Want to build muscle? Don’t overcomplicate it. Here are the timeless exercises you can’t avoid if you want to grow.
Let’s be honest. Most lifters just need to stick with the basics and work at them for an extended time. What are the basics? The most effective exercises with the lowest risk of injury. No matter how fancy your training gets, these lifts always deliver.
The bench press recruits a lot of muscle, mainly the pecs, anterior delts, and triceps. It’s a great all-arounder to improve upper body strength, muscle mass, and endurance.
But it’s even better when practiced with the intent of building muscle rather than showing off. Maximize that stretch at the bottom. You’ve probably got too much on the bar if you’re not feeling it where you should.
If your shoulders don’t do well with a standard barbell, reduce the range of motion or use a Swiss bar (on Amazon) or dumbbells. Once you nail the technique and reduce the risks, you can progress with it for weeks using small weight increments.
Barbell rows built some of the biggest backs in history. They build strength and size by targeting most of your back, including your traps, lats, and rhomboids. They also challenge your whole trunk and your hamstrings isometrically.
These strength improvements transfer to other lifts like squats and deadlifts. An overhand grip tends to work your upper back more, while an underhand grip with a more arcing motion towards your hips hits your lats a little more.
Need a modification for a cranky lower back? Try the seal row where you row laying face down on an elevated bench.
Use a wide-grip lat pulldown to target those wings and develop a wider back. And don’t give us that nonsense about how pulldowns don’t help you build a wider back. Tell that to just about every pro bodybuilder that uses them. Bonus: This exercise also improves your pull-ups.
Target your legs with minimal joint irritation using the leg press. If you have specific lagging areas, you can focus on what you need to build most. Placing your feet high on the platform biases the hamstrings a bit more, and placing them low biases the quads.
To begin with, start closer to the middle with your feet around shoulder-width apart. From here, focus on keeping tight to the back of the pad and controlling the weight as you bring it down as far as possible before pressing it back up.
Use a full range of motion. No cheating with half reps just so you can show everyone how many plates you can selfishly hoard. Make this exercise as hard for yourself as you possibly can, with zero letup between reps.
Why not a barbell back squat? Many people find squatting difficult or painful and, hence, don’t stick to squats long enough for them to be a good hypertrophy exercise.
The RDL is similar to a traditional deadlift from the floor but is more of a hip hinge with very little knee bend or quad activation. They simply build more muscle.
Keep your chest high. Don’t round your shoulders or lose that strong back position. Lower the bar, keeping it as close to your thighs as possible.
You should feel a good stretch of your glutes and hamstrings at the bottom, then a good squeeze of your glutes as you come back up. If you feel these more in your lower back, try RDLs using a trap bar, or just go a little lighter and adjust your form until the glutes and hams work harder than the lower back.
You can do the shoulder press sitting, standing, using a barbell, dumbbells, plate-loaded machines, kettlebells, on a box, with a fox, you name it. The options are endless.
Most experienced lifters try to work around a cranky shoulder or not aggravate an old injury. The best meat-and-potatoes shoulder press is the one you can repeat and progress with without waking up the next day with pain.
Using dumbbells, the shoulder press works the stabilizer muscles, which help improve control and balance. Free weights also allow more free movement in your shoulders and wrists than a straight barbell.
Bicep curls seem simple, but for maximal benefits, create a stable platform by keeping your body still and locked into position. Focus on your biceps doing the work rather than just moving as much weight as you can up and down.
A full rep goes all the way to the top with a hard squeeze. Then, lower all the way down, extending your elbow as much as possible to maximize the biceps stretch.
Cable pushdowns are a great finisher or warm-up to isolate your triceps and build thicker upper arms. The key? Keep your upper arms at the exact same angle relative to your torso, then isolate elbow extension by only letting your forearms move.
If you’re training biceps and triceps in the same workout, start with your triceps. You’ll have better range of motion in your elbows and a more intense biceps contraction afterward.
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