Some people love to spend hours in the gym. Others want to earn a built physique without putting in any extra time doing it. Luckily, it’s possible to do fast and effective workouts when you prioritize the right exercises.
To maximize your time in the gym, just choose the best exercise for each body part and assign them to your workouts as needed. Here are thirteen resistance training exercises. No matter how abbreviated your routine is, these should stay a priority.
Chest – The Dumbbell Bench Press
I almost chose the push-up as the best chest exercise because of how it forces other muscles to work, particularly around the scapulae. However, it’s tough to beat the dumbbell chest press in terms of its ability to develop the pecs.
Why it’s the best: It works the chest through a nice, full range of motion. This, along with the ability to bring the dumbbells toward one another (in horizontal adduction), are largely what make the dumbbell version far superior to the barbell version.
As for flat versus incline or decline, I’d choose flat or shallow-incline dumbbell presses. However, occasionally substituting incline or decline presses is the best option.
Back (Vertical Pulling) – The Pull-Up
Granted, the main drawback to the pull-up is that most people aren’t strong enough to do more than a couple good reps. Although you could just do machine pulldowns, ideally opt for a method of making pull-ups easier, like band pull-ups and feet-supported pull-ups. There are also some pretty good machines out there that assist you while doing a pull-up.
Why it’s the best: Choosing the pull-up as the best vertical-pulling exercise is a no-brainer. Not only is the pull-up functional (it requires body control and relative strength), but it also works a lot of muscles including the lats, middle and lower traps, rhomboids, posterior delts, and even the elbow flexors like the biceps and brachioradialis.
Form tip: Make sure to arch/extend your back as you’re pulling yourself up. Try to touch the lower half of your chest to the bar. This will help you use the scapular retractors in your upper back. For grip-width, go just a tad wider than shoulder width. However, some variety is always a good idea.
Back (Horizontal Pulling) – The One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Barbell rows are great, but when you get pretty strong they can become taxing on your lower back. That’s not an issue with the dumbbell row since the non-working arm is supporting you, taking the stress off your back.
Why it’s the best: When it comes to building a wide, thick back along with some serious pulling power, it’s hard to beat the efficiency of the one-arm dumbbell row. Plus, it’s quite safe even when going really heavy.
The dumbbell also provides freedom to move in all three planes, making it possible to really alter the path of the dumbbell and the particular back muscles you’re targeting.
For example, you can row with your humerus close to your side to target the lats, or you can abduct your humerus and row with your elbow pointing more out to the side to hit your scapular retractors and posterior delts more, much like a Kroc row. I tend to use the lat-dominant version.
Shoulders – The Dumbbell Overhead Press
Like the best chest exercise, dumbbells do the best job for developing shoulders.
Why it’s the best: Not only do you get a nice, full range of motion, but you also have the option to finely tune the path of movement and find a comfortable position for the highly mobile (often unstable and finicky) shoulder joint.
If you want to simultaneously stimulate your core stabilizers, do the standing version. If you want to focus solely on the pressing motion, opt for the seated version.
Triceps – The V-Bar Pushdown
It’s easy to find movements that hit the triceps, but are they easy on the elbows? I really like the skull crusher (triceps extension) and may have chosen it as the best tricep exercise if it wasn’t prone to causing elbow pain over time. Sure, add them into your routine on occasion, but avoid doing skull crushers week in and week out. Your distal triceps tendon will thank you.
Why it’s the best: This V-bar pushdown hits the three heads of the triceps quite well, especially the visible medial and lateral heads. Pushdowns also tend to be easy on the elbows, which is a major plus.
Biceps – The Alternating Dumbbell Curl and EZ-Bar Curl (Tie)
Why they’re both the best: The alternating dumbbell curl allows you to focus on one side at a time, putting more mental (and physiological) effort into each rep. Plus you can supinate (twist) your wrist as you curl the weight up, which is one of the functions of the biceps. This leads to a really complete contraction.
One slight drawback to this exercise is that one arm is resting a bit while the other side is working. And that’s where the EZ-bar curl comes in.
Like straight-bar curls, you can simply grab the bar – slightly narrower than shoulder width, by the way – and curl your way to big bi’s. The slight camber of the EZ bar will take undue pressure off of your wrists and elbows, which is important for training longevity.
Yes, you can do dumbbell curls bilaterally, thus avoiding resting the non-working limb. While that’s a great exercise, I simply don’t rank it as highly as the EZ-bar curl.
Abs – The Hanging Leg Raise
While I recommend the hanging version – partially due to the stimulation of the gripping muscles, etc. – it’s still a good exercise if you do leg/knee raises on a Roman chair.
Why it’s the best: This exercise hits the rectus abdominis very well, especially if you can achieve a more complete contraction by bringing the front of your pelvis up toward your lower rib cage.
Form tip: If you’re doing the hanging version from an overhead bar, try to bring your toes up so high that they touch the bar you’re hanging from. Yes, this is very hard. Yes, the exercise will still be effective if you can’t go that high. Simply bring your legs up as high as possible.
Second-place ab exercise: Bicycle crunches are also worth mentioning.
For starters, this exercise not only brings the lower rib cage closer to the front of the pelvis, which is the primary function of the rectus abdominis, but it also involves some spinal rotation. This rotational component really brings the obliques into play, which is definitely an added bonus.
The bicycle crunch is also relatively safe on the lower back. Given that your low back stays flat on the ground, there’s not much stress being placed on the intervertebral disk as compared to ab exercises involving full flexion of the lumbar spine (i.e. traditional sit-ups).
There is one drawback to the bicycle crunch: lack of significant resistance. After doing these for a while you may find that in order to challenge your abs you have to do an inordinate number of reps.
In an ideal world, implement both of these ab exercises into your training routine on a regular basis.
Quads – The Squat
I’m specifically referring to the barbell squat which allows you to you use as much weight as you need to provide maximum stimulation.
Why it’s the best: Squats are also a good glute exercise, if you do them nice and deep like a good physique athlete should. This exercise is also good at stimulating the low back, which not many people think about.
Second place quad exercise: Speaking of exercises that hit both quads and glutes, walking lunges are about as good as squats.
Not only do they stimulate these muscle groups well, they also provide a nice stretch of the hip flexors on the side of the trailing leg. And because you’re spending some time on one leg, walking lunges also hit the lateral glute muscles like the glute medius.
It’s best to include both squats and walking lunges in your routine on a regular basis. Consider other quad exercises ancillary to these two.
Hamstrings – The Stiff-Legged Deadlift and Seated Leg Curl (Tie)
Different exercises emphasize different portions of the hamstrings to different degrees, so I had to call it a tie. If I were to choose just one hamstring exercise I’d be doing you an injustice.
Why they’re the best: Whether done with a barbell or dumbbells, the stiff-legged deadlift is a great hamstring exercise that also works your spinal erectors very well. Heck, it evens hits the upper back isometrically as you hold the weight.
Since your knee joint isn’t flexing, the stiff-legged deadlift doesn’t allow for a complete contraction of the hamstrings. However, this exercise makes up for that by tremendously taxing the hammies during the eccentric (negative) portion of the rep and in their lengthened position. This is why stiff-legged deadlifts tend to cause more delayed-onset muscle soreness than other hamstring exercises.
Additionally, the stiff-legged deadlift also hits all four heads of the hamstring musculature, which knee-flexion exercises do not.
When in the starting position on a seated leg curl machine, your hamstrings are put in a pre-stretched position, which forces them to work harder, stimulating more muscle fibers.
Not only that, but this exercise allows you to get a complete contraction at the bottom portion of the rep – you’re training your hams through a lengthy, full range-of-motion with a particularly good peak contraction.
Calves – The Unilateral Dumbbell Calf Raise
This is simply a calf raise done one leg at a time while holding a dumbbell for added resistance.
Why it’s the best: This version of the calf raise allows you to put all your focus and effort into one side at a time. You also have the ancillary benefits of stimulating the gripping muscles of your hand and forearm, as well as your upper traps.