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Nothing is more frustrating than devoting countless hours to training only to get minimal results. In this frenzy to see progress, gym rats inevitably default to trying umpteen different exercise variations to “confuse” their muscles and stimulate new gains.
Unfortunately, all this endless exercise variation does is further stall progress and merely give the illusion of making gains.
The truth is, an individual only needs a handful of exercises to build appreciable amounts of size and strength. Becoming proficient in a select few exercises allows for true progression in weight lifted, reps completed, and gains accrued.
Here, we present the top 5 best exercises to build muscle.
Every lifter who has ever built an impressive set of wheels paid their dues with the squat.
There’s a reason the squat is called the “king of exercises” -- it not only provides immense amounts of lower body disruption, but it also stimulates a number of upper body muscles as well.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to adopt the traditional barbell back squat either. While the back squat is an extremely sound exercise, many lifters, due to previous injury history or biomechanics, just don’t jive well with the squat.
Fortunately, unless you’re a powerlifter, there’s no hard and fast rule that says the only squat you can perform is the barbell back squat.
If back squats don’t suit your training, you can perform any number of squat variations including:
Find a squatting pattern (or two) that works with your body, and work on adding weight to the bar and performing more reps over time.
In no time at all, you’ll have strong powerful legs, and never need to look at a leg extension machine again.
The classic bench press is to the chest what the squat is for legs -- the best mass building exercise, bar none.
Similar to the barbell back squat, unless you’re a powerlifter there is no inherent need to perform the barbell bench press if it irritates your shoulders or does not allow you to feel the pecs working.
Bench pressing can be accomplished with dumbbells, kettlebells, swiss bars, or any other type of cambered bar.
Now, for those of you that do enjoy the barbell bench press, it allows for the greatest amount of weight to be lifted. When performing the barbell bench press, be sure to maintain a slight arch in your lower back. Also, keep your ribcage held high and shoulders pulled down and back. Maintaining this position throughout your benching allows for maximum stimulation of the chest.
If you want the vaunted V-shaped torso that every lifter seeks, then you want to do pull-ups.
Many of you may be shocked to see a bodyweight exercise here instead of the more conventional barbell row. The reason for this is simple -- most lifters bastardize the hell out of the barbell row, turning a great mass building exercise into some kind of spastic, flailing motion that involves more body English than actual muscle recruitment of the back.
Additionally, barbell rows also require a great deal of core/lower back strength as you have to maintain an isometric contraction throughout the lifting and lowering of the barbell. Aside from the challenge imposed on your spinal stabilizing muscles, your leg muscles also have to bear a considerable amount of load, and if either of these two muscle groups fatigues before your back, you’re not getting the most muscle-building potential from this exercise.
For these reasons, we chose the pull, an exercise considered by many to be the squat for the upper body. Similar to the squat, the pull up activates a tremendous amount of musculature, including:
Simply put no exercise works the back like a pull up (except maybe a heavy deadlift, which is next on our list!)
Standard bodyweight pull ups too easy for you?
Strap on a weight belt and add some plates to it, and you instantly increased the challenge and longevity of this consummate upper body mass builder.
No exercise is more primal than the deadlift -- an exercise built upon picking heavy stuff off the ground and placing it down. And no list of the top 5 muscle building exercises is complete without this all-time mass maker.
The deadlift is a true total-body builder as it stimulates over 20 muscles in the body including your:
Deadlifting from the floor helps develop overall strength and power and translates well for field sport athletes. If you’re more interested in purely building muscle mass, consider doing a deadlift in the rack (a.k.a. rack pulls) where the bar is set off the ground around mid-shin level.
When it comes to building a set of truly impressive, sleeve-busting arms, biceps tend to get all the love. But, if you really want arms that turn heads, then you must prioritize triceps training.
After all, the triceps account for two-thirds of upper arm mass. Therefore, the quickest way to get bigger arms is by growing your triceps.
There’s no better mass builder for the triceps than weighted dips. As an added bonus, performing dips also helps you build a broader, more powerful chest.
This exercise can also be tailored to emphasize more of the chest or the triceps depending on the angle of your torso and elbows. Maintaining an upright torso with elbows pinned to the sides more heavily emphasizes the triceps, while using a bit of a forward lean and allowing the elbows to drift slightly out to the sides away from your body shifts more tension onto the chest.
Similar to the pull up, the dip can be loaded up to accommodate your increases in strength. Our favorite set up is using a medium-width grip with palms facing in.
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