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