|Read time: 19 minutes||Written by: Corey Nelson|
The human body has 650+ distinct muscles, but you don’t need to memorize them all to master weight training.
Sometimes less is more. That’s why we’re simplifying things to just 11 easy-to-remember muscle groups.
You’ll also find the best tips for each muscle group–derived from cutting-edge science, world-class coaches, and practical real-world experience.
Follow the advice laid out in this article to achieve a fit, balanced physique while reducing the risk of injury.
Why is it important to your fitness that you understand the major human muscle groups and their functions?
To begin with, if you want to design or select safe and effective exercise programs, you need an understanding of the major muscle groups.
Simply put, a basic understanding of muscle anatomy is vital for avoiding muscle imbalances. Achieving overall balance between muscle groups is the key to good posture, injury prevention, optimal function, and of course a solid physique.
That means if you don’t have a grasp of the major muscle groups and their functions, the programs you construct or select could be ineffective or downright dangerous.
Applying the knowledge of muscle groups can also make you look better. Old-school, drug-free bodybuilders from the 1940s and 1950s may have been the first people to realize this, but it’s just as relevant for men and women today.
So if you want to achieve your full physical potential, you’ll need to incorporate insights about muscle anatomy into your training program.
Unfortunately, plenty of sources overcomplicate the topic of muscle groups. If you browse through most textbooks on the subject, you’re more likely to get a headache rather than info you can use during your next workout.
Keep reading to discover the keys to faster progress, fewer injuries, and your best body ever.
Your gluteus maximus is the single largest muscle in your body, as well as one of the most important for athletic performance and looking good.
Like their big brother gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus originate from your pelvis and insert into your femur.
Your gluteal muscles are among the most powerful in your body. They come into play during heavy or explosive compound movements like deadlifts, squats, and sprints.
Also, the benefits of glute training are more than just functional. Research shows that men find women with small waists and big butts very attractive[*]. Actually, the male preference for curvier butts seems to be growing over time[*].
There’s a bit less research into women’s preferences, but it’s not exactly a secret that many women feel the same way men do. Guys, if you doubt the social merits of training glutes, try asking some women in your life if they find shapely glutes attractive.
Life is about more than how you look, but who would say no to extra athleticism and an enviable appearance?
Luckily, men and women can achieve strong, healthy, attractive glutes by applying some simple training tips.
And even if you aren’t all that concerned about your appearance, strengthening your glutes can reduce lower back pain and help you age gracefully–especially if you stretch your hip flexor muscles, too[*]. (Think warrior and pigeon poses from yoga and their many variations to loosen your hips.)
Early evidence also suggests weak glutes could lead to knee pain[*]. That means strengthening your glutes could help you stay pain-free in more than one way.
Best Glute Exercises
Try these exercises for a sure-fire way to activate and build your glutes:
- Barbell or Smith machine hip thrusts
- Weighted glute bridges
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
- Deep goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell
You should start light to master the movements, but definitely add weight to all of them as you become proficient. Your glutes can handle a lot of weight–as long as you use good form.
For best results, combine hip thrusts and glute bridges with squats and deadlifts, the latter of which are classical lower-body compound movements.
Some people consider hip thrusts and glute bridges to be “isolation” movements, but they’re still some of the most effective glute builders around.
Performing hip thrusts or glute bridges before squats or deadlifts can help activate your glutes, while doing them afterward provides extra glute stimulation. Try both and see which you prefer, or mix things up over time.
Keep most of your glute training sets between 5-12 reps, but you can do some “burnout” sets of 20-30+ reps at the end of your workout, too.
Like your glutes, the muscles of your back are star players for performance as well as posture.
Modern lifestyles that include a lot of sitting and slouching–think driving, sitting at a desk, using a smartphone, and watching TV–can result in a tight chest and a weak back.
As a result, plenty of people are injury-prone with poor posture. The good news, though, is that you can remedy these issues by training your back correctly.
When we say back, we’re actually talking about everything between your neck and butt on the rear of your body. And as you probably realize, there are several muscle groups in that region.
Your trapezius muscle is diamond-shaped. It extends from the occipital bone of your skull all the way down to your thoracic spine (mid-back), and it’s responsible for moving your scapulae (shoulder blades) and supporting your arms.
Lots of people don’t realize that along with the “upper traps,” which are visible next to your neck from the front of your body, the trapezius muscles also have middle and lower aspects.
And too much focus on upper traps, with shrugs for example, can create an imbalance that causes shoulder impingement (a lack of space for the rotator cuff tendon in your shoulder joint, which can result in bone rubbing the tendon and causing pain or tearing)[*].
Your rhomboids connect your shoulder blades to your mid-back. And because they’re essentially hidden underneath the trapezius, they’re often weak and neglected by many training programs.
The rhomboid muscles retract and rotate your shoulder blades downward, meaning they’re essential for good posture. Therefore, training your rhomboids is a fantastic way to reverse the negative effects of sitting for hours each day.
Finally, your latissimus dorsi, or lats for short, are the biggest muscles in your upper body. They’re the major player in vertical pulling movements, and they also help stabilize your upper body during horizontal pushing.
These broad, flat, triangular muscles run all the way from your mid-back to your lower back. Many times, people confuse them with the smaller teres major and teres minor, which are above the lats, closer to the shoulder joint.
Best Back Exercises
Most, but not all, back exercises are “pulling” motions. Here are our favorite examples:
- Cable seated high rope face pull with optional external rotation (middle and lower traps)
- Cable seated low rope or V-bar cable row (rhomboids)
- Standing supported one-arm dumbbell row at 20-30 degrees (rhomboids and lats)
- Bent-over barbell row at 35-45 degrees (traps, rhomboids, lats, and lower back)
- Pull-ups and chin-ups (lats and teres major and minor)
- Plate-loaded machine pull-downs as a pull-up alternative
- Heavy partial rack deadlift from above knee level with 1-2 second hold at top (every muscle in your back, and then some)
Single-joint movements are absent from the list because they don’t work well for building a strong back. But you can certainly isolate your traps, rhomboids, or lats by using good form on the above compound movements.
As always, master your form before you go for heavy weights.
It’s also wise to do more volume overall for your back than chest to maintain a healthy balance between pulling and pushing, which is the opposite of what many people do.
The muscles of your chest play a key role in horizontal pushing movements as well as controlling the humerus (upper arm bone).
The thick, fan-shaped pec major is a favorite of bodybuilders, but training your chest sensibly is an excellent idea regardless of your goals.
Along with the well-known pectoralis major (“pecs”), you’ve also got the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior working in concert.
The pec minor is hidden behind the pec major, while the finger-like serratus muscles exist on your rib-cage below your pecs and armpits.
Best Chest Exercises
The chest isn’t a very complicated muscle group, so your best bet is to train it the simple way with these movements:
- Incline, wide-grip, partial range-of-motion (ROM) bench press
- Bench press (all other variations)
- Cable flyes (any variation)
Push-ups and dips have many points in their favor: they work well with bodyweight-only, they may be more “functional” for real-life since they are closed-chain movements, and they activate stabilizers like your serratus that can reduce your injury risk.
We also like the incline partial ROM bench press at Levels for building big, full pecs, especially for taller individuals. To do it, modify your range of motion: don’t lock out fully at the top, and don’t lower the barbell all the way to your chest. This method keeps your shoulder at a safer angle, but still activates your pecs adequately.
While the flat, full range-of-motion bench press is a worldwide strength training favorite, you can build your pecs just as well using the other exercises. If you’re drawn to going heavy on bench press, have at it, but make sure your technique and shoulder health are rock-solid.
Lastly, cable flyes are a great way to isolate your chest using higher reps after you train with compound movements. And unlike traditional dumbbell flyes, they maintain tension on the muscle throughout the rep.
Your shoulders are unlike any other muscle group in your body.
The glenohumeral (shoulder) joint is one of the most fragile joints in your entire body, and it’s involved in every single upper body movement.
Your deltoids, the meaty round muscles on either side of your collarbone, technically have seven heads (separate bundles of muscle fibers that give the muscle its appearance)[*].
But for the purpose of selecting single-joint movements to isolate your delts, it’s easiest to think of them as having anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear) heads.
Training your anterior deltoids makes the front of your shoulders larger, while training the rear delts adds depth to the back of your physique. And targeting your lateral deltoids makes your shoulders wider when viewed from the front or back.
Strengthening the muscles that surround your shoulder joint is a fast track to more power and better function. It can also help accentuate a narrow waist visually, leading to a curvy look for women or a “V” shape for men.
Best Shoulder Exercises
When you lift weights, it’s impossible not to train your shoulders. They help out every upper body movement as well as many lower body movements, too.
But if you really want to strengthen or accentuate your delts, implement the following compound and isolation movements:
- Standing barbell overhead press
- Standing single- or double-kettlebell overhead press
- Plate front raise (anterior deltoids)
- Dumbbell lateral raise with slow negative (2-3 seconds) (lateral deltoids)
- Bent-over single-arm dumbbell rear delt raise with 1-second hold at the top (posterior deltoids)
Standing overhead presses (OHPs) are a classical weight training movement that involves virtually every muscle in your body, making them very “functional.” Before bench presses got popular, fitness enthusiasts used OHPs to gauge their prowess.
Not only that, you don’t need fancy equipment to get a great shoulder workout–just some free weights and a little bit of standing room.
Try blasting your shoulders with a heavy compound pressing movement first. Then follow it up with lighter, higher-volume sets of front, lateral, and rear delt raises to finish the job.
“Training through the pain” could get you a nasty injury like a rotator cuff tear or shoulder separation.
If you experience pain during shoulder movements, consider yourself lucky to get a warning, and be sure to heed it. In the end, your shoulders can still get adequate stimulation using other pushing and pulling movements, so it’s better not to take the risk.
Your quadriceps or “quads,” located on the front of your thighs, get their name because they consist of four muscles that work together to extend your knees.
Those muscles are the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris. Along with extending your knees, the rectus femoris also flexes your hips.
All four muscles of your quads originate on your femur and insert into your patella (kneecap).
Newsflash: it’s a mistake to train your upper body and neglect your lower body (looking at you, chest-and-biceps guys).
As it turns out, exercising your quads and lower body properly is one of the best ways to enhance your overall fitness and appearance. It can even boost your upper body results by raising anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone[*].
Best Quadriceps Exercises
It’s impossible to talk about training your quads without mentioning squats. Unless you are completely unable to squat, which is unlikely, squats belong in your program, period.
If you experience pain in your knees while squatting you may have an undiagnosed injury or bad form, but that doesn’t mean squats are the culprit.
If nothing else, many people with lingering pain or old injuries can still use lighter weights to squat safely and pain-free.
Try the following exercises and see which one you prefer:
- Dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squat
- Double kettlebell squats with kettlebells in the rack position
- Box squat
- Barbell back squat
- Barbell front squat
- Machine hack squat
- Leg press
- Split squats or Bulgarian split squats
You can change up your primary squat movement every so often, but you’ll get the best results by sticking to one for a few months at a time.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, goblet squats, double kettlebell squats, and box squats are the most beginner-friendly.
Or if you don’t feel competent enough to squat, seek out an experienced coach or stick with machine hack squats and leg press variants.
How about leg extensions? This isolation exercise doesn’t have the same hormone-boosting benefits as compound moves, and it puts your knee joint and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) under a lot of stress[*].
And while there’s no scientific consensus on the matter, plenty of expert trainers suspect leg extensions may also damage knee joint cartilage. Therefore, skip them if you value healthy knees.
Split squats and variations like Bulgarian split squats are a superior choice to diversify and increase the volume of your quad training if you want to go beyond the basics.
Your hamstrings are located on the back of your legs, where they work to extend your hips and flex your knees.
And like many of the muscles on the back of the body, hamstrings don’t get much love. That’s a shame, because focusing on them is critical for fitness and injury prevention.
Although your hamstrings are about half the size of your quads, they’re part of your posterior chain (along with your calves, glutes, and other muscles located towards the rear of your body)[*]. The posterior chain may be the most important muscle group for athletic performance.
Too much quad training without enough hamstring training is all to common, and may result in nearly 5 times greater risk of knee pain and knee injuries[*].
Quad-hamstring imbalances also raise the risk of the dreaded ACL tear[*]. And female athletes, listen up: your chances of an ACL tear are 2-8 times greater than male athletes to begin with, so maintaining the correct balance between your thigh muscles is crucial[*].
And for men and women alike, weak, tight hamstrings are also prone to muscle tears, especially during sprinting or other explosive movements[*].
Best Hamstrings Exercises
Here are the top picks for building stronger, better hamstrings:
- Deadlift (barbell, hex bar, or other full range-of-motion variants)
- Stiff-leg barbell deadlift
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
- Glute-ham raise (machine-assisted or bodyweight versions)
- Lying machine leg curl
If you’ve never trained your hamstrings before, start light and easy to avoid a muscle tear.
As with every muscle group, compound movements (like deadlifts and their variations) are the staples for hamstrings. Perform them before glute-ham raises or leg curls, because pre-fatiguing your hamstrings with single-joint movements typically isn’t wise.
Also, dynamic mobility (stretching or warm-up exercises that involve moving the joint or limb actively through its range of motion) before your workout and static stretching after you lift can boost your function by loosening tight hamstrings[*].
However, it’s generally better not to static stretch excessively before you train, because it can decrease strength and explosiveness for 24 hours or more[*].
Your calves originate at your femur and insert into your Achilles tendon. They consist of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.
If you’re an athlete, resistance training for your calves is more-or-less optional. Considering the fact that you use them whenever you jump or move your feet, these muscles get a decent functional workout any time you practice or play your sport.
On the other hand, bodybuilders and people who primarily train to look good will benefit the most from calf exercises.
Best Calf Exercises
The insertion point of your calves–in other words, the point where your calf muscle meets your Achilles tendon–is the biggest determinant of how your calves look, and you can’t change genetics.
A very high calf insertion point means a calf muscle roughly the size of a tennis ball, while a low insertion point generally results in enormous, shapely calves with very little effort.
However, you can use the following exercises to get the most out of what you’re working with:
- Standing one-leg calf raise on a step, bodyweight or holding a dumbbell for added resistance, with 2-second static hold-and-squeeze at the top
- Two-leg calf raise in leg press machine, knees straight, with various foot positions and angles
- 30-degree knee angle bent-leg calf raise in leg press machine, 3-second stretch-and-hold at the bottom
- 90-degree knee angle bent-leg seated machine calf raise
Your gastrocnemius is at its most active when your knees are bent, while the soleus plays a dominant role when your knees are straight. Therefore, you’ll want to mix up bent- and straight-knee calf exercises to give both muscles their due.
Calves, Tempo Variations, Volume, and Rep Ranges
Calves seem to respond best to static top holds, stretch holds in-between reps, and tempo variation. We’ve included these techniques in our recommended calf exercises, above.
But why might calves be different from other muscles when it comes to varying the tempo of reps?
One reason could be that the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), which enables you to jump explosively, can steal the glory from your calves any time it shifts the loading to your Achilles tendon[*].
Training calves explosively doesn’t stimulate them as well as it does most muscles, so you’ll need to outsmart the SSC with pauses or slow negatives (that is, emphasizing the eccentric part of the repetition by slowing it down to 2-3 seconds or longer).
Including two or three calf exercises with a few sets apiece any time you train lower body is standard practice, but if you want faster results, try shocking them with 12-15 total sets per lower-body workout for a few weeks or longer.
Additionally, calves usually grow best with a wide range of reps. Try mixing up your rep ranges anywhere between 5-30+ reps.
Want muscular arms? Your triceps make up two-thirds of your upper arm musculature, so start there.
This three-headed muscle is also incredibly explosive and powerful, making it a top priority for athletes and strength enthusiasts.
Triceps consist of the long, lateral, and medial heads. Their primary role is to extend your elbow, but the long head also plays a role in shoulder stabilization.
Best Triceps Exercises
These triceps exercises are guaranteed to enhance your strength, power, and definition:
- Narrow-grip dips
- Reverse-grip barbell bench press
- Barbell floor press
- One-arm dumbbell overhead triceps extension
- Incline overhead two-handed dumbbell triceps extension
- Overhead two-handed rope cable extension with low pulley
Dips, reverse-grip bench press, and floor press allow for a relatively long range of motion and heavy loading. With these exercises, the idea is to overload the triceps with a compound movement.
In contrast, you can emphasize the largest head of your triceps (the long head) best with overhead triceps isolation movements. The combination of shoulder flexion and stretch helps stimulate the long head, resulting in awesome muscular growth.
Also, if you have elbow pain during some triceps movements, avoid those in favor of pain-free movements. Never ignore pain during any movement--it’s always a red flag to which you should pay attention.
Your biceps brachii have two heads, short and long. They’re responsible for elbow flexion, and they act in opposition to the triceps.
Another related muscle, the brachialis, assists the biceps in flexing the elbow. Your brachialis muscles sit underneath your biceps.
Best Biceps Exercises
Endless variations on biceps curls exist, but before you go down a curling rabbit hole, try making these exercises your staples:
- Narrow-grip chin-ups
- Standing barbell curls
- Cross-body hammer curls to pec level (one arm at a time, alternating rep-by-rep)
- Reverse-grip EZ bar curls
Narrow-grip chin-ups are a compound movement that overloads your biceps with plenty of weight, plus offers more real-world fitness applicability than curls.
And standing barbell curls are the classic biceps isolation exercise with very good reason. You could make your biceps bigger and stronger for years on end with nothing but chin-ups and barbell curls.
Your brachialis is mostly out of sight and out of mind, but showing it some attention is effective for rounding out your upper arms and getting stronger. Cross-body hammer curls and reverse-grip EZ curls are two of the best brachialis exercises.
Your abs consist of the rectus abdominis, inner and outer obliques, and the hidden transversus abdominis. Collectively they flex, rotate, and stabilize your lumbar spine.
Ab development is one of the most-coveted and least-understood fitness goals.
First of all, spot reduction through ab exercises doesn’t work well for fat loss, and training your abs doesn’t lead to a smaller waist–with one exception that we’ll get to in a moment.
As a matter of fact, growing your abs by doing thousands of crunches can bulk up your waist. And if you have a normal layer of body fat over your abs, the visual result is a blockier waist. That’s the opposite of what most people who do thousands of crunches want!
Additionally, crunches put your spine into flexion, which may worsen your posture and increase your risk of back injuries. Rotational or twisting ab movements can also hurt your back.
So what’s the secret to ab training? Train your abs primarily for function and injury prevention. Paired with a kick-ass exercise regimen and a sensible diet, this approach is ideal for the vast majority of gym-goers.
If you’re dead-set on seeing your abs, the key is a proper diet. The truth is, shredded abs start in the kitchen.
Once your abdominal muscles appear, you might decide to “fine-tune” what you see with some extra crunches.
What about the ab exercises that shrink your waistline? Anything that activates your transversus abdominis (TA) can theoretically shrink your waist.
The TA is a thin sheet of muscle situated beneath your internal obliques. You can't see it, but it's what allows you to draw your belly button inward.
Along with stabilizing your core, the TA compresses and holds your viscera (internal organs). By toning it up, you might be able to trim your waist down slightly.
Best Ab Exercises
Doing a few sets of crunches or other ab flexion movements as part of your weekly routine is sensible. But doing thousands of reps of any resistance training movement each week is a bad idea.
These days, savvy coaches and trainers are prioritizing other ab movements over flexion.
For a healthy spine and good posture, the secret is to prioritize the stabilizing (bracing and anti-rotation) roles of your ab muscles over patterns that move your spine (flexion and rotation).
The new hierarchy goes like this:
Bracing > Anti-Rotation > Flexion > Rotation
Note: bracing consists of resisting flexion or extension, while anti-rotation means resisting rotation.
Build a healthy and strong midsection with the following exercises:
- Pushup-position plank (bracing)
- Pallof press (anti-rotation, also called rotation resistance)
- Kneeling cable crunch (flexion)
- Reverse crunch on a slant board (flexion)
- Hanging pikes, dragon flags, or other toes-to-bar movements (flexion)
- Full contact barbell twist (rotation)
- Optional: Ab vacuum (or Nauli kriya from yoga) (TA activation)
Spend most of your time with bracing early on, then add anti-rotation. Once you’ve become proficient at those, move on to flexion and eventually rotation.
Also, don’t be shy with loading up flexion movements when you perform them. Getting your abs strong using challenging weights is far more effective than doing zillions of useless reps.
For the majority of real world tasks, you’re only as strong as your grip.
Think about it: you might be able to push or pull hundreds of pounds on an evenly-balanced, 1.1-inch diameter barbell, but what about objects that aren’t designed for easy lifting?
There are three main types of grip you can train:
- Crush grip, where your fingers flex towards your palms
- Pinch grip, where your thumb and fingers flex towards one another
- Support grip, where you hold a heavy object in your hands statically (think deadlifts or farmer’s walks, or lifting irregular objects like boulders)
Also, building strong forearms can help your grip in the long run by keeping your wrists stable and preventing lower arm injuries.
Best Grip and Forearm Exercises
Your grip training is only limited by your imagination, but here are the best exercises to start off with:
- Grippers (Captains of Crush or similar)
- Pinch grip static holds using one or two weight plates
- Pinch grip rows or carries
- Heavy loaded carries, especially with kettlebells
- Heavy partial rack deadlifts with overhand grip and no straps (bonus: use a fat bar)
- Pull-ups while holding onto a martial arts gi, towel, or other thick fabric (change up your grip each set)
- Wrist curls and reverse wrist curls
- Reverse-grip one-arm dumbbell curl
- Finger extension using a rubber band may help with carpal tunnel type symptoms, and acts as a counterbalance to finger flexion movements.
You can sprinkle in grip exercises at the end of your workouts, or any time. For example, stashing a gripper in your office allows you to train your crush grip throughout the day.
A basic grasp of muscle anatomy helps you stay balanced and prevent injuries.
Keep in mind that you need to focus on more than just “mirror muscles” for a powerful, fit body. Too much focus on muscle groups like chest and abs can lead to bad posture and even serious injuries.
And muscles like your glutes, back, and hamstrings not only look amazing when developed correctly, but also balance out other muscles you may have been focusing on excessively.
Along with training smart, prioritizing your recovery is fundamental for reaping results and preventing injuries. So if you train hard, don’t forget to eat enough calories and use whey protein post-workout to jump-start your body’s repair processes.
Now that you're up to speed on muscle groups, it's the perfect time to prioritize your weaknesses, fix any imbalances, and supercharge your results.
Did this guide leave you with any questions? Want to share your results from dialing in your lifting regimen? Let us know in the comments!