December 16, 2021 8 min read
There are over 600 muscles in the human body, and according to Calcified Tissue International, they make up about 40% of your body weight. Each muscle contributes an ability to help you with everyday functions from exercising to just standing upright. When toned and sculpted, muscles can help us achieve a desired beach bod aesthetic, but they're not just there to help you look good.
Muscles are vital for health, metabolism, and movement. The smaller muscle groups are important for strength contribution, support, and stability, whereas the bigger muscle groups tend to produce more power. They both are important and shouldn't be neglected, but let's talk about the five biggest muscles, and why size sometimes does matter.
No, we're not talking about the size of Popeye's biceps or Arnold's pecs, we're talking about the function of big muscle groups in the body, and why we need them. The big muscles in your body help supply strength and mass, but they can also help promote good posture, reduce the risk of injuries and chronic pain, and improve overall health.
These benefits come from exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
With these benefits in mind, who wouldn't want to hit the gym? Before you pack your gym bag, it's important to understand what muscles to train, why, and how.
The moment you've been waiting for has arrived. Below are the five biggest muscles on your body and the best exercises for each.
The largest muscle on your body is...drum roll please...the Gluteus Maximus!
Even the name sounds big. In fact, the name translates to largest gluteus or largest of the buttocks. Its main function is to extend and rotate the hip, and it's important in athletic performance.
Studies suggest that the gluteus maximus greatly contributes to running and sprinting. This muscle makes up the buttocks with the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, which aid in hip stability, and hip adduction and abduction.
Weak glutes can be commonly caused by inactivity, injury, or improper lifting. This can limit your lower body movement and strength, as well as contribute to poor posture. Exercising the gluteus maximus can help to prevent injury, low back pain, and poor mobility.
Strengthen your gluteus maximus with the exercises below.
The hip thrust relies on your glutes to push the weight up, even more than the squat or deadlift. It can be a great way to build lower body strength, which can then translate to other lifts and activities like running. Athletes or bodybuilders can benefit from the hip thrust due to its ability to increase hypertrophy and improve athletic performance.
Although the conventional deadlift does target the gluteus Maximus, studies suggest this muscle is more activated during the sumo deadlift due to the position of your knees and feet. Aside from glute activation, the sumo deadlift can help improve hip flexibility and can require less work from your back.
Lunges are popular amongst athletes and the average gym-goer because of their ability to shape and strengthen both sides of the body equally. Unilateral exercises like the lunge can help improve muscle and strength asymmetries in the lower body. It's a great exercise for targeting the glutes and is easily adaptable if you need a modification or a challenge.
Located in the front of the thigh, made up of four muscles are the quadriceps femoris, better known as the quads. The four parts of the quad are the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. These are among the largest muscles in the body and are responsible for stabilizing your knee, maintaining posture, and helping you walk, run, and stand.
Anytime you move your leg, chances are your quads are involved in the movement. Studies even suggest that these muscles can be a predictor for dependence in daily life and are especially crucial as we age. Having weak quads can increase the risk of falling and can limit the ability to stand up and walk up the stairs.
Strengthening the quads is not only important for athletes, but for the average person as well. Below are just some of the ways to strengthen these muscles.
One of the most popular exercises in the gym is the squat. With so many variations, it may be hard to decide which one to perform to target the quads the best. Studies suggest that the high-bar back squat may elicit the most quad activationbecause of the upright position and the knee and ankle joint range of motion. Whichever squat variation you choose, the primary muscles worked are the quads.
If you're looking to isolate the quads, look no further than the leg extension. Also known as the knee extension, it can help to strengthen the patellar ligament, which aids in supporting and bending the knee. A leg extension is a good option for beginners since you are typically seated, and you have the help of the machine to control your movement and range of motion.
The sled pull is a functional exercise that, when walking backward, loosely mimics the leg extension and is great for targeting the quads, as well as reducing pressure on the lower back. Along with building lower body strength, the sled pull can also be used to improve cardiovascular health, making it a beneficial exercise for athletes and people of all fitness levels.
Opposite to the quadriceps is the next large muscle, the hamstrings. The hamstrings are in the back of the thigh and are composed of three muscles: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. Together, these muscles are responsible for bending the knee and hinging at the hips. You use them walking, running, and bending over to pick something up.
Studies suggest that hamstring injuries are one of the most common injuries among athletes and recreational exercisers, and common causes include limited strength and flexibility.
An imbalance in the body may also cause injury. The quads often take precedent over the hamstrings, which can cause a muscle imbalance between the anterior and posterior. Exercising the hamstrings just as much may help prevent injuries and can contribute to reduced knee pain and improved posture. Check out some of the best hamstring exercises below.
Unlike the conventional deadlift, the RDL requires less movement in the knees and more movement in the hips. Since your hamstrings are responsible for hinging at the hips, it may come as no surprise that the RDL activates these muscles. With more focus on the hamstrings and glutes, this exercise is beneficial for building strength and mass in the back of the legs, helping to contribute to overall lower body strength.
Get your heart rate elevated and your hamstrings working with kettlebell swings. Studies suggest that kettlebell swings activate the hamstrings the most at hip flexion, and the movement may translate to sports that involve running and jumping. This is a great exercise for targeting not only the hamstrings but the whole posterior chain.
True to its name, the hamstring curl isolates the hamstrings and can help build their strength and mass. Isolation exercises can be just as important as compound exercises, as they help to target the muscles that get overlooked during compound exercises. The hamstring curl is versatile and fair beginner-friendly depending on which position you choose.
The largest muscle in the upper body is the latissimus dorsi, commonly referred to as the lats. This muscle runs from the mid to lower back, and they can help give you that V-shape, meaning a broad back and narrower waist. Besides aesthetics, the lats are responsible for a lot of arm movements, such as adduction, rotation, and extension.
If your lats are weak, it can cause instability to the spine, decreased range of motion in the upper body, and increase the risk of injury. Having healthy, strong lats can contribute to overall shoulder and back strength. This can be applicable in and outside the gym.
Build bigger, stronger lats with the exercises below.
Studies suggest that performing exercises where the muscles are lengthened under load may help increase hypertrophy. Although the pullover targets the lats, it can also recruit the pecs, deltoids, and triceps, depending on the positioning.
One of the most difficult bodyweight exercises to master just one rep of is the pull-up. It requires you to lift your entire body weight up as you work against gravity. Although intense, the pull-up can build significant lat strength, and luckily, there are plenty of progression exercises to build up to them.
If you couldn't have guessed from the name, the lat pulldown primary activates the lats. This exercise is beneficial for building upper body strength, as well as progressing to pull-ups if you haven't mastered them yet. It can be more beginner-friendly because of the machine controlled movement, but the form should be perfected to avoid potential injury.
Among the largest muscles of the upper body is the pectoralis major, or the pecs. They are responsible for adduction and internal rotation of the arm, and if you grow them as big as Arnold's, they may be able to hold a glass of water on top. Stretching across the front of the chest, they are made up of the pectoralis major and minor.
The pecs are often worked with any kind of pushing exercises or movement like push-ups or opening a door. Tight or underdeveloped chest muscles can cause poor posture, limited range of motion in the arms and shoulders, and can even affect your breathing.
The chest is a popular muscle group to work because you can see it in the mirror but know that it's not all about looks. The exercises below help to strengthen the pecs for improved function and quality of life.
You probably guessed this one was coming. It's likely one of the most popular chest exercises and plays an important role in powerlifting competitions. It's a great exercise for building strength and hypertrophy due to its ability to engage many muscle fibers in the pecs.
Studies suggest that the bench press can be a predictor for upper body strength in exercises like the triceps extension, biceps curl, and shoulder press.
The push-up seems so simple, but often people have trouble completing one properly and with a full range of motion. This bodyweight exercise recruits the chest, but it also activates the triceps, deltoids, and abs, making it an effective compound movement. They are also easily adaptable and can be made more challenging by adding decline or less challenging by adding an incline.
Like the pullover, the chest fly puts your stretched muscles under load, which may help increase hypertrophy. Using dumbbells provides benefits of their own, such as helping to improve stability and muscle imbalances. The chest fly, in particular, stretches the whole chest, helping to increase flexibility, back pain, and tightness.
There are plenty of reasons to exercise, but knowing what to do and why could make or break a workout. Bigger muscles are important to strengthen, but keep in mind, the smaller ones serve a purpose too and shouldn't be neglected.
Creating the proper workout split for your lifestyle can help you hit all the muscle groups needed for improved lifts and quality of life. With a well-balanced workout regime and a healthy lifestyle outside of the gym, achieving your goals of strength, weight loss, improved health, or muscle gain is possible.