the exercises, feel free to pick the squat variation that suits you best. And feel free to alternative between the different variations from phase to phase. You may even wish to include different types of squats in the same training phase, doing back squats one day and front squats another day.
Overall, the best main squat variations are:
- The front squat: ideal for emphasizing the quads and spinal erectors, great for overall hypertrophy, easy to recover from, and carries a low risk of injury. As a result, it’s great for hypertrophy training, and a good default for both bodybuilders and people training for general strength. However, it’s hard and uncomfortable to learn, and if your back isn’t strong, it’s possible that your spinal erectors will be your limiting factor. At that point, your back might get more growth than your quads. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, it just depends on your goals.
- The high-bar back squat: great for stimulating both the quads and glutes, and is quite a bit easier on the spinal erectors. It’s a good compromise between the low-bar and front squat, and is great for bodybuilders, athletes, and building muscle in general. The potential advantage it has over the front squat is that your back strength won’t be a limiting factor, making it potentially better for the quads. On the other hand, it’s not as good for bulking up the back, making it less of a full-body lift.
- The safety-bar squat: the safety-bar squat is done using a cambered barbell that shifts the weight forward. It doesn’t require any shoulder mobility, making it good for guys with shoulder injuries. Like the high-bar squat, it’s good for emphasizing the quads and glutes without requiring much back strength.
- The low-bar squat: the heaviest squat variation, and also the best for emphasizing both quad and hip growth, making it popular with both powerlifters and women. However, it can put a fair bit of wear and tear on the hip and shoulder joints, it’s often quite fatiguing, and not everyone can do them safely over the longer term.
Best Assistance Lifts
There are a few different ways to pick assistance lifts for the squat. If you’re doing front squats, you might want a lighter variation that still allows you to work your quads and upper back. For that, the Zercher squat is fantastic. And as a pleasant bonus, the Zercher squat works the hips and traps quite well, making it a great assistance lift for the deadlift, too.
Another notable assistance lift for the squat is the leg press, which shines because it allows us to work both legs quite hard, through a large range of motion, and without adding any extra fatigue to our lower backs. So if the goal is to get pure lower-body growth, the leg press is a great choice.
Or, if you want to use the squat to emphasize your hips, you can add in some hip-dominant squat variations, such as the low-bar squat.
There are many great assistance lifts for the squat, though:
- The Zercher Squat: for the quads, glutes, traps, and spinal erectors. Lighter than the front squat, and works well in moderate rep ranges.
- The Leg Press: a great exercise for emphasizing quad growth, and extremely popular with bodybuilders—which good reason.
- The Goblet Squat: a lighter front-loaded squat variation that also works the biceps and shoulders.
- The Back Squat: these can make a great main or assistance exercise. Back squats are more hip-dominant than front squats, and so are great for emphasizing the glutes.
- The Hack Squat: which often emphasize the quads, but still work the glutes and spinal erectors fairly well.
Best Accessory Lifts
With accessory lifts, we’re trying to stimulate the muscles that aren’t being properly stimulated by our main squat variation. Some people may not care about developing all the heads of their quads equally, but if you do, then you might want to include some sort of leg extension. That way we’re taking our hips out of the movement and training just the knee joint. Back squats seem best at making our quads thicker near the hip, whereas leg extensions seem particularly good at making our quads bigger nearer to the knee.
So as a default, leg extensions tend to make for the best quad isolation exercise, since they’re able to work the quads at just a single joint, but there are a few good lighter accessory lifts for the squat:
- The Leg Extension: the leg extension is popular with bodybuilders because they train the rectus femoris, bulking up the quads nearer to the knees, making them look quite a bit more muscular. It’s a good default accessory lift for everyone, though, given that squats don’t train the rectus femoris very well.
- The Split Squat: is great for training the quads while also improving hip stability. It’s popular among athletes for that reason.
- The Bulgarian Split Squat: is a more advanced variation of the split squat that gives the quads even more emphasis. Again, it’s very popular with athletes.
- The Pistol Squat: a good bodyweight squat variation that emphasizes the quads, while improving balance and hip stability. Not necessarily the best for hypertrophy, given the balance component, but they’re quite easy to add into a routine, increasing overall squat volume without accumulating much extra fatigue.
The Horizontal Press
The horizontal press is the movement pattern that encompasses the bench press and the push-up, two of the most popular bodybuilding exercises of all time, and with good reason—they’re great for building muscle and improving our appearance.
The horizontal press is best for building a bigger chest, especially if we use a wider grip width, but it’s also great for working the fronts of our shoulders, especially if we use a narrower grip width. It’s a good movement pattern for the triceps, too, but as we’ve covered above, it’s mainly the lateral and medial heads that get worked. The long head isn’t able to fully engage in a pressing movement, and so we need to target it with isolation lifts.
Best Main Variations
The bench press and push-up are obvious choices as main horizontal pressing variations, as they should be. Both work our chests and front delts through a deep range of motion and challenge them in a stretched position, making them ideal for stimulating muscle growth. As a result, both the push-up and bench press stimulate near-identical growth in our chests and shoulders (study, study).
The push-up and bench press do have a few notable differences, though. The push-up requires holding a plank position, and so it does a good job of working the abs, although not always hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. Plus, the push-up doesn’t lock our shoulder blades in a retracted position, and so it also works our serratus muscles. The bench press, on the other hand, involves setting up with a sturdy arch and driving through our legs, which means contracting our upper backs quite hard. As a result, the bench press can be pretty hard on our spinal erectors and even our lats, although not necessarily enough to stimulate much muscle growth. So the two exercises both work the core, just in different ways.
Instead of picking between the push-up and bench press based on muscle hypertrophy, it often makes more sense to pick the variation that you prefer, feels better on your shoulders, and is easier to progress with. For instance, if you can only do seven push-ups from the floor, you’re well within the hypertrophy rep range, and so there’s no real benefit to doing the bench press until you can do twenty push-ups. But if you can do thirty deficit push-ups without your chest failing, that’s a good sign that you’re too strong for them, and at that point, it might be simpler to progress by hopping on a bench and loading up a barbell (or dumbbells).
That gives us the following options for main lifts:
- The Barbell Bench Press: great for stronger lifters, ideal for working the chest, great for working the shoulders, and okay for working the triceps. Works in a variety of rep ranges and can be done with various grip widths, making it quite versatile. A moderate grip width is often the best default.
- The Dumbbell Bench Press: great for those with stubborn chests, since it combines the press of a bench press with the squeeze of a dumbbell fly. Not as good for the triceps, and harder to do in low rep ranges.
- The Push-Up: perhaps the best horizontal press for people who aren’t all that strong yet, since it works the same movement pattern as the bench press but through a larger range of motion.
Best Assistance Lifts
Once we’ve picked our main horizontal press, we want to find some slightly lighter compound lifts that we can use to increase our training volume and bring up weak points. There are a couple of different approaches we can take here.
The standard bench press is great for bulking up the mid chest, good for the upper chest and shoulders, and mediocre for the triceps. If we want to give more love to our upper chests, shoulders, and triceps, we could choose a close-grip bench press, which brings our elbows close to our sternum, making it easier on our mid chests, but further from our collarbones, making it harder on our upper chests and shoulders. The deeper elbow angle also makes it harder for our triceps.
By using both wider and closer grips, we have a lift where our mid chest is likely to be our limiting factor, and another lift where our shoulders, upper chests, and triceps are more likely to be the limiting factor. That ensures more balanced muscle growth.
If you don’t like the close-grip bench press, you can do an incline bench press instead. It trains our muscles at shorter muscle lengths, which is generally bad for muscle growth, but some people find it more comfortably on their shoulder joints. Using a shallow incline (around 30 degrees) is better for emphasizing chest growth, whereas using a steeper incline (over 45 degrees) is better for emphasizing shoulder growth.
One of the other defining features of the bench press is that it’s done with an arched back and quite a bit of leg drive, allowing us to lift more weight and engage more overall muscle mass. With our assistance lifts, we can remove that. We can put our feet up on the bench, flatten our arch, and do the feet-up bench press. It gives our chests, shoulders, and triceps similar stimulation but with significantly lighter weights, and thus less overall fatigue.
Another approach is to pause at the bottom of the bench press, either with the barbell lightly touching our chests (a pause bench) or held an inch above our chests (a Spoto press). It’s this bottom position, with our chests in a deep stretch, that’s ideal for stimulating muscle growth, and so by emphasizing that part of the lift, we can shift more growth towards our chests. Plus, since pausing makes the bench press harder, it also forces us to use lighter weights, reducing the amount of stress on our joints.
Finally, we could bring in calisthenics movements, like the deficit push-up and the dip. The deficit push-up is great for working the serratus muscles and keeping our shoulders healthy, and by raising our hands up on weight plates, dumbbells, or push-up handles, we can extend the range of motion, getting a deep stretch on our chests. The dip is another lift that gives us a deep stretch on our chests, and it also tends to be fairly hard on our triceps. It’s a great assistance lift for the bench press, just be mindful that some people find that it hurts their shoulders. If you feel any shoulder pain while doing dips, best to do deficit push-ups instead.
That gives us a hearty list of bench press assistance lifts:
- The close-grip bench press: for the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps.
- The incline bench press: for the shoulders and upper chest.
- The feet-up bench press: a lighter bench press variation.
- The pause bench press: a lighter bench press variation that gives extra emphasis to the chest.
- The Spoto press: an even lighter bench press variation that gives extra emphasis to the chest, albeit at shorter muscle lengths.
- The deficit push-up: a great lift for working the chest through a deep stretch while also strengthening the serratus muscles. Great for building stronger and healthier shoulder joints, too.
- The (weighted) dip: a great lift for working the chest, shoulders, and triceps through a large range of motion. Some people find it hard on their shoulders, though, so it’s not ideal for everyone.
Best Accessory Lifts
The bench press works the chest quite heartily, especially if you use a moderate-to-wide grip and bring the barbell all the way down to your chest. As a result, research shows that most people get fairly complete chest development from the bench press (study):
However, we run into a problem with the our triceps. The long head of our triceps extends our elbow, which can help us press the barbell away from us, but it also extends our shoulder shoulder joint, which pulls the barbell back towards us. If we fully engage the long head of our triceps, then, it can interfere with our bench press. And so it lies fairly dormant.
To work the long head of our triceps, we need to remove the movement at the shoulder joint. We can do this with skull crushers and overhead triceps extensions. Overhead triceps extensions put the long head of our triceps under a great stretch, stimulating more muscle growth, but they require quit a lot of shoulder mobility and elbow stability. They’re a rather advanced exercise, and not everyone can do them comfortably.
The skull crusher works our triceps at slightly shorter muscle lengths, but they’re still stretched. On the bright side, though, it may also give the shorter heads of our triceps more work, making it a great overall mass builder for our arms. Plus, people tend to find it easier on their elbows. Cable pushdowns tend to be even easier on the elbows, but they have the disadvantage of putting the least amount of stretch on the long head of the triceps. But even so, they’re still a good option.
By combining a chest-dominant bench press with triceps extensions, we get fairly equal growth in both our chests and triceps. It’s a great default exercise pairing. Do your bench press first, then do some triceps extensions afterwards.
If you want to bring in extra chest work, the chest fly is great, and there are several different variations: the dumbbell fly, the machine fly, and the cable fly. All of them are good, but it’s usually easily to challenge our pecs in a stretched position with the dumbbell and machine fly, and so they make for good defaults.
That gives us a pretty good list of bench press accessories:
- The skull crusher: a great lift for overall triceps growth, and thus overall arm growth.
- The overhead extension: a great lift for emphasizing growth in the long head of the triceps, which is great for improving arm aesthetics.
- The triceps pushdown: a good lift for building bigger triceps without putting as much strain on your shoulders or elbows.
- The dumbbell fly: the dumbbell fly is a great lift for challenging our mid chests in a deep stretch.
- The machine fly: a great lift for challenging our chests through a full range of motion, and it often has a fairly flat strength curve, making it good for stimulating muscle growth.
- The cable crossover: is a good lift for training the chest under constant tension, but it tends to emphasize training the pecs at shorter muscle lengths, which isn’t as good for stimulating muscle growth.
The Hip Hinge
There are a few different reasons that people do hip hinges. Most men do them either with the goal of deadlifting more weight or building a bigger posterior chain overall, with just as much emphasis on their traps and spinal erectors as on their glutes and hamstrings. In that case, the deadlift has a lot in common with exercises like the barbell row, where our spinal erectors and traps are just as dominant as our hips and hamstrings.
As you can see, the hip hinge can work a ton of overall muscle mass in our posterior chains. In fact, if we can even go one level deeper, looking at the spinal erector and transverse abdominis (TVA) muscles that keep our spines strong, sturdy, and healthy:
However, some people choose to use the hip hinge as more of a hip lift, with more stimulus on their glutes and hamstrings instead of sharing it equally with their spinal erectors and traps. In that case, the hip hinge becomes more of a thrusting movement. That’s a good approach, too, and we’ll talk about how to do that.
Best Main Variations
If we’re using the hip hinge to bulk up our entire posterior chain, the conventional deadlift is best. By allowing us to load the heaviest weights, working our muscles through a large range of motion, and by forcing us to lift with a more horizontal torso, we can stimulate a tremendous amount of overall muscle growth, with quite a lot of that muscle growth being in our backs.
For example, if we compare the conventional deadlift against the sumo deadlift, we see that the conventional deadlift has a more horizontal torso and demands more of our lower backs. It also has a larger range of motion, forcing us to do more overall work. This makes it the most fatiguing deadlift variation, but also the best variation for building muscle.
However, if we want to use the hip hinge movement pattern to emphasize our hips, the equation changes. In that case, we’d want to minimize the stress on our spinal erectors so that we can do more work with our hips without accumulating too much fatigue. In that case, the sumo deadlift is fine, and the Romanian deadlift (RDL) might be even better. The RDL
With the Romanian deadlift, we typically drive our hips further back and use less leg drive, forcing us to use lighter weights, which are then easier for our backs to stabilize. Plus, because we aren’t going as deep, our backs spend less time in a horizontal position, easing their load. This makes Romanian deadlifts quite a bit less fatiguing without reducing the demands on our hips.
There’s also an argument to be made that women have proportionally stronger hips compared to their upper bodies, and so choosing a hip hinge that’s harder on the hips and easier on their upper backs can help keep the lift from only challenging their grips and lower backs. That will depend on the woman, of course, but if the deadlift isn’t challenging your hips, you may want to experiment with the Romanian deadlift.
So if we’re using hip hinges to emphasis overall growth, we’ll want to favour the conventional deadlift, whereas if we want to emphasize glute growth, the Romanian deadlift is probably better.
With all of this said, we don’t necessarily need to use deadlifts at all. What about hip thrusts? As we’ve covered above, the best way to stimulate muscle growth is to challenge our muscles in a deep stretch. The deadlift and Romanian deadlift both do that perfectly, putting a full stretch on both our glutes and hamstrings at the bottom of the lift. It’s also quite challenging in that bottom position, making it ideal for stimulating muscle growth. If we turn to the hip thrust, though, the sticking point of the lift is when our glutes are in a fully contracted position. Even if we stretch our glutes at the bottom, we aren’t challenging them in that stretched position. As a result, it’s not as good of a lift for stimulating muscle growth, at least in theory.
Overall, the best main hip hinge variations are:
- The conventional deadlift: ideal for bulking up the spinal erectors, traps, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s also quite metabolically taxing, making it a good lift for improving our general health and fitness. For bodybuilders, general strength, and general health, this tends to be the best variation. For beefier lifters, it also tends to be the heaviest deadlift variation.
- The trap-bar deadlift: can be used as either a hip-dominant or a quad-dominant lift, depending on the amount of hip and knee bend that you use. If you drive your hip backs and deadlift the weight up, it can be very similar to a conventional deadlift, and makes for a great hip hinge. In that case, it makes a great alternative to the conventional deadlift. The range of motion is usually a bit smaller, but it’s also a lot easier to grip, since the handles won’t try to roll out of your hands.
- The sumo deadlift: great for the hips, hamstrings, traps, and also the quads. It’s not as hard on the spinal erectors and the range of motion is shorter, making it less tiring than the conventional deadlift. For thinner lifters, the sumo deadlift is usually the heaviest deadlift variation.
- The Romanian deadlift: ideal for the hips and hamstrings, easier on everything else, and quite a bit less fatiguing. Great for those looking to emphasize hip growth over back growth.
Best Assistance Lifts
With our assistance lifts, we want to work the main movement pattern but in a way that complements our main lift, giving us a greater exercise variety to minimize joint stress and fatigue, as well as balancing out our muscle growth. For building a bigger posterior chain and spinal erectors, we want to choose exercises that train our backs in a more horizontal position. And since we’re already doing heavy deadlifts, we might want to choose lighter variations to minimize fatigue. One way to do that, if you have the hip mobility for it, is to do wide-grip or snatch-grip deadlifts. The extra range of motion forces us to use lighter weight, but sinking deeper into the lift is great for our entire posterior chain.
For building bigger hips, a recent meta-analysis found that deadlift variations, hip thrusts, step-ups, lunges, and squats are best at activating our glutes. Ideally, we’d favour lifts that challenge our hips in a deep stretch, and so Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, step-ups, and lunges tend to be better than hip thrusts. But hip thrusts have the advantage of being great for isolating our glutes. So if your goal is to prioritize glute growth over your other hip muscles, they can be a good choice.
Overall, here are the best assistance lifts for the deadlift:
- Wide-grip/snatch-grip deadlifts: these increase the range of motion, giving the hips and hamstrings a deeper stretch and putting the back more horizontal at the bottom. This makes wide-grip deadlifts quite a bit lighter and easier to recover from while still stimulating a ton of overall muscle growth.
- Romanian deadlifts: ideal for giving the hips and hamstrings some extra volume without accumulating much extra fatigue.
- Good mornings: like Romanian deadlifts, good mornings are great for the hips and hamstrings. But since the bar is resting on our backs, they don’t tire out our hands and mid-back muscles as much.
- The Step-Up: the step-up is great for training both the hamstrings, glutes, and quads, which makes it great for improving conventional deadlift strength.
- Lunges: to train the hamstrings while improving hip stability. These are great exercise for building thicker thighs and hips.
Best Accessory Lifts
What we want to do with our accessory lifts is to stimulate the muscles that aren’t being fully developed by the hip hinge movement pattern. For our posterior chain, that can mean doing back work, such as hyper-extensions and even barbell rows. After all, the barbell row involves setting up in a hip hinge pattern, supporting the load with our glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors, and then rowing with our upper-back muscles. It’s almost identical to the deadlift, it’s just that supporting muscles are swapped for with the prime movers.
The deadlift is also the lift that’s responsible for bulking up our traps, and it does a great job of challenging them in a stretched position. However, it doesn’t work them through any range of motion at all, and so if your traps are lagging behind, you might want to include some shrugs. However, if you’re doing both the deadlift and overhead press, the chances of your traps lagging behind are almost zero. If anything, they’ll probably shoot ahead. But even so, shrugs can be a good deadlift accessory for some people.
However, if you want to emphasize lower-body growth, then the muscles that are most at risk of being left behind are the hamstrings. After all, the glutes are a relatively simple muscle that are fully worked by the hip hinge pattern, whereas our hamstrings cross both the hip and the knee joint. It can thus help to train knee flexion as well as hip extension. To do that, we want to choose leg curl variations. The leg curl variations that stretch our hamstrings the most have more potential to stimulate muscle growth, and so seated leg curls tend to be the best.
That gives us the following hip hinge accessory lifts:
- Leg curls: these train the hamstrings via knee flexion, which isn’t done very well with the compound lifts. As a result, these are a great default accessory lift for bodybuilders looking to build bigger hamstrings. Seated leg curls train the hamstrings at longer muscle lengths, making them better the lying hamstring curls.
- Barbell rows: these train the hips, hamstrings, and spinal erectors isometrically while emphasizing upper back growth with the rowing movement. These are great for improving overall general strength and muscle size. Powerlifters often do “Pendlay” rows from the ground, emphasizing their spinal erectors. A good default for gaining muscle size is to do “bodybuilder” barbell rows, starting from a Romanian deadlift position and rowing from there.
- Hyper-extensions: to build a stronger lower back and hips. Great for improving deadlift strength. Both standard and reverse hyper-extensions are great.
- Donkey kicks: to build bigger hips and hamstrings while improving hip stability.
- Shrugs: to build bigger traps. Mind you, shrugs are often overkill, given that the traps are worked hard by almost every deadlift and overhead press variation. If you use our overall system to build muscle, your traps will probably be one of your best muscle groups, even without shrugs.
- Hip thrusts: to emphasize glute growth.
The Vertical Press
The vertical press mainly works our upper chests, shoulders, upper backs, and triceps. It has quite a lot of overlap with the horizontal press, but with more emphasis on the shoulders and less on the chest.
If we’re doing the overhead press, it also works our traps quite hard, our cores are fully engaged, and our shoulder blades are allowed to move freely. This makes it complementary to the bench press while also being somewhat unique.
Best Main Variations
With strength training, the default vertical press is the standing overhead press, done with either dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. It builds strength from the tips of our toes all the way through our hands, it allows us to move quite a lot of weight, and it’s a great lift for bulking up our shoulders, traps, and even our upper chests.
However, not everyone has the shoulder mobility to comfortably press weight overhead. And if the range of motion in our shoulders is restricted, that can force us to arch our lower backs, which prevents us from doing the lift properly and can increase our risk of injury. That makes the overhead press somewhat of an advanced lift, and it explains why a lot bodybuilders never bother to learn it.
With bodybuilding, then, we see a lot of seated dumbbell presses, incline bench presses, and landmine presses. All of those do a good job of bulking up the fronts of our shoulders, but they aren’t as good for bringing our shoulder blades through a full range of motion, bulking up our traps, or engaging our cores. They’re much smaller lifts. That’s one of the reasons why bodybuilders will need to add in exercises like shrugs to isolate their traps—because they aren’t working them as hard with their deadlifts and overhead presses.
The best main vertical press variations are:
- The Barbell Press: ideal for bulking up our shoulders and traps, great for strengthening our external rotators and overall upper back, and good for our upper chests, triceps, and abs. However, they require quite a lot of shoulder mobility and core stability to perform properly, making them a fairly advanced lift.
- The Dumbbell Press: just as good as the barbell press for working the shoulders, upper back, and core, but not as good for the triceps. They’re often easier for beginners to learn, especially when done one arm at a time (or seated).
- The High-Incline Bench Press: great for people who don’t have the shoulder mobility or core stability for the overhead press, but not as good for working the side delts, traps, external rotators, or core.
Best Assistance Lifts
Once we’ve chosen our main vertical press, we can choose smaller variations to add in some extra variety. If you’ve chosen the barbell overhead press as your main lift, maybe you want to do some one-armed dumbbell overhead presses as well, or perhaps the incline bench press. The main thing is choosing another compound lift that works the same movement pattern and feels good on your shoulders.
One little known trick is that if you don’t have an adjustable bench, you can shift the emphasis of the bench press from your mid chest to your shoulders and upper chest simply by using a narrower grip width, making it a great assistance lift for the overhead press.
Here are a few good vertical press assistance lifts:
- The One-Arm Press: great for emphasizing shoulder growth while training core stability. These can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells.
- The High-Incline Bench Press: great for giving the upper chest, front delts, and triceps some extra work, but not as good for the core, traps, or for improving our shoulder health.
- The Close-Grip Bench Press: challenges similar muscles to the incline bench press but at longer muscle lengths, likely making it even better for stimulating muscle growth.
- The Push-Up: trains the chest, upper chest, front delts, and shoulders, similar to the close-grip bench press, except our shoulder blades can roam freely, which is great for improving our shoulder health and stability.
- The Landmine Press: the landmine press is a similar movement to the incline bench press while allowing the shoulder blades to roam freely. It’s a great lift for improving shoulder health and stability, and pairs well with the overhead press.
Best Accessory Lifts
With our accessory lifts, we want to work the muscles that aren’t being fully engaged by the main variation. In this case, similar to the bench press, there’s too much movement in the shoulder joint for the long head of our triceps to be fully engaged, and so we can benefit from adding in triceps extensions.
But the bigger purpose of the vertical press is to work our shoulders. As we press the weight overhead, it’s mainly our front delts doing the work, and so we can add in extra work for our side delts, which will help us build broader shoulders. There are only a couple of lifts where our side delts are the limiting factor: the lateral raise and the upright row.
Finally, if we’re using the vertical press to build bigger shoulders, then we should also consider our rear delts. They’re engaged by overhead pressing, but they aren’t worked anywhere near hard enough to stimulate much muscle growth. We can benefit, then, from some reverse flyes or face-pulls.
Here are some good accessory lifts for the vertical press:
- The lateral raise: the lateral raise is the quickest, easiest, and safest isolation lift for the side delts, which often lag behind, making it a great default accessory lift for the vertical press. Plus, it works the upper traps quite well, too, which is great for bodybuilding aesthetics.
- The overhead triceps extension: good for bulking up the long heads of the triceps, which aren’t fully stimulated by the overhead press. The advantage is that they train the triceps at extremely long muscle lengths, which is great for stimulating growth. The downside is that they can be hard on the elbows, at which point skull crushers or cable pushdowns might be the wiser choice.
- The upright row: great for bulking up the side delts, rear delts, and upper back muscles. It’s the biggest side delt movement, and a great bodybuilding exercise. The only downside is that some people find that it hurts their shoulder joints. Grinding through that discomfort week after week can cause shoulder impingement problems, so if you notice shoulder discomfort, it’s better choose a different lift.
- The reverse fly: great for bulking up the rear delts, which will often lag behind, especially in routines that don’t emphasize horizontal pulling. Building bigger rear delts give us rounder “capped” shoulders, which is an important aspect of bodybuilding aesthetics.
- The face-pull: great for bulking up the external rotators, traps, and rear delts, making them a good exercise for improving shoulder health and stability.
The Vertical Pull
Vertical pulls are great for our upper backs, and depending on how you do them, they can also be great for building bigger biceps.
Hip hinges and horizontal pulls also work our back muscles, but at shorter muscle lengths, and often with more emphasis on the spinal erectors. It’s the vertical pulls that are best for bulking up our upper backs, which helps give us wider and more v-tapered physiques.
Best Main Variations
The two most popular variations of the vertical pull are the chin-up and the pull-up. The difference between between the two is simply the grip. A chin-up is done with an underhand or neutral-grip, whereas a pull-up is done with an overhand grip, like so:
When we use an underhand grip, our biceps are in a good position to engage, and so we can use both our upper backs biceps to pull ourselves up towards the bar. When we use an overhand grip, though, our biceps can’t engage properly, and so we need to rely on just our upper backs (and forearms) to pull ourselves up. As a result, the chin-up is the much bigger, heavier lift, engaging far more overall muscle mass.
Furthermore, chin-ups are often done with a narrower grip, increasing the range of motion, and thus forcing us to do more work with every rep. If we consider that we’re also using heavier weights, you can imagine that they’re not just heavier, they’re also more demanding on our cardiovascular systems.
As a result, the chin-up tends to be the better main variation. They work our upper backs just as hard as the pull-up—and in some ways harder—while also engaging our biceps.
Chin-ups are typically done with a flat bar, and that’s great for both the upper back and biceps, but some people find that it hurts their elbows. Fortunately, using an angled grip, a neutral grip, or gymnastics rings are all good alternatives. Our biceps and upper backs can still full engage, we can still use a roughly shoulder-width grip, and we won’t be putting quite as much strain on our elbows.
That gives us a few good main variations:
- The chin-up: typically done on a straight bar with an underhand grip and a roughly shoulder-width grip, it’s great for bulking up the upper back and biceps.
- The angled-grip chin-up: by angling our grips in a little bit, we can take some of the strain off of our elbows without changing the dynamics of the lift by very much (or reducing how much weight we can lift).
- The neutral-grip chin-up: the neutral-grip chin-up doesn’t stretch our biceps out by quite as much, which may not be quite as ideal for biceps growth, but it does a great job of engaging our upper backs and brachialis muscles, and allows us to lift similarly heavy—sometimes even heavier.
- The ring chin-up: doing chin-ups on gymnastics rings tends to be easiest on both our elbows and shoulders, and it engages a ton of stabilizer muscles. It’s a great option if your joints are giving you problems, and has no real downsides to it.
Best Assistance Lifts
With our main variations, we’re choosing the heaviest chin-up variations that work our upper backs and biceps the very hardest. With our assistance lifts, we want to choose lighter variations that still do a great job of stimulating growth in our target muscles, but while generating less overall fatigue, and while putting less wear and tear on our joints.
An obvious assistance lift for the chin-up is the pull-up. It’s a lighter variation that disengages our biceps, allowing us to put more emphasis on bulking up our upper backs. If you aren’t very strong yet, an even better option might be an overhand lat pulldown, allowing you to work your lats through a similar range of motion, but in higher rep ranges and while focusing on keeping constant tension on your muscles. Or, if you want to keep your biceps involved, you can do lat pulldowns with an underhand grip, similar to the grip you use for chin-ups.
The other approach to choosing assistance lifts is to bring in some horizontal pulling: rows. Rows don’t stretch our lats out as much as chin-ups, since we’re only working our shoulders through a 90-degree range of motion, compared to the 180-degree range of motion of chin-ups. That’s why we aren’t listing rows as a main lift. But even so, we can get a really good stretch on the other muscles in our mid backs, making them great assistance lifts for the chin-up.
When the spinal erectors are emphasized, as they are with barbell rows, the horizontal pull makes a better assistance lift for the deadlift. But if we support our chests, we can take the load off of our spinal erectors and focus more on bulking up our lats, rear delts, rhomboids, and the slew of other smaller muscles that make up our upper backs. The other advantage to rows is that they’re great for bulking up our forearms.
One of the better row variations is the 3-point dumbbell row. We support our spines by planting our hand on a bench, and we row the dumbbell through a huge range of motion, getting a nice stretch at the bottom and a full contraction at the top.
Another great row variation is the chest-supported t-bar row, often done using an exercise machine (as shown above). With this row variation, we’re training both sides at the same time, removing some of the hassle of doing dumbbell rows. But more importantly, we’re also improving the strength curve. One of the big problems with back exercises is that they’re fairly easy at the bottom fo the range of motion and quite hard at the top. So instead of challenging our muscles in a deep stretch, we’re challenging them in a contracted position. Such is the nature of back exercises. It’s not the end of the world. But what’s nice about the t-bar row is that as we pull the weight higher, more of it rests on the fulcrum, making the lift heavier at the beginning and lighter at the top. That’s a much better strength curve for stimulating muscle growth.
That gives us a good list of assistance lifts for the chin-up:
- The pull-up: great for working our lats through a deep stretch.
- The overhand lat pulldown: great for working our lats through a deep stretch, and allows for more flexible loading than the pull-up.
- The underhand lat pulldown: great for working our upper backs and biceps through a large range of motion, and allows for more flexible loading than the chin-up.
- The one-arm lat pulldown: works the lats and biceps one arm at a time, making it easier to establish a mind muscle connection, as well as allowing for an even deeper range of motion.
- The 3-point dumbbell row: does a great job of working the muscles in the mid back while giving the lats some extra stimulation.
- The chest-supported t-bar row: has perhaps the best strength curve of all back exercises, and works the mid back, lats, and forearms quite hard.
Best Accessory Lifts
With our accessory lifts, we want to look at muscles that might not be getting properly stimulated with the bigger compound lifts. With the chin-up, the muscles that need a bit of extra love are often the biceps.
The long heads of our biceps flex our arms, which helps to pull us up towards the bar, but also flexes our shoulder joint, which pushes us away from the bar. As a result, similar to how the longer heads of the triceps can’t fully engage in the bench press, the longer heads of the biceps can’t fully engage in the chin-up. As a result, the biceps curl is a great lift to pair with the chin-up.
With the biceps curl, we’re working both elbow flexion and shoulder flexion, which perfectly aligns with the function of the long heads of our biceps. Curling the bar flexes our arms, obvious. And as the weight moves out in front of us, our biceps need to work to keep our elbows from drifting back, which works shoulder flexion.
The biceps curl is already a great lift. We don’t need to get too creative with it. But we can. If we want to focus even more on the long head of our biceps, or to give our biceps an even greater challenge at long muscle lengths, then we can use incline curls or sissy curls.
By leaning back into a “sissy” curl, we demand even more shoulder flexion, which forces the long heads of our biceps to work even harder. But we also increase the moment arm at the start of the lift, making the lift hardest at the beginning of the range of motion, and thus improving the strength curve.
With an incline curl, we’re moving our elbows back behind our torsos, putting the long heads of our biceps under greater stretch, and thus giving them a bit more emphasis. Since the chin-up emphasizes the shorter head, this makes the two lifts a good match.
Another approach to choosing accessory lifts is to give the lats or rear delts more work. These muscles are often worked quite well with compound lifts, and so they don’t necessarily require accessory work, but even so, they can lag behind for some people. In that case, pullovers and straight-arm lat pulldowns work quite well for the lats, and rear delt flyes work quite well for the rear delts.
That gives us the following accessory lifts for the chin-up:
- The barbell curl: great for working the biceps in a balanced way and with a heavy load, stimulating a ton of overall biceps growth.
- The dumbbell curl: great for working the biceps while allowing the wrists and elbows to work through a natural range of motion. Great for bulking up the biceps without beating up the elbows.
- The “sissy” barbell curl: great for working the biceps in a balanced way, but shifts the strength curve so that the curl is more challenging at the bottom of the range of motion, potentially stimulating a bit of extra growth.
- The incline curl: great for training the long heads of the biceps at longer muscle lengths, which complements the chin-up well.
- The straight-arm lat pulldown: great for focusing on the lats (and the long head of the triceps), working them with constant tension, a deep stretch, and through a large range of motion.
- The pullover: another great lift for focusing on the lats (and the long head of the triceps), working them with constant tension and a deep stretch.
- The rear-delt fly: a simple lift that works the rear delts, which can sometimes lag behind.
Not every muscle is worked properly with compound lifts, and not all of them are neatly categorized as assistance or accessory lifts. For example, our necks aren’t trained any of the exercises mentioned above, but where would we sort neck curls and neck extensions? The answer, of course, is here. Here is where we sort those lost lifts.
There are four muscle groups that haven’t been addressed yet:
- Our necks, which can be trained with neck curls, neck extensions, and neck side raises. Neck bridges can also work, but they tend to be a bit harder on our spines, giving them a lower stimulus-to-fatigue ratio and potentially a higher risk of injury. For more, we have a full article on neck training.
- Our forearms, which can be trained with forearm curls and extensions. They can be done standing or seated, but the seated variations train our forearm muscles at longer muscle lengths, and so they make for a better default.
- Our calves, which can be trained with calf raises. Standing calf raises train our calves at longer muscle lengths, and so they tend to be better for building muscle. For a better calf stretch at the bottom of the lift, it helps to raise the toes up, doing “deficit” standing calf raises.
- Our abs and obliques, which can be trained with planks, crunches, and leg raises. However, keep in mind that our abs are trained to a certain extent with almost every compound lift, and so many people won’t need any isolation work. For more, we have a full article on building bigger abs.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to do all of these lifts all of the time. You might want to spend a few months catching your neck or forearms up, and then let them coast from there. Or not. It’s up to you.
How to Know if an Exercise is Stimulating Muscle Growth
It’s all well and good to give you a list of the best bodybuilding lifts, but since all of us are built a little bit differently, we also need to know how to adjust what we’re doing based on our individual response to the lifts. So we don’t just want to follow this advice blindly, we also want to consider, which exercises allows us to lift more weight more comfortably, works our muscles the hardest, gives us the best muscle pump, makes our muscles sore a day or two afterwards, and doesn’t cause too much fatigue or joint pain.
Proxies of Muscle Stimulation
The hypertrophy expert Mike Israetel, PhD, has a few proxies for muscle stimulation that he uses to determine which lifts are best for building muscle:
- How good is the mind-muscle connection? How much tension do we feel in the muscles we’re trying to work?
- How much of a metabolite burn do we get in higher rep ranges? When doing sets of 15–25, how does the burn compare to similar exercises? Dr Israetel notes that there’s more of a burn when our fast-twitch muscle fibres are taken close to their limit, which is a good sign that the exercise is challenging those muscles. If that isn’t happening, we may not be engaging those bigger fast-twitch muscle fibres.
- How many sets does it take to build a nice pump? When we do a few sets in higher rep ranges, which muscles get the biggest muscle pump? Now, to be clear, the pump itself does stimulate some muscle growth, but what we’re trying to do is get a proxy for the muscle growth being stimulated via mechanical tension.
- How many challenging sets does it take to produce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)? Muscle damage doesn’t seem to cause muscle growth, so soreness is certainly not the goal. However, when our muscles get sore, it’s a fairly good proxy for having challenged our muscles enough to stimulate muscle growth.
In addition to Israetel’s four proxies, I’ll add a fifth:
- Is there tension on your muscles at the bottom of the lift? For example, is your chest being ripped apart at the bottom of a bench press? Your hamstrings at the bottom of a deadlift? Your biceps at the bottom of a sissy curl? Your lats at the bottom of a pullover? That deep stretch is great for stimulating muscle growth.
So what we want to do here is keep track of these five proxies when we’re adding new lifts into our bodybuilding and hypertrophy workouts. Oftentimes, it can help to do a couple of sets in higher rep ranges to get an idea of what’s going on. Then, once you’re confident that it’s going well, you can sink into lower rep ranges (if desired).
Signs That an Exercise Isn’t Working Well
In addition to the signs that a lift is stimulating muscle growth, we also want to watch out for the warning signs that a lift isn’t stimulating muscle growth. Israetel has some guidelines for that as well:
- Are you having trouble balancing? Do you feel your stabilizer muscles working more than the prime movers? We want to make sure that the strength of our muscles is the main thing being challenged. We stimulate muscle growth through progressively overloading our muscles with ever greater amounts of mechanical tension, not by practicing our balance.
- Do you feel generally tired instead of tired in the specific muscles you’re training? When you finish your sets on a given exercise, do your target muscles feel pumped and thrashed, or do you just feel tired overall? With some of the bigger lifts, such as the squat and deadlift, it’s common to feel tired in so many different muscles that it’s hard to tell what’s going on, and that’s okay. But if you finish a set of Pendlay rows and you just feel generally worn out, it might not be the best exercise for your target muscles.
- Does the lift cause joint pain? Ideally, we want the majority of the tension on your muscles, with relatively little stress on your joints. For example, when doing barbell curls, we want your biceps to feel sore, not your elbows.
These proxies don’t guarantee that a lift is good for building muscle, and they don’t guarantee that a certain lift is better than another. But these are the best rules of thumb that we have available, and they likely work better than some fancier methods of evaluating lifts, such as EMG research. Best of all, this allows us to test lifts ourselves, figuring out which lifts are best for us on an individual level.
To build a balanced bodybuilding or hypertrophy training routine, we want to start by choosing a main compound lift for each major movement pattern:
- The squat, with a good default being the front squat.
- Horizontal presses, with a good default being the bench press.
- Hip hinges, with a good default being the conventional deadlift.
- Vertical presses, with a good default being the overhead press.
- Vertical pulls, with a good default being the chin-up.
Those big compound lifts will engage most of the muscle mass in our bodies, but even so, some muscle groups will lag behind. That’s where assistance and accessory lifts come in. Assistance lifts are smaller compound lifts that help us add extra emphasis to the muscles being worked by our main lifts. Accessory lifts are isolation lifts that work the muscles that aren’t properly stimulated by compound lifts.
For example, if we use the bench press as our main horizontal press, then our chests will get a fairly perfect growth stimulus, our shoulders will get good stimulation, and our triceps will get okay stimulation. For an assistance lift, then, we might choose a close-grip bench press, putting more emphasis on our shoulders and triceps. But the long heads of our triceps don’t engage properly with pressing movements, and they’ll still lag behind. So for an accessory lift, we might choose a skull crusher, which works the long head of the triceps.
If we use this same logic with every movement pattern, we can build a fairly balanced bodybuilding program with a main lift, assistance lift, and accessory lift for every movement pattern. However, some muscles aren’t worked at all by the big compound lifts. Our necks, for instance. And so, at some points in our training, we may wish to add in some neck curls and extensions. Or calf raises. Or forearm curls and extensions.
Finally, everyone has slightly different structures, goals, and lifting and injury histories. That’s why we need to use some strategic trial and error to find the exercises that work best for us as individuals. We can start with the best default exercises, and then from there, we can see how well they suit us. Do they give us a nice burn in our muscles or hurt our joints? Do they make our muscles sore or do they make our joints ache? Do we get a muscle pump in our target muscles or do we just get tired? Do we feel a deep stretch on our muscles at the bottom of the lift? These can all be signs that a lift is or isn’t working. If we pay attention to those signs, we can customize our lift selection to suit us better.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. We also have our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program and Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program for skinny beginners. If you liked this article, you’d love our full programs.