Eyes popping open, I jolt awake and reach for my alarm clock. The red numbers flash 3:57 am in my face. Perfect… 3 minutes early.
Why couldn’t I just stay asleep until 4? As I lay there and ponder this, I jolt again as the alarm beeps loudly in my ear 3 minutes later.
Guess I’m up now. I roll out of bed, hit the floor and head to the kitchen, wiping the sleep from my eyes.
First meal of the day. Milk, protein powder, 2 eggs and a blender. Maybe some coffee beans if I am feeling frisky. When it’s ready, I down it quickly and grab the meals I pre-cooked on Sunday.
Bag packed, gym clothes on, music pulsing through my headphones, it’s time to rock this workout. It’s the first day of my new mass gaining program and I am ready to rock.
2-hours later, sweat dripping and muscles exhausted, I feel accomplished. I am sure this program is going to work – it’s so intense!
Not to mention that according to the fitness magazine I was reading at the time, this was how to gain muscle. 2-hour workouts and 7 meals a day eaten every 2-3 hours.
Fast forward 3 months and I haven’t gained a single pound.
Countless hours in the gym spent doing complicated drop sets and hundreds of dollars poured into supplements, all for nothing.
Well, not nothing to be exact, as every failure is a lesson in itself and this experience was no different.
Other than nutrition, exercise selection is the most important choice you can make. In fact, most of your results are going to stem from just a handful of exercises below. These muscle building exercises will have you moving serious weight and packing on serious pounds.
8 Muscle Building Exercises for Real Size
So what makes a good muscle building exercise? First, it has to use the largest muscles in your body. Secondly, it has to be heavy. If you’re hoping to gain muscle doing triceps kickbacks, it’s going to be a long and frustrating path to the body you’re looking for.
Here are the exercises you should add to your program immediately if you want to pack on some real size:
Ahh, the deadlift, always my favorite training day. This is the king of exercises. Lift heavy stuff up and put it back down. Simple and brutally effective. If I could only recommend one exercise, it would be this.
The deadlift will give you the best bang for your buck. It uses almost every muscle in your body, making it perfect for building muscle. It is a true full body lift.
Performing a deadlift is one of the most satisfying feeling you will ever get in the gym.
There is no truer expression of strength than this. Load up the bar with many times your bodyweight and lift it. Either you can do it or you can’t. It makes you feel powerful and gets you jacked. Win win!
The deadlift is also a natural human movement. Becoming stronger in the deadlift allows you to become better at life. Your friends will be amazed as you carry all of your groceries in one trip. Your co-workers will be in awe as you’re moving office furniture without breaking a sweat.
Keep adding weight to the bar and you’ll be surprised at how much muscle you start adding to that frame of yours. There aren’t many muscle building exercises that give the deadlift a run for its money, except perhaps the next one.
2. Back Squats
Heralded as the true “king of exercises” (I think deadlifts are better 🙂 ) there are few lifts that incorporate as many muscles and allow you to use as much weight as the back squat. These are not deep knee bends we are talking about here, either. No one is impressed with how much weight you can un-rack and re-rack.
We’re talking about true, parallel, or below squats. The kind that you get a little scared doing.
No, they are not bad for your knees. You have been squatting since you were a baby. You’ve only forgotten how. In Asia, the very deep squat is a common resting position as well as a preferred means of pooping. If it’s good for your poop gains, it has to be good for your muscle gains!
Squats strengthen all of your lower body muscles and place them under a load that allows massive muscle growth. Reg Park was said to squat over 600 lb and he was Mr. Universe.
And contrary to popular belief, squats actually strengthen your knees. Because they strengthen the hamstrings and quads, squats enable the knee to resist forces that normally result in ACL tears.
3. Bench Press
Everyone’s favorite Monday workout, the bench press, has long been a staple of muscle-building exercises. It’s the squat for the upper body. There is no other chest exercise that requires the muscle recruitment that a bench press does.
With the shoulder and triceps getting large pieces of the action during a bench press, there simply isn’t a better upper body exercise for muscle gain. More weight and more muscles used means more muscle built. Enough said.
Plus, you’ll be able to answer “Yo, how much you bench?” with confidence.
4. Pull Ups
The lats are one of the largest muscle groups in your body. You should be doing exercises that build these, and the pull-up is the best exercises to do this. Another simple, compound movement. Just pull yourself up to the bar and control yourself on the way down.
While the lat pulldown machine is a similar movement pattern, it’s muscle-building potential is inferior to the pull-up. Your body weight places a greater load on your back and arms while doing a pull-up than the external weight of the lat pull-down.
When bodyweight pull-ups get too easy, you can start adding extra weight by using a belt or holding a dumbbell between your feet. And you can try an underhand grip for greater bicep activation.
5. Shoulder Press
We’re talking about the standing barbell version here. Also known as the military press, it is a simple and brutally effective exercise. Load the bar and press it overhead.
Unlike the bench press, this is not a lift you will see performed often at your gym. The reason is simple – it’s hard. Like really hard. But if the bench press is one of the best upper body exercises, the shoulder press is, at the very least, the second.
It’s a true manifestation of upper body strength; to get the most out of it, it should be performed standing. While the seated version is a bit easier and more common, it cuts out a lot of the muscles involved in the standing version and becomes more of an accessory exercise.
When performed standing, the shoulder press massively targets the shoulders and incorporates the glutes, abs, upper thighs, and lower back. This big lift is sure to pack on some much-needed muscle to your shoulders and upper body in general.
6. Bent-Over Rows
There are many rows, but none enable you to move the weight and recruit the kind of muscles that a bent-over barbell row does. No other move (except the deadlift) will pack thick layers of muscle onto your back.
The biggest benefit of this version of the row is that it allows you to use more weight than other variations. This turns an already stellar back exercise into a full body exercise as your legs, lower back, and abs all need to work to keep your body in the correct position during the lift.
Move more weight, get bigger muscles. This concept is integral to almost all of these exercises but separates this row from the dumbbell variations. The amount of weight you’ll be able to pull with the barbell bent-over row will have you adding muscle and widening that back in no time.
You have the bench press for the chest, and shoulder press for the shoulders, but what do you do about those lagging triceps? Kickbacks obviously.
Just kidding, you need to dip. The dip should be a staple in your workout regimen unless you have shoulder issues. The most underrated of muscle-building exercises, dips are highly effective multi-joint movements that can also improve your bench press strength. Plus, if they start getting too easy, you can just add weight with a belt as you do with pull-ups.
So you get to add mass to your upper body, your arms get bigger, your chest gets bigger and stronger, your shoulders get bigger and stronger, and your bench press numbers increase. What are you waiting for? Go do some dips.
8. Bicep Curls
Last but definitely not least is the barbell bicep curl. We’re already building your triceps with dips, so it’s time to even it out with some heavy bicep curls. Combined with pull-ups and heavy barbell rows, barbell curls will cause even further arm development.
Heavy barbell curls are a surprisingly good upper-back exercise; just be careful when doing these. It’s ok to cheat a little, but don’t injure yourself.
Now Go Move Some Weight
The most basic exercises are also some of the most effective.
Picking heavy things up and putting them down. It may not be sexy all the time, but it’s damn effective. Deadlift, squat, and press. You can do your whole program with these 3 exercises and see faster progress than an overly complicated “mass gain” concoction from your typical fitness magazine.
You now have the best muscle-building exercises at your disposal, it’s time to put them to use. You don’t need to throw every single one of these exercises into your program all the time (except the deadlift and squat, which you should always be doing), but the more you do them, the better.
Load it up heavy and enjoy your express ticket on the gain train.