Not all exercises are created equally, and some have the ability to force faster muscle growth than others.
The most “hypertrophic” exercises recruit more muscle fibers by using more than one joint, and are known as compound exercises.
Compound exercises result in greater output, and are incredibly strength-based, compared to isolated exercises – get ready to load up the weight for these ones!
If you’re looking to build some serious muscle, here are ten of my personal favorite compound exercises and some execution tips to enable you to fully benefit from them.
No other exercise inflicts as much stress to the body as the deadlift. Significant gains in back thickness and lower body strength are a common result of deadlifts. The core is also strengthened through deadlifts, which improves the performance of other heavy lifts such as squats.
To get the most from deadlifting, I like to keep the set moving rather than pausing on the floor after each rep. This sustains a higher state of intensity throughout the set. At the top portion of the rep, “locking out” is crucial to fully engage all the muscles of the upper back. To concisely summarize the deadlift, it’s the ultimate posterior chain builder.
2. Bent Over Rows
Although bent over rows are a compound exercise, they are far more isolated than deadlifts, as they predominately work the lats, rhomboids, and lower trap region. Due to the posture required to perform bent over rows, they also engage the spinal erectors and the muscles of the core.
Driving my elbows back, keeping them tight against my sides, provides more direct stimulation across the lower portion of the lats. Pulling through this angle also allows for more power, enabling me to lift heavier weight.
It’s important to avoid excessive torso movement on bent over rows because it can shorten the range of motion, reducing the impact of the exercise.
3. T-Bar Rows
T-bar rows are similar to bent over rows. While the posture is very much the same, the differentiating factor comes from the grip. With T-bar rows, the wrist is in a semi-supinated position with the palms facing each other. This grip allows you to lift heavier weight, making it the perfect mass building exercise.
To make T-bar rows even more effective, I like to pause at the top of every rep to make the lats and rhomboids work harder in their contracted position.
If deadlifts are the ultimate posterior chain mass builder, then squats are the undisputed exercise for legs.
Loading heavy weight across the back and squatting to a depth where the legs are parallel to the floor creates extreme trauma to the entire central nervous system – which explains the “shaky” feeling you get after a challenging set of squats.
As so many muscle fibers are recruited to complete the reps, the potential for hypertrophy is high. Significant trauma can be caused by squatting, which translates to a lot of rebuilding and growth as your body tries to adapt.
It is important to push through the heels when squatting to keep the tension on the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, and away from the knees.
5. Leg Press
Leg pressing is actually my all-time favorite exercise for legs. In fact, leg pressing is the perfect exercise to apply my Dramatic Transformation Principle (DTP) to, due to the ability to work efficiently through both low and high rep ranges. It’s more isolated than squatting as there is less stress on the core muscles, but is still a compound exercise.
The leg press enables you to target every muscle of the quads with a few simple variations. Altering your foot placement will change the muscle focus – moving from narrow to wide, or from the middle of the plate to the top – will load the work in a different area of the leg.
6. Shoulder Press
Seated shoulder presses with heavy dumbbells require a lot of strength. It’s the perfect way to build volume in the anterior and medial heads of the deltoids. As it’s a compound pressing movement, it can simultaneously build tricep size and strength. Understanding how triceps become involved when pressing is important to optimize shoulder pressing.
To avoid tricep fatigue and remain focused on the deltoids, I like to shorten my range of motion. Approximately three to four inches before lockout I will stop the concentric contraction and move back into the eccentric portion of the rep. Locking out will engage the tricep and can encourage the exercise to become tricep dominant, to the point that it may even compromise deltoid stimulation.
7. Decline Bench Press
The great Dorian Yates, six time Mr. Olympia, refers to the decline as the best angle for attacking chest. It doesn't just target the pec major; as I press through the concentric phase I can feel the middle and upper portion of my pecs work too.
Decline bench press provides the opportunity to lift more weight than any other angle because of the biomechanical advantage it offers. For a mass building phase this is of huge value! It’s also the least stressful on my shoulders, which is very important, considering the vulnerability of this particular joint when pressing heavy weight.
8. Flat Bench Press
The flat bench press is often regarded as the measuring stick of pressing strength. Everybody wants a big bench! Even if you aren’t going for a big number on a scoreboard, this exercise should be part of your lineup for building muscle.
On the flat bench press, considering it’s more stressful on my shoulders, I like to use slightly less weight and a wider grip. This provides far more stretch across the pecs as I press through a nearly full range of motion. Again, I avoid locking out at the top because it will induce tricep fatigue.
9. Barbell Curls
For global muscle fiber stimulation across both bicep heads there’s nothing like barbell curls. Using a straight bar, the wrist is externally rotated which makes the biceps tense harder, particularly the outer head. If you find you experience elbow or forearm pain, try switching to an EZ bar which allows the wrist to keep a more natural position.
As somebody who usually trains alone, I like to use controlled “cheat curls” once I’ve reached failure. The aim is to “cheat” through the concentric phase, using some momentum to get the weight up, and then slowly resist it through the eccentric. This is an intensity amplifier I regularly use with barbell curls.
10. Weighted Dips
Weighted dips are a tremendous mass building exercise for triceps. With this exercise there is natural cross-over to the pecs. To keep the work in the triceps, I take a narrow grip on the dipping station and keep my body as upright as possible.
The great thing about weighted dips is that I’m able to overload the triceps with a heavy set to failure, remove the weight and then perform an immediate drop set to encourage more blood flow. In my experience, pumping more blood into the triceps helps stretch the fascia to improve nutrient transportation and encourage growth.
If you’re looking to build some serious muscle mass, or improve your strength, including these ten mass building exercises are a must.
These basics should be the foundation of your plan, and then build on them with other variations to hit your targeted muscle group from all angles.