The Best Exercises For Upper Body Muscle Activation [Infographic] By Altug Kop · June 19, 2017 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 Back 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. Chest 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 Delts 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. Rear delts 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. Front delts 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. Triceps 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. Biceps 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. Quads Squats (at least parallel) 88 Leg extentions 86 Best PEAK Contraction : Squats King of Quad Exercises : Squats Well, that’s a surprise… Hamstrings Seated leg curls 88 Deadlifts 85 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. For more nutrition and training articles, subscribe to TRAIN magazine for free by signing up to our newsletter and get each monthly issue dropped direct into your inbox [References] 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 https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-shoulders-and-trap-exercises Written by Altug Kop TRAIN Digital Editor, contest prep coach and WBFF Pro fitness model. You may also like... Chris Evans: Your Captain at Arms Christian Bale Transformation – From Machinist To Batman Your Maximum Natural Muscle Potential – Which Factors Make The Difference?