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What Is The Best Exercise To Build Muscle?

By Marc Perry / July 27, 2017

We all know that to get into the best shape, we need to train our muscles. But, what is the best way to do that? Is there a best exercise to build muscle?

There are so many types of exercises & ways to do them that sometimes you might wonder if you’re really training as effectively as possible. In order to get some perspective on strength training, we asked 5 of our experts to share their thoughts on what is the best exercise to build muscle.

Since there isn’t really just one best exercise, these 5 suggestions should give you a great foundation to either start a strength training routine or some new exercises to add into your workout.

Best Exercise To Build Muscle #1: Back Squat

I think the best exercise to build muscle is the barbell back squat for a few major reasons:

  1. The entire leg musculature is activated, with particular attention to the glutes and hips
  2. Lifting legs with relatively heavy weight can help boost muscle building hormones
  3. The entire body is involved in squatting, so even back muscles, shoulder etc. are stimulated

The major downside of the back squat is that it can be a dangerous exercise, especially if you don’t have proper mobility in your hips, calves, etc. (See: How to Increase Squat Depth). The compressive pressure on the lower back is significant, which is why some strength coaches don’t recommend them. In addition, it can take a long time to recover due to the intense neuromuscular requirement. I also don’t think it’s necessary to do very low reps with squats, you can still build a lot of muscle with relatively higher reps but still heavier weight.

In sum, if you have good mobility, don’t go too heavy with too low reps, I think squats are a killer muscle-building exercise. In college, my legs got so much bigger so fast doing squats that I literally had stretch marks form on my legs/hips! Trap bar, or sumo deadlifts also come to mind as a great exercise to build muscle, but the range of motion and stimulation to the legs is not the same.

Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT

Best Exercise To Build Muscle #2: Squats

Squats. Challenging the largest muscle groups in your body with high levels of intensity boosts testosterone production and aids in muscle growth and development. In a barbell or dumbbell squat, you challenge your glutes, hamstrings, quads, back, and core (the biggest muscles in your body). Keep reps low (6-8) and use heavy weight to achieve the desired effect.

Kristin Rooke

Best Exercise To Build Muscle #3: Squats

Squats. I love deadlifts, but think that high rep squats are great for putting muscle on the legs, whereas heavy squats are great at putting muscle on the whole body. There’s nothing like putting a heavy weight on your back, being a little scared about the weight, still dropping down as low as you can, coming back up and doing it again for putting muscle on your whole body.

With that said, most people don’t squat low enough (See: How Deep Should I Squat?) and there are a good number of people where squatting won’t be optimal either due to extreme tightness or one hip higher than the other, etc. In that case, single-legged movements like split squats would be better.

John Levya, CSCS, CPT

Best Exercise To Build Muscle #4: Deadlift

I’ve been told that the best exercise to build muscle is the one that you’re not doing. This is false. It is the deadlift.

When it comes to a more ‘bang for your buck’ exercise, the deadlift takes the cake. A properly executed deadlift will target every muscle in your body. More specifically, it targets the ones that don’t usually get the attention that they need such as your glutes, hamstrings, and upper back muscles.

The big benefit here is the increase of testosterone from recruiting such a great amount of muscle fibers. This will also increase the efficiency of every other exercise you do as well. Ultimately, if your goal is to slab on as much muscle as possible, this is what you want.

Stephen Bergeron, CSCS, CPT

Best Exercise To Build Muscle #5: Kettlebell Swings

One of my favorite muscle builders is kettlebell swings. Kettlebell swings work almost every muscle in the body, and also enhance overall balance and speed. And they’re exhausting! But one of the most important reasons why I think kettlebell swings are a great muscle builder is that by strengthening and improving the performance of your entire posterior chain (hamstrings, butt, lower back, etc.), they will increase your deadlift and squat.

Kettlebell swings are very simple in theory: grab a kettlebell (or the end of a dumbbell) with both hands. Keep your arms straight and swing the kettlebell forward, let it come back down between your legs then thrust it forward again. Put your hips and butt into it. At the top of the motion, the kettlebell should be around or just above eye level. Let it come back down between your legs and repeat. Increase the weight and rep number SLOWLY; you’ll be surprised at how much soreness is incurred by 3 sets of 15 reps at any weight.

William Lagakos, Ph.D.


  • Raza says:

    I love squats and deadlifts. I just did deadlifts yesterday and I still feel it.

    I heard that Arnold Schwarzennegar (spelling?) was once asked how his arms are so big. He said it's because he squats. Everybody laughed, but he was right. It will stimulate all of your muscles to grow.

    I read about the "Supersquat" workout program and it's pretty amazing. People say it will make you feel like dying, but you will gain upwards of 30lbs of muscle if you keep it up.


  • Russ says:

    Hey Mark,
    I recently suffered an injury to my lower back (your article 7 Yoga Poses for Back Pain is helping) and I am unable to do squats and dead lifts for a while safely. Do you have any suggestions for exercises I can do while I recover from my injury that I can do instead?

  • Bright Ojuola says:

    That was a really helpful information muscle excercises.i found them very helpful and have been using them to treat my back pain.I thave found this information as additional knowledge.thanks

  • Akshay says:

    Hi Marc,
    What are the combinations of push pull exercises that you prefer?
    Some of the combinations like pushing motions (pushups, shoulder press, quad extension) and pulling motions (pullups, dumbell rows, hamstring curl) are mentioned in your article 'Part 2: Efficient Strength Training 101- 5 Ways to Increase Your Efficiency'. I would like to learn 4-5 or more push-pull combinations in each of the following Muscle Groups :-
    (2)Back, Biceps
    Please do post an article if possible for above points.

  • Stephen Vajda says:

    Hi Marc:
    Great article ! Squats, deadlifts, and kettlebell exercises are my favorties. After those I would recommend pushups, chin-ups, planks and rollouts.



  • Jonathan L says:

    I can't go very deep with squats. I've also been stuck at the same weight for a year, because I don't want to injure myself. I do stand a bit wide, because I have long legs. What do you think of Smith Machine Squats, or the 40 degree leg press? I run marathons so I do a LOT more glute and ab/add work than anyone I know (glute press, cable kickbacks, multi hip) but its very time consuming. Having been fat in high school, I admit, I want a nice strong butt, and anyone who's been fat who lost the weight still often has a flabby butt. That, along with a no-definition stomach, sucks. To maximize fat loss, I see some people jump rope one minute between exercises (not sets). My goal is to lose this 20-25 lb apron of fat between now (12/20/12) and 4/20/2013. How can I enjoy fast food or pizza night every now and then (a small plain hamburger, diet pop and no French fries)? Thanks.
    Ontario, Canada

  • dutch says:

    I like deadlifts the most. I have scoliosis (heriditary right/left spinal curvature caused in my case by one leg being significantly longer than the other) at about 33 degrees in my upper and lower back so I feel very awkward doing squats since I simply can't go down straight and level. Moderately heavy deadlifts, however, make my back feel excellent and after doing a few sets I'll have an elevated energy level for days!

    I am capable of deadlifting more than 500 lbs but for years now I do sets with weight between 135 lbs and at the highest 350 lbs with reps usually around 10-25 (but once an awhile I do 100+ reps at the 135lbs just to see how many I can do). I also do lunges and light weight suqats. This combo has kept my back strong, mobile, and feeling great, and has helped me lean out and build muscle all over my body! Before I started to lift I had back pain and now I don't have any!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Excellent, thanks for sharing.