10 Best Moves for Mass

Pimp your muscle-building plan with these man-sized movements for beastly size

January 1, 2014

By Bret Contreras, MA, CSCS

In your quest to build the body of a beast, one talent is more important than any specific tool: the ability to choose the right exercise to get the job done. Whether you train in your garage with a rusty barbell or at a first-class facility with row after row of cushy seated machines, you have countless bodybuilding exercises to choose from. But let’s be honest — in the grand hierarchy of mass-building techniques, only a chosen few are so effective in packing on mass that nearly every successful bodybuilder and powerlifter has used them extensively — and some exclusively — during a mass-building phase.

To build your body to its maximum potential, you need to focus your scant time and energy on the most effective means of adding muscle, and the ideal movements for growth, which involve multiple joints, activate maximum muscle fibers and have optimal leverages to allow for heavy loads. We’ve winnowed the list down to 10 primary mass builders that meet these requirements, and each has stood the test of time. These essential mass-building movements are divided into four categories: upper-body pushes, upper-body pulls, lower-body pushes and lower-body pulls. If your goal is to pack on raw muscle mass, you’d be well advised to focus on increasing your strength on these 10 movements, each of which should be performed first on your bodypart-specific training days.

Upper-Body Pushes

If there’s one activity lifters love, it’s a good upper-body push day. From benching heavy on the first day of every training cycle to scorching their delts with endless sets of overhead presses, few bodybuilders neglect to work their chests, shoulders and tri’s. But all of this attention to these beach-friendly muscle groups can have a downside: Overdoing them can lead to serious injury — particularly in the delts, which play a major role in every pushing movement. To maximize your growth while shielding yourself from a frustrating setback, study up on the correct way to perform and incorporate four key upper-body staples: the bench press, incline press, military press and weighted dip.

Upper-Body Pulls

With upper-body pushes like the beloved bench press sitting front-row-center in most routines, upper-body pulling movements, which target the lats, traps and middle back — you know, the muscle groups you can’t see in the mirror without craning your neck — too often take a back seat. The bent-over barbell row and weighted chin-up stand out from the pack when it comes to quickly packing on slabs of beef on the upper back. Make them a priority in your routine, and you’ll never wish it were chest day again.

Lower-Body Pushes

There’s no way around it — legs day sucks. Leg exercises force you to lift the most weight through the longest range of motion, and the sheer brutality of all that hard work is overshadowed by the fact that the most effective lower-body push moves put you in the precarious one-false-move-and-you’re-toast position of having a top-loaded spine. But neglect these proven mass builders at your own peril. Few other movements will release the same surge of growth-inducing hormones, and build the same foundation to fill out your upper-body musculature. In short, without the squat and front squat — you weren’t looking for a machine move here, were you? — you can kiss the muscle-boosting benefits of your precious benching, pressing and rowing goodbye.

Lower-Body Pulls

The deadlift, along with its stunted cousin, the rack pull, is in constant contention with the aforementioned squat for being crowned the king of all mass builders — and with good reason. Both lower-body pulls work nearly every muscle in your soon-to-be-beastly body, and both send anabolic hormones coursing through your bloodstream like Walmart deal-seekers on Black Friday. But the deadlift may have an edge: Its shorter range of motion and lower-loading position make for a kinder, gentler lower-body assault. Its only problem? Many isolation-obsessed lifters shy away from this proven powerhouse because it can’t be neatly packaged in a bodypart-specific box. But know this: The deadlift and its variations have helped pack legendary leg mass on bodybuilding’s most-famed physiques, and no lower-body onslaught is complete without them.

1. Bench Press


Target: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: For maximum strength — a necessary precursor to maximum mass — take a page from top powerlifters when you hit the bench. Tuck your shoulder blades together, arch your lower back and wedge yourself onto your upper back as you steady yourself under the bar. Dig your feet into a wide, stable stance to take advantage of a little leg drive, and without letting your arms flare out to your sides lower the bar to your sternum. When you explosively press the bar back to lockout — no matter how slowly the heavy bar moves, it should always be an all-out explosion of effort — imagine pushing your body away from the bar rather than pushing the bar away from you.

Tweak the Technique: For maximum pec activation, forget arching your lower back to shorten the range of motion and press in a stronger plane. Instead, take a slightly wider grip, flare your elbows out to your sides and lower the bar to a point higher up on your chest. Just know that this technique isn’t as shoulder-friendly as the powerlifting method. If your shoulders are injury-prone, stick to arching your back and keeping your elbows in tight to create a stronger and safer movement pattern.

2. Incline Press


Target: Upper pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: You won’t push as much weight with the incline press — most lifters find they can handle 70–80% of their bench press — but you’ll be activating and stretching the pecs a bit more because of the angled path of the barbell in relation to your ribcage. To further increase pec involvement, flare your elbows and bring the bar to a point higher on your sternum with each rep. To push maximum weight for building mass, borrow from the bench press: Use a strong arch in your back so that your upper back forms a stable foundation for the lift, and take a wide stance, contracting your glutes to provide a more stable base. Lower the bar to your upper chest without letting it drift out in front of you, and don’t let your butt rise off the bench.

Tweak the Technique: For maximum pectoral stimulation, generate constant tension in your pecs by using a pumping “piston” motion that stops short, about 3/4 of the way to lockout — don’t press to full-arm extension.

3. Military Press


Target: Anterior, middle and posterior deltoids, triceps

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps

Made for Mass: To build maximum mass with the military press, you’ll need to forgo the comfort of your back-supported seat and do it standing up. If you’re new to this bare-bones version (simply called the “press” in strength circles), you’ll be lifting less weight at first. But you’ll make up for it by firing every muscle fiber from your palms to your heels as you press the weight overhead. With an overhand grip slightly outside shoulder width and a stance slightly inside shoulder width, brace your core and glutes to prevent your spine from overextending. Press the barbell straight upward with your upper arms in the “scapular plane” (elbows pointed forward at a 30-degree angle rather than flared to your sides). Lock the weight overhead and then return by lowering the bar all the way to your upper chest.

Tweak the Technique: To better isolate your delts, try the behind-the-neck version. But keep in mind that pressing from behind the head is problematic for many lifters, as it places a great deal of stress on the shoulder joint, AC joint and cervical spine if your shoulders aren’t sufficiently flexible and stable.

4. Weighted Dip


Target: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps

Made for Mass: Once you can hit 10 reps of bodyweight dips without suffering a breakdown in form, it’s time to belt up. Hang a plate from a dip belt — choosing a weight that lets you get at least eight reps — and find a set of dipping bars that lets you take a grip just outside shoulder width. Center your body with your arms locked out and, without letting your elbows flare outward, lower yourself until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.

Tweak the Technique: If you can’t get your hands on a dipping belt, you can suspend a dumbbell between your lower legs by bending your knees and hooking it between crossed ankles, or you can drape chains over your neck Branch Warren–style. Just know that the chains, despite looking badass, will put more stress on your cervical spine. Also, while this version puts more emphasis on the triceps, by allowing your arms to flare out and raising your feet behind you — which pushes your center of gravity forward — you’ll more directly target the lower pecs and reduce triceps stimulation.

5. Bent-Over Barbell Row


Target: Latissimus dorsi (especially upper region), trapezius, rhomboids, biceps

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps

Made for Mass: Preferred stances and angles will differ among individuals, but to build maximum mass with the bent-over row, stand in a “power position,” characterized by a shoulder-width stance, big bend at the hips, a slight bend in the knees and a strong back arch. Make sure your hips are bent to at least 45 degrees, and avoid any forward curvature of the spine (don’t allow your back to round). With a pronated grip outside of shoulder width, pull the bar toward your belly button with your arms traveling out to your sides. Avoid lifting your torso during the set to keep the stress strictly on your lats.

Tweak the Technique: To target the biceps more efficiently, use a supinated (underhand) grip for the barbell row, which also shifts more of the emphasis to the lower lats (because your elbows will now be tucked by your sides as you pull). And to better target your rear delts and scapular retractors, use a wide overhand grip and row with your elbows flared.

6. Weighted Chin-Up


Target: Latissimus dorsi, biceps

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: Like the dip, the chin-up is a time-tested mass builder. But to make it a mass-building monster on par with the rest of these hallowed movements, you’ll need to man it up a notch using your trusty dip belt. As with the weighted dip, hang one or more plates from a belt to force failure between the sixth and tenth rep. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width, supinated (underhand) grip and lock your shoulders down and back to keep them from shrugging upward in the bottom position. Brace your core to prevent spinal hyperextension, and pull your body toward the bar until your chest touches it.

Tweak the Technique: If a dip belt isn’t available, you can suspend a dumbbell between your lower legs by hooking a dumbbell between crossed ankles.

7. Squat


Target: Quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, erector spinae

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: Bodybuilders often favor a narrow stance, which lets them focus the squat’s stress on their quads. But to treat the squat like the mass-building monolith it was meant to be, you’ll need to move more weight by taking a stance just outside shoulder width. Many lifters find that flaring their feet — and thighs once they’re in the bottom position — to around a 30-degree angle helps them “sit” between their legs as they lower themselves, but stance is specific to your hip anatomy. Throughout the lift, the barbell should stay centered over your feet. Initiate the movement by breaking at your hips and knees. Keeping your chest up and your knees forced outward to avoid valgus collapse, squat until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, and ascend by pushing through the entire foot. Avoid drifting forward or bending over as you descend — you should have enough weight on your heels that you can wiggle your toes throughout the lift.

Tweak the Technique: For maximum hamstrings and glute activation, go below parallel. Ankle mobility may be an issue for some below-the-crease squatters, so always make sure you keep your chest up and avoid rounding your lower back, and don’t let your knees drift inward.

8. Front Squat


Target: Quadriceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, erector spinae

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: You’ll be hard-pressed to push as much weight with the front squat as you can with the bar on your back, but the change in bar position results in a more upright torso, meaning your core muscles are working overtime to keep the bar traveling directly above the center of each foot, and more emphasis is placed on the quadriceps. And all this extra muscle-fiber activation means — you guessed it — more mass. To master the front squat, take the same outside-shoulder-width stance as described for the squat. Grasp the bar by placing your fingers slightly wider than shoulder width, driving your elbows upward and resting the bar on your front delts close to your neck. The more upright posture will place added emphasis on upper-erector strength as you fight to keep your chest up, elbows high and knees out. Descend to either parallel or below parallel depending on your level of mobility.

Tweak the Technique: Since the Olympic-style front squat requires tremendous wrist and elbow flexibility, many bodybuilders prefer the crossed-arms technique, which involves resting the bar on the front delts close to the neck, raising the elbows upward and grabbing the bar in a criss-crossed “mummy” position.

9. Deadlift


Targets: Latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, traps, rhomboids, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, calves

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: No modifications are necessary to tweak the deadlift toward size — it’s a natural-born mass builder. To get it right, take a shoulder-width stance with your feet pointing straight ahead and line the barbell up about an inch away from your shins. Bend from your hips and allow your spine to curve as you grasp the bar with a pronated grip. Make sure your shoulders are in front of the bar, which should remain in a direct line between the center of your feet and your scapulae. Then, with a firm grip on the bar, bend your knees until your shins touch the bar and arch your spine enough that you’d be able to read your shirt in the mirror. Avoid attempting to “squat” the weight up — your hips should remain higher than your knees even in the bottom of the lift. Look down at a 45-degree angle to avoid hyperextending your neck, and “pack your neck” by retracting your chin. Raise the bar by pushing through your feet and squeezing your glutes hard to lockout. Stand tall and then lower the weight under control by sitting back, keeping a strong arch in your back, and keeping the bar very close to your body. Keep your arms straight at all times and avoid flexing the spine down low or hyperextending it up top.

Tweak the Technique: Many individuals reach a point in which their pulling strength is limited by their grip strength. At that point you can switch to a staggered grip by supinating one hand and pronating the other to form an interlocking system. Alternate your mixed grip between sets for balance.

10. Rack Pull


Target: Latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, traps, rhomboids, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, calves

Sets and Reps: 3–4 sets of 6–10 reps

Made for Mass: Think you can deadlift heavy? That’s nothing compared to the plates you’ll push with the rack pull. Because every lifter invariably has a “sticking point” in the deadlift, the rack pull eliminates this part of the movement and places the body in a mechanically advantageous position to push even more weight. It’s also much safer for lifters with tight hamstrings. To get it right, you’ll need a power cage with safety pins set anywhere from mid shin to just above your knee caps, though most will find that just below the knees is the ideal height. From there, assume the same shoulder-width, feet-forward stance as the deadlift and stand with your knees touching the bar. Grab the barbell with a staggered grip, and sit back until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. With a strong arch in your back, pull the bar directly upward, keeping it close to your body throughout the short range of motion.

Tweak the Technique: Even though the range of motion is shorter than the conventional deadlift, you can significantly increase hamstring activation at the bottom of the movement by sitting back and forcing a strong lower-back arch. You can also activate tons of glute musculature by having them “take over” up top through a forceful contraction. Don’t think of the rack pull as a back exercise; it’s an entire posterior chain movement, hitting all the muscles of your backside.

Bret Contreras obtained his master’s degree from Arizona State University (Tempe) and received a certified strength & conditioning specialist certificate from the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Bret is currently pursuing his PhD at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand and maintains a blog at