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The 3 Best Exercises to Build Muscle

man doing bench pressWith so many different workouts and exercises out there today, it can be overwhelming when it comes time to put together a workout program of your own. The key to building muscle is to use compound movements that recruit a large amount of muscle fibers at one time.

Isolation exercises are fun to do and you feel a nice pump, but they are not going to build you big muscles. Unless you are an intermediate to advanced weight lifter, you should be focusing on a handful of core exercises. So what are these 3 best exercises to build muscle? Read on to find out.

Bench Press

When it comes to building upper body muscle, nothing can come close to the bench press. When using proper form, the bench press recruits nearly every upper body muscle including your chest, triceps, shoulders, lats, and all the little stabilizer muscles.

You want bigger arms? Barbell curls and triceps kickbacks aren’t going to do it. Heavy pressing movements are the key to big arms. Your triceps take up two-thirds of your arm. If you want big arms, focus on your triceps through compound pressing movements.

The proper form for the bench press is as follows:

  • Lay down on the bench and arch your back. Only your butt and your upper back should be touching the bench.
  • Press your shoulder blades together. Your shoulder blades will remain in this position even while you are pressing the bar off your chest. You can practice this part just sitting in your chair.
  • Place your hands on the bar just a bit wider than shoulder width distance.
  • Remove the bar from the rack and lower the bar to your lower chest (about even with your nipple line).
  • Keep your elbows tucked into your sides. Do not let your elbows drift out to the sides.
  • After touching your chest, press the bar straight up and think about pulling the bar apart with your hands. This motion activates the lats.

Practice this form with light weight, or a broom stick, and you will soon get the hang of it. Proper form will fully activate all the muscle fibers, and will help keep you from injuring yourself.


Nothing comes close to building total body muscle like the squat. The squat is king of all exercises. It recruits muscles from you quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and back to name the big ones. And it provides a strong core workout for your abs.

The proper form for the squat is as follows:

  • Place the bar on the rack in a position that’s a couple of inches below your shoulders.
  • Try not use any foam padding on the bar. The closer the contact the bar to your body, the more stable you will be.
  • Place your hands in a comfortable position so that you can get under the bar. I like to have my index finger on the outside rings.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and rest the bar on your upper back. There should be a nice little groove for it to rest on. Do not place it too high. It should not be up towards your neck.
  • Stand up with the bar and take a slightly wider than shoulder width stance.
  • Start thinking of the squat as a back and forth movement with your hips instead of an up and down movement with your butt.
  • The first movement you make is not down! Don’t go and start bending your knees first. The first movement you make is to stick your butt back. This is the biggest mistake people make.
  • Continue pushing your butt back further and further until your upper legs are parallel to the floor.
  • Your lower legs should be close to perpendicular to the floor. Your knees should not be hanging out past your toes. If they are, you more than likely started the squat movement by bending your knees instead of pushing your hips back.
  • Once you reach the bottom, press up on the bar hard by pressing your heels through the floor. The weight from the squat should always be on your heels – not on your toes.
  • While moving upwards, press out with your knees. Do not let them buckle inwards while you press the weight up.

Again, practice this form over and over again with either a broomstick or your own body weight. Stand up right now. Squat down. Did you just bend at the knees first? Or did you push your butt back? Focus on getting the form right and you will unleash the power of the squat and prevent knee injuries.


The deadlift is one of the scariest exercises that you hear about in the media. Time and time again you hear that you are going to hurt your back. I’m here to tell you that you will hurt your back – if you fail to use the proper form.

The proper form for the deadlift is as follows:

  • Take an overhand grip (my preference) on the bar that is shoulder width apart. Your arms should just be hanging straight down. You may prefer to use lifting straps or workout gloves to get a better grip so that your forearms don’t fail before your back does.
  • Place your feet shoulder width apart, or slightly past shoulder width.
  • Bring the bar close to you so that it is touching your ankles, or very close to them.
  • Lower your butt down. Don’t keep it high in the air. This isn’t a stiff-legged deadlift.
  • As you start to lift, you need to focus on driving your hips forward. You don’t want to think about pulling the bar up with your back. That’s not what the deadlift is about.
  • Keep your butt down and the bar as close to your shins as possible. It might even skim your legs as you lift it up.
  • Push your heels through the floor while you drive your hips forward.
  • Once you reach the top, lower the bar back to the ground. Don’t do this by first bending at the back. Do it in the reverse manner that you got it up there. Push your hips back, and lower it as close to your shins as possible.

The deadlift is another total body exercise. Nothing will build a better back than the deadlift. From the hips, to the glutes, to the back, the whole posterior chain takes a beating.

Once you practice these exercises and get good at them, you can then start to throw in variations of them. Variations would include the close grip bench press, front squat, good morning, and stiff-legged deadlift. Combine these exercises with one of these HIIT routines, and you have a recipe for great muscle gain and fat loss.

  • Mike – Fitness Contrarian

    The basic exercises like squat, bench press and deadlift always produce the best results. If you want to put on size stick to the basic compound exercises.

    Good Post.

    Best – Mike

  • Coach Calorie

    Good advice Mike. Especially as a novice, all you need are compound movements.

  • Jason

    I know it is hard to limit it to 3. But I think I wold ditch the squat and throw in pull ups. If for some reason I was only allowed to do 3 exercises, deads, pull ups, and bench would be it. If I didn’t love bench so musch I think I would trade that in for standing shoulder press.

    • Coach Calorie

      Pullups are a great exercise, but I feel that deadlifts will build better back mass. Plus, nothing puts on lower body muscle mass like squats. Deadlifts will help, but I give squats the award for #1 muscle building exercise of all time. People hate doing them, and for good reason – they are hard! Thanks for the comment Jason.

      • Gen

        I LOVE LOVE LOVE squats!

  • Angela

    I am 52 soon, in reasonable shape for my age and usually exercise regularly with hand weights and a few exercise machines (ie cable). Lately I have been doing nothing and it is showing. I want to get some results fast, loose a few kilos from xmas and get some muscle tone happening. I want some good combinations as you said of about 3 good moves to get the most out of the little time I have to do something. Would these be the best 3 to combine as a circuit for me, I am liking the idea of a squat into a shoulder press or something like this, ( I have read how these combo type things are supposed to be the best to get the body fired up) I use two 2.5kg or 5kg hand weights, can u suggest a good combo for me to start on? I read all these pages but I still don’t know what to do for the best at the end, I just want someone to say do 1, 2, 3 and that is it. hahah don’t want much do I?

    Thanks I enjoy you pages

    • Coach Calorie

      Hey Angela, regardless of your age, I think these 3 exercises are going to be your best bet. Make sure you use proper form. Start off with squats, then move to bench, then deadlifts. You can do this 2, maybe 3 times per week depending on your recovery ability. Combined with a good diet, these 3 exercises will get you to where you need to be.

      I would not do a squat into a shoulder press. I’m not a fan of the behind the neck shoulder press. I think it puts too much stress on the shoulders. Unless you are doing a front squat into a shoulder press (partial movement of the clean and jerk), I wouldn’t do the combo.

  • anna pry

    thanks, i have dreaded using a workbench after bad experiences in high school gym class but i may have to give it another try

  • Judith VanAlphen

    Great advice if you are a guy and go to a gym and have a spotter.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hey Judith, the same advice goes for girls too. Muscle is muscle – it does not discriminate between sexes. Yes, you do need a “gym” of some sort to do these 3 exercises. It could be at home, or it could be at a commercial gym.

      You also don’t need a spotter to do them. Do them in the power rack and set the safety pins just below the bottom of your movement. If you can’t get the rep you can just set the weight down on the pins.

    • Julie Costanten

      You can also use inexpensive dumbbells, Choose weights that you know you can handle (I can only handle 3-5 lbs myself because of pain issues) but even a little extra weight can make a difference when toning and minimizing muscle loss.

  • Geoffrey Hale

    Squats, squats, squats!! I’m on my way for the big weekly squats & dead lifts. For maximum hypertrophy I should dedicate a day to each. That said, in agreement, I’m very curious about your choice of the classic bench press over say, weighted push ups.


    • Coach Calorie

      Hey Geoffrey, nothing wrong with the pushup, I just think you limit the amount of resistance you can safely add to it. The bench is a movement that you can add an almost unlimited amount of weight and do it alone if you have a power rack and safety pins.

  • Linda

    I am 57 and have recently started walking an hour a day again. 6 years ago, i lost 30lbs just walking and cutting carbs. I was eating very healhty…weston price style, if that helps you know what i mean by healthy :)

    I have had some back issues, and have been getting chiropractic treatment. I feel much stronger, but feel i need to start slow, so, walking has been a good start for me. I want to ramp it up a bit and get my heart working more. How best could I incorporate some high intensity exercises? What do you recommend for someone who is mostly at home, not apt to visit a gym or buy barbells? Are there high intensity routines that i can do in my living room and then alternate that with my walking routine?

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Linda, yes, there are plenty. First, you need to make sure you are cleared for exercise. Only a physical therapist will be able to assess your range of movement and injury to prescribe a routine.

      That being said, bodyweight exercises are great for building strength. Pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats are some core movements. All of these have different variations and difficulties. I’d suggest you google bodyweight exercises or search on YouTube to get more variety. There are so many to choose from.

  • jigneshkumar


  • Nilda Padilla

    i need to see a picture of the deadlift please

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Nilda, I would suggest you go to and search “deadlift”. From there, you will be able to see all kinds of exercise instruction.

  • Kasia

    So very true. I do them all

  • Kasia

    I absolutely love these emails and the information on Facebook! Love it! I find them to be quite accurate. Thank you

    • Coach Calorie

      Glad you find them useful Kasia. Thanks for reading!

  • jenthom

    How many reps would you recommend and how many times a week? I am trying to lose fat and get long lean muscles.
    P.S. love your posts!

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Jenthom, the reps, sets, and frequency of your workout will depend on a lot of factors. High reps and low reps both have their merits, and I like to include both of them in my workouts. Ideally you would periodize your workouts over time. Check out this article –

  • Lillie Moss

    I am petite, how much lbs of weight i should use barbell and bench press? and,How many reps? Thank for post!

    • Coach Calorie

      Really impossible for me to know without training you in person. I would start with the bar and see how things go. Once you can do that with good form, start increasing the weight. At the start, work in a higher rep range, maybe 10 reps, just to get your form down.

  • Bernard

    Hi,I change my workout every 6-8 weeks, should I keep these 3 exercises in workouts and just change the others?

    • Coach Calorie

      You don’t have to keep these exact exercises in there, and there is more than one way to periodize your workouts. There are many variations of the bench press (close grip, incline, etc), and squat (front squat, good morning, etc) that you can shuffle in and out of your routine. You can also work with the same exercises and just change up the set and rep schemes.

      • bernard

        thanks coach

  • Lily Scarrett

    Great info!

  • Mr. Blair

    Thanks again! Keep preaching this Tony! It is what works, Period.

  • Dion Samuel

    I love your stuff as always

  • Denise

    Good article but I have to disagree on the bench press exercise as the best for upper body. Especially for the person looking to get an overall or total body workout, I would have to say that pullups and pushups are the best for upper body as well as the core. The pullup uses not only the lats but the shoulders, biceps, and core. The pushup work the chest, triceps, shoulders, core, and, depending on the variation, can even work the lats and glutes. Even though you don’t get to add weight to the pullup, it’s one of the hardest, if not the most, difficult exercise to perform. And with the pushup, (when you get stronger) you can add a weight plate on your back or try a one-arm pushup. Anyhow, first time i posted. Love your website!!

  • fatuma

    Such great information
    Really understand how to exercise and be fit

  • Coach Calorie

    Hi Denise, I’m definitely a fan of the pullup too. The reason why I didn’t pick pullups/pushups is because of logistics (inability to safely add weight). For someone like myself who can bench press several hundred pounds, stacking hundreds of pounds of plates on my back isn’t easy, safe, or recommended. However, pullups/pushups are two of my favorite bodyweight exercises.

  • Rhonda

    Thank You so much Tony! I look forward to these tips advice etc. I have lost 38lbs since feb and have 20 more to go! I have lost nothing but fat and gained a lot of muscle for the first time in my 53 yrs of life I am getting fit and feel healthy what a blessing! It changes your whole perspective on life Thanks again for what you do!! :-)))))))))))

  • Gen

    well… will definitely start doing deadlifts!

  • Ruth

    I am wondering about the positioning for bench press. I am a fitness instructor and have always been taught that the core should be engaged during this exercise. Arching it up is contrary to anything I have heard. Can you explain why this is the position you prefer?
    I enjoy the posts and have learned a lot from them.

    • Coach Calorie

      The core is still engaged while the arch is in place.

      • Ruth

        Okay. I will try this on my next upper body day. I do agree with you on your choice of these exercises. I love doing squats especially.