We’ll be looking at the most effective exercises for the major muscle groups, using only own weight and free-weights like dumbbells and barbells.
Some exercises are isolation ones (involving 1 muscle group), while others are compound (involving more than 1 muscle group).
Generally, compound are the way to go for whole body fitness, isolation is recommended to heal a specific muscle from injury and build bulk faster on a specific muscle (bulging biceps / chest, etc…).
Lats + Biceps + Deltoids + Trapezius — Pull Ups / Chin Ups / Gorilla Chin Ups
Hang on a bar and elevate until chin is over the bar, keep back straight, don’t swing yourself (and especially your legs). Legs can be either straight, bent or crossed. For a Pull Up – palms outwards (pic 1), Chin Up – inwards.
Gorilla Chin Up: works primarily biceps and abs, start a normal chin up and simultaneously lift your knees to your chest.
Pull Ups work primarily the Lats, while Chin Ups the Biceps. To work the Lats even more, utilize a wide-grip. Close-grip will work the Lower Lats more. All 3 exercises work the Posterior Deltoids, Middle & Lower Trapezius and other muscles such as the Triceps at a much lesser extent. Those are several of the best exercises for developing strength, power and size for the upper body, especially the back.
Biceps – Bicep Curls / Bicep Concentration Curls
Bicep Curls – keep the elbows close to your body (and don’t move them) and move your arms in an arc. As you lift, rotate your palms to work the forearms as well.
Concentration Curls - sit with your back straight, the lifting arm’s elbow resting on your knee, do a number of repetitions and switch arms.
Can be used with both barbells and dumbbells, while either standing or sitting (keep your back straight). Concentration Curls work your Biceps harder, try lifting your elbow off the knee a little bit for even more contraction.
Triceps — Chair Dips
Sit on a bench or chair, arms to your sides at whichever distance you prefer, lower yourself until your buttocks reach floor level. To ease exercise — hold your legs closer, and vice versa, to make it more challenging — keep legs stretched out or put them on another bench / chair.
Keep shoulders away from ears, to prevent injury.
You can also do tricep dips on parallel bars, those target the chest as well, especially when you lean forwards.
Triceps — Lying Tricep Extensions (Skullcrushers)
Lie on a bench with barbell or dumbbells above shoulders, slowly lower until above forehead, repeat.
This exercise completely isolates the Triceps.
Be careful as to not lose control and drop the barbell / dumbbells on descent, have someone to assist you or use lighter weights.
Forearms – Wrist Curls / Reverse Curls
While standing or sitting, using a barbell or dumbbells, with your palms facing you (wrist curl) or down (reverse curl — much harder), lift your chosen equipment up and down by moving your wrist.
You can also do this exercise with the equipment behind your back while standing.
Alternate between the wrist curls and the reverse curls to work both anterior and posterior forearms.
For stability, you can lean on a bench of some sort or on your knees.
Another good method of working your forearms is by squeezing a hand gripper.
Pectorals + Triceps – Explosive Pushups
Keep back straight, instead of raising yourself steadily, do it in an explosive manner, thrusting your upper body into mid-air.
To work the Pectorals more — hands positioned wider than shoulders, Triceps more — closer than shoulder width. You can clap while you’re in mid-air, this will force your to thrust yourself as high as possible, to not hit the floor face flat. While it’s not the best option to build muscle, it helps develop quickness and response time.
Pectorals + Triceps + Anterior Deltoid – Bench Presses
Keep the barbell above chest, not neck. Keep wrists straight to prevent injury. Raise and lower through whole range of motion.
To work the Triceps more, utilize a close grip (shoulder width or narrower) and vice versa, to work the Pectorals more – a wide grip. Dumbbells can substitute the barbell. This is an extremely good exercise for the chest (pecs), especially with a wide grip.
Entire Back + Biceps – Bent-Over Rows / One Arm Bent-Over Rows
Knees slightly bent, bend torso, keeping it straight, until as parallel to the floor as possible.
Barbell variation – hold the barbell with a wide overhand (palms facing down) grip, “row” the barbell up and down to the waist and until arms fully extended, respectively.
If doing the one arm with dumbbell variation – brace other arm (and leg on the same side, optionally) on a chair or a bench.
A great exercise that works your entire back!
Lats – See Pull Ups in Arms section
Deltoids + Triceps + Trapezius – Dumbbell Shoulder Presses
While standing or sitting, keeping the back straight and positioning the dumbbells above shoulders, fully extend arms above the shoulders in a straight line, lower and repeat.
Targets mainly the Deltoids, good exercise for wide shoulders.
Deltoids – See Pull Ups in Arms section
Abdominals + Lats – Hanging Leg Raises
Hang fully extended on a pull up bar and slowly raise your legs (keep them straight) 180 degrees, although halfway is enough. Maintain tension on the Abs (don’t relax) throughout the whole exercise, as you slowly lift and lower the legs.
Quite a challenging exercise, try mixing with pull ups / chin ups for even more challenge and a massive compound exercise for the upper body.
Abdominals – Bycicle
Lie on your back with hands behind neck in mid-air (not suppotring the head), legs fully extended. Start by bringing in one leg & arm, that are in a diagonal relation, bending the leg, for them to meet half-way. As the knee touches the elbow, stay in the contracted position, lower the leg until its parallel to the ground, simultaneously bringing in the other leg & arm by bending and rotating the torso, respectively. That’s one repetition.
Have been quoted as the best Abs exercise, I have to say that even if it was less effective, it still would’ve been a great exercise for its simplicity, try it out!
Abdominals – See Gorilla Chin Ups in Arms section
Lower Back + Abs + Hamstrings — Good Mornings
Place a barbell behind your neck, resting it on the Trapezius muscles, feet shoulder width apart, bend your hips until your torso is parallel to the ground then return to starting position, maintain straight back & knees throughout the whole exercise.
Can also be done with dumbbells, unless they are very heavy, in which case you’ll lost balance and fall over.
Lower Back — See Close-Grip Pull Up in Arms section
Quadriceps + Hamstrings + Gluteals – (Weighted) Squats
Feet shoulder width apart, hands behind your neck, to the sides of the body or stretched straight ahead, keeping your back straight, slowly lower your body until your knees are completely bent, slowly raise and repeat.
You may want to squeeze in your glutes for an easier lift. If you can easily do 20 repetitions, hold dumbbells or a barbell above shoulders or neck, respectively, remember that you have to vary exercises and gradually add weight if you want your muscles to continually grow & be stronger. The squat is a great exercise as you lift your whole upper body weight + any other weight you hold and it works a great deal of muscles simultaneously, a true compound exercise. Challenge: descend with one of your legs suspended in the air!
Quadriceps + Hamstrings + Gluteals – (Weighted / Walking) Lunges
Start with your legs close together, take a long step forward and bend your knees, but don’t pass over the toes, lift yourself up and down in the long-step position for a few repetitions then switch legs. If you’re doing the Walking Lunge, (pretty obvious) do 1 repetition and switch to the other leg doing another step.
Both of these exercises can be easily accompanied by dumbbells or another weight addition. An excellent compound exercise that works your lower body really hard, you’ll feel the burn in no time.
Calves – Calf Raises
Slowly raise yourself on the toes and then slowly back down.
For more weight and better results, hold dumbbells (or a barbell above your head… or any other additional weight) with your hands relaxed. When you’re advanced enough, try standing on one leg each time. This exercise can also be done while sitting, but in this case you are not lifting your whole body weight (only your legs’), so you’ll need to put some weight on your upper thighs or use a special machine for it to be effective.