THANKS TO TikTok, Instagram, and Reddit, you have a constant stream of bajillions of exercises every single day. But which of these moves can help you build the strength and muscle you want? Somehow, the information superhighway that is social media has only made that question harder. Every fitness discipline backs its own staple exercise, and every day another influencer talks up the merits of some blindfolded burpee backflip.
The antidote to that confusion is these ten exercises, which slice through the noise of social media, junk science, and your gym bestie’s best advice to help you forge muscle and strength. You’ll find some classics on this list and a few new moves, too. Somehow, someway, you need to get these ten moves into your regimen.
How We Chose the 10 Best Exercises
Every exercise has a purpose, but the very best exercises check many boxes at once. Here’s a look at how we picked our top ten.
To build muscle and strength, you need to increasingly challenge yourself with more load or greater volume.
The best exercises often challenge multiple muscle groups, making those moves time efficient.
If you need a specialized machine for an exercise, you might not be able to do it often enough to make gains. Moves that use your bodyweight, dumbbells, or kettlebells, though, can be done almost anywhere.
The Perfect 10 Exercises for Your Workouts
The Half-Kneeling Windmill
Why: Few exercises let you train your abs, shoulders, and back all at once. The half-kneeling windmill does. It’s a complete exercise that also trains you to rotate your torso.
How to Do It:
- You start in a half-kneeling stance, a kettlebell held directly overhead on the side of your front knee.
- Then you push your butt back and aim to touch your free elbow to the floor.
- You’ll feel your shoulder blades and back muscles fire as you lower, then feel your abs work overtime to drive you back to the start.
How to Train It: Do half-kneeling windmills 2 or 3 times a week. Keep the rep slow, doing 2 or 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps, taking your time on each rep. Struggling to touch your elbow to the floor? Start by touching your hand to the floor instead.
Why: This classic is an all-around exercise that builds more than your chest. Unlike more celebrated chest moves (like the bench press), the pushup demands complete core focus, as you’ll need to squeeze your abs and glutes. It’s also an upper-body exercise that travels well but can still grow with you. Searching for ways to make it more challenging? Place a weight plate or backpack on your back to add a bit of load.
How to Do It:
- Start in a high plank position, with your hands stacked under your shoulders, toes on the floor, and a flat back. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create tension.
- Bend your elbows to lower your torso down to just above the floor. Don’t allow your elbows to flare out; keep them ‘glued’ to your sides.
- Press off the floor back up to the top position, extending your elbows.
How to Train It: Do 3 or 4 sets of as many good-form reps as you can. “You can easily take pushups to failure,” says MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. “The worst that will happen is you’ll plop to the ground on your final rep.” You can do pushups daily or with any upper-body workout.
The Trap Bar Deadlift
Why: No exercise better duplicates a natural human movement than the trap-bar deadlift, which essentially has you bending down to pick something up from the floor, then standing with that load. You’ll do this extra safely with the trap-bar deadlift, too, stepping inside a bar so you can focus on pushing your butt back and not letting your back round (two common deadlift faults). The move mainly attacks your glutes, hamstrings, and quads—but your forearms, mid-back, and abs will also feel it.
How to Do It:
- Position yourself inside the trap bar, with your shins aligned with (or just in front of) the center of the bar.
- Push your butt back as far as possible, bend your knees, and reach down to grip the handles. Grip as tightly as possible.
- Keep your head in a neutral position, keeping your gazed fixed at something in front of you. Squeeze your shoulder blades to create tension, and turn the pits of your elbows forward, facing out.
- Make sure your hips are lower than your shoulders, then prepare to initiate the lift.
- Push your feet through the floor to stand straight up, squeezing your glutes at the top.
- To finish the rep, push your butt back as far as you can, then bend your knees to set the weight down.
How to Train It: Aim to do trap-bar deadlifts at least twice a week. Start with a weight you can control; do 3 or 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Once you’ve mastered the movement, aim to do 3 or 4 sets of 2 to 4 reps each with heavy weights, working to build serious strength.
The Goblet Squat
Why: “The squat is a fundamental motion that all people should understand,” says Samuel. And no squat is safer for you than the goblet squat, which has you holding a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest. The position of the weight instantly prevents your torso from leaning forward, a common mistake with other squat variations. In doing so, it also fires up your abs, adding even more total-body benefit.
How to Do It:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight in front of your chest with both hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades to create mid-back tension to help support the load and brace your core.
- Push your butt back, then bend your knees to squat down as low as you comfortably can while maintaining the proper upright posture. Push your knees out and keep your core engaged; don’t rest your elbows on your knees.
- Press off the floor with both feet to stand back up, squeezing your glutes and exhaling at the top.
How to Train It: Aim to do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps of goblet squats, and don’t be afraid to go heavy, says Samuel: “Whatever the biggest dumbbells are in your gym, work up to those.” It’s a great way to start a leg workout. You can also use a lighter weight, aim for 15 to 20 reps per set, and do it at the end of your workout.
The Reverse Lunge
Why: The reverse lunge is the ultimate entry point into single-leg training, in which you focus on just one limb at a time.
How to Do It:
- On each rep, you step back, bend both knees, then power back to standing position.
- The moment you power back, you’re blasting your glutes and driving into “hip extension,” a position that’s critical for athleticism—and can protect your lower back, too.
How to Train It: You can do reverse lunges with only your bodyweight daily, building athleticism and blasting your quads and glutes. To forge serious muscle size and strength, do reverse lunges with heavy dumbbells or kettlebells held at your sides. Aim to do 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps per side—and complete all reps on one side before going on to the other.
Why: When you think of exercises to develop your lats, the largest muscles in your back, you likely think of pullups, but if you’re not chasing CrossFit dreams, the chinup is superior. By using an underhand grip (instead of the classic overhand grip utilized in pullups), you take stress off your shoulders while also allowing your biceps to assist as you pull yourself up. That’ll help you squeeze out a few more reps, pushing your entire upper body to greater fatigue every set.
How to Do It:
- Grasp the bar with an underhand grip. If the bar overhead is too high for you to grab from a standing position, step up to get a grip.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to get into position. Maintain this tension throughout the set.
- Pull yourself up until your head is over the bar. Keep your hanging plank position strong.
- Slowly lower back down to the starting position.
How to Train It: “Chinups are a great move on any back day,” says MH fitness advisor David Otey, C.S.C.S. Aim to do 3 or 4 sets of as many good-form reps as you can at least twice a week.
The Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry
Why: The farmer’s carry trains your entire body: As you hold a weight and walk forward, your forearms, shoulders, and back muscles get taxed to prevent your torso from tipping forward, and your legs work to keep you balanced. “Lifting that weight with just one arm,” adds trainer Marcus Martinez, C.S.C.S., “also ultra fires up your abs so your torso doesn’t tip to one side.”
How to Do It:
- Hold the weights at your sides in one hand with a tight grip. You can use extend your off arm for balance.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create tension. Direct your eyes forward and slightly down in front of you so you can keep a neutral neck position.
- Step forward with short, balanced strides, keeping your posture strong.
How to Train It: Train the single-arm farmer’s carry for time, not reps: Aim to do 3 one-minute sets per side. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets. And go heavy; your abs and grip strength will reap the benefits.
The Hollow Hold
Why: Based on a classic gymnastics training idea, the hollow hold has you lying on your back and pressing your lower back into the floor while lifting both your legs and your shoulder blades. Doing so challenges your abs to fight any urge to arch your back, a principle called “anti-extension.” “This will also hone good posture,” says Samuel, “keeping you from flaring your rib cage when you stand.”
How to Do It:
- Lie on the ground and get into an “egg” shape—raise your feet off the floor and hug your knees to your chest, lifting your shoulders off the floor.
- Drive your lower back into the floor. This is key for the duration of the movement.
- Extend your legs out as far as you can, straightening the knees and keeping your feet raised a few inches off the floor. Extend your arms out behind your head, keeping your shoulders raised off the floor.
- Squeeze your abs and glutes to create full body tension. Hold this position, keeping your lower back planted on the floor.
How to Train It: You can do hollow holds as part of a daily ab routine. Aim to hold the position for 30 to 40 seconds, then rest for 20 seconds. Do 3 or 4 sets—and expect it to be harder than you think.
The Kettlebell Swing
Why: Few exercises challenge more critical muscle than this one, which tasks you with standing behind a kettlebell, hiking it behind your hips, and then explosively standing and squeezing your glutes to swing the bell forward. Your hamstrings and glutes get a challenge with every rep, and because you’re moving a heavy load, you’ll also train your forearms and light up your abs. The best part: It all happens in the blink of an eye, ensuring that you build not only strength but power, which diminishes as we age.
How to Do It:
- Start standing with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, with the kettlebell on the ground in front of you. Push your butt back and hinge forward to grasp the handles with both hands.
- Forcefully “hike” the weight back between your legs.
- Stand up and squeeze your glutes. Think of your arms like a rope, keeping them loose as you allow the momentum of the bell to drive upward.
- Don’t aim for a designated height; allow the momentum of the bell from the force of your hip extension to determine how high it goes.
- Reverse the movement, allowing the bell to fall back between your legs. Don’t allow your lower back to round.
How to Train It: The kettlebell swing is a terrific exercise to finish off leg day—and you can actually do them every day at the end of your workout. Aim to do reps for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds; do 4 to 6 sets. The 4-minute series will spike your heart rate and build athleticism, too.
The Elevated Plank Row
Why: The elevated plank row dares you to do row reps while holding a single-arm plank with your elbow on a bench, a position that simultaneously blasts your mid-back muscles, your lats, your abs, and your glutes. “Your hips are going to want to rotate back and forth as you do these,” says Samuel. “It takes all your ab and glute strength to prevent that from happening.”
How to Do It:
- Get into a plank position on a bench, putting your weight on one forearm. Squeeze your core and glutes to keep your spine straight.
- Grab your dumbbell with the other arm. Squeeze your back muscles to row up until the weight touches your ribcage.
- Pause for a beat, continuing to squeeze your back, core, and glutes to avoid falling out of balance.
- Lower the weight back down under control.
How to Train It: Add elevated plank rows to your workouts on any back day, aiming to do 3 or 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side. The best part: You don’t need to rest between sets, meaning you can build back muscle and get a solid cardiovascular workout, too. Want more of this move? Add it to your ab training as well.
The editors of Men’s Health are your personal conduit to the top experts in the world on all things important to men: health, fitness, style, sex, and more.
Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is the fitness director of Men’s Health and a certified trainer with more than 10 years of training experience. He’s logged training time with NFL athletes and track athletes and his current training regimen includes weight training, HIIT conditioning, and yoga. Before joining Men’s Health in 2017, he served as a sports columnist and tech columnist for the New York Daily News.