Want to pack on some lean mass? If so, you better get your exercise selection right. I have had countless muscle building plateaus because I simply picked the wrong exercises. As with any training goal, one of the most important training variables for building muscle is picking fantastic exercises. Get this one wrong and even the best selection of sets and reps will fail to pack on the mass you want. However, there is no universal single-best exercise for everyone. The real secret is to find the best muscle building exercises for you. Here is how to do it.
I first introduced this topic in my T-Nation article entitled 10 Rules for Hardgainers. However, I wanted to go into more detail and expand on how to individualize exercise selection for hypertrophy training. Here are 8 questions to ask yourself that will guide you to your best muscle building exercises.
Question 1: am I blindly following tradition?
Want big legs? Squat!
Want a big chest? Bench!
Want a big back? Deadlift!
Advice like this has flooded the internet for well over a decade and magazines for the last century. The powerlifts are excellent lifts for getting strong. They have also packed on mass for countless lifters. However they have also left countless other lifters beat up and far from their goals. If they work for you – great! If not, keep reading!
If a lifter or coach really likes a particular lift, it is likely because he/she is structurally well-suited to that lift. As a result these folks will naturally encourage others to use the lift. The big question for you is, “am I picking exercises that work for me or am I blindly following lifting traditions?”
Question 2: how do my joints feel?
I know the topic of joint health is not a fun or sexy topic. However, when training to build muscle, you need a certain amount of volume. This means you will be doing more work than you would for strength or power training. As a result, you better have exercises that your joints can handle. Be careful with how your joints feel during and after training. Little nagging issues can grow into bigger problems that can wreck your training.
Question 3: are my exercises truly hitting the target muscle?
In performance training, you focus on accelerating the weight up with proper movement quality. However, when you are trying to build muscle, actually feeling your muscles working is important. Just because you are doing squats does not mean you are effectively hitting your quads. Just because you are doing a bench press does not mean that your pecs truly being stimulated.
Sometimes you can effectively stimulate a muscle just by focusing on it while you lift. You can also making small adjustments to how you do the lift to more effectively target a particular muscle. Other times, it means finding another variation to the lift that you find actually hits the muscle.
Take the bench press for example. Unless you are really structurally suited for the bench press (i.e. big chest, short arms and thick joints) you likely won’t have much success with it as a chest builder. While you can adjust your technique to make it hit your pecs harder (i.e. flair your elbows and bring the bar down over your throat instead of your nipple line), you will quickly destroy your shoulders in the process.
Most people should bench press for upper body strength and triceps mass by steeling some technique points from powerlifters. Then they can use exercises such as dumbbell bench presses or dips to hammer the pecs.
Related Video: Bench Press for Athletes
Question 4: am I using exercises that are “easy” for me to progress?
While some exercises are brutally hard to do, they are relatively easy to progress. One of the most important things for natural muscle building is to progressively add weight to an exercise for moderate reps (e.g. 5-8 reps). While some exercises are fantastic, if you seem to struggle with progressively adding weigh to them despite an honest effort, it is time to move on.
Question 5: Am I using exercises with an optimal amount of instability?
About 15 years ago was the start of the unstable surface training craze. Not knowing better many people tried to do traditional strength training exercises standing, seating, kneeling or lying on a ball, wobble board, Bosu or countless other spin-off products.
A full explanation of why strength training on an unstable surface is a bad idea is beyond the scope of this post. However, the key thing to know about this for muscle building is at as you increase the amount of instability, you increase the involvement of other muscles while decreasing the involvement of the target muscles. You also drastically decrease the amount of weight you can lift. All of these things are the exact opposite of what you want to do to build muscle!
If you want to build functional, athletic muscle, stay with basic barbell, dumbbell and simple body weight exercises (e.g. pull-ups, dips, etc.). These exercises are stable enough to hit the target muscles yet provide enough instability to improve function and get a great adaptation response from your body.
If you are training for pure bodybuilding goal, some machine work can be a helpful supplement as the extra stability from the machine will help you target the desired muscles more. However, this isolation can come at the expense of joint health and function, so proceed with caution.
Related: Is the Leg Press a Good Exercise?
Related video: Safety Squat Bar Holding Squat
Question 7: am I using exercises that allow me to use more weight
If you are trying to decide between 2 exercises for the same muscle group, the one that lets you use more weight is generally a better choice – provided that the exercise also adheres to the other selection guidelines given in this post.
Question 8: am I mistakenly taking an all-or-nothing approach
Too often we take controversial training topic to the ultimate extreme. Take squats for example. It seems people either squat for 10 sets of 10 or they avoid them all together.
Maybe you don’t find that a particular big-barbell lift is the best muscle building option for you. That does not mean you have to avoid it completely. If you can do it well without beating on your joints, you could use it to build overall strength. Then you could follow this up with more joint-friendly exercises for a good pump.
I have seen countless newbies in gyms do nothing but small, little isolation exercises. On their own, these exercises are useless. I have also read many muscle building articles that preach big, compound movements while encouraging readers to shun the little “girly exercises”. While every effective muscle building program should be based on appropriate variations of big, compound movements, you will likely need some wisely-chosen isolation exercises to supplement these lifts if you want to maximize your muscle building potential.
Application: Your List
As you try and evaluate exercises based on the questions above, work to develop a list of your best exercises for each muscle group. Then, enjoy building muscle as you use these in your training programs.
How about you?
If you could pick only one exercise for each muscle group, what would you pick? I invite you to share your answer (along with your comments or questions) below or on my Facebook Page.