Your goal is size. Do your exercises meet at least five of the six criteria here? If not, you’re wasting time.
In a nutshell, the most effective muscle-building exercises must be safe and stable enough to allow multiple muscle groups to lift large loads through big ranges of motion. Examples: squats, presses, rows, and pull-ups.
Now, keep in mind we’re talking about hypertrophy exercises here, not pure strength, pure power, or cardio-based movements.
The best exercises for size need to meet six criteria. If your main goal is to build muscle mass, most of your workout should revolve around movements that meet most of these. Let’s break them down one by one.
No matter how great you think an exercise may be, it’s just not a good choice if you can’t do it safely. There are two reasons why a specific exercise might not be optimal for you:
- You don’t have sufficient skills, Napoleon. For example, maybe you have difficulty maintaining a neutral lumber spine on squats (or you don’t even understand what that means yet). Maybe you don’t know how to tuck your scapulae during bench presses. The good news is that you can, over time, learn to improve your technique enough to perform the exercise safely.
- Sometimes a certain exercise is simply a poor choice for your body. One common reason is a pre-existing orthopedic issue. As an example, if you’ve got a herniated lumbar disc, the risk-to-benefit ratio of lifts like squats and deadlifts is probably unfavorable for you. Likewise, a bum shoulder makes certain types of pressing unwise.
In other cases, poor mobility may preclude the safe performance of certain exercises. And finally, sometimes a lifter simply doesn’t have an optimal “body type” for certain movements. By that I’m mostly referring to height, posture, proportions, and individual lever lengths. Long femurs make safe squatting more difficult (especially deep squats), and sometimes even impossible. Relatively short arms make conventional deadlifting difficult.
The bad news here is that your body type can’t be changed, so it’s important to recognize and accept that not all people can safely perform all exercises. If you’re not sure of the suitability of a specific exercise, one clue is a history of getting hurt when you perform it.
If you find that you can’t do a particular exercise safely, it may still be possible to safely perform a modification of that movement, which brings us to my second point.
When I think about the best exercises for muscle hypertrophy and improved body composition (squats, presses, rows, lunges, and pull-ups), all of them can be modified in almost innumerable ways.
For example, the squat can be done in a variety of styles – front, back, low/high bar, goblet, overhead, box, paused, etc. – with a variety of implements (straight bar, safety bar, cambered bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands) and to different depths. Given the squat’s impressive number of possible modifications, it’s a movement that can be used safely and effectively by most lifters.
In contrast, less-effective movements – triceps kickbacks, pec-dec machine, triceps pushdowns, and seated calf raises – are clearly far less modifiable, mostly because they’re single-joint, single-muscle movements.
Growing muscle requires that you perform work, which is technically defined as displacing a mass over a specific distance. So when comparing two similar movement options, the one that involves more ROM will be superior to the smaller ROM option.
For muscle-building and calorie burning purposes, a deep squat or leg press will build more muscle than a shallow version of the exercise. A conventional barbell bench press will be more effective than a board press. A deficit deadlift will be a better choice than a block pull.
Needless to say, static exercises that involve literally no ROM – such as planks and wall sits – are the worst possible choices for better body comp.
Now I already know what you’re thinking: “But Charles, when I shorten the ROM I can use more weight, so doesn’t that offset the disadvantages of using less ROM?” And the answer is, “Yes, sort of.”
While the ability to use more weight does partially justify the use of reduced ROM, there are still at least two problems with the idea:
- More weight = more orthopedic wear and tear. If you can get better results with less weight, why not take that option?
- Much of the muscle-building effects of a specific exercise arise from stretch tension that occurs when you do your exercise with full ROM. That’s why Romanian deadlifts are such an effective hamstring drill. On the other hand, when you do board presses, your pecs never reach a stretched position, which means they won’t experience much hypertrophy stimulus.
Going back to that definition of “work,” the more weight you can move through a given ROM, the more work you’ll be exposing the target muscles to.
Some exercises are just inherently more loadable than others. Machines tend to allow for the most loading, followed by barbells, and finally dumbbells. Also, regardless of implement choice, exercises that share loads across several joints as opposed to only one (think of squats versus leg extensions) tend to be better for muscle growth.
In order to satisfy the last criterion about heavy loading, an exercise must be stable, meaning that your ability to maintain your balance shouldn’t be the Achilles’ heel of the exercise. This is why, all else being equal, squats build more muscle than split squats (stationary lunges), and it’s also why split squats also tend to be more effective than rear-foot-elevated split squats.
Note: When it comes to assessing the value of relatively unstable exercises, your unique ability to manage your balance plays a key role. If you have zero issues with maintaining your balance on rear-foot-elevated split squats for example, it might be just fine… for you.
Either way, the practice of deliberately making an exercise less stable, by doing it on a physio-ball or a BOSU for example, is a dumb idea if your goal is to safely and effectively build strength or muscle mass. To be even more blunt, the use of wobbly surfaces is the most surefire way to dramatically reduce the effectiveness of any exercise.
Here’s the depressing news about trying to get both big and lean: your body doesn’t share your objectives. In fact, the various evolutionary forces that led to the body you now inhabit are stuck on a very different (although now obsolete) goal – to make you famine-proof.
After all, Mother Nature reasons, if you can’t live long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation, what’s the point?
As it turns out, muscle requires additional calories, both to build and also to fuel once they’ve been built. So the more muscle you have, the less likely you’ll be able to withstand that famine Mother Nature is so worried about. The only way she’ll buy into your little plan is if you train hard enough to convince her that more muscle will literally be necessary for your day-to-day survival.
In practical terms, this means prioritizing “big,” heavy, and sometimes outright scary exercises. While single-joint drills like pushdowns and calf raises aren’t totally without value, they simply don’t belong in the same category as heavy squats, presses, rows, pull-ups, and deads.
A while back after I had just finished deadlifting 415 for 10 reps, my training partner quipped, “Kinda like when you narrowly avoid a car crash, and you think you’re dead, and then you suddenly realize you’re okay, right?” He was right, and that’s what a truly effective set often feels like.
For an exercise to be capable of scaring your body into growing new muscle, it must be safe and stable enough to allow multiple muscle groups to lift heavy loads through large ranges of motion.
And sure, you may also need to do “smaller” movements for physique-refinement or therapeutic purposes, but just make sure your program isn’t excessively “fluffy.”