There’s a lot of controversy as to what the best exercises are for every body part, so I’m here to give you my personal take on it based on three years of bodybuilding and powerlifting.
A clear winner by miles. Sure you can get the same leg definition and maybe even strength by doing other exercises, but I believe that squats are the most efficient because of how versatile they are.
To do a squat, in its most basic form, you start standing up with the barbell across your traps or rear delts, based on personal preference, then you either break at the knees or the hips (again, personal preference), squat down to around parallel, then drive back up to standing, all the while keeping your posterior chain (back) tight and flat (so no lower back rounding and no good mornings on the way up).
There’s so many adaptations that can be made for a squat depending on the individual and his/her flexibility, femur length, and bodily proportions, that it’s difficult to explain it in more detail without making this entire post dedicated to squats, so I will leave it at that.
However, as for the benefits of squats, let’s break it down. Squats work the quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus medialis, lateralis, and intermedius), hamstrings (biceps femoris, semi tendinosis, semimembranosis), adductors (adductor magnus, longus, and brevis), calves (gastrocnemius, soleus), and glutes (gluteus maximum, medius, and minimus). Moreover, squats also work the erector spinae, rectus abdominus (your abs), obliques, and rear deltoids.
Furthermore, squats can be done in many variations. ATG squats, squats to parallel, pause squats, double pause squats, front squats, and box squats. Not to mention the fact that you can change up your stance and foot positioning – narrow stance, medium stance, wide stance – all of which will place slightly more emphasis on different muscles.
Can you spot the powerlifting trend yet? I know some people who have massive backs and who don’t do deadlifts ever, so again, I’m not saying this is the be all end all of back exercises, I just personally saw the most growth through this exercise. Deadlifts translated to strength across all my other hypertrophy and isolation exercises (such as lat pull down, cable rows, lat push down, etc), which furthermore encouraged back growth, both in size and strength.
The muscles worked in a deadlift include latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae, gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius (lateral and medial head), biceps femoris, rectus abdonimus, obliques, and vastus lateralis.
Deadlifts are again, very versatile, just as squats are. You can choose to do deadlifts in two ways – conventional and/or sumo. You can do deadlifts for strength (low reps) or for hypertrophy (high reps). You can do pause deadlifts, you can do block pulls, you can do rack pulls, or you can even do deficit deadlifts. All of these variations are means to work on your weaknesses, so you will have an arsenal of exercises to choose from to increase your strength and size.
Chest: Barbell Bench Press
Another versatile lift. Bench press can be done many ways. Touch and go (descend, touch your chest, then press back up without pausing), pause bench (descend, pause with the weight on your chest whilst keeping tight, then pushing back up), tempo bench (slow, controlled descent then explosive push upwards), and even double pause bench to work on your weaknesses (so a pause at the bottom and maybe a pause halfway up too).
Shoulders/Arms: Hang Clean and Press
I find this to be the most effective exercise for growing my shoulders. My shoulders get sore the day after I do these, but they don’t ever get sore if I do a strict barbell/DB OHP workout with accessory movements like lateral/front/rear delt raises. Moreover, I am able to hit three birds with one stone and work my biceps and triceps in this exercise. My arms feel like jello once I’m done. This lift can get kind of technical, but it pays off once you learn how to do it, because, like the aforementioned exercises, you get to hit many muscles with just one exercise.
Core: Cable twists, side planks, regular planks, and bodyweight decline crunches
These were the top four recommendations I received from my physical therapist when I herniated a disc in my back due to not having a strong enough core. I train these every day and have seen such an increase in core strength and stability during my workouts.