The Best Exercises…According to Research

One of the most frequently asked questions for any trainer has to be ‘What’s the best exercise for my ______’. While this question really comes down to many individual variables, one objective way to address this is through electromyographical (EMG) research results. EMG testing measures the amount of motor unit activity in the muscle being trained. Researchers attach wires with pads from a computer, directly to different muscles and ask the subject to perform various exercises for a particular muscle group and then measure the electrical activity generated. The greater the motor unit activation, the better the exercise is at isolating the target muscle. The results posted here are taken from research conducted by world renowned strength training specialist, father of periodization and one of my former University professors, Dr. Tudor Bompa and are taken from the text Serious Strength Training. The numbers reflect % of max motor unit recruitment (of 100).




Pectoralis Major

Decline dumbell bench press: 93

Decline bench press (olympic): 90

Push-ups between benches: 88

Flat dumbell bench press: 87

Flat bench press: 85

Flat dumbell fly: 84

Pectoralis Minor (beneath pec major)

Incline dumbell bench press: 91

Incline bench press (olympic): 85

Incline dumbell fly 83

Incline bench press (Smith): 81



Medial Deltoids

Incline dumbell side lateral: 66

Standing dumbell side lateral: 63

Seated dumbell side lateral: 62

Cable side lateral: 47

Posterior Deltoids

Standing dumbell bent laterals: 85

Seated dumbell side lateral: 83

Standing cable bent lateral: 77

Anterior Deltoids

Seated front dumbell press: 79

Standing front dumbell raise: 73

Seated front barbell press: 61



Latissimus Dorsi

Bent over barbell rows: 93

One-arm dumbell rows: 91

T-bar rows: 89

Lat pulldowns (front): 86

Seated cable pulley row: 83



Behind-the-back barbell shrug: 59

Front barbell shrug: 54

Press behind the neck: 41



Biceps Brachii (long head)

Biceps preacher curl (olympic bar): 90

Incline seated dumbell curl (alternate): 88

Standing dumbbell curl with arm blaster: 87

Standing biceps curl (olympic bar/narrow grip): 86

Standing dumbell curl (alternate): 84

Concentration dumbell curl: 80

Standing biceps curl (olympic bar/wide grip): 63

Standing E-Z biceps curl (wide grip): 61



Triceps Brachii (outer head)

Decline triceps extension (olympic bar): 92

Triceps cable pressdown (angled bar): 90

Triceps dip between benches:  87

One-arm cable triceps extension (reverse grip): 85

Overhead rope triceps extension: 84

Seated one-arm dumbell triceps extensions (neutral grip): 82

Close-grip bench press (olympic bar): 72



Rectus Femoris (quadricep)

Safety squat (90-degree angle, shoulder-width stance): 88

Leg extension (toes straight): 86

Squat (90 degrees) 80

Hack squat (90-degree angle, shoulder-width stance): 78

Leg press (110-degree angle): 76

Smith machine squat (90-degree angle, shoulder-width stance): 60

Biceps Femoris (hamstring – outer)

Standing leg curl: 82

Lying leg curl: 71

Seated leg curl: 58

Modified hamstring deadlift: 56

Semitendinosus (hamstring – inner)

Seated Leg Curl: 88

Standing Leg Curl: 79

Lying Leg Curl: 70

Modified hamstring Deadlift: 63

Gastrocnemius (calf)

Donkey Calf Raises: 80

Standing Single-leg Calf Raises: 79

Standing Calf Raises: 68

Seated Calf Raises: 61



Rectus Abdominis (i.e. 6-pack muscle)

Weighted incline crunch: 81

Ab bench crunch: 80

Weighted crunch: 80

Ab rocker crunch: 72

Nautilus crunch: 69

Pulley crunch: 68


Note: Before you go changing your entire program based on these findings, it’s important to remember a few key things

-Exercises work different areas of muscles, that’s why in bodybuilding when you are training to fully develop a muscle, it’s important to include a wide variety of movements, angles and equipment.

-Although some exercises scored higher then others, it doesn’t mean you should stop doing the lower rated exercises. They may be working a different area of the muscle or stimulating it in a different way

-It’s interesting to see several exercises that many clients occasionally avoid or skip over are rated the highest on a few muscle groups (decline dumbell press, incline dumbell lateral, behind the back shrug, decline triceps extension, safety squat, standing leg curl, incline ab crunch).

-EMG gives you motor unit activity, not  how much the exercise works the a muscle. There are other factors involved in evaluating exercise efficiency and you shouldn’t use EMG as the sole determining factor.

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