If you want to build the most amount of muscle in the least amount of time possible, the exercises that are going to provide the best ROI on your time must be the focus of your training.
Think of your pecs as a house, your triceps as a shed, and the workers as the muscle you’re recruiting to do the work. Performing isolation exercises (i.e. biceps curls and triceps pushdowns) is like hiring 10 workers to build the house and telling 8 of them to work on the shed. Sure, you may eventually end up with a nice shed, but the house will never get done.
Now imagine if you hired 100 workers to build the house then told 20 of them to build the shed. Both jobs would get done faster. Focusing your efforts on the big 6 is like hiring 100 workers instead of 10.
Are you ready to build your dream home?
Let’s jump into the what, why, and how of these 6 mass builders. The movements that, if done correctly, will not just pack slabs of muscle onto your frame, but will result in brute strength and stronger, more resilient joints that improve health and longevity.
Simply put, these exercises will make you a complete juggernaut.
How much ya bunch?
Once people start realizing you lift weights, that’s the first question they’ll ask. And if you don’t want to seem like a pussy, you’ll probably want to respond with a big number. The problem, however, is that the bench press – although one of the simplest of the main lifts to perform – is the easiest to butcher. And when your sole purpose is to sound manly when you tell someone how much you bench press, cheating the weight up becomes more likely.
Do yourself a favor and leave your ego at the door - don’t try to impress anyone other than the guy you came into the gym as last time. In other words, focus on getting incrementally better than you were in your previous session, and do it without resorting to poor form to get the weight up.
Not only will you build more muscle this way, but you’ll help avoid injury as well.
A few things you want to avoid on the bench press are as follows:
• Failing to bring the bar all the way down to your chest
• Raising your ass off the bench
• Flaring your elbows out
• Allowing your shoulders to shrug or roll forward at the top
If you’re not familiar with the movement and try to jump right into heavy weight, you’re going to get injured. Nine times out of ten, improper bench press technique leads to damaged shoulders, which can take a great deal of time to heal.
Bench press with proper form, on the other hand, and you’ll preserve your shoulders while growing your upper body bigger and stronger.
To Summarize: Keep your chest up, elbows tucked, and shoulder blades back and down. Drive your legs against the floor to transfer force up through the hips and back, which will increase pushing force. Maintain your three points of contact: butt and upper back should never leave the bench while the legs should stay planted firmly on the floor.
Although you may see everyone else doing it, never allow the bar to bounce off of your chest. Always lower the bar under control, stay tight, and then simply drive up once the bar touches your chest.
The overhead press is by far the best all-around exercise for building massive shoulders. Not only that, but it does a great deal for building the upper chest, putting mass on the triceps, and increasing your bench press strength.
The overhead press, like most of the main lifts, doesn’t just stimulate the obvious muscle groups (i.e. the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps), however. It also helps strengthen the lats through heavy eccentric loading, engages the legs by using them as stabilizers, and, of course, increases core strength.
This movement, although not the most complicated, is a bit more complex than the bench press. Not just because it’s easily butchered, but because your body is in an overall more vulnerable position since you have no support.
A few things you want to avoid when shoulder pressing are:
• Pressing in front of your body ( I call this a standing bench press)
• Not maintaining a tight core and arching your back too much
• Not locking out the lift (this is very common in the OHP)
• Too wide of a grip, which leads to flared elbows
Like the bench press – and any other big compound exercise – you don’t want to start slapping weight on the bar until you’ve perfected the lift. Trying to lift too much weight on the overhead press is a sure-fire way to snap some shit up. Poor form on this lift can lead to anything from shoulder damage, to straining your lower back, or even neck pain.
Perform the overhead press with solid form, however, and you’ll strengthen your shoulders, lower back and core. Not to mention, you’ll build massive deltoids, a bigger upper-chest, and thicker arms, too.
Note: If you’re not strong enough to handle an empty bar, with proper form, for the prescribed volume, then starting out with the seated version of this exercise would be best.
To Summarize: Grip the bar slightly outside of shoulder-width with the bar resting on your clavicle. Stand nice and tall with your hips and knees locked and feet shoulder-width apart. Shoulders should be back and down and the core should remain tight.
Tilt your head back slightly to avoid knocking yourself out and press the bar up in a straight line. Tuck your head in, lock your arms, and squeeze the shoulders and traps.
If you’re a bit overwhelmed by the instructions, don’t be. In the beginning, you may notice yourself focusing quite a bit on a few of the cues mentioned, but with a little practice, the movement becomes second nature.
There are a number of muscles that make up the mid/upper back: the traps, rhomboids, teres major and minor, erector spinae, and infraspinatus. Most of which are responsible for one primary movement: retracting the scapula. Anytime you pull (or row) a weight toward your body, horizontally, from out in front of you, all of those muscles are firing.When it comes to building a thick, well-developed back, you must row to grow.
This is why we’re including the bent over barbell row as part of the big 6. This is, by far, the best overall mass builder when it comes to back development. Not only are you building back thickness through loading the function of scapula retraction, but the lats – which are responsible for back width – are getting a good deal of stimulus as well. Not to mention, anytime we’re pulling a weight toward our body – be it vertically or horizontally – we’re engaging our biceps to a significant degree. Want bigger arms? Pull heavier weight!
The main issue I find with this exercise is that most people tend to use more weight than they can actually handle. Jerking back and forth and using a ton of body English in order to get the weight up is a tell-tale sign that the load is too heavy. If you’re moving anything other than your arms, chances are, you’re not going to maximize the amount of load you’re putting on the target muscle(s).
If you let momentum move the weight, you’re just decreasing muscle fiber recruitment while increasing risk of injury. Remember, this is an upper-body pull, not a full body jerk.
Controlling the weigh throughout the entire range – even if it means a little less weight on the bar – is not only going to reduce the risk of a potentially serious injury, but the amount of tension you’re putting on the target muscle(s) will have greatly increased.
To Summarize: Grip the bar overhand with arms slightly outside shoulder-width. Break at knees, chest up a bit, and back straight. Then pull – not jerk – the barbell toward your lower chest. Squeeze the back at the top and control the weight on the way down. Once your arms are completely straight, initiate the following repetition.
Whenever we’re pulling a weight down from over our head, the largest muscle group of the back – the lats – become the primary target. Vertical pulling is, by far, the most efficient way to build massive wings. This is mainly due to their function: extension and adduction of the shoulder.
Anytime you’re bringing your arm down in front of you – or to your side – you’re doing so with, primarily, your lats.
For this particular movement, I’ll give you a few options. Mainly because I am fully aware that not everyone can perform enough pull ups to make for an effective workout. If you can, however, perform a good number of pull ups, it’s what I’d recommend. If not, substitute them with their easier-to-perform, slightly uglier cousin: chin ups. Can’t do those either? Start with assisted pull ups and build your strength from there. This can be done with an assisted pull-up machine, a friend, or pull-up assistance bands.
Is it getting too complicated? No worries. Stick to lat pulldowns and address the pull ups later.
If you’re willing and able to go the pull up – or chin up – route, progression is quite simple. Use a dip belt and gradually add weight or simply hold a dumbbell in between your feet or thighs for added resistance.
If you’re using assistance, progression is also simple: Slowly decrease the level of assistance you’re using. Eventually you’ll be able to perform them with no help, and from there you can gradually add weight.
Just use the lat pulldown machine instead.
To Summarize: The purpose of vertical pulling is to build bigger lats – while, of course, adding a bit of volume to the upper-back and biceps as well – period. The reason I recommend the pull up as your first option is because you’re moving your body through space. This requires the involvement of stabilizer muscles and does a great deal for building core strength – an added benefit. However, because volume is the primary focus, performing a variation where you’ll be able to progress is most important.
Our main lower-body push exercise will come in the form of, arguably, the most avoided exercise in the gym: the squat. The reason guy’s pass the squat rack and end up on the leg press machine is simple: leg press is easy and squats are hard. But if you’re looking for maximal growth in minimal time, squat is king.
This is not to say that you can’t build big legs without squatting – you most certainly can – but we’re looking for the big-bang-for-your-buck exercises. The exercises that are going to pack the most meat onto your skinny frame in the shortest amount of time.
It’s no surprise that carrying a heavy load on your back, squatting down with it, and then standing back up again, is going to put some serious mass on every muscle in your legs. But the benefits of squatting don’t end there: Squats, when done correctly, will strengthen the connective tissue around the knees, increase flexibility and mobility – they’ll help you run faster and jump higher, and if that wasn’t enough of a reason to squat, it’s an incredibly effective core workout as well.
Done incorrectly, however, can compromise knee stability or, even worse, result in serious spinal injury. Worry not, though: As long as you use proper form, you won’t have to worry about injuring your back or knees.
A few things you want to avoid when squatting:
• Stopping before you reach proper depth a.k.a. half squats
• Rounding your lower back
• Leaning way too far forward – you’ll know because your legs will straighten out while your torso is almost parallel with the floor
• Too wide of a grip on the bar
• Letting your knees collapse inward
• Pushing through your toes – or the balls of your feet – instead of the heels
• You’re using a tampon a.k.a. squat pad.
The list of blunders is long, but avoiding them is easy.
To Summarize: Set the bar in between your traps and rear delts. Keep your chest up and upper-back tight. Heels shoulder width apart and feet pointed outward, slightly. Fix your eyes on a spot on the floor to keep your neck and spine safe. Squat down by pushing your knees out and hips back and down. Once you’ve reached parallel – or slightly below – squat up by pushing your heels into the ground and driving your hips straight up.
As you probably guessed, our main lower-body pull is - the granddaddy of them all - the deadlift. Training just about every damn muscle group in the body – legs, glutes, the entire back, and core – the deadlift is an integral part of this program.
Not only does the deadlift work more muscles than any other exercise, but it targets all of the muscles responsible for your posture, which enables you to keep your back straighter during regular day-to-day activities.
The deadlift is, unarguably, just one of the best mass building exercises you can do, but one of the most impactful – in a positive way – to your overall health and longevity.
Like many other exercise, however, it’s easy to butcher. A few things you want to avoid when deadlift are:
• Bouncing your deadlift of the floor
• Squatting the deadlift up – it’s a pull, not a push!
• Shrugging the weight at the top
• Jerking the bar off the ground
• Rounding your back
The more muscles you’re working, the more joints involved. The more joints we use in a lift, especially when we’re pulling hundreds of pounds off the ground, the higher the risk of injury. This is why, although it’s a fairly simple lift, I strongly advise that you take time to perfect it before going too heavy. Even if you’re currently strong enough to muscle 225 pounds off the ground, doesn’t mean you should. Start light, learn the movement, and progress slowly.
The better you get at the lift, the faster you’ll progress. The stronger you get, the bigger you’ll grow.
To Summarize: Stand with the bar above the center of your feet – your stance should be a bit narrower than shoulder width. Grab the bar overhand and keep your arms in a locked position. Bend through your knees until your shins hit the bar. Shoulder-blades directly over the bar. Lift your chest. Put your shoulders back & down, head in line with the rest of your spine. Brace your core and pull. Remember to keep the bar close to your body – moving in a straight line - roll it over your shins and thighs until your hips and knees are locked. Lower the weight in a controlled manner until it has reached the ground and repeat the pull.
The Bottom Line
Building size and strength doesn’t require a barrage of different exercises to hit a muscle from various angles. It only requires that you continue to get better, over time, with a handful of exercises that challenge each muscle-group effectively and efficiently.
The more frequently you perform these movements, the better you’ll get at them. The more efficient you become at the exercise, the easier it becomes to lift more weight. The more weight you lift, the bigger you’ll grow; it really is just that simple.