What’s the smartest way to build muscles? Doing the best muscle-building exercises. Which ones? We have all the info you need on the best muscle-building exercises right here.
Far too often, gym goers stick to machines, focus on isolation exercises and leave the gym without getting in a workout that challenges them. Sometimes it is due to not knowing what to do or how to build muscle. Other times it’s due to not having a plan of action or lacking the right muscle building supplements. If you’re going to reach a goal, you have to be willing to put in the work. You have to go the extra mile.
To build muscle it’s not different. The muscle-building process involves challenging your body, applying the progressive overload principle and keeping the training plan simple and effective. To put some muscle on your frame, opt for compound exercises such as the bench press, deadlift, squats and lunges to get you the best results.
Up The Challenge For The Best Muscle Builders
In order to keep improving in something, you must continuously boost the challenge. The same goes with weight training. If you stick to the same simple workout routine without boosting the weights or reps, you will get stuck and plateau. To get results, the progressive overload principle is very important. It states that a person must load their body in a higher manner than normal to achieve results.
For strength training, this simply means lifting more weight. When the overload principle is applied in a safe and effective manner, results will follow. For example, in a four-week program for improving bench press, you might start out with three sets of 10 reps at 135 pounds in week one. The next three weeks, increasing the load by 5 to 10 pounds each time will result in a safe and effective progression.
Do Compound Moves
What exercises will help you achieve those muscle gains?
Short and simple: Compound exercises. Every program should stick to the basics of pushing, pulling, hinging, squatting and lunging. These are movements we perform every day and are the key to building muscle.
Compound exercises target multiple muscle groups, engage more muscle fibers and help provide a spike in testosterone and growth hormone in the bloodstream. An increase in those two hormones flowing in the bloodstream helps increase protein synthesis – the repair and building of muscle fibers – as well as melt fat.
Do only compound exercises trigger this response?
No. But isolation exercises trigger less of a response. More muscles allow for lifting more load. That allows for an increased response.
Do The Bench Press
Starting with a classic strength move, the bench press is a staple in any program. From powerlifting meets to the NFL combine, to just working out with your buddies, the bench press is a great test in pushing power. If you want to lift more weight, opt for a barbell, but dumbbells are an option as well.
Start by lying flat on the bench and use an overhand grip with your hands elbow-width apart. Begin the movement by unracking the bar and lowering the weight as it tracks over the middle of your chest. While the primary target of the bench press is your pecs, the anterior deltoid, triceps and core are all fully engaged during the movement.
Even though you can’t lift as much with dumbbells, they are a solid option if that’s all you have around, or if you’re looking to even out any imbalances. If you have no equipment at all, push-ups are a top option to target the bench press muscles.
Do The Arnold Press
Another pushing move that rises to the top of the charts has a little twist. Instead of executing a standard dumbbell overhead press, try the Arnold press. Named after the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger, this exercise combines a shoulder press with a lateral raise motion. Think of the Arnold press as a two-for-one, maximizing efficiency in the gym.
Start sitting upright on a bench with two dumbbells in your hands. The dumbbells should be positioned in front of your shoulder with your palms facing your body. Begin by simultaneously bringing the elbows out to your sides, as the dumbbells are pressed overhead. At the top of the movement, your palms should be faced outward away from your body.
Do Barbell Bent Over Rows
Adding the barbell bent over row into your routine will help build a strong back. Targeting your back muscles including your lats, rhomboids, traps and spinal muscles, the bent over row is a classic pulling move that relies on your arms as well to help maintain grip throughout the movement. Using a barbell for the bent over row is the best way to pack on some backside muscle.
Start with an overhand grip on the bar with your hands about hip-width apart. Hinge at your hips so you are in a bent over position with your spine in alignment. With your arms fully extended, pull the barbell toward the stomach, keeping the bar close to your thighs throughout the movement before returning it to the starting position.
A common problem is letting the bar hang out further away from your body. This can cause a rounded back, increasing injury risk. Dumbbells are also an option if that is the only equipment around.
Another back exercise that is a true test of relative strength is the pull-up. Common in fitness testing from grade school all the way to the military, the pull-up targets much more than the lats, hitting the entire backside, arms and core muscles.
Start with a wide overhand grip on the pull-up bar. With your arms starting fully extended, pull your body up until your chin is above the bar before slowly lowering yourself back down to full extension. You can also try inverted rows for a good variation.
Pull-ups are a very challenging exercise especially for those carrying around extra bodyweight. If you can’t do an unassisted pull-up, opt for an assisted pull-up on a machine or use resistance bands to help you with the movement.
Every week, squats should be on your list of exercises to do at least once. Squats are the premier lower body exercise to pack on muscle to your quads, hamstrings, and calves. Some people shy away from squats though because they feel it is bad for their knees or they are just too hard, and consider deadlifts vs squats. As mentioned, if you want results, you need to go get them and work for them.
After a set of heavy squats, your legs might feel like rubber. But, when done correctly, not only will they make your knees more stable and stronger, they will also initiate that anabolic response, releasing testosterone and growth hormone into your bloodstream.
To perform a squat, start with your feet shoulder-width apart, and a barbell on the back of your shoulders. In the squat rack, unrack the bar and take a small step back to give yourself some room. Start the move by pushing your hips back as you bend your knees until they reach 90-degree knee flexion. When your thighs are parallel to the floor, press back to the starting position.
Squats are not easy, but they are a staple in any strength-training program. They help pack on muscle, work not only the entire lower half of your body, but also the back extensors and core muscles, improve mobility and balance and strengthen bones, tendons, and ligaments.
While squats are the premier bilateral lower body exercise, single-limb training should also be present in a training program. To help pack on some more lower body muscle and work out imbalances, start including lunges into your routine. Here’s how to do a lunge.
Like the squat, many are skeptical of the lunge when it comes to knee issues. When done with correct form though, it also helps to strengthen your knee joint. Before grabbing a pair of dumbbells or using a barbell on your back, master the bodyweight lunge first.
Start by standing tall and lunging forward with one leg, lowering your body until both knees reach 90-degree knee flexion. From there, push off to the starting position before lunging with your opposite leg. While you can’t lunge with as much weight as you can squat, lunges can help improve your squat by increasing lower body mobility and balance, core stability and evening out strength in both legs.
Another functional move that packs a lower body punch is the step-up. Using a step or box and a pair of weights or barbell on the back, the step-up is the most functional move in the gym.
Do you ever walk upstairs?
Unless you are confined to a single-story home and only stay inside, chances are you walk up several flights of stairs every day. Even without weights, it leaves your quads and glutes burning. When you are carrying groceries up some stairs, it’s even more challenging.
Why not pack on some muscle and improve everyday activities?
The step-up can do that.
A single-limb movement, it helps increase single-leg strength, symmetry, and balance. Like the lunge, it also helps improve the squat and boosts sports performance. Building lower body strength helps translate to a higher vertical jump and explosiveness in sprinting.
When talking about the three pillars of powerlifting, the deadlift joins the squat and bench press to complete the strength-training triad. The deadlift is a favorite of many and for good reason. To pack on some serious muscle, deadlifting becomes a staple of the training regimen.
It’s hard to name a muscle that isn’t activated while deadlifting, as the entire muscular system is activated to complete the movement. While there are several variations of the deadlift, let’s stick to the traditional barbell deadlift.
Emphasizing synchronization among your ankle, knee and hip joints, the deadlift’s primary target is the posterior chain. Set up with your feet shoulder-width apart and below the barbell. Hinge at your hips with a slight bend in your knees to grab the barbell with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Lift the bar by extending your ankles, knees and hips all in one motion until you are fully upright before returning the bar to the starting position. Keep the barbell close to your body to avoid placing extra stress on your back and keeping it in a strong position with your spine in proper alignment.
Deadlifting is the ultimate exercise that maximizes efficiency in the gym. It hits nearly every muscle on your body, improves grip strength and core stability and it has real life applications. When picking something off the floor or moving a heavy item, building your deadlift up will help immensely and pack on some desired muscle.
There is a common theme among all of these exercises and that is they target more than one muscle group. If you want to increase your strength and get more muscle mass, compound exercises like the ones listed need to be the foundation of your program. Aim for around 75 to 80% of your exercises to be these compound moves. From there, fill the rest of your workout with isolation work or exercises you enjoy.
You aren’t going to like every exercise you do and some are going to be harder than others. That’s how you achieve results. Try working on your weaknesses to help improve your strength. If your squat is not where it needs to be, focus on that move and others such as the lunge and step-up to help improve it.
If your focus is solely on exercises that you enjoy or excel at, then chances are strong that you will not achieve your desired results and will not be well rounded. Doing these compound moves that utilize pushing, pulling, hip-hinging, squatting and lunging will not only pack on some muscle, but it will help you cruise through your everyday activities and feeling better than ever.
By Adam Clark, CPT