Do you have as much mass as you’d like? I sure don’t, and I bet you don’t either. The nature of weight training is that we’re never fully satisfied with what we see in the mirror. One reason for that is that many of us aspire to resemble the larger-than-life professional athletes we see on social media. Yet without their rare, gifted genetics (supplements or other enhancements play a part as well, but genetics are the true determining factor), it’s not possible to reach their outrageous dimensions—if you’re talking about 22-inch ripped arms, or weighing 270 pounds at 5’10” with 3 percent body fat. Still, let’s forget about anyone else for the moment and focus on you. You have built a certain amount of muscle tissue since the day you started lifting. Have you maxed-out on your full potential for size? Odds are very high that you have not. You may think you’ve done all that you could, or that you are training as effectively as possible right now. Once again, odds are that you could be doing better.
One glaring commonality in all our workouts is that as the years go by, we get away from many of the basics that served us so well in our early days. We drift away from the tried-and-true barbell and dumbbell classics, and fill our sessions with isolation exercises, machines and cables. Though not without value, those choices will never give you the same bang for the buck. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the 10 best lifts for mass, whether you’ve been training for two weeks or 20 years. It’s no coincidence that seven of the 10 are compound movements, where you can involve several muscle groups at once and move some serious iron. Unless you have an injury that makes any one or more of these either a very bad idea or outright impossible, you need these 10 in your life right now.
It’s the big daddy of all lower body exercises. Long before you knew what weights were, or even before you could talk, you were squatting. It’s a natural movement for human beings from the time we are able to walk. That’s why squats are so incredibly effective. There is simply no more effective way to load the muscles of the quadriceps, glutes and hams than to put a barbell on your back, squat down low and stand back up again. To garner the most gains from squats, I do believe in descending to below parallel. We don’t all have the flexibility in the hips and ankles to sink down to “rock bottom,” but we can all perform a full rep as it relates to our individual structure.
Tips: Avoid piling on more and more plates and sacrificing range of motion. It’s OK to do the positive part of the rep, aka the lifting, in an explosive manner, but always take care to lower the weight under control. Absolutely never bounce out of the bottom position. This will wreck your knees over time. Find a stance that feels right for you. Some guys do well with a shoulder-width foot placement, while others need to go wider to achieve proper depth. Try to maintain as upright a posture as possible, as many trainers tend to hunch forward with heavy weights and shift the stress over to the glutes and lower back (as powerlifters do to put up maximum singles). Use a belt unless you have a very powerful core.
All the pushing muscles of the upper body band together for this monster lift: the pecs, the anterior deltoids and the triceps. It’s an exercise used not only by hardcore physique athletes, but also as part of strength and conditioning in dozens of other sports. Nothing else is quite as effective at developing raw pushing power. Though the flat barbell variation is the most popular, you should also do incline barbell presses to give extra attention to the upper region of the pectoralis major.
Tips: “How much ya bench?” isn’t nearly as important as how you bench. To maximally recruit the pecs and ensure that the shoulders and tri’s aren’t taking the brunt of the load, set your body mechanics up correctly. Pinch your shoulder blades together, and roll your shoulders down toward your butt. Put a slight arch in your lower back. Use a spotter, but only to hand the weight off to you and help you rack it at the end of the set. Do not become dependent on your spotter lifting part of the weight for you!
If there is any exercise that could come close to being a “full-body movement,” it’s the deadlift. Not only do you get the entire back involved, from the traps all the way down to the spinal erectors, but you’re also using the rear delts, biceps, quads, hams, glutes and calves! That’s a lot of muscle mass to hit all at once. It’s also why those who put the time and effort into deads tend to have a look that reeks of brute power. It’s legitimately the simplest exercise possible— lift something off the ground, and put it back down. “I pick things up and put them down,” in other words. There is power in simplicity.
Tips: While powerlifters aren’t allowed to use straps to reinforce their grip, you are. There’s no need for their over/underhand position on the bar. Set both hands overhand (knuckles up), and strap in. The initial drive off the floor is a simultaneous pull with the back, biceps and rear delts, along with a push from the quads and glutes. Never allow your lower back to round. Many lifters have transitioned to partial-range “rack deadlifts,” usually starting the lift at mid-shin level or under the knees in a power rack, rather than picking it up off the floor. Some swear by them as being more of a true back movement by taking the legs greatly out of the equation, and others dismiss them as a weak substitute for full deads. That’s for you to figure out on your own if you decide to try them.
The chin-up is not only a very natural movement among humans, but also all primates. It’s how you pull yourself up on to a branch or the top of a surface such as the top of a fence or wall, or when climbing steep hills or mountainsides. As an exercise, nothing trumps it for working the upper lats, rhomboids, teres major and minor, and even the biceps. It requires minimal equipment, just a bar bolted to the wall or between two other supports. Once someone has mastered the chin-up with their own bodyweight, the next step is adding weight via a belt. Once you get to the point where you are doing good reps with a 45 hanging off you, you can be sure your upper back is going to be pretty wide and rugged.
Tips: Due to the popularity of CrossFit, we now see people doing chins and variations of them being done in a very ballistic manner, with vigorous body swinging. These do not recruit the lats in the same way as chin-ups in the style that those who lift weights perform them: with controlled speed of motion, and with extra emphasis on contracting the muscles of the upper back. Wide-grip chins have been proven to target the lats most effectively, but you should also do them with an underhand grip, as well as neutral. Use wrist wraps if they help you get more reps, as is the case with most of us. The grip can be and often is a limiting factor on chin-ups for many. Don’t let that weak link shortchange your gains!
The dip is right up there with the bench press in terms of overall impact of the pushing muscles of the upper body. Bodybuilders from the 1940s, all the way through to Arnold Schwarzenegger, relied on dips for complete pectoral development. When leaning the torso forward, the chest is maximally recruited, as the angle is very similar to a decline barbell press. If you maintain a more upright torso position, the triceps are forced to take more of the workload. Weighted dips are one of the most effective mass builders you will ever do for the chest and triceps.
Tips: Some find dip machines to be better options, particularly when it comes to attempting to isolate the triceps. But if you can do them, nothing beats parallel bar dips. Experiment with keeping your elbows closer to the body or flaring them out, to find the optimal form for you. If you have the shoulder flexibility, lower all the way down until your shoulders are just above the level of the bars to really nail the pecs. If you want to hit more triceps, lower only until the bones of your upper arm are parallel to the floor. To lock out the elbows or not is also a matter of how much triceps involvement you want. A full lockout will fully contract the tri’s. Another option with dips is “bench dips” between two benches, piling weight on your lap. And finally, not all gyms have dip/chin belts to add weight. If yours doesn’t, you can find them online for 20 or 30 bucks.
If you want a thick back, you must do barbell rows. Nothing beats barbell rows for raw horizontal pulling power, and they are unparalleled for developing back thickness.
Tips: These are often called “bent” or “bent-over rows,” though the angle of torso bend varies. Some trainers do theirs with a full 45-degree bend, with torsos parallel to the ground. Others might stand a bit more upright at around 70 degrees, feeling it’s a better way to engage the lats. Going any higher than that starts turning a row into something close to a shrug, as the range of motion is truncated. A forceful pull of the bar into the abdomen should coincide with a contraction of the lats, then followed by a controlled negative in which you can feel the lats stretch. Whether you pause each rep for more emphasis on the lats, or keep the bar moving in more of a piston style, is a matter of personal preference. As with deadlifts and chins, use straps if you need them.
The military press was considered so basic and vital to overall development that in the early decades of powerlifting, it was a competition lift along with the bench press, squat and deadlift. The only reason it was dropped was because there were arguments over how much backward lean was permissible in the standing press. Regardless, the standing and seated versions of the barbell press to the front, aka the military press, are fantastic for building overall shoulder size and strength. Though dumbbells also have their merits and do allow the shoulders to rotate back a bit more, they become cumbersome to get up into position once you reach a certain level of strength.
Tips: Standing military presses are the toughest way to do these, but they are more effective too. They also make the excessive back arch and backward lean that often occurs with the seated press impossible. You may only be able to put up 135 standing as opposed to 225 seated. That’s how much harder they are! But again, it’s worth the extra effort. Use a belt for these, and a spotter is as necessary on seated military presses as they are for the barbell bench press. Lower the bar to the bottom of your nose, or your chin at the lowest. There is no need to lower the bar all way down to touch your clavicles, as this overstretches the shoulder joint.
If you’re pulling substantial weights on deadlifts, barbell rows and adding weight to chins, your biceps are getting a hell of a lot of residual work. They still need some direct training, and the barbell curl is the most effective option. Every man who has ever built a pair of kick-ass biceps has used the barbell as a tool. The barbell allows for a greater load than dumbbells, so you can curl some decent loads of iron.
Tips: Barbell curls are among the most commonly abused exercises in terms of form. The overriding tendency is for trainers to use more weight than they can handle using only biceps power, and proceed to heave and swing and thrust their hips to throw the barbell up from the bottom position. While “cheat curls” do have their place, that place is after at least a few strict sets or reps have been done. Do your best to keep your elbows at your sides as you curl, and don’t jerk your whole body to start the reps. Use a controlled rep speed. Think about flexing your biceps as you curl, and feeling them stretch back out as you lower the bar. After three or four sets, your biceps should be pumped and burning. If they aren’t, you need to use a little less weight and make the biceps do the work. The straight bar is the most popular option, though many find that the contoured shape of the EZ-curl bar causes them less wrist strain.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you can bench press 1.5 times your bodyweight for reps as well as do dips with half your bodyweight strapped on, your triceps will no doubt be thick and beefy. They still need some direct work, which is where lying triceps extensions, aka skull-crushers, come into play. They fulfill the primary function of the triceps, which is to extend the arms.
Tips: Most people do skull-crushers on a flat bench, but you may find you get a better range of motion and a better stretch with either an incline or a decline bench. Most trainers fare better with an EZ-curl bar here rather than a straight bar, because you will be using heavier weights than you can curl; and not all of us have big, clunky wrists. You can lower the bar to your nose, your forehead or behind your head. Use a spotter, if possible, at all times. Once you are handling substantial weight, having a spotter hand off the bar to you and take it away at the end of your set will save you a lot of trouble, as well as save your energy for the actual set instead of wrestling the bar into place.
Standing Calf Raises
Last but not least, we need to hit the calves with one winning basic movement, and the standing calf raise is the best selection. You don’t even need a machine for calf raises. Anything you can stand on and hang your heel off, such as a step, will suffice. The late Arthur Jones, of Nautilus fame, refused to build a machine for calves, because he felt nothing he could engineer would be any better than a block of wood to stand on and a heavy dumbbell in one hand.
Tips: The calves are a notoriously stubborn muscle group to build, for two reasons. One, they are largely genetic. If you have high muscle insertions, there just aren’t a lot of muscle cells there to work with. We have no control over how high or low our calves insert. We do have total control over how we train them, and many of us do it wrong. We do short, bouncy reps with too much weight instead of using a full range of motion and a controlled rep speed. Rise up all the way on your tiptoes and flex your calves, then lower until your heels are lower than the arches of your feet. Very low reps don’t seem to do much for calves. Work in ranges of 10-12, 12-15 and 15-20.
Those are the 10 best exercises for building mass. If getting bigger is what you want most out of your time devoted to the gym, all 10 belong in your routine. You can add in other exercises, of course, but put your emphasis on these 10 by doing them early in your workouts when you’re fresh. If you really want to go on a mission for mass, take a few weeks and use only these 10 movements, as shown in the sidebar. It will be a brutal shock to your system that will force new gains your way. If not, just be sure these exercises form the core of your routine. Consider them the main course, while everything else is merely an appetizer and dessert. These 10 classics deliver the most bang for the buck, and will help you grow to the size you want.
“10 Best” Back-to-Basics Mass Routine*
Bench Press 5 x 12, 10, 8, 8, 8
Chin-ups 5 x 10
Military Press 5 x 12, 10, 8, 8, 8
Deadlifts 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 6
Barbell Curls 4 x 8-12
Day 2 OFF
Dips 5 x 10
Barbell Rows 5 x 12, 10, 8, 8, 8
Skull-Crushers 4 x 8-12
Squats 6 x 15, 12, 10, 10, 10, 6
Standing Calf Raises 5 x 20, 15, 15, 12, 10
Day 4 OFF, Repeat
*Warm-ups not shown. Always warm up as much as you need to!
Eating for Maximum Mass
It should go without saying that the greatest workouts will fail to yield substantial results without proper nutritional support. Training stimulates muscle growth, but actual growth only takes place with adequate recovery between workouts. That means plenty of rest, and plenty of good, clean food. Without enough raw materials, our bodies simply cannot synthesize new muscle tissue. Make sure you are packing in the quality calories every day and especially taking in 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Don’t go too low on carbohydrates or healthy fats, either. Your body needs all that to fuel intense workouts, then recover and rebuild the damaged muscle fibers. Along with focusing on the 10 best exercises, you should be eating copious amounts of chicken, eggs, turkey, lean red meat, fish, potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes and oats, along with fresh fruits and vegetables. Put all that together with eight solid hours of sleep every night, and boom! Grow time.