The Best Exercises for Building Muscle and Strength
I get asked what my favorite exercises are for building muscle and strength quite often. While I do think there is a benefit to rotating in a variety of exercises, I always find myself going back to these select few when programming for my clients.
Before we begin remember this is only MY OPINION. You may agree or disagree. I am actually very curious to see what exercises YOU the readers would have on your list.
Drop your list in the comments below!
Now lets dig into my TeamHF approved exercise list for building crazy muscle and strength!
Chest - Barbell Bench Press
Ok, I predict one of two scenarios happening after reading the bench press listed as my favorite chest exercise.
Be honest…it either completely pissed you off or you are saying to yourself “of course the bench press is the best chest builder”.
In my opinion depending on the group in which you talk to the bench press is either grossly over or under appreciated. The “whadda ya bench?” crowd would lead you to believe your bench press numbers are the end all be all of strength and that’s just not true. However, on the other end of the spectrum there are people out there that never bench press BUT complain about not having sufficient chest size. Those people will say things like…the flat bench press puts too much stress on my front delts but then they proceed to do incline presses on a bench with a greater than 45 degree angle. Go figure…
Most people who have trouble with the bench press have trouble with their form. The fact is the bench press is not necessarily a “Chest” exercise, rather it is a total body exercise and should be executed as such. I put it as my favorite chest exercise because if done correctly it will really blow the pectoral muscle fibers up like nothing else I have found!
Rather than spend a bunch of time on writing up proper bench form, just watch the video below! Note: This has a Powerlifting spin to it but the info presented is very applicable to bodybuilding as well!
Want a Dumbbell Version?
Try the one arm Dumbbell Bench. There may not be a dare I say more Functional type of pressing movement out there. Like any bench press the force development starts with the legs and requires a great deal of stability across the hips and into the entire upper body just to complete one rep.
Want a Six Pack…The one arm bench press will not only destroy your chest, but after a few sets it will leave your core feeling like you just did a complete ab workout as well! You will notice I only use ONE dumbbell at a time. I see people at the gym doing a variation of this exercise while holding two dumbbells. While that might seem like the correct choice, only using one forces you to use more stability over the entire body!
Check out the One Arm Bench Press in Action!
Back - Chins
This was a hard choice for me. The back is such a complex muscle group it was difficult to narrow my choice down to just one exercise. Did I want to go with a rowing exercise or a pulldown?
Finally after I went back and thought about what I program into more of my athletes routines the answer came to me…Chins.
The Chin is another exercise with a ton of variability. You can use a supinated grip, pronated grip, neutral grip, rings, etc.
The key is to use a FULL range of motion. That means starting from the bottom position (dont need to start from lock out – think tension) and come up to at least the point in which your chin is above the bar. Your chest should be up during the movement so your goal should actually be to pull to your upper chest although I have found most clients are not initially capable of that range of motion.
If you have trouble with chins I suggest taking the volume approach. You have two options here:
1- Get one of those pull up attachments that go over your door frame. Every time you walk by the door do 5 chins or if 5 is too challenging just do 1-3. Believe me those reps will add up over time. Shoot for 50 a day to start. Before long you will be able to complete full sets of chins.
2- If number one is not an option include sets of chins in between exercises while training. For example, if you start your workout with 5 sets of bench press than super set Chins after each set of bench. Do this nearly every workout. This is a technique Jim Wendler recommends in his popular 5/3/1 program.
Shoulders - Overhead Press
This was a clear cut winner. I honestly could not think of another shoulder exercise that could compare to the Overhead Press in terms of strength or muscle development. The problem is, if I had to guess which exercise on this list the least amount of people are doing it is probably the Overhead Press.
If you are one of those people who are not currently doing the Overhead Press START right now!!!
The key is to minimize leg drive and focus on pressing the weight. Don’t turn it into a push press. Also, I prefer to use a thumbless grip on the Overhead Press. It may just be psychological but I feel it allows me to be more comfortable and the bar path seems to go better.
Legs - Squats All Variations
Anyone want to argue this one? Didn’t think so. The Squat is King.
If you want big legs the best way to get there is through squatting. I really don’t care which form of squat you do. You could do front squats, back squats, low bar, high bar, box, etc. The only thing I am going to say is go with free weight squats whenever possible over Smith Machine or even Hack Squats.
The argument is sometimes made that you do not NEED to do squats in order to build huge legs. People will point to the fact that 6 time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates has said he never free weight squatted (he hack squatted) during his entire Olympia reign. While that is true, the fact is Dorian built his legs with squats and then determined that biomechanically squats were not the best exercise for him any longer. Bottom line is show me a guy with chicken legs who squats over 500lbs ass to ankles…I’m sure one exists but you get my point. Heavy Squats lead to BIG legs.
Posterior Chain – Deadlifts All Variations
The almighty deadlift!
Outside of the Squat, the Deadlift has to be the next best overall exercise for building muscle and strength. Again, like the squat I dont really care what variation you choose weather it be traditional, Romanian, Sumo, etc.
I want to point out how I listed the Deadlift as a Posterior Chain exercise. The deadlift is a lower back, glute and hamstring movement that should be done on lower body days. I know a lot of bodybuilders like to perform deadlifts on back day but in my opinion that is a mistake. The reason being where do you put it in your routine? If you start with the deadlift (like you should) it is going to be very hard to perform any type of rowing movement where your lower back is going to be heavily engaged such as barbell rows and t-bar rows. Then if you put it at the end of your routine you will not have sufficient energy to give the exercise like you should.
One last point I cannot stress enough is FORM. The deadlift is one exercise in which using improper form can lead to serious injury. Make sure you know what you are doing before you jump right into heavy deadlifts. If you need some help with your deadlift form be sure to read the article Tips and Trick of the Deadlift.
Triceps - Crush Grip Bench
I was first introduced to this exercise training with Smitty from Diesel Strength. This exercise is a great triceps builder that is easy on the elbows. As a bonus for you guys who have poor upper chest development, try this exercise on an incline bench. You get to kill two birds with one stone. Amazing triceps exercise as well as some upper chest action as well.
I will let Smitty describe this one:
“This exercise is money. It will not only keep you in a good shoulder position and target your triceps, it will create tension across your entire upper torso (irradiation). The focus during every rep should be to drive the dumbbells together as hard as you can. Also, more time under tension should be utilized by making sure you lower slower than you press, i.e., lower under control and drive as hard as you can.” – Smitty
Check out Smitty’s 4 Best Mass Building Exercises for Triceps
Biceps - Fat Gripz Barbell Curls with 4 sec Eccentric
Any form of curl could be the winner here but I went with the BEAST of all curls. The first added dimension comes in the form of the Fat Gripz. Anyone who has ever used Fat Gripz before knows exactly what I am talking about.
Fat Gripz attach to a barbell or dumbbell and increase the diameter mimicking a fat bar. This obviously brings in more grip/forearm activation but it also creates a different stimulus for the biceps as well.
The second part of this particular movement is the 4 second eccentric (negative). By using a slower negative you are increasing the time under tension of the movement which is important for hypertrophy. The eccentric portion of the lift causes the most muscular damage so I wouldn’t go wild with a ton of extra eccentric work. It is important to properly program it into your training plans because it can be an invaluable tool to induce growth!
There you have it.My complied list of the Best Exercises for Building Muscle and Strength. You will notice I left some muscle groups out such as Abs/Core, Forearms and Calves. I didnt feel any of those muscle groups had an exercise worthy of the list.
Like I said in the beginning,I am curious to see everyones list! Be sure to comment with your list of Best Exercises for Building Muscle and Strength below!
Until next time,