Choose the Best Muscle-Building Exercises
Most lifters screw up a fundamental component of high-performance training: exercise selection. That ends today with the five greatest muscle-building exercises of all time. Check 'em out.
They're called the upper-body squat because they recruit a significant amount of muscle across your chest, shoulders, and delts. When you stress a large amount of muscle with heavy weights, you create a massive amount of mechanical tension, triggering a cascade of growth variables: hormonal adaptations, mTOR activation, and muscle protein synthesis.
You can emphasize different musculature with subtle changes in technique. In all variations, get to at least 90-degrees of elbow flexion. This will put your muscles under a greater stretch and it forces a harder muscular contraction.
Emphasize control on the negative (or eccentric) portion, taking 2-3 seconds minimum to lower yourself under control. This can save your shoulders and create a longer time under tension for more muscle growth.
Hinge your hips, put your legs in front of your body, and tilt your torso to a 45-degree angle. Due to the increased lean you'll put a ton more tension directly on your chest.
To emphasize your triceps, keep a more vertical torso with your feet underneath or behind you. Warning: Triceps dips can be tougher on your shoulders.
Dumbbell Drop-Set Dip
Drop-set dips are an incredible way to demolish your upper body. Hold a dumbbell between your legs and do 8-10 controlled reps. Once you're just shy of failure, drop the dumbbell and continue repping out until you hit a point of technical failure.
The heavy set will maximally recruit high-threshold muscle fibers. Once fatigue sets in, you'll be able to attack the remaining muscle fibers to maximize growth.
Ring dips are an advanced muscle-building exercise because of the extreme stability demands. Even if you're incredibly strong on dips, you'll be shaking like a leaf when you first use rings. Once you improve stability and motor control, you'll be well-equipped to smash your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Aren't Dips Bad For Your Shoulders?
The idea that "dips destroy your shoulders" is just as bad as the idea that "deadlifts are bad for your back." It's only true if you do them wrong.
An exercise is as good as its technical implementation in relation to your unique physiological capabilities. Dips may not be the best exercise for you if you play high-intensity badminton, if you're an overhead athlete, have jacked up shoulders, or have the shoulder mobility of a crowbar.
Chin-ups are an incredible exercise for three reasons:
- They create a ton of muscle-building tension to add slabs of steak to your biceps, back, and forearms.
- They build an aesthetic V-taper physique, so you'll look like you lift, regardless of your scale weight.
- They test your relative strength, which is a measure of how strong you are for your size. If you want a head-turning physique that's strong and explosive, prioritize the chin-up.
Here's what it looks like in a superset:
Chin-Up and Incline Curl Compound Superset
Compound supersets combine a primary muscle-building exercise with an assisting muscle-building exercise. In this case, the chin-up pre-fatigues your lats and biceps before you hit the curls.
Try this on an upper-body day:
- A1. Chin-Up: 4 sets of 5-8 (lower slowly)
- A2: Incline Dumbbell Biceps Curl: 4 sets of 8-10 (lower slowly)
And if you've already got the basic chin-up mastered, take it to the next level with this version:
Gironda Sternum Chin-Up
For this advanced chin-up, popularized by Vince Gironda, lean back and pull your sternum to the bar. You'll get an incredible upper-back and lat stimulus.
Struggling with Chin-Ups?
There's one massive problem when it comes to doing chin-ups. Weakness. The main problem? Treating this exercise as an auxiliary or secondary lift on back day rather than a staple.
Consider this: If you're a 400-pound squatter and trying to build strength and size with squats, you wouldn't wait until you've done 4-5 exercises to squat, right?
So if you're weak on chin-ups (struggling to get 6-8 in a set) emphasize strength when you're neurologically fresh to maximally recruit muscle fibers. Once you can do 10-12 chin-ups with perfect technique, add external resistance to create progressive overload and build muscle growth while hitting that 6-10 rep range.
Once you've built a strength base, use classic bodybuilding rep schemes like 5x5, 4x6, and 3x8 to create mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Occasionally, mix in higher rep schemes like 3 sets of 10-15 and take more advanced measures like adding mechanical drop-sets.
There's no reason to overcomplicate your training. Squats are a time-tested strength, muscle, and athletic performance booster. They recruit nearly 200 muscles, creating a tidal wave of anabolic growth factors.
But some people can't figure out which variation to do. To determine the best squat technique, begin with your limitations.
Low-Bar Back Squat
A powerlifting squat generally uses a wide stance, low-bar position. This turns the squat into a low-back, hip, and glute dominant exercise. If you have poor ankle mobility, this powerlifting squat may be the best.
High-Bar Back Squat
The high-bar back squat uses a narrower, shoulder-width stance. You hold the barbell higher on your traps. These require the most head-to-toe mobility and are superior for growing your quads. They'll also reinforce optimal ankle mobility with regular use.
Safety Squat Bar (SSB) Squat
Many lifters with a history of chest and shoulder injuries find barbell squats painful due to upper-body mobility restrictions. The safety squat bar positions the handles in front of you while providing padding to your traps and shoulders.
This squat is a bit of a hybrid for body position. Your torso stays more vertical while requiring more upper-back and core stabilization. If you're chronically beaten up or dealing with upper-body mobility restrictions, the safety-squat bar is a good choice.
Wait, Where's The Front Squat?
The front squat is a great exercise, but mobility restrictions limit most people from getting into the proper position. Further, your rhomboids fatigue faster than your legs, which makes hitting most typical muscle-building rep schemes difficult. I prefer programming front-squats as a low-rep strength builder.
Pretty much all deadlift variations are great, but for building lean muscle mass, the Romanian deadlift stands above the rest, even conventional deadlifts.
Here's what it looks like when using it for rest-pause training:
The Romanian deadlift is superior for three reasons:
- It maximally stretches your hamstrings, creating a greater muscle-building stimulus.
- There's less "ego" involved. Ego isn't always a bad thing in the gym, but in the scope of building muscle, too many lifters chase deadlifts (with pooping-dog form) at the expense of quality muscular contraction, which limits their effectiveness as a muscle-building exercise.
- It allows you to create more eccentric stress. To maximally grow a muscle, you need to master the mind-muscle connection and learn to maintain the connection under significant load. Romanian deadlifts help you accomplish this goal better than any other hamstring exercise.
Your hamstrings are primarily a fast-twitch muscle. Most lifters add size quickly by using intensity-boosting methods like rest-pause training and lifting at 80-90% of their max.
Most lifters immediately gravitate towards the barbell bench press when the dumbbell variation is the superior choice. Here's why:
1 Increased Range of Motion
With dumbbells, you can control the range of motion and create a greater stretch for your chest, shoulders, and triceps. By creating a more significant stretch, your muscles must contract forcefully (and are thus trained harder) to generate force and complete each rep. Over time, this can improve flexibility while building lean muscle.
2 Harder Muscular Contraction
Dumbbell bench press variations allow you to control the resistance path much more than a barbell. Dumbbells allow your pecs to adduct, whereas a barbell locks you into place horizontally.
A recent study investigated muscle activation, total reps, and training volume for three bench press variations: Smith machine, barbell, and dumbbell bench presses. The dumbbell bench press elicited significantly greater pectoralis major activity compared to the Smith machine and barbell bench press.
3 Reduced Muscular Imbalances
A good chunk of lifters have a history of shoulder dysfunction and injury. Strength and muscular imbalances are made worse by overemphasizing barbell bench presses at the expense of dumbbell (and unilateral work).
You've already done a basic dumbbell bench press. Now try it unilaterally:
One-Arm Incline Bench
There are several ways to do the dumbbell press and its variations. Use it to overcome any weak point and develop a more aesthetic physique. While there's no need to obsess over one variation, I recommend cycling between decline and incline bench press variations at 15, 30, 45, and 60 degrees every 3-4 weeks in your training.
The laws of muscle growth are consistent even if the exercises change. First, it's best to build a strength base and get strong in the 1-5 rep range. You'll build muscle as a byproduct of your training.
Second, once a base of strength is established, emphasize classic muscle-building rep schemes with multiple sets between 6-12 reps to create a blend of mechanical tension and metabolic stress.
Third, incorporate a longer time under tension for each exercise with higher reps or slower tempo training to maximize metabolic stress (the pump) and create muscular damage.
Fourth, maximize the quality of your muscular contractions and recognize when you're going too heavy and compromising those contractions. If you heed these four principles with the exercises above, you'll have no choice but to grow.