Why are some exercises better for developing muscular size than others?

Ultimately, high mechanical tension is the primary stimulus for muscle growth. The more tension you can create within a muscle, the more size you'll build. To maximize muscular growth, the tension has to meet the following criteria:

  • The tension has to be high. In other words, you have to lift heavy weight. The heavier the weight lifted, the greater the mechanical tension on the muscle.
  • The tension must be long in duration. We're talking at least 20 seconds when it comes to muscular hypertrophy.
  • The tension must be high throughout the entire range of motion. Due to joint angles, tension varies along the range of motion of an exercise. Most exercises produce high mechanical tension at only specific points of their ranges of motion.

Let's take a look at the triceps kickback. The tension is low throughout much of the range of motion, with the exception of the very top where you flex the triceps. The trouble is, this upper range of tension is so brief (1-2 seconds) that it doesn't do much for muscular hypertrophy.

Not only that, but you can't use much weight in the triceps kickback, which cuts down the tension even further. So there's a lack of muscular tension because of weight, duration, and range of motion.

However, if we choose exercises that create high muscular tension for a long duration and throughout the entire range of motion, then we can easily incur hypertrophy in just a few sets.

Unfortunately, very few exercises maintain high tension on a muscle throughout its entire range of motion. Most exercises have what's known as a "strength curve."

Strength Curve

A strength curve is a graphical representation of the muscular force generated at each point throughout an exercise's range of motion. Because of joint angles, the resistance or tension of an exercise isn't constant. The tension varies throughout the exercise movement and is depicted by a curved line.

If most exercises have strength curves where tension is high only in specific portions of the range of motion, then how can we create high mechanical tension throughout the entire range of motion for a muscle group? The answer lies in performing "strength-curve set extenders."


Set extenders are when you hit a muscle group with a series of two or more exercises done in consecutive order with little or no rest. There are three types of set extenders:

  • Compound Sets: 2 exercises
  • Tri-Sets: 3 exercises
  • Giant Sets: 4 or more exercises

Set extenders work well in building muscle because they extend the time under tension. The other advantage of set extenders is that you can group together different exercises to stress the entire strength curve. As such, exercises that produce partial range of tension can be paired or grouped with other exercises to approximate a full range of muscular tension.

When you curl, you feel the weight or the tension more or less at various points of the curl. The force curve will be different for different biceps curl variations.

If you do preacher curls, then the bottom range of the movement will be the hardest portion to work through because the resistance is greatest there. If you do barbell curls, then the tension is greatest midrange. And if you do spider curls (curling using the vertical side of a Scott or preacher curl bench), then the tension is greatest at the top range in the fully contracted position.

To fully maximize tension on a muscle throughout its entire range of motion, you can construct a tri-set of three exercises, each stressing a different strength curve: top range, mid-range, bottom range.

Joint Angle

Biceps Tri-Set:

  1. Spider Curl (top range)
  2. Standing Barbell Curl (middle range)
  3. Preacher Curl (bottom range)

By aggregating three different exercises with complementary strength curves, you can create high muscular tension throughout the entire range of motion.

You'll get an incredible pump when you perform compound sets and tri-sets in such a manner. This isn't simply because you're performing a lot of reps. Instead, you're stressing the entire strength curve and activating every muscle fiber for growth.

Although strength-curve set extenders are an effective way to jumpstart muscle growth, they're not always logistically feasible because of equipment availability or placement.

Anyone who's tried to perform a superset or a circuit in a commercial gym knows how pissed off people can be when you hog multiple pieces of equipment. Not only that, but people will jump in on your machine, thinking that you're done because you moved on to the next exercise.

If you want to perform strength curve tri-sets and compound sets in a busy commercial gym, then you should adhere to a few simple rules:

  1. The fewer pieces of equipment, the better.: Try to perform different exercises with the same piece of equipment. Dumbbells and barbells work well.
  2. Have the equipment close by.: Again, free weights are ideal for this because you can move them and position them right next to a machine.
  3. Use bodyweight exercises when you can.: Bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and sissy squats are ideal because you can perform them at any time and without any equipment.

By sticking to these guidelines, you can stay at one or two stations and use one or two pieces of equipment rather than hog multiple machines and stations and be interrupted by interlopers. You'll also minimize the rest in between exercises.


The following are strength curve tri-sets and compound sets that are extremely effective at building up the targeted muscles. You'll find that your muscles swell up quickly on these exercise combinations and that they'll remain "swollen" for a few days.

Perform 2-3 of these compound sets, resting 2-3 minutes in between.

Do a set of dumbbell bench presses followed immediately by a set of machine flyes. The dumbbell bench press stresses the middle of the strength curve while machine flyes stress the outer ends of the strength curve.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 2-3 6-8
B Machine Fly * 2-3 6-8
Be sure to get a good stretch in the pecs with each rep and contract the pec muscles hard when the handles meet.

* If you can't set up the bench close to the machine fly, then you can do a compound set of side-to-side pushup and machine fly instead.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Side to Side Push-Up * 2-3 AMRAP
B Machine Fly 2-3 6-8

* To do this one, instead of going up and down as with a regular push-up, lower yourself down toward your left hand, come back up, then lower yourself to your right hand, alternating each rep. As many reps as possible.


For this back tri-set, you'll need to bring a dumbbell over to a lat pulldown station.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Pulldown 2-3 6-8
B Dumbbell Pullover * 2-3 6-8
C Straight-Arm Pulldown * * 2-3 6-8

* With a good stretch of the lats with each rep.
* * Be sure to flex the lats hard with each rep.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Back Squat 2-3 6-8
B Sissy Squat 2-3 AMRAP
C Leg Extension * 2-3 10-12

* Flexing hard with each rep.

If the squat rack is too far from the leg extension to make this tri-set feasible, then try this instead:

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Reverse Barbell Lunge 2-3 6-8
B Sissy Squat 2-3 AMRAP
C Barbell Hack Squat 2-3 6-8
  Exercise Sets Reps
A Romanian Deadlift 2-3 6-8
B Lying Leg Curl 2-3 6-8

Use the same pair of dumbbell for all three exercises.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Incline Curl * 2-3 6-8
B Seated Dumbbell Curl 2-3 AMRAP
C Alternating Reverse Incline Curl 2-3 AMRAP

* Getting good stretch of the biceps with each rep.

For this tri-set, you'll need to bring the EZ-curl bar, a dumbbell, and a bench to the pressdown station.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Lying Triceps Extension 2-3 6-8
B Overhead Dumbbell Extension 2-3 6-8
C Cable Pressdown * 2-3 6-8

* Flex hard with each rep.


For this one, bring a dumbbell to the cable station.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A One-Arm Cable Lateral Raise 2-3 8-10
B Dumbbell Lean-Away Lateral Raise 2-3 8-10

For this compound set, you'll need to bring a dumbbell to the leg press machine.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Leg Press Calf Extension * 2-3 12-15
B Dumbbell Calf Raise 2-3 12-15

* Getting a good stretch with each rep.