If you’re anything like me, your main goal at the gym is to build muscle.
In the last article, we looked at the most important rule for muscle building: progressive overload.
Applying the principle of progress overload is critical for sending the right signals to start building muscle. But if you’re trying to send that signal with a poor choice of exercise, your results aren’t going to be anything to shout about.
And this is a BIG problem for people who are desperately trying to put on muscle.
When there’s so many different pieces of equipment in the gym that all promise to help you to build muscle, how do you know what’s going to get you the results you so desperately want?
I spent a long time in the gym thinking exactly that whilst moving from one ineffective workout to the next.
I’d been brainwashed into thinking that I needed to do more reps, more exercises and spend more money on expensive supplements.
In reality what I really needed to do was to do the most effective exercises for building muscle.
And I wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
As soon as I began to understand what those exercises were, and how to combine it with progressive overload, my results skyrocketed.
Enter the Barbell
If there was one piece of equipment that used intimidated me in the gym, it was the barbell. For years I avoided using it and instead took comfort in doing a mixture of machines and cable exercises.
Eventually, I came to the realisation that unless I mastered the basics, I’d never make it past the point of frustrated beginner.
And nobody wants to remain a frustrated beginner, regardless of how much you enjoy working out.
The truth is, nothing will help you build size and strength quite like heavy compound exercises with a barbell.
You can do as many isolation exercises on the machines as you like, but it doesn’t come close to giving you the real world strength these compound movements will.
Not only are you hitting more than one muscle group at one time with a compound movement but you’re also able to lift more weight which makes you stronger.
All of the exercises chosen should ideally be performed with a barbell, though a number of them can be performed with dumbbells.
Dips and chin ups/pull ups are bodyweight exercises but can be made more difficult with addition of further weight.
Think of these exercises as the foundation to that strong muscular body you’ve always wanted. Structure each workout around a couple of key compound movements and add an isolation exercise to hone a certain area if necessary.
A good rule of thumb is to ensure that 75-80% of your workout consists of these compound exercises and the remaining 20-25% can be isolation exercises.
The squat is rightfully known as the king of exercises. Dan John once wrote that “the squat can do more for total mass and body strength than probably all other lifts combined”. Unfortunately the squat is often poorly understood and done with shoddy form.
The squat is performed with loaded barbell on your back and involves bending your legs until the hips are lower than the knees, and then pushing the weight back up until your legs are locked again.
There is a popular myth that full squats are bad for your knees. The reality however is that half or three quarter squats will put a lot more stress on your knees.
This is the biggest mistake I see people making with the squat. Sure you can lift more weight if you stop before your hips are slightly lower than your knee, but ultimately you’re robbing yourself of the full benefits.
Anyone who squats with proper form immediately gets my respect in the gym. When the weight gets heavy it’s vital that you maintain proper form to avoid injury.
Nothing hurts quite like a set of heavy squats but the results speak for themselves. There isn’t a bum out there that doesn’t look better from squatting consistently!
Altogether the squat works the quads, hamstrings, gluts, triceps and abs.
The deadlift is my personal favourite. Icelandic strongman Jón Páll Sigmarsson once stated “there’s no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift”.
The deadlift is a simple movement that involves pulling the barbell off the floor with straight arms up to hip height and then lowering it to the ground again. It can be very taxing on your body as it’s likely to be exercise that you’ll be able to lift the most weight.
The deadlift is primarily a back exercise but it reality it works just about everything including the quads, hamstrings, gluts, traps, lats, abs and forearms.
There are two styles when it comes to deadlifting; conventional or sumo. The difference between the two is the stance you take when set up. A conventional stance is feet just a bit wider than shoulder width whilst sumo is a much wider stance with toes pointed out.
As the weight gets heavier, your grip is likely to start limiting how much you can lift. Using chalk and switching to a mixed grip should help you overcome this and continue to progress.
If there’s one exercise that’s never neglected by guys in the gym, it’s the bench press.
Monday’s are jokingly referred to as National Bench press Day as guy’s look to build their chests and perfect their beach bodies.
The bench press is performed lying face up on a flat bench with a loaded barbell and involves lowering the bar down to your chest and then pressing the bar upwards until your arms are locked again.
The bench press is a surprisingly technical exercise to master and has a habit of bringing out the ego in the lifter. The most common way that you can spot this is by how far above the chest the bar comes to a stop before it’s raised back up.
Don’t allow yourself to fall into this trap and ensure that you lift an appropriate weight, with correct form and have a spotter to hand if possible.
The bench press works the pectorals, deltoids and triceps. Often you’ll see variants of the bench press performed either by changing the angle of the bench or using dumbbells.
Long before people asked, “How much can you bench?” people used to ask, “How much can you press?”
The overhead press is one of the best strength and muscle-building exercises you can do. It used to be THE primary upper-body building exercise until the popularity of bench press skyrocketed in the 1950’s and 60’s.
As Mark Rippetoe states in his legendary book Starting Strength: “The day the barbell was invented, the guy who invented it figured out a way to shove it over his head.”
The overhead press should be performed standing with a loaded barbell and involves pressing the barbell upwards from your shoulders until your arms are locked overhead and then lowered down to the shoulders.
In my experience, the overhead press is the most neglected of the big barbell movements.
Why? My suspicions are that many people wrongly believe that they’re shoulders and triceps are already getting enough of a workout with the bench press. But for every workout that includes a bench press, there should be one that contains an overhead press.
The overhead press works the deltoids, triceps, biceps, quadriceps and abdominals.
The barbell row has long been a favourite of bodybuilding legends and should be a staple of your workout routine for building a bigger back.
The barbell row is performed with a loaded barbell and involves pulling the bar off the ground up to your chest and then lowering the bar back down to the ground.
Much like the deadlift, each rep should begin and end with the bar on the floor. This allows you to lift a heavier weight than if you keep the bar in the air between reps.
Always row with an overhand grip to protect your bicep tendons from injury.
The barbell row works a variety of muscles including the lats, traps, erector spinae, biceps, triceps, abs, hamstrings and glutes.
Dips are one of the oldest strength exercises but have seen a surge of popularity again in recent years. And with good reason, the dip is the best chest exercise according to Christian Thibaudeau.
Dips are a compound exercise that is performed on two parallel dip bars. A dip involves lowering yourself from a straight armed position until your shoulders are below your elbow and then pushing back up until your arms are straight again.
Whilst the dip is a body weight exercise, you can increase the difficulty by attaching additional weight.
Dips work a variety of muscle groups including triceps, pecs, delts, forearms and abs. There are a variety of dip variations that can be used to focus the exercise on your triceps or chest.
Chin Up/Pull Up
No muscle building programme should be completed without chin ups or pull ups.
The chin up/pull up is a compound exercise that is performed by pulling yourself from a straight armed hanging position up until your chin passes the bar before lowering back down until your arms are straight.
The only real difference between a chin up and a pull up is that you have an underhand grip for a chin up whilst a pull up is overhand.
The change in grip also affects which muscles are more heavily targeted. The chin up will work your biceps harder whilst the pull up will target your lats, which for most people make it a tougher exercise.
Chin ups work a variety of muscle groups including lats, biceps, forearms and abdominals.
If you’re struggling to get the results your countless hours in the gym deserve, you need to take a serious look at your choice of exercises.
Are you spending the bulk of your time on heavy compound exercises or are you wasting your time with countless isolation exercises?
Squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, rows, dips and chin us/pull ups should be a staple of your workouts. You’ll get 80% of the way to the body you want through those 7 compound exercises alone.
Invest the time to master them now and then slowly add a couple of isolation movements to improve any weak areas.