Since ancient times, people have been creating bodyweight and resistance exercises to target specific muscle groups and improve the overall function of our bodies. To maximize time spent at the gym, there are also compound exercises that give more than one major muscle group a great workout. While there are 11 or 12 major muscle groups in your body depending on who you ask, there are more like 5 or 6 that strength training enthusiasts tend to target.
In addition to these compound exercises, there are also isolation exercises that target one muscle or muscle group specifically. These are generally easier to do than compound exercises, but trying to isolate every single major muscle group will take much longer than a workout routine filled with exercises like deadlifts and incline bench presses.
There is no shortage of exercises that target particular muscle groups or give most of the major muscle groups the challenge they need to achieve hypertrophy. If you’re having trouble coming up with a workout plan that hits all the muscle groups, read through this list for some ideas. It has bodyweight exercises as well as muscle-building weight lifting exercises to do at the gym.
Body Parts to Target in a Training Program
We’ll start with the most common exercises so any newbies can get a good idea of what exercises should be in their workout plan. As the list goes on, you’ll hopefully find some techniques you didnt’ know about to target some underdeveloped muscle groups.
What muscle groups you ultimately decided to target depend on your fitness goals. Like any skill, your body gets better with practice. However, if you have other aims then you might not want to give your muscles a tough workout. Muscle mass weighs a lot, so if weight loss is one of your goals you should lose all the fat you want to lose before you start building muscle.
It’s also important to be mindful of over-targeting specific muscle groups. Manny people want a chiseled six pack and huge biceps, but working on these two areas without also building strength in other critically needed areas like the triceps, shoulders, back, and obliques can cause your ripped abs and biceps to be more or less useless outside of the gym.
Balance in your workout plan will keep your body working at its best. If you want to eventually have a bodybuilder’s body, you need to make sure you lay the proper foundations. Working muscle groups on both sides of your upper and lower body is the best way to do this. Add some of the following exercises to your workout plan to stay even and see results.
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The Best Exercises by Muscle Group
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Arm & Shoulder Exercises
Typically one of the first places targeted for muscle building, the arms are undoubtedly important for many daily tasks but get an unfair share of the spotlight. Worse yet, some exercises that should be working shoulder muscles like the deltoids or upper back muscles like the latissimus dorsi are done incorrectly because people think they’re arm-targeting exercises.
Shoulder exercises are important for guarding the shoulder joint, one of the most common sites for injury and chronic conditions in late age, and for improving the range of motion of the arm and the rest of the upper body. Here are the best exercises that work both the arm and the shoulder.
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No surprise here. Push-ups are a favorite upper body exercise because they work the arms, delts, and pecs. Many people think they’re besting through their push-up sets but push-ups might actually be one of the most frequently incorrectly done bodyweight exercises out there.
Follow these steps to do a push-up with perfect form:
- With your hands shoulder-width apart and palms flat on the floor, prop your lower body up with your toes.
- There should be a straight line running from your ankles to the top of your head. Engage your core.
- Bend your elbows so that your body moves toward the floor. Your stomach should be just above the floor at the lowest point of the push-up.
- Push through your palms to return to the starting position.
Push-ups are also one of the best exercises to add some plyometric action to your workout plan. You can push forcefully through your palms when you return to the starting position to make your upper body explode off the ground. Before your palms land again, clap your hands together. This action will add some extra cardio to your regimen. Try one-armed push-ups for even more challenging push-ups.
A variation of the standard dumbbell curl, the hammer curl is designed to target the biceps but it also targets important muscles in the forearm such as the brachioradialis. The anterior deltoid and the upper and middle trapezius also get some attention from hammer curls.
Here’s how you do this move:
- In a standing position, take a dumbbell in each hand and hold them with your palms facing your body and your elbows touching your obliques.
- One arm at a time, lift the dumbbell toward your pecs.
- Make sure your upper arm isn’t moving. Your forearm should be doing all the work to lift the dumbbell.
- Hold the dumbbell for a few seconds at the top of each lift.
There are some machines you can use to do a hammer curl. You can also lift both arms simultaneously but the constant motion of switching arm helps build coordination. Your wrists and forearms will thank you for including this workout in your routine.
Also referred to as an overhead press, the shoulder press is a great exercise for working out your deltoids, rotator cuff, trapezius, and triceps. They build tons of upper body strength and they’re fairly easy to do with little more than a pair of dumbbells. If you’re trying to design a workout plan with shorter breaks, consider combining the motion of this shoulder press with the hammer curls mentioned above for a fast-paced shoulder exercise.
Here’s how to do the shoulder press:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Your elbows should be bent at 90° and the dumbbells should be held more or less over your shoulders at ear level.
- Raise your hands until both arms are completely extended and then lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Easy enough, right? If you’re standing up and using enough weight, this shoulder press should give you a full-body workout that will lead to serious gains despite how simple the exercise may seem at first.
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This is a really simple shoulder exercise you can use to bulk up your shoulders. All you need are two dumbbells or kettlebells and you’re good to go.
Follow these steps to execute lateral raises with the proper form:
- Stand with your back straight, feet about hip-width apart, and a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides.
- Slowly lift the dumbbells out to each side until they’re parallel with the shoulders. Return to the starting position to complete one rep.
Best Triceps Exercises
Although many upper body exercises give the triceps a workout incidentally, sometimes you need an isolation exercise to help get more balanced arm muscles. Here are the best triceps exercises to fill that gap in your training schedule:
Lying Triceps Extensions (Skullcrushers)
To give the whole triceps muscle group a workout, skullcrushers are the way to go. Lifters of all skill levels like to add this move to their strength training routine to make sure their triceps get a little attention. You have to be very careful with the form to prevent serious injury, so take the time to learn how to do lying triceps extensions correctly.
Here’s how to do the skullcrusher:
- You can use a barbell, dumbbells, or another type of weight, but barbells are best for the traditional skullcrusher.
- Lie on a flat bench or an incline bench. An incline will work the top of your triceps while a reverse incline will work the other side.
- Get a solid grip on the barbell or dumbbell and hold it vertically above your chest with your upper arms remaining in a position that’s perpendicular to the torso.
- Move the weight over your head and down until it’s behind your head. Don’t let your shoulders get involved or you’ll be giving th wrong part of your arms a workout.
Skullcrushers can be used as an isolation exercise for the triceps brachii, which run from the elbow to the large muscle in the center of your back, which is called the latissimus dorsi and attaches to the upper body in the armpit.
Close-Grip Bench Press
This compound exercise targets the pecs and shoulders in addition to the triceps. Like some other upper body compound exercises, a more narrower grip will make the close-grip bench press more challenging.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on a flat bench and position the barbell at the correct lift level. You should be able to lift it off the ber with the help of a spotter.
- Get a close grip on the barbell with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar from the rack and lock your arms. Take a deep breath and lower the barbell toward your chest. Keep your elbows close to your body.
- Use your triceps to push the barbell back up to the starting position.
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Best Chest Exercises
Working the pecs generally entails working the shoulders, arm muscles, and latissimus dorsi. Since most of these are compound exercises, it’s important to pick the variation that will help you target the muscles you want to work on the most. The chest exercises that follow are in their classic forms but they all have plenty of variations.
Be very careful with this exercise because it can cause injury to the shoulder joint if you overextend and bring the weights lower than your back. If possible, use a cable machine to do cable flyes instead since you’ll get a wider range of motion and put more constant resistance on your arms.
To do the dumbbell flye, follow these steps:
- Take a dumbbell in each hand and lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor.
- Fully extend your arms to hold the dumbbells directly above your chest with your palms facing one another.
- Lower the weights out to each side, taking special care to leave your elbow slightly bent. Remember not to go lower than your spine.
- Return to the starting position by reversing the movement.
Reverse Dumbbell Bench Press
The reverse variant of the standard chest press targets the pecs and other chest muscles but will also give your shoulders and triceps a nice workout. Alternate with the regular chest press to maximize gains on your biceps and triceps equally.
Follow these steps to do the reverse dumbbell bench press:
- Lie on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Keep them straight above your chest just like you did with the dumbbell flye.
- In this exercise, your palms should be facing your shoulders.
- Lower the dumbbells not by mimicking a bicep curl but by lower your elbows just as you did in the dumbbell fly.
- When your hands get to chest height, return to the starting position to complete one rep.
Best Back Exercises
Building muscle in your upper and lower back not only helps develop the posterior chain, but it also helps prevent injury and long-term chronic pain. If you’re looking for a broad, chiseled back then these exercises are for you.
Named for their activation of the latissimus dorsi, lat pulldowns are one of the only exercises in this guide that require a machine. However, if you’re trying to build up the strength to do pull-ups, lat pulldowns are the best prep.
Here’s how to do lat pulldowns:
- Sit on the lat pulldown machine and place the pads on your thighs.
- Grab the overhead bar at either end with your grip a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your shoulder blades to pull the bar down in front of your chest. Flex your delts at the lowest point, then return to the starting position.
If you feel your grip strength get exhausted, reduce the weight and keep doing reps. This will help build up muscles so you can do more reps next time.
Good mornings are a great exercise for targeting important muscle groups in your lower body like the hamstrings, but they also target the lower back.
Follow these steps to execute proper good mornings:
- Hold a light barbell across your shoulders in a standing position. Keep your upper body straight throughout this exercise.
- Slowly hinge at the hips to lower your upper body toward the ground. Stop when you feel stretching in your hamstrings. Your knees can bend slightly but make sure your back stays straight.
- Reverse the move to return to the starting position.
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Best Lower Body Exercises
Leg day can be torture but if you have a healthy mix of these leg-targeting exercises and the compound exercises that follow you’ll be able to get a full-body workout. Warm up with some calf raises and then try these lower-body exercises:
The leg press is simple but it does require a specific machine. It will work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
Here’s how to do it:
- Sit at the machine with your back flat and both feet flat on the underside of the platform.
- Push through your heels to push away from the platform until your legs are fully extended, then return to the starting position.
This is a basic exercise but make sure you don’t overdo it with the weight plates on the machine.
These work basically every major muscle group in the lower body. The hamstrings, glutes, quads, and calves will all get involved in thie move.
Try these steps for perfect leg curls:
- Lie flat on your stomach with the roller just above your heels.
- Lift your feet without letting your hips lift at all.
- Try to get your feet as close to your glutes as possible.
- At the top of the lift, hold your position for a few seconds. Return to the starting position.
Barbell Back Squats
It might help to master the proper squat form without additional weight first. Once you have, the barbell back squat is a great lower body workout that also gives the upper body some attention, too.
Here’s how you can do barbell back squats with the proper form:
- Take the barbell off the rack and onto your rear shoulder muscles.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your feet pointed outward somewhat.
- Lower your butt like you’re taking a seat and then keep moving until your thighs are more or less parallel with the floor.
- Push through your heels to return to the starting position.
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The Romanian Deadlift has nothing to do with the country of Romania but it’s one of the best compound exercises in existence. It’s kind of like a reverse deadlift and keeps your muscles engaged for a longer period of time.
Here’s how to do a Romanian deadlift with the right form:
- Start with the barbell in your hands and held at about thigh-height.
- Lower the weight with a slight bend in your knees, like you would in the second half of a traditional deadlift.
- Continue lowering past the knees until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Press up through your feet to rise from the bent-over position and back to the starting position.
The human body functions using hundreds upon hundreds of different muscles. Imagine all of the movements you make during the day. Not only do we make large motions like strides, lifts, and pivots with muscle groups in our legs, arms, and core, but we also accomplish various tasks by moving our toes and fingers, blinking and rolling our eyes, chewing, swallowing, and much more. Other automatic processes like breathing and food digestion also require very complicated systems of muscle groups working together.
There are many important muscle groups in the body. Many lifters tend to ignore certain muscle groups and target sexier ones like the biceps and abs. This can be a killer because it leads to aesthetically pleasing muscles that are barely able to function.
Many compound exercises are much harder workouts than isolation exercises. The best way to make a workout routine that will give you the best of both worlds is to use isolation exercises like the overhead triceps extension to fill the gaps between chinups, barbell bench presses, and other rigorous compound exercises. If you have the stamina, try forming a HIIT workout with this method to get the best gains.
Weight training is great for both the upper and lower body. Cardio is equally important in limited doses. Many people have the erroneous idea that even the smallest amount of cardio will completely deplete their muscle mass, but adding cardio to your workout routine will help your body build muscle. Plyometrics are the best exercises to keep your heart rate up in place of long-distance running that may cause your body to consume muscle mass for energy.
Another great way to get a full-body workout is to add weight to your upper body while you do lower-body exercises that work your hamstrings, glutes, calves, and quadriceps. Lunges are a great example since they leave your arms completely free to hold dumbbells and add overhead arm extensions if you want to. From the opposite perspective, you could also do pull-ups with weight added to your lower body. Many people like to hold weight plates between their feet as they do pull-ups.
Use some of the compound and isolation exercises in this guide to take your workout plan to the next level. If you can manage to build a routine that hits all these major muscle groups, your overall bodily function will improve dramatically and your gains will be through the roof.
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