Most trainees make the mistake of hopping from one exercise to another as they get bored. Or they see something cool on Instagram and, for a brief period, it becomes the next favourite. But frequent exercise hopping and not getting progressively stronger in the big muscle building movements is a sure way to less than optimal results.
And in doing so the struggling trainees ignore the golden rule for building muscle: Get progressively stronger with exercises that target the most muscle fibres.
This should be the main focus of any well-planned muscle building program.
How to Choose an Exercise
There are some exercises that are better suited for building muscle. Usually they have one major thing in common: they are simple to progress with weight and/or time under tension.
As with anything each body is unique and might need a different stimulus compared to another. Some exercises fit better for one body type and less so for another. If you have long limbs you’ll probably do better with rear foot elevated split squats versus a big barbell lift such as front squat. If you’ve got back issues (get the pain sorted first!) you’d probably be wise to drop Romanian deadlifts from your program and replace them with single leg Romanian deadlifts. That way you can still get a big training stimulus for the legs without the lower back having to bear as heavy load.
If an exercise doesn’t feel right for you, and provided you have proper coaching to be 100% you are doing the movement with correct form, don’t get hung up on it. Not a single exercise is a “must do”, there are always alternatives. Don’t get stuck forcing a square peg through a round hole. It’ll only lead to frustration, setbacks, limited gains, and a possible injury.
Forget the “no pain, no gain” mentality.
This list is in no way comprehensive but it’ll give a clear idea where most of your training focus should be when bigger and more muscular body is the number one priority.
Top Exercises for Chest Development
Barbell Bench Press is the go-to exercise for most blokes who are after a bigger chest. But in all honesty, it is not the best way to maximise chest development. Especially if you lift using the powerlifter-style arched back and pinned shoulder blades – technique. It’s still a great upper body strength builder. But for chest development here are some more effective options.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The reason for choosing dumbbells over barbell for chest development is simple. Dumbbells allow a deeper stretch at the bottom of the lift compared to barbells.
20 Degree Standing Cable Chest Fly
Achieving a well developed chest requires stimulus from more directions than just horizontal pressing such as bench press. With this cable fly you can hit the chest in horizontal adduction. The only downside is that it can be hard to achieve a full contraction and squeeze at the the top of the movement where the hands are almost touching. To change this use bands instead of cables to give you a constant tension throughout the movement.
If your elbows and shoulders can tolerate dips you’re in luck. This movement allows you to do the set with constant tension, something that drives chest development. Especially the lower part of the chest.
Top Exercises for Shoulder Development
Tall Kneeling Military Press
Why tall kneeling over standing Military Press? Because it’s harder to cheat when you’ve got no legs to bounce from. Meaning that the majority of the lifting is done with the upper body instead of gaining momentum by push pressing using the legs. Tall kneeling version will also make it harder for you to compensate through your lower back.
A shoulder health tip: if strict overhead pressing doesn’t agree with your shoulders try Landmine Pressing from tall or half kneeling.
Cable Lateral Raise
If Military Pressing is for strength then lateral raises are great for a higher rep “pump”. They hit the lateral deltoids and upper traps. Focus on slow eccentric part of the lift to really feel the tension.
Band Face Pull
A great exercise to hit the rear deltoids and the lateral deltoids at the same time. Do a typical face pull exercise and pull the band apart at the same time. Focus on keeping a constant tension throughout the set.
Top Exercises for Back Development
Deadlift (Conventional, Sumo, Trapbar, Romanian)
To say that the deadlift only builds back is a gross understatement. It’s an exercise that covers the upper back, lower back, core, glutes, hamstring and calves to a degree or another. But it has the biggest activation for the upper back and drives a huge lat activation.
Narrow Parallel Grip Chin Up
To build a solid back you need to include both horizontal and vertical pulling. For vertical pulling the narrow parallel grip on chin ups allows you to lift the heaviest loads and recruits the interior fibres of lats.
One Arm Dumbbell Row
No upper back workout would be completed without a horizontal row variation of some type. As with bench pressing I chose the dumbbell row variation over barbell as it allows for a larger range of motion. Heavy weight and high reps are a highway to a bigger, wider upper back.
Top Exercises for Leg Development
When training the upper body people split the body in different parts depending on which muscle group is doing the most work in each exercise. Yet when training legs most people ignore this same principle and only train “legs”.
As with upper body, it’s important to differentiate between different muscle groups of glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. Otherwise the message gets lost and most people focus on one dimensional lifts such as squats. Although a great quad developer, the squat doesn’t hit the whole lower body with the same intensity.
Here are the exercises to prioritise for better leg development.
Hip Thrust Variation for the Glutes
If there is one guy to listen to when it comes to glute development, it’s The Glute Guy himself, Bret Contreras. He has dedicated his career to building better butts. And even designed the Hip Thruster apparatus to help people with sagging butts.
No one exercise is the answer to all the muscle development questions, and so is the case with hip thrust. But when you immerse yourself in this exercise during your next training session your glutes will know about it the next day.
Front Squat for the Quads
Quads tend to react better to higher rep sets and more overall volume. If size is your goal pick front squats and focus on doing sets with moderate resistance instead of purely pushing heavy weights with one repetition max load.
Romanian Deadlift or Single Leg Romanian Deadlift for the Hamstrings
Doing Romanian deadlifts slow and controlled while feeling the hamstrings tense on the eccentric phase are a sure way to get some size on hamstrings. Even a lighter weight gives you a sensation for the next day that makes you double guess the enjoyment of walking.
Focus on getting perfect quality, slow reps over fast and heavy.
Standing Single Leg Calf Raises for the Calves
The calves are another area of the body where a lot of training volume is required. If you think about it, they are under constant load as we stand and walk throughout the day. And despite all of that it’s still possible to have small calves compared to the rest of the body.
Start at four sets done twice a week and gradually add training volume to all the way to 24 sets per week. Just remember to deload every 8-12 weeks to give those calves some actual time to grow during the rest.
You can follow ICON’s fitness expert, Jono Castanoacero on instagram @jonocastanoacero