Top 10 muscle building moves

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“What’s this bullshit” you might think to yourself: “Food is the alpha and omega of muscle gain.” And you would be right. We have told you several times that muscle gain will never happen if you fail to provide your body the quality and quantity of food it needs. What we also keep repeating is that there are no significant differences between the training regimes during a bulking phase and during a cutting phase. 

We are still holding on to this point of view. However, it would be foolish to deny that among hundreds of exercises, there are undoubtedly a few ones which prove to be extremely useful if your goal is to gain mass and strength. This does not mean you can only get muscular with these exercises. But it definitely means that you will reach your goals faster with them, unless there are any structural, genetic or health factors which would necessitate special training methods (e.g. different exercises, more reps etc.).

In the August 2011 issue of Musclemag there was an article listing 10 of such exercises. If your goal is to gain as much mass as possible, it is recommended to increase your strength in these exercises. You might have guessed already: these will be basic multi-joint exercises; save concentrated bicep curls and butterfly for another day. Although isolation exercises are also suitable to fully tax your muscles, they will not trigger those favorable hormonal processes heavy-weight squats or deadlifts would do.

OK, we are not saying this is the only way; but it can serve as an excellent basis in 90 % of the cases: If these exercises make up the core of your workout program and your diet is alright, too, then you are probably on the right track. Please allow us to skip the detailed description of the exercises; these are well-known moves, and you can find them in our training database. Let’s see them now, “à la”:

The exercises

Dip with extra weight

Main muscles worked: Pectorals, anterior deltoids and triceps. If you can do 10-12 reps with your own weight, you may start using extra weight – at least that’s what Musclemag says. But we think you should be able to do more than that in order to do this exercise with extra weight in sufficient quality and volume. If you can make 20 reps, then you might be able to do 8 to 12 with extra weight, the number of reps recommended for this exercise. Do 4 sets with 8 to 12 reps each.


Bench press

Main muscles worked: Pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps. Keep reps between 6 and 10; but as you might already know, we, the team here at have nothing against higher rep counts either (and this drives some folks nuts, we know). Make sure you keep your back straight so it won’t get an arch (we are not powerlifters), and do not let your elbows over-extend at the top end.

Standing barbell shoulder press

The most basic shoulder exercise. It works the shoulders overall, plus the triceps, and the trunk plays an important role as well, to stabilize the body. You should choose the extra weight so that you should be able to do 8 to 12 proper reps in 3 or 4 sets. The advantage of the standing position is that when you are starting to tire, you can do some controlled “cheating” with your legs (in no more than the last 1 or 2 reps, of course). This way you can make a few extra reps. But you must hold your core muscles very tight to avoid spinal cord injury. 

Front barbell squat

Main muscles worked: Quads, glutes, and, to a smaller extent, hams and spinal erectors. Although you cannot use as heavy weights as for squats, the position of your trunk enables you to impose a higher load on your quads. Do 3 or 4 sets with 6 to 10 reps each, Musclemag recommends. But we recommend that you should do no less than 8 reps per set. Spare the hardcore bs for squats. 


One of the hardest exercises beside squats. Main muscles worked: Lats, spinal erectors, traps, glutes, forearms, hams and calves, that is, almost the whole body, except for the pushing muscles. Proper performance is extremely important in case of this exercise. You can read our related article, but the best you can do is ask someone savvy. Here too, do 3 or 4 sets with 6 to 10 reps each. Again, please allow us to mention that in some cases you might try more reps (if you dare).

Bent over barbell row

This move might almost look like an isolation exercise compared to deadlift; still it works the whole back musculature and biceps. The rep count is somewhat higher here: 8 to 12, also in 3 or 4 sets. Here too, make sure that every rep is controlled: your torso should not move while rowing. Do not sacrifice proper performance in order to lift more weight. Spare the heavy weights for deadlift. Jerking with too heavy weights can be funny, but it is dangerous most of all, because you can easily get injured.

Incline press

Main muscles worked: Upper chest, anterior deltoids and triceps. Do 3 or 4 sets with 6 to 10 reps each, the wise guys at Musclemag say; but again, we at prefer a higher rep count for this exercise, about 8 to 12. Make sure you are sitting stable on the bench and hold your back straight. This way you can press more weight. Here too, avoid over-extension of the elbows; end the move at about 75 % of the range of motion. This way you can maintain constant tension in the muscles worked and avoid elbow injury at the same time. 


The other most feared exercise beside deadlift. Muscles worked: thighs (overall), glutes and spinal erectors. Stand with your feet planted slightly beyond shoulder width. Try to go slightly below the depth where your thighs are parallel to the floor, but make sure you are not leaning forward and your knees are not tending inwards. Do 3 or 4 sets with 6 to 10 reps each. Bending your knees just a few inches deep under a tremendous weight is totally useless; putting the weight plates on and back again may be more useful: as aerobic exercise.

Deadlift in the upper range of motion

Now this is one of the few cases when it is recommended to do partial repetitions (should you have missed them so far). Muscles worked: Lats, spinal erectors, traps, forearms, glutes and calves. This move was originally invented for improving strength in the upper range of motion of deadlift. You will need a power rack or any other structure you can lay the barbell on. You should only bend your back to the point when you start feeling your hams join in. You must hold your torso straight and tight, just as in the case of deadlift! Do 3 or 4 sets with 6 to 10 reps each.

Pull-up with extra weight

Main muscles worked: Lats and biceps. Of course, you should only use extra weight if you can do about 10-12 reps properly, using your own weight. In that case, you might be able to perform 8 reps with a small extra weight. Again, Musclemag recommends 6 to 10 reps; we recommend not to go below 8 reps, if there is a way.


That’s all, folks. If you are in a bulking phase, you don’t really need any other exercises, no matter how tempting those isolation exercises might seem. Remember: all you need to do is give your muscles the stimuli they need for growth, but no more; you should let them recover. And if you do too many exercises, you might jeopardize the recovery process.

These 10 basic multi-joint exercises can be arranged perfectly in an A-B-A-B pattern (provided that you avoid training beyond muscle failure and do not apply techniques to increase training intensity): you can do upper body push and pull exercises (presses, dips, rows and pull-ups) on one day and lower body push and pull exercises (squats and variations, deadlifts and variations) on the other, and rotate these in say, a Monday-Wednesday-Friday pattern. Of course there are various other ways to customize your training regime. The only thing you should keep in mind is that neither the volume nor the duration of training should be more than needed. For example, if you prefer to go to extremes and beyond each workout, you should split your program in a way that each muscle is worked only once a week. 

As you can, see, there is no universal training program that could be equally suitable for everybody... Pick some of these 10 exercises and arrange them in a way that best suits your schedule, body type and opportunities. And don’t forget to eat as much as you can, to supply enough “building material”.


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