The 7 Best Muscle-Builders
I started training athletes and bodybuilders over 17 years ago. My own passion for building muscle goes back even longer than that. I've experimented with thousands of methods. I've lifted, lowered, and held weights every way possible. Out of all my experimentation, there are seven methods that have proven to be the absolute best for putting on muscle. Here they are, in no specific order.
1 – Tempo Contrast
The technique itself is very simple: During the same set you alternate between very slow reps and fast reps – the fastest you can do with perfect form. Specifically, you do 2 reps with a 5 second up and 5 second down tempo followed by 2 fast reps. This is referred to as one "cycle." Each set has either 8 or 12 reps (two or three cycles of four reps), or between 8 and 12 reps if you hit failure before completing 3 full cycles.
Log Press: Tempo Contrast Method
This method recruits more muscle fibers due to the different types of rep contractions. Additionally, alternating between slow reps and fast reps allows for the momentary "capturing" of waste products inside the muscles, which leads to the release of growth factors that stimulate protein synthesis and muscle growth.
The accumulation of metabolites, as well as trapped blood inside the muscle, leads to an excruciating pump. This method works especially well for biceps, quads (leg extensions, leg press), hamstrings (leg curls), and chest (cable cross-overs, pec deck, flyes), as well as pressing exercises like bench press and squats.
2 – Multi-Hold Pump Set
This technique takes pain to a new level. It's best done at the very end of a training session. You should only do one set. This method loads up the muscle with tons of local growth factors, as well as hyper-saturating it with amino acids.
Triceps Extension: Multi-Hold Pump Set
- Hold a weight isometrically for 20 seconds, ideally at your weakest point.
- Then pump out 8-10 reps.
- Go immediately into a second hold targeting the same point in the range of motion, this one for 15 seconds.
- Pump out 6-8 reps.
- Go immediately into a third hold, again targeting the same point, this one for 10 seconds.
- Finish by doing as many reps as possible.
You'll actually feel your muscles inflate after you're done. It's a very weird but fun feeling.
3 – Intra-Set Load Contrast
This method takes advantage of the "potentiation effect" of heavy lifting. By doing a heavy lift first, you excite the nervous system and neuromuscular junctions and turn on more muscle fibers. If you immediately switch to hypertrophy work using the same movement pattern, you'll keep more fibers active and stimulate more growth.
Use two different loads for each set. Load the bar with 75% of your maximum. Then, slap on a pair of collars. You'll then add an additional 10-15% weight on the other sides of the collars. (The bar is now loaded with 85-90% of your max.) This will make it easier to quickly remove the additional weight before doing the drop set.
Log Press: Intra-Set Load Contrast
- Perform 1 rep with the heavy weight (85-90%).
- Quickly unload the added weight. Ideally a partner does it.
- Take the lighter weight and perform as many good, non-cheating reps as you can. It should fall between 7 and 10. If you can get more than 10, increase the weight slightly.
This method will build a lot of muscle mass. It'll also get you used to handling bigger weights which will translate into maximum strength gains, too. Although this method can be used with any exercise, it's better suited to bigger lifts like squat, bench press, overhead press, row, etc.
4 – Regressive Range of Motion
This method is especially effective with compound movements, particularly those with a longer range of motion. It works great with the bench press, squat, and even deadlift. It can also be used successfully with exercises like curls (especially cable curls), triceps pushdowns, leg curls, leg extensions, hack squats, and leg presses. It doesn't work as well with overhead work or pulling exercises.
You start the exercise by doing a full range of motion. You do reps until you're close to hitting failure, then cut the range of motion in half and do more partial reps. When you feel that you're about to hit failure in that partial range, you again cut the range of motion in half until you finally hit total failure. Depending on the exercise, the partials will be done in either the top portion or bottom portion.
- Squat: Full reps, then upper-half reps, then quarter reps
- Bench press: Full reps, then upper half reps if you want to focus on delts and triceps. If you want to focus more on the chest, do quarter reps in the lower half of the movement. (Use a spotter!)
- Leg Curl: Full reps, then lower half reps, then quarter reps
- Leg Extension: Full reps, then upper half reps, then quarter reps
- Cable Curl: Full reps, then lower half reps, then quarter reps
- Rope Hammer Curl: Full reps, then upper half reps, then quarter reps
- Triceps Pushdown: Full reps, then lower half reps, then quarter reps
- Leg Press: Full reps, then upper half reps, then quarter reps
- Lateral Raise or Front Raise: Full reps, then lower half reps, then quarter reps
This method also allows you to use a decent amount of weight. For a very effective hypertrophy/strength building combo, use a weight you can lift for 4-6 full reps before reverting to partial reps. For just size gains, use a weight you can lift 8-10 times.
5 – Partial/Isolation Superset
This is a superset, so two exercises are done back-to-back with minimal rest. The first exercise is a major lift done with a partial range of motion and the second is an isolation exercise.
How you do your partial reps is important. Keep the target muscle under tension long enough, so perform the partial reps in a "no-acceleration" style. Here's what it looks like for the delts:
Partial-Rep Shoulder Press + Lateral Raise
Try to maintain the same fairly slow speed during the whole range of motion, focusing on keeping the tension on the target muscle. It should take you about the same time to complete one partial rep as it would a full rep. Do 8-10 reps on both the partials and the isolation exercise.
- Pecs: Bottom half of the bench press (or chest press machine for safety) plus cable cross-over
- Quads: Upper half of squat plus leg extension
- Hamstrings: Middle portion of a Romanian deadlift (from below the knees to mid thigh) plus leg curl
- Biceps: First half of a chin-up or lat pulldown plus barbell curl
- Lats: Second half (contracted position) of a lat pulldown plus straight-arm pulldown
6 – Mechanical Drop Sets
This is based on the same principle as drop sets: once you hit failure on an exercise, you find a way to continue doing work. With drop sets you reduce the weight so you can get more reps in. With mechanical drop sets you keep the SAME weight on the bar or machine but you change the exercise slightly so that you gain a mechanical advantage and can continue while working the same muscles.
A mechanical drop set can include two or three variations. The order, whether you're using two or three variations, is always to start with the weakest variation and work toward the strongest. That way, when you hit failure on the first movement, you can still get some reps on the next one.
Front Raise: Mechanical Drop Sets
Select a load that you can get 6-8 reps with on the first exercise. Take each of the two or three variations used in a set to technical failure or close to it. Remember, you're using the same weight for all the exercises selected. Take 10 seconds of rest when switching between variations. This won't negatively affect any of the growth-producing stimulus but will allow you to get 1-2 more reps per variation.
- Pressing Muscles, Variation 1: Close-grip bench press, then mid-grip bench press, then regular or wide-grip bench press
- Pressing Muscles, Variation 2: Dumbbell shoulder press, then incline dumbbell press, then flat dumbbell press
- Pecs: Incline dumbbell press, then flat, then decline
- Overall Posterior Chain: Romanian deadlift, then conventional, then sumo
- Quads: Leg extension with feet turned in, then with feet neutral, then with feet turned out
- Hamstrings: Leg curl with feet turned in, then neutral, then feet turned out
- Pulling Muscles: Pull-up, then chin-up, then pull-up with neutral grip. Use a resistance band if necessary.
- Overall Arm Flexors: Reverse-grip dumbbell preacher curl, then supinated grip, then hammer grip
- Biceps: 90-degree preacher curl, then 45-degree preacher curl, then standing barbell curl (see photo)
7 – Iso-Dynamic Contrast
This method is spectacularly effective when it comes to bringing up weak points, especially if you have a bad mind-muscle connection with that muscle. Having a bad mind-muscle connection is one of the main reasons for a lagging muscle group. This method is very simple and effective, but painful.
Start each exercise with an isometric hold in the position where the lagging muscle is the most heavily involved. You hold that position for 30 seconds. As soon as the 30 seconds are over, without any rest, you perform 8-10 regular reps.
The iso hold will light up the target muscle and it will be easy to feel it doing the work during the regular reps. This will solve your mind-muscle connection problem in no time and allow you to quickly correct a lagging muscle group.
During the 30-second hold, make a voluntary effort to contract and squeeze the target muscle, not just hold the position. Depending on the exercise, the hold will be at various positions, as laid out below:
- Compound Exercises: Hold for 30 seconds, then do 8-10 full reps.
- Bench Press: Hold at 90 degree elbow position
- Incline Bench Press: Hold 2-3 inches above the 90-degree angle
- Overhead Press: Hold at eyes or forehead level
- Squat (if glutes are weak): Hold at parallel
- Squat (if quads are weak): Hold at 90-100 degree knee angle
- Chin-Up or Pulldown: Hold at contracted position, bar at chest level
- Isolation Exercises: Hold for 30 seconds, then do 8-10 full reps.
- PecDeck or Cable Cross-Over: Hold at contracted position, pads or handles close together
- Biceps Curl: Hold at mid-range
- Triceps Pushdown: Hold at contracted position, arms extended
- Leg Extension: Hold at contracted position, legs extended
- Leg Curl: Hold at mid-range
- Lateral or Front Raise: Hold just short of contracted position, right below shoulders to avoid engaging traps
- Cable or Swiss Ball Crunch: Hold at contracted position