If you’ve been lifting for long enough, you’ve probably fallen into the trap of selecting exercises based on impressing your powerlifting friends even though you couldn’t care less about your powerlifting total.
For most people, they simply want to be strong at a variety of lifts (not just 3) and more importantly get as jacked as humanly possible.
Let’s be real here. Building slabs of eye-catching muscle is so much more important than nearly passing out for a new deadlift PR.
Once people realize this, they often fall into another trap of exercise selection which is choosing exercises based on what their favorite bodybuilder does.
This is unreliable at best and completely ineffective at worse. Instead, you need to choose your exercises like you would selecting a new car. You need a set of systematic principles to truly tell whether the target in question fits the goal.
In this case, we’re trying to figure out what makes an exercise effective for stimulating epic amounts of hypertrophy. This guide will help and can also be used for dieters as well because what builds the most muscle during massing phases will keep the most muscle during cutting phases.
Before we get into all the juicy details, it’s also important to note, no exercise will fit every principle fully, but the ones that optimize more aspects will clearly be better than ones that don’t.
Strength curves refer to how strong you are at certain portions of a lift while resistance curves refer to how the resistance of a given exercise changes throughout the range of motion.
There are 2 ways to optimize this for hypertrophy in order of importance.
Here are some ways to flatten out the resistance curve
(retrieved from https://www.t-nation.com)
The graph above shows how taking a simple exercise like the standing barbell curve and incorporating different variations into your training program can help in training a variety of curves.
The stimulus to fatigue ratio is the amount of muscle building adaptations an exercise can give you relative to the fatigue it forces you to recover from, a term I learned from Mike Israetel.
Some exercises like conventional deadlifts and rack pulls have a poor stimulus to fatigue ratio. They use lots of weight, require long warm-ups, and drain your body’s resources quickly while providing an unfavorable return on hypertrophy.
Instead, find exercises that give you appreciable growth, doesn’t mentally drain you to perform multiple sets, and allows you to recover adequately for future workouts.
This might vary depending on individual differences. For example, some people can build jaw-dropping quads with front squats thanks to favorable limb lengths while others struggle because it’s too systemically fatiguing.
In this example, you can reduce the fatiguing demands by introducing a box or implementing blood flow restriction. Or you can simply find a completely different quad building exercise with a more favorable stimulus to fatigue ratio, perhaps a leg press or split squat.
The factor of stability is a crucial consideration. With more instability, it becomes harder to generate force and focus on deep targeted contractions.
This is why wobbly surface training is not a great muscle builder.
Even with more traditional strength training exercises, you can find ways to stabilize them to enhance hypertrophy.
This could mean Switching from kettlebells to dumbbells for presses and flys as dumbbells provide a more stable grip.
You could also hold on to something during lunges and single leg RDL’s, so balance isn’t limiting.
And as blasphemous as it may sound, another great application is to switch certain barbell movements for smith machine versions.
Generally speaking, more stability means more hypertrophy.
Some exercises have limitations that cut our sets short far before the targeted muscle is sufficiently fatigued. This will impact hypertrophy training especially if you plan on taking a muscle to failure.
Generally speaking, common limiting factors will be grip strength, shoulder stability, low back stress, or secondary movers.
Try to choose exercises with no limiting factor outside of the primary mover.
If you do notice a limiting factor, here’s how to eliminate them to make exercises more hypertrophic.
One of the best attributes of a hypertrophy friendly exercise is loadability. This means an exercise should be progressively loaded with ease.
This makes applying progressive overload much easier.
Generally speaking, bilateral exercises that allow for triple-digit loads will take full advantage of optimal loadability.
Plate loaded exercises like the bench press or leg press are even better because advanced lifters who can no longer make big progressions in weight can still overload them with 2.5-5lb increments.
Full range of motion exercises allows you to stress a muscle across it’s entire contracting and lengthening length.
This is why the most hypertrophic squat is the one that gets you to go the deepest with the most upright posture. For some people, this might be a box squat, front squat, back squat, or even a smith machine squat with your feet forward.
Cambered bars and safety squat bars can also help increase range of motion for compound exercises.
Ultimately, choosing exercises with more range is generally better assuming you do them with control and not just swing the weight around like a crazy ego lifter.
Creating massive tension in the stretched position of an exercise produces a unique anabolic stimulus.
An infamous 2014 study had 2 groups train with the same range of motion, but the group training at longer muscle lengths not only gained more muscle but retained more strength and size after a detraining period (4).
The stretch stimulus is another crucial reason to train with a full range of motion, but keep in mind some exercises can have the same range of motion, but different levels of tension in the stretched position.
For example, pronated rows will give you more tension in the stretched position than supinated rows.
Lying cable triceps extensions will give you more stretch stimulus than lying barbell skull crushers.
And Standing calf raises are better than seated when it comes to the stretch stimulus.
For an exercise to maximize hypertrophy, it’s contraction properties should include both a concentric and eccentric phase, both with adequate tension.
Concentric contractions tend to grow muscle fibers in diameter while eccentric contractions tend to grow muscle fibers in length, so ideally you would select exercises that do both adequately (5).
Exercises lacking in eccentric tension are thus not ideal as you’ll be missing out on growth.
This includes popular exercises like conventional deadlifts, Olympic lifts, kipping pull-ups, and box jumps. Unfortunately, if your goal is to maximize on size, these are all terrible muscle builders due to their contraction properties.
Realistically, you have to make do with what you got. If you train at a commercial gym, you won’t have access to specialty bars, fancy machines, chains, and optimal band setup to maximize exercise selection.
You have to apply the principles relative to what’s practical for you. For instance, the barbell hip thrust takes advantage of most of these factors which is highly ideal for glute hypertrophy but isn’t too convenient to set up.
Some exercises are just not worth the time to set up.
Ultimately, the practicality must be considered just as much as the physiological aspects.
The final verdict on choosing the best exercises is your training history. After applying these principles, you’ll quickly notice it’s hard to tell which exercises have the edge from the cream of the crop.
Banded overhead presses have a fantastic resistance curve and loadability, but machine presses are more stable and have a great stimulus to fatigue ratio.
Assuming you can’t fit both into your program, you would choose the one that’s most foreign as it can optimize on the aspects you’ve been neglecting most.
So if you’ve plateaued on the best barbell exercises, it might be best to switch those movement patterns for machines and vice versa if need be.
Ultimately exercise selection is both an art and a science. You take what science shows are the most valuable principles and build an arsenal based on it.
Then you consider your individual mechanics, the practicality of setup, and training history to pick the best muscle building weapons from your arsenal. You then do them for the next 4-12 weeks while intelligently applying progressive overload.
After that, you reassess, rinse and repeat, and continue making gains for a lifetime.
Calvin Huynh is an online coach and writer at AwesomeFitnessScience.com. He became a trainer because he was sick of all the misinformation in the fitness industry. His days consist of writing, helping average guys transform their physique, and occasionally eating pints of ice cream.