8 Best Lifts to Build Lean Muscle

Exercises to Pack Beef on Your Frame

What is your primary physique goal? Chances are you have some extra time on your hands to transform yourself, so what do you want to accomplish? Building lean muscle mass (not just bulk that’s mostly fat and water) is always the primary objective. Of course, we want to have nice shape and aesthetics. But we still want to be big and thick, bursting with so much muscle that no one would even have to ask if you lift. One glance, and it’s obvious. Yet few of us are satisfied with the size we are, or the rate we are growing. One reason many fail to reach their goals is overemphasis on machines and isolation movements. The basics that were transforming skinny kids into rugged muscle men as long ago as the 1930s are just as effective in 2020. It’s just a matter of doing those old-school basics, and doing them right. Here are eight exercises guaranteed to pack more beef on to your frame, along with tips on how to get the most out of each.

 

Bench Press

It was dubbed “the king of upper body exercises” more than a half-century ago, and it’s hard to argue against that title. We think of the bench press as being primarily a chest movement, but in reality, this compound motion hits the anterior deltoids and the triceps as well. Chest development among physique athletes was superior in general in decades past relative to today, and many have surmised that the old-school devotion to the bench press as the primary exercise in chest workouts is the reason. Many modern-day trainers avoid the flat barbell bench press in favor of dumbbells and machines, ostensibly because many consider the bench press to be a “dangerous” exercise. They could be making a grave error, and not allowing their pectoral development to reach its full potential.

Do them this way: There is a huge difference in how to perform bench presses to develop power versus to stimulate growth in the pectoral muscle. First off is the rep range. Working primarily with sets of one to five will increase strength rapidly. The problem is, the pecs aren’t under tension long enough to damage the muscle fibers sufficiently to cause a growth response. Try sets of eight to 12 instead. Next is learning to work the muscle rather than move the weight. Set yourself up like so: roll the shoulders down toward your hips while pinching your shoulder blades together. Put a slight arch in your lower back and “pop” your chest up. Use a grip just wider than your shoulders, and keep your elbows tucked down. Now you’re ready to press with pure chest power. Try to contract the pecs forcefully at the top of each rep. If you feel your triceps more than your pecs at that point, stop your reps a couple of inches short of lockout and focus on squeezing the pecs. Always control the negative, feeling your pecs elongate as they stretch. Never, ever bounce the bar off your chest!

 

Squats

The squat has built more outstanding legs than any other exercise, and by a vast margin. It’s the absolute most basic leg movement you could imagine: put a barbell across your upper back and shoulders, do a deep knee bend and stand up. Every man known for his spectacular wheels paid his dues with thousands of sets at the squat rack. Even with the excellent array of equipment available today, including all manner of leg presses, hack squats and even squat machines, nothing will ever replace the good old-fashioned squat.

Do them this way: If you want to squat a lot of weight, squat like a powerlifter, with the bar lower down on your back. That puts the glutes and the lower back in the best mechanical position to move maximum resistance. If you’re more interested in building huge thighs, do “high bar” squats like a bodybuilder, with the bar right across your upper traps. You will also want to keep your torso as upright as possible, though there should be a very slight forward lean. This will put the stress right on your quads, where you want it. As far as foot position, you will have to play around to find the one that allows you to get to parallel, or even better, below parallel, with no knee pain. Taller guys tend to need to set their feet farther apart, while men of average height or below can often have a shoulder-width stance. The toes should be angled just slightly outward. Do not lock out the knees at the top, and never drop fast and bounce out of the bottom position. Lower the weight under control, and then drive right back up. Reps should be in the 10-15 range, though you can do heavier sets of eight to 10 as well as lighter sets of 15-20 to attack different types of muscle fibers.

 

Deadlifts           

“I lift things up and put them down.” That was the famous line spoken several times in the infamous Planet Fitness commercial that became a worldwide catchphrase. Yet it also perfectly describes the deadlift. If there is anything close to a full-body exercise, it’s the deadlift. In the course of pulling a heavy bar from the floor, you will work your entire back, from traps to lats and spinal erectors, along with your rear delts, biceps, forearms, quads, hams, glutes and even calves! Talk about bang for your buck. Of course, most competitive physique athletes do deadlifts for their back. Deadlifts give the entire back a look of thick, rugged power.

Do them this way: You’re never going to be able to squeeze and isolate the lats during deadlifts, so don’t worry about that. The form for deads doesn’t really differ no matter what you training level, but the reps do. Many have found that going higher on the reps does a much better job of stimulating overall back growth. Powerlifters aren’t allowed to use wrist wraps, but you are, and you should. Take an overhand grip on the bar. Squat down low to start the lift, and drive from your heels while pulling with your back and arms. Never allow your lower back to round.

 

Barbell Rows           

Barbell rows have long been a staple for back thickness. Bent at the waist, you pull a barbell into your abdominal area with a pronounced contraction of the lats. Machines and cables are nice variations, but nothing will ever beat the sheer effectiveness of the barbell row.

Do them this way: The most important form tip is to bend at the waist, with your torso at about 45 degrees to the floor. If you are able to get it closer to parallel like the old-school stars such as Arnold and Lee Haney, go for it. Most find that position drastically limits the weight they are able to use. That being said, too many guys stand too close to upright, and turn what should be a row into a bastardized shrug. Going too heavy is the reason why form goes to shit in nearly every case. They will jerk the barbell up and bounce it off their body, with the lats hardly being under any tension at all. Use a weight you can feel in your lats, otherwise you’re wasting your time.

 

Dips           

In the era before every gym had a dozen or more different machines to work your chest, weight trainers built mighty pecs with bench presses, dumbbell flyes and dips. The humble dip is so simple that you could do it between two chairs if you didn’t have a set of dip bars available. Like the bench press, it thoroughly hits the pecs, front delts and triceps. It’s also versatile. Lean forward, you get more chest involvement. Maintain a straighter torso, and the triceps take more of the load. It’s safe to say that any man who can do a good set of 10 reps with 90 or more pounds strapped around his waist is going to have impressive pecs, shoulders and triceps. They also make an excellent finishing movement with nothing more than bodyweight.

Do them this way: If you are doing dips for chest, consider them as being akin to a decline press, as the angle is nearly identical. The neutral (hands facing each other) hand position puts you in a powerful position for pressing. Dips for the chest should have you lowering into a full stretch of the pecs, though you should always take care not to descend any lower than what your shoulders are safely capable of. Stop reps just shy of lockout, squeezing the pecs at the top of each rep. When doing dips for the triceps, you can lower to just above parallel, but do push out to fully locked elbows and fully contracted triceps. Flare the elbows away from the body for chest, and keep them tucked in tighter for triceps.

 

Chin-ups           

You could theoretically build a great back by doing nothing more than deadlifts, barbell rows and chin-ups. Chin-ups are another incredibly basic movement. Reach up and grab on to a bar, then pull yourself up! Most bodybuilders opt for lat pulldowns instead, and I’m not saying those aren’t worth doing too. But pulling your own bodyweight upward, and especially if you become strong enough to do so with additional weight strapped on, will give you a wide, meaty upper back. People avoid chins because they are hard to do, the same reason many pass on squats and deadlifts. Yet the hardest, most uncomfortable exercises are usually also the most productive.

Do them this way: Chin-ups are going to be something you want to do first in your back workout, otherwise they will be a real struggle. You can use several different grips for chins. Because the standard wide overhand grip is the toughest, always do those first for a couple of sets before you move on to underhand or neutral grip chins. Or, you could do all your chin-ups with the overhand grip, and then save those other hand positions for lat pulldowns later in the workout. Don’t be afraid to use wrist straps. Most importantly, pull up and try to squeeze your upper back before lowering under control. Avoid the jerky swinging motion that you see in CrossFit, as it will do nothing to build your back.

 

Close-grip Bench Press           

When most trainers think of the best exercises to build the triceps, they typically envision extension movements like skull-crushers and cable pushdowns. While those are also effective, they don’t allow for the sheer amount of weight made possible in compound movements like dips and the close-grip bench press. Many professional physique athletes with enormous horseshoe triceps have credited close-grip bench presses as being responsible for the bulk of their triceps mass. Think about it. A very strong man might be able to use about 150 pounds for skull-crushers, but he would likely handle around 315 on the close-grip. In the same way that torso angle can shift the resistance on dips from pecs to triceps, bringing your grip in closer on the bench press forces the triceps to work much harder.

Do them this way: Don’t take the “close grip” part of the exercise name too literally. Going too close with your hands will result in severe wrist strain. A good rule of thumb is to space your hands one hand width closer on each side than where you have them for bench presses. As with dips, you will want to keep your arms and elbows close to your body to emphasize the triceps. Don’t worry about trying to touch the bar to your chest, either. Stop short a few inches, and then drive up to full lockout. Always take your time warming up, as these can be tough on the elbow joints and triceps tendons if you get too overzealous and jump into heavy weights too soon.

 

Alternate Dumbbell Curls

If you could only do two biceps movements, you would be just fine if those two were barbell curls and dumbbell curls. While barbell curls have a deservedly solid reputation for building millions of big guns over many decades, dumbbell curls do offer a couple of advantages. Many trainers experience wrist pain sooner or later from curling with a straight bar, and move on to the cambered EZ-bar. That’s because not all of us have full rotation of the wrist that allows for complete supination, and the straight bar forces the wrists into an unnatural position. Dumbbells allow you to move in exactly the way your body wants to. They also don’t allow a stronger arm to compensate for a weaker arm, as the barbell does.

Do them this way: There are two keys to good form on alternate dumbbell curls. One, don’t swing the weights up with momentum, and two, don’t let your elbows drift up and forward, away from your torso. Do your best to keep your elbows pinned to your sides. You can either supinate your hand as you curl up, or keep them supinated (palms to the sky) the whole time. Forget about going very heavy. Do that, and I guarantee you won’t get the most out of these. Use a weight that really lets you squeeze your biceps hard at the end of each rep.

Ron Harris

Ron Harris got his start in the bodybuilding industry during the eight years he worked in Los Angeles as Associate Producer for ESPN’s “American Muscle Magazine” show in the 1990s. Since 1992 he has published nearly 5,000 articles in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, making him the most prolific bodybuilding writer ever. Ron has been training since the age of 14 and competing as a bodybuilder since 1989. He lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area. facebook.com/RonHarrisWriter., Instagram: ronharrismuscle

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