Bodybuilding exercises are unique in that they reshape the body. Bodybuilding allows you to be your own architect in the muscle-building process, from the coveted V taper and stretching t-shirt sleeves to a broader back and more muscular legs.
But what are the very best exercises for reshaping your physique? Below, we’ll take you through 12 of the best exercises for bodybuilding and elaborate on how to include them successfully into your program.
Best Bodybuilding Exercises
- Barbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Press
- Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Barbell Shrug
- Barbell Biceps Curl
- Triceps Dip
- Barbell Back Squat
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Barbell Romanian Deadlift
- Standing Calf Raise
The barbell bench press is considered the granddaddy of chest exercises. It engages multiple muscle groups such as the pectoralis major, triceps, and the anterior and medial heads of the deltoids, as well as the lats and core. It also lets lifters load more weight than they can lift with virtually any other chest exercise, allowing you to accumulate more volume (volume being the sum of sets x reps x weight lifted). And when it comes to building muscle, bodybuilding is a volume game.
Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press
- The bench press allows you to overload the muscle more efficiently by engaging multiple joints and applying more strength.
- It’s a versatile movement. You can perform the bench press with dumbbells, kettlebells, on an incline or decline, or using a machine.
How to Do the Barbell Bench Press
Lie on a flat bench with five points of contact on the bench: your head, upper back, butt, and both feet. Slightly arch your back and pull your shoulder blades down and together. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width. Lower the bar to the bottom of your pecs with a deep inhale, then reverse the motion with an exhale. Avoid locking out your elbows at the top. (Note: If you’re a powerlifter, lock your arms out. However, keeping your elbows slightly bent will keep more tension on the muscles, which is ideal for bodybuilding.)
The regular ole flat bench press gets a lot of love — rightfully so — but too much of a good thing, in this instance, will leave your upper chest wanting more. Pressing dumbbells on an incline helps you primarily achieve two things: First, you can better target the muscle fibers located in your upper pecs, which, if you’re a bodybuilder, should be a priority. Secondly, the incline angle extends your range of motion, so you can better stretch the chest muscles. As a bonus, working with dumbbells helps to even out any muscular imbalances you may have as each side of the body is handling the dumbbells individually.
Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Press
- The incline angle will build more of the upper pec area to help balance your physique.
- It will allow you to train each side independently and get a deeper stretch in the pecs.
- It adds variety to your chest training without relying solely on barbells and is ideal for at-home trainers.
How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Press
Set an adjustable bench to around 30 degrees of an incline. With your head, upper back, butt, and feet firmly planted, grasp a pair of dumbbells and slowly lower the bells down and out with your forearms perpendicular to the floor. Stop when the dumbbells are at the sides of each pec and you feel a stretch, then reverse the motion overhead without locking your elbows.
Few exercises are as challenging as the pull-up. Most lifters are fine hitting up lat pulldowns and rows, which are great options, and choose to skip pull-ups altogether. But ignoring this movement would be a mistake. The pull-up targets your back muscles — like every back muscle — as well as your biceps and core. And despite being a bodyweight exercise, the pull-up has you pull a lot of weight compared to the lat pulldown. For example, a 200-pound guy may rep out 150 pounds for six reps on the pulldown machine. But if that same guy can do six pull-ups, he lifts 200 pounds.
Can’t do a pull-up yet? No worries, BarBend’s month-long program will help you get there.
Benefits of the Pull-Up
- The pull-up allows you to manipulate your body weight for better whole-body control.
- It can be done almost anywhere, making it ideal for at-home and outdoor training.
- Achieving overload is easy just by using your body weight.
How to Do the Pull-Up
Take a medium to wide overhand grip on a pull-up bar. Keep your elbows slightly bent at the start and raise yourself to the bar leading with your chest. Once you reach your chin close to the bar, lower your body down slowly and avoid straightening your arms all the way.
The barbell row could be considered the bench press for the back in that it engages numerous muscles and allows you to lift a heavy load. And because you’re bent over while rowing a barbell loaded with weight plates, your lower back and hamstrings are going to accumulate more tension. That extra hammy and low-back tension will carry over to more deadlift and good morning strength.
Benefits of the Barbell Row
- You’ll more easily overload your muscles due to the increased load and multi-joint movement.
- The barbell row has numerous variations, including T-bar, dumbbell, and kettlebells.
- It is a fundamental exercise requiring minimal equipment.
How to Do the Barbell Row
Place a loaded barbell on the floor. Take a shoulder-width stance, bend over, and hinge at the hips keeping your back flat and close to parallel to the floor. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip shoulder-width apart and pull the bar up toward your belly button. Avoid raising your upper body as you pull. Lower the bar in a controlled manner.
Much like the incline dumbbell press, the dumbbell shoulder press allows you to work each side independently. Lifting two individual dumbbells provides an increase in shoulder stability and will balance out strength and muscle gains. Using dumbbells can also reduce neck pain and discomfort since you can lower the weights beside your ears instead of having to clear your head, as with the barbell military press.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Using dumbbells increases the lifter’s range of motion and comfort by allowing the dumbbells to travel freely versus more fixed as with a barbell.
- You can do shoulder presses several different ways, such as standing or seated.
How to Do the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Sit on a bench with back support and your lower back against the pad. Grasp a pair of dumbbells and start with the weights hoisted up to your shoulders, palms facing forward, and elbows out to your sides. Press the dumbbells up and in overhead, not locking your elbows. Lower the weight in a controlled manner just below our ears.
The barbell shrug is one of the most effective exercises for developing the traps and the neck, upper back, and grip strength. When performed properly it can add mounds of muscle to your upper traps and build stability within your entire shoulder girdle.
Benefits of the Barbell Shrug
- The barbell shrug allows for effective overload due to the amount of weight used.
- It can increase grip strength (assuming you don’t use lifting straps).
- It helps build stability throughout the shoulder girdle to aid in other exercises such as bench press, row, and pull-ups.
How to Do the Barbell Shrug
Load a barbell in a power rack, with the J-hooks set to knee level. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Without bending your arms, shrug the weight straight up. Do not rotate or roll your shoulders. Squeeze your traps at the top for a count and then slowly lower the weight. Avoid bouncing and heaving the bar up.
Nothing packs on biceps mass quite like the traditional barbell curl. Most lifters prematurely seek a peak in their arms. But like Arnold once said, you can’t carve a pebble. Barbell curls apply a heavy load and a full range of motion to build the granite-like foundation for bigger biceps.
Benefits of the Barbell Biceps Curl
- Since you are able to use a heavier weight than dumbbells, it’s easier to overload your biceps.
- It also activates your core for stabilization and using a little controlled “body English” allows you to perform cheat reps near the end of your set.
How to Do the Barbell Biceps Curl
Grasp a barbell with an underhand grip about shoulder width. With your arms hanging straight down curl the weight out and up while keeping your elbows by your sides. When you reach the top avoid resting the weight, squeeze your biceps, and then lower the weight in a smooth and controlled manner.
If the pull-up is a fundamental exercise for your back, the triceps dip fits right into that category as well for triceps. As a multi-joint movement, the triceps dip can add mass and thickness to the back of your arms with just your body weight. You can also progress quite easily by adding weight with a dip belt to increase the potential for overload. Your triceps will get a heavy dose of weight for more growth.
Benefits of the Triceps Dip
- You get residual work for your chest and anterior deltoids.
- You can easily add weight to a dip belt.
How to Do the Triceps Dip
Grasp a pair of parallel bars around the width of your shoulders. Lower your body between the bars keeping your upper body as upright as possible. Dip until you reach a 90-degree angle in your elbows. Reverse the motion and straighten your arms just before lockout.
A list of the best bodybuilding exercises wouldn’t be complete without the coveted barbell back squat. Some detest it while others revere it, but everyone can agree that it will undoubtedly pack muscle onto your lower body. While it utilizes so many muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lumbar, core, and many areas used for support such as the pecs, lats, and traps, the barbell back squat is considered a staple in any program.
Benefits of the Barbell Back Squat
- You can load the bar with a ton of weight to overload the muscle groups.
- The squat is versatile in that you can shift foot positions, perform them as front squats, and use high or low reps.
- Since you are stimulating so many muscle groups, you’ll have more potential to build muscle.
How to Do the Barbell Back Squat
With a barbell loaded on your upper traps, grasp the bar on each side of your shoulders. Begin to lower the weight down by bringing back your hips while you bend your knees. Imagine that you’re sitting down on a small stool behind you as you descend. When your quads reach around parallel to the floor, reverse the motion and stand straight up without locking out your knees.
The Bulgarian split squat has a lifter place one foot on a bench or plyo box set behind them and then squat down on their other leg. Few exercises isolate the quads as effectively as this movement but, be warned; it will elicit a burning sensation foreign to most lifters. This movement is trendy among bodybuilders as it stretches the quad muscle through an extended range of motion and brings on a massive leg pump.
Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
- The Bulgarian split squat helps even out imbalances in strength and muscle mass between legs.
- It lessens the load on your spine due to the lighter weight used for each leg.
- It can add variety and a new challenge to the more traditional leg exercises.
How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
Facing away from a bench, prop one foot behind you on a bench and the other out in front. Grab a pair of dumbbells and allow them to hang by your sides. Descend into a one-legged squat to where your forward leg forms a 90-degree angle at the knee. Press back up to extension without locking your knee.
Most folks often relegate their hamstring training to some form of leg curl, but that exercise only works in that specific, isolated area. The Romanian deadlift, however, works the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back with heavier loads. Since it works a considerable portion of your posterior chain, it can also help support other exercises such as squats and rows.
Benefits of the Barbell Romanian Deadlift
- You can easily use higher loads to help overload the glutes and hamstrings.
- This movement can be done with resistance bands, dumbbells, and kettlebells.
- It provides a deep stretch, adding more muscle-building tension to the hamstrings.
How to Do the Barbell Romanian Deadlift
Stand in front of a barbell in your normal deadlift stance. Grab the barbell with both hands and lift it off of the floor. Keeping your shoulder blades squeezed together and maintaining a slight bend in your knees, lower the barbell to the middle of your shins. You should feel an intense stretch in your hamstrings. Hold this stretch for a moment, and then pull the bar back up.
Some folks will tack on calf training to the end of a leg workout as an afterthought and proceed to bounce the weight in rapid cadence. Others will use light weight and practice the strictest form possible. However, the calf muscles respond well to heavier loads than simply our body weight, which we carry around all day. The standing calf raise allows you to load up the weight and properly overload your calves.
Benefits of the Standing Calf Raise
- You can overload the calves more effectively and with heavier weights in standing versus seated position.
- The standing posture allows for an intense stretch in the calf.
How to Do the Standing Calf Raise
Affix your shoulders under the pads and place the balls of your feet on the calf block. With a slight bend in your knees, descend your heels until you feel an intense stretch. Without bouncing, reverse direction and achieve a peak contraction for a count or two.
How to Train with Bodybuilding Exercises
These bodybuilding exercises are only practical when used correctly. Haphazardly throwing together a routine and winging the different variables will only lead to stagnation and frustration. Follow these guidelines to get the most out of these exercises.
How often you should train, a muscle group has been under great debate for decades. A meta-analysis concluded that “there is strong evidence that resistance training frequency does not significantly or meaningfully impact muscle hypertrophy when volume is equated.” (1) So, it’s up to the individual which frequency fits their needs, schedules, and preferences.
Sets and Reps
Generally speaking, reps for most sets can range from eight to 12 reps. For volume, a total weekly number is best figured when the frequency is established. With that said, a comprehensive weekly volume for each body part can be approximated at 10 sets. (2)
The larger, multi-joint exercises should be trained first in any program to avoid strength overlaps. For example, if you train your biceps before back exercises, the strength for moves such as pull-ups and rows will suffer due to the fatigue in your biceps. Train chest, back, and thighs early in your program.
The rest you take between sets does have an impact when trying to build muscle. A 2016 study concluded that when comparing one minute versus three minute rest periods, the longer rest periods resulted in more significant gains in strength and muscle mass. (3). A good rule of thumb is to take shorter rest periods for smaller muscle groups such as arms, shoulders, and calves and longer for large muscle groups such as the chest, back, and thighs.
How to Warm up with Bodybuilding Exercises
Warming up is imperative regarding increasing your readiness for the workout ahead. Not only does it pool blood into the muscle and excite the nervous system, but it also raises your body temperature and initiates mental preparedness.
Take the time to perform one to three lighter sets of each exercise before starting your working sets where more weight is added. The targeted area should feel warm, and a bit worked before loading up the weight.
Bodybuilding Training Rules
Are you looking to get the most out of your training? Of course you are. Follow these simple rules to eke out more gains.
Use a Full Range of Motion and Good Form
Be sure you use the fullest range of motion possible. Don’t sacrifice form and range of motion for the sake of lifting heavier weight. Muscle mass is all about recruiting more muscle fibers and fatiguing those fibers. Plus, proper form will help you avoid injury and provide you with long-term health for your joints, tendons, and ligaments.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
Anytime you exert effort on any exercise, breathe out. While coming out of the bottom position of a squat, exhale as you raise to the standing position. This rule applies to pressing the bar up on a bench press, pulling the bar on a row, and curling the weight up on a curl. Inhale in the opposite direction for each lift.
Brace Your Whole Body
By bracing your abs, glutes, and other areas that aren’t a part of a specific lift, you increase the tension in the body and provide a stable foundation. For example, contract your abs, thighs, upper back, and plant your feet to the floor while bench pressing. Doing that will support your lift and give you a sense of control during the entire range of motion.
More Bodybuilding Training Tips
Now you’re schooled on the best bodybuilding exercises, here are some other BarBend articles that’ll set you right on your training journey:
- The Best Bodybuilding Programs for All Experience Levels
- How to Bulk: The Ultimate Guide to Gaining Size
- The Best Supplements for Bodybuilding
- Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Jozo Grgic & James Krieger (2019) How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency, Journal of Sports Sciences, 37:11, 1286-1295,DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906
- Heaselgrave SR, Blacker J, Smeuninx B, McKendry J, Breen L. Dose-Response Relationship of Weekly Resistance-Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2019 Mar 1;14(3):360-368. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0427. Epub 2019 Feb 6. PMID: 30160627.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, Hester GM, Sellers J, Nooner JL, Schnaiter JA, Bond-Williams KE, Carter AS, Ross CL, Just BL, Henselmans M, Krieger JW. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272. PMID: 26605807.
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