The “best” exercises for muscle building seem so subjective. Everybody has an opinion. Science doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings, though, so here is the hard data showing which exercises provided the most muscle activation via electromyography (EMG). Check out the infographic below we put together to make science statistics pretty, then check out the more detailed info below the image.
Muscle Activation Infographic
So, now that you’ve seen the data for the exercises that create the most muscle activation per workout, it’s time to interpret this data and put it into some context. Those percentages relate to the mean voluntary contraction. What does this mean? Well, it’s the average contraction across the entire rep. Bret Contreras, glute expert and has conducted a ton of electromyography tests where the bulk of these stats come from explains further,
“Researchers typically use mean MVC for their data. I used to think that mean activation was more important as it measured the average activation throughout the entire repetition. However, muscles are not always active throughout the entire range of motion of an exercise, especially during compound lifts.
For example, one muscle might be very active down low in the stretched position, while another muscle becomes more active up top in the contracted position of the same exercise.
For this reason I believe that peak MVC is a more important figure. Peak activation is a measurement of the highest point of activation during the repetition.
Still, I believe that mean activation might be more important for bodybuilding purposes in providing constant tension, occlusion, and “the pump,” while peak activation might be more important for sport-specific purposes in providing maximum tension at a certain moment for peak force production”
So, now that you know what you’re reading, let’s crack on and take a look at which exercises provide the best MVC and peak contractions
Muscle activation of exercises for each bodypart
Bent-over barbell rows 93
One-arm dumbbell rows 91
T-bar rows 89
Lat pulldowns/Pullups 86
Seated pulley rows 83
Best PEAK Contraction : Weighted Wide Pull Ups
King of Back Exercises : Weighted Wide Grip Pull Ups
Offering fantastic peak contraction and mechanical tension, the pull ups are king for the lats, though bent over rows activate mid back/traps better than pullups. A combination of exercises is optimal.
Decline dumbbell press 93
Incline dumbbell bench press 91
Decline bench press 89
Flat dumbbell bench press 87
Flat bench press 85
Flat dumbbell flyes 84
Incline smith machine bench 81
Best PEAK Contraction : Decline Dumbell Press
King of Chest Exercises : Decline Dumbell Press
A surprising win for the decline dumbell press but bear in mind, you can and should hit the pecs from all angles as activation can differ at various parts of the pecs with differing exercises
Side Standing DB side laterals 63
Cable side laterals 47
Best PEAK Contraction : DB Lateral Raises
King of side delt exercises : DB Lateral Raises
Easy choice but include presses in your routine which provide much higher mechanical tension.
Dumbbell bent-over laterals 85
Cable bent-over laterals 77
Best PEAK Contraction : Dumbell bent-over laterals
King of rear delt exercises : Dumbell bent-over laterals
But, don’t forget heavy rows on your back day for more mechanical tension.
Seated dumbbell press 79
Standing front dumbbell raises 73
Best PEAK Contraction : Dumbell Standing Press
King of front delt exercises : Seated dumbell press
The winner due to potential for more mechanical tension from a fixed, seated position.
Decline Skull Crushers 92
Tricep pushdowns (angled bar) 90
Close-grip bench press 72 (typo in infographic)
Best PEAK Contraction : Rope Cable Extentions
King of Tricep Exercises : Decline Skull Crushers
While, peak contraction is much better for rope extentions, the skull crushers offer more mechanical tension. The ideal middle of the road exercise. Use both exercises for best results.
Preacher curls 90
Standing barbell curls (narrow) 86
Concentration curls 80
Standing EZ bar curls 61
Best PEAK Contraction : EZ Bar Curls
King of Bicep Exercises : Dumbell Preacher Curls
Dumbell preacher curls offer great muscle activity and being fixed into a bench makes it much harder to cheat.
Squats (at least parallel) 88
Leg extentions 86
Best PEAK Contraction : Squats
King of Quad Exercises : Squats
Well, that’s a surprise…
Seated leg curls 88
Laying leg curls 70
Best PEAK Contraction : Deadlifts
King of Hamstring Exercises : Deadlifts
Deadlifts offer a higher peak contraction and MUCH more mechanical tension as you can lift infinitely more weight on the deadlift than the seated leg curls.
Note : Remember muscle activation is not the end all and be all. Also consider other parameters for muscle growth – mechanical tension being one of the most important due to your ability to handle increased loads, for example, leg curls vs deadlifts. Use activation data to isolate weak points and get more bang for your buck.
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DeLuca, Fj., R.S. LeFever, M.P. McCue, and A.P. Xenakis. (1982), “Behavior of human motor units in different muscles during lineally varying contractions” Journal Physiology (Lond), 329:113-128.
Kobayashi Matsui, H. (1983), “Analysis of myoelectric signals during dynamic and isometric contraction.” Electromyog Clin Neurophysiol, 26, 147-160.
Melo, G.L. and E. Cafarelli. (1994-95), Exercise Physiology Laboratory Manual, 25.
Moritani, T. and H.A. deVries. (1987), “Re-examination of the relationship between the surface integrated electromyogram (IEMG) and force of isometric contraction.” American Journal of Physiological Medicine, 57:263-277.
Moritani, T., M. Muro, and A. Nagata. (1986), “Intramuscular and surface electromyogram changes during muscle fatigue.” Journal of Applied Physiology, 60:1179-1185.
Peak EMG tests : Bret Contreras T-Nation EMG Bodypart Series