EN: Most Effective Exercises per Muscle Group Using Electromyography

Every lifter has his (or her) preferred exercises or theory about why a particular exercise is the best one. But there are hundreds of different exercises… How can we know for sure which ones are the most effective and which ones aren’t? Well, thanks to Electromyography (EMG) it is possible to determine the best exercises for each individual muscle group.

EMG_-_SIMIWhat is Electromyography?

Electromyography (EMG) is an electrodiagnostic medicine technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. EMG is performed by using an instrument called an electromyograph. The electrical activity is measured by placing electrodes over your entire body and recording the level of muscle activity induced by certain exercises.

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What is the use of EMG data ?

EMG data is a transposition of the number of motor units, these are the combination of all the nerves in a nerve cluster that initiate movement in an equal number of sarcomeres that are being used in a particular muscle or muscle group. So what this actually means, is that it indicates the exercises that will, indiscriminately, cause the largest activation of that muscle. This is excellent data, especially for beginners to help them pick the best exercises and prioritize them in order to maximize growth in minimal time. For advanced and intermediate trainers who start to work on weak points within a muscle group, the data can be misleading though… For example: It’s possible that an exercise with a lower EMG value is better for eliminating weak points because it targets those motor units that you need. It’s a bit similar with isolation. Consider doing dips pivoting the hips forward. These will isolate the triceps better, with the same weight, causing a higher EMG value, as the triceps lifts all the weight. But, although the chest will take a part of the load reducing the EMG value, triceps leaning forward can be better to get a solid contraction at the top of the muscle and eliminate weak points in that area.

So don’t use EMG data blindly to assume one exercise is better than another. But when no weak points are present in a single muscle group, feel free to prioritize those exercises with higher EMG values, as they will recruit and fatigue more fiber in less time. It simply makes sense to work triceps with various lying extensions and dips between handles rather than cable exercises or dips between benches.

EMG study of muscle fiber activation in different muscle groups.

You’ll find the best exercises for each body part in order of most effective to least in the list below. The number next to the name is the percentage of muscle fibers activated/working for that particular exercise.

  • Exercise – % EMG Muscle Stimulation

Lower Chest

  • Decline dumbbell bench press – 93
  • Decline bench press (olympic bar) – 89
  • Push-ups between benches – 88
  • Flat dumbbell bench press – 87
  • Flat bench press (olympic bar) – 85
  • Flat dumbbell flyes – 84

Upper Chest

  • Incline dumbbell bench press – 91
  • Incline bench press (olympic bar) – 85
  • Incline dumbbell flys – 83
  • Incline bench press (Smith machine) – 81

Lats / Back

  • Bent-over barbell rows – 93
  • One-arm dumbbell rows – 91
  • T-bar rows – 89
  • Lat pulldowns to the front – 86
  • Seated pulley rows – 83

Side Deltoid

  • Incline dumbbell side laterals – 66
  • Standing dumbbell side laterals – 63
  • Seated dumbbell side laterals – 62
  • Cable side laterals – 47

Rear Deltoid

  • Standing dumbbell bent-over laterals – 85
  • Seated dumbbell bent-over laterals – 83
  • Standing cable bent-over laterals – 77

Front Deltoid

  • Seated front dumbbell press – 79
  • Standing front dumbbell raises – 73
  • Seated front barbell press – 61


  • Biceps preacher curls (olympic bar) – 90
  • Incline seated dumbbell curls (alternating) – 88
  • Standing biceps curls (olympic bar/narrow grip) – 86
  • Standing dumbbell curls (alternating) – 84
  • Concentration dumbbell curls – 80
  • Standing biceps curls (olympic bar/wide grip) – 63
  • Standing E-Z biceps curls (wide grip) – 61


  • Decline triceps extensions (olympic bar) – 92
  • Triceps pressdowns (angled bar) – 90
  • Triceps dip between benches – 87
  • One-arm cable triceps extensions (reverse grip) – 85
  • Overhead rope triceps extensions – 84
  • Seated one-arm dumbbell triceps extensions (neutral grip) – 82
  • Close-grip bench press (olympic bar) – 72


  • Squats (parallel depth, shoulder-width stance) – 88
  • Seated leg extensions (toes straight) – 86
  • Hack Squats (90 degree angle, shoulder-width stance) – 78
  • Leg press (110 degree angle) – 76
  • Smith machine squats (90 degree angle, shoulder-width stance) – 60


  • Seated leg curls – 88
  • Standing leg curls – 79
  • Lying leg curls – 70
  • Stiff Legged Deadlifts – 63


  • Donkey calf raises – 80
  • Standing one-leg calf raises – 79
  • Standing two-leg calf raises – 68
  • Seated calf raises – 61


So what did we learn from these EMG results?

– An exercise can never stimulate 100% of the muscle fibers in a particular muscle. 
– As a result of this, you should perform a variety of exercises and switch up your training routine every couple of weeks.

Kenny De Smet


Study references:

1. 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.
2. Kobayashi Matsui, H. (1983), “Analysis of myoelectric signals during dynamic and isometric contraction.” Electromyog Clin Neurophysiol, 26, 147-160.
3. Melo, G.L. and E. Cafarelli. (1994-95), Exercise Physiology Laboratory Manual, 25.
4. 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.
5. Moritani, T., M. Muro, and A. Nagata. (1986), “Intramuscular and surface electromyogram changes during muscle fatigue.” Journal of Applied Physiology, 60:1179-1185.

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