Whether you train in a 30,000 square foot mega-gym filled with all the latest machines, or in your garage with just a barbell, power rack and a few plates, the exercise options you have to attack any given muscle group are nearly limitless. So what exercises produce the most bang for your buck and help you target the muscles you are looking to get bigger and stronger? Let’s break down 6 major muscle groups and pick out the one exercise you should be doing to gain mass and strength and the one that you can probably skip out on.

front squat barbell


Do This – Want to give your thighceps a solid workout? Give front squats a try. This version of the squat where a barbell is racked across your shoulders overloads the quads more than the more popular back squat version. Plus, the front squat forces you into a more upright position keeping your spine more vertical. Finally, you’ll get a bonus ab workout with the front squat as your core will have to fight really hard to help you keep position.

Not That – While the leg press machine can be good for adding more volume to your training, it can put you in a very compromised position that can lead to injury – particularly if you overload the machine with tons of plates as everyone seems to do. It’s easy to round your lower back while sitting on the leg press, a very common way of injuring your lumbar spine (lower back). The leg press also all but eliminates the need to stabilize your torso as you are completely supported by the machine – so no extra core training to be had there.

dumbbell bench press


Do This – Everyone loves the barbell bench press but it’s less utilized cousin, the dumbbell bench press is a great chest developer that also trains shoulder stability. You can also change hand positions very easily with dumbbells (for example, going with a neutral grip with palms facing each other) in a way you just can’t do with a bar, giving you a lot more variety. And given that you don’t have a bar to touch your chest, you can get a bit more range of motion out of the dumbbell variation.

Not That – The pec dec can be a decent finisher on chest day but should never be considered a primary exercise for developing your pecs. Plus many non-adjustable versions of the machine can put your anterior delts on a huge stretch in the starting position which can lead to problems.

Romanian deadlift


Do ThisRomanian deadlifts (RDL’s) are a great way to work the hip hinge pattern (a movement that many people struggle with) and build strength in a way that will carryover to your traditional deadlifts, good mornings, cleans and snatches. The RDL actually trains the entire posterior chain – all those muscles you can’t see in the mirror – which are hugely important to athletic development. So if you participate in any activities that involve running, jumping or throwing, the RDL can help improve performance.

Not That – Seated hamstring curls, which look like a reverse leg extension, can isolate the hamstrings for hypertrophy, but you are training in a position and in a movement pattern that does not mimic anything in sport or life. These machines are also often hard to properly adjust leaving you in an odd position.


Do This – Triceps are really worth training in isolation as strong triceps will contribute to great compound movements such as the bench press and push press. The lying EZ-Bar decline triceps extension is a phenomenal way to put a lot of stress on the triceps while minimizing the need to add additional pressing movements such as close-grip bench press or floor press to your routine. And while ‘skullcrusher’ movements have a reputation of leading to bloody noses and forehead scars, it’s actually quite easy to bail out of them if you use a decline bench. And the EZ-Bar provides a really comfortable grip so you can place your focus where it should be – on the tri’s.

Not That – Dumbbell triceps kickbacks were a favorite in 80’s aerobics classes and you still see many gym-goers break them out to add volume on arms day. The problem with the kickback is that the majority of muscle activation happens at the end of the movement (when your arm is straight) and your triceps are relaxed the majority of the time. And since time under tension is a huge factor in building size, you don’t want to spend the majority of any movement with your muscles not working.

Shoulder Wide


Do This – Although it takes a little bit of set up, the corner press (in which you put one end of a barbell against a corner of the gym and load plates onto the other side, pick the barbell up to your shoulder and press with one arm at an angle) is well worth the effort. The corner press allows you to train the shoulder without having to put a barbell directly overhead, a position that many gym-goers struggle with. Plus the off-set load (you are only using one arm at a time) forces you to stabilize with your obliques and glutes, something that comes in handy in a lot of other exercises.

Not That – The military press is an impressive exercise that allows you to put big weight overhead. But, as mentioned, so many people do not have the mobility to perform this type of movement and end up compensating by flexing their lower back to get the bar where it’s supposed to go. If overhead pressing is really important to you (and if you want to do Olympic-style weightlifting or strongman it certainly will be) make sure you gain the proper shoulder mobility first.

One-Sided Negative Gains for Positive Muscle


Do This – Seated cable rows allow you to use various handles, hand positions and grip-widths that can really target different areas of the upper back and lats. And while you can “cheat” a seated row by flexing and extending at the hips with each rep, it’s very easy to avoid added stress to your lumbar spine which could result in injury. So throw a straight-bar, v-bar or rope on this machine and experiment with different ways and angles to hit those big and small back muscles.

Not That – While they can be an extremely effective back builder, underhand barbell rows can also lead to major problems. Your lats can often row more weight that your lower back can isometrically support. Meaning that one of two things will often happen in the middle of your set – you’ll either begin losing position and get more upright with each rep or your back will start to round as the set continues. And while the underhand grip does allow for superior range of motion, it also puts your biceps tendons at huge risk for tears – a problem that will require surgery to repair.