When it comes to designing a training program, first things first: What exercises will build the foundation of your workouts and, hence, your physique? What moves will provide the most bang for your training buck and help you pack on the most muscle short and long term?
Thanks for asking. We believe we have the answers. The following nine exercises constitute the best mass-building moves for each major bodypart, as determined by three highly qualified strength-and-conditioning specialists who know what it takes to build big-time size and strength in the most efficient ways possible. Learn these exercises, write them down, do them regularly and slabs of muscle will be yours. Sure, there are a bunch of other great exercises out there (some of which we list under our “honorable mentions”), but consider these nine your foundation.
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
Why it’s best: “As a mass builder in your chest routine, you must perform a compound movement to really spark growth,” says Jim Ryno, CPT, owner of LIFT, a private personal-training studio in Ramsey, New Jersey (InsideLift.com). “And the dumbbell bench is about as good as it gets.”
“Many people will opt for the barbell version,” says Mike Hanley, CSCS, president of Hanley Strength Systems (HanleyStrength.com), certified Olympic lifting coach and kettlebell instructor, and competitive natural bodybuilder, Olympic lifter and powerlifter. “However, when performed for hypertrophy, a barbell bench press can [potentially] be unsafe for the shoulder girdle and elbows. Not to mention, the added stability that dumbbells demand forces your body to fire more muscle fibers in the same movement.”
Start: Sit on the end of a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells resting on your thighs. Lie back and begin with the dumbbells just outside your shoulders with your arms bent, your feet flat on the floor and your head resting on the bench.
Action: Forcefully press the dumbbells straight up to the ceiling by contracting your pecs and extending your arms. Stop just before your elbows lock out, then slowly lower the weights back to the start position.
Honorable Mentions: Barbell Bench Press, Incline Dumbbell Press
Barbell Bent-Over Row
Why it’s best: “This is one of the best exercises to thicken up your upper back,” Hanley says. “It places a great amount of stress on the lats, rhomboids and traps, as well as the erectors due to the positioning of your body during the exercise. This has been the king of back exercises since (six-time Mr. Olympia champ) Dorian Yates was competing and will continue to create thick, muscled backs.”
“The bent-over row is an unbelievable exercise for bringing about strength and thickness in the upper-back muscles,” Ryno says. “Not only is it considered a must-do for the lats, but it also promotes size gains in the posterior delts and biceps.”
Start: Stand holding a barbell in front of your legs with an overhand grip and your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend over at the waist until your torso is close to parallel with the floor. Begin with the bar hanging straight down toward the floor, your knees bent and your back flat.
Action: Maintaining this torso position, contract your back muscles and bend your arms (leading with the elbows) to pull the bar up to your midsection. When it touches, squeeze your shoulder blades together to achieve peak contraction, then slowly lower the bar back to the start position.
Honorable Mention: Wide-Grip Pull-Up, Deadlift
Why it’s best: “The military press is the most basic, compound movement for the shoulders,” says Jim Smith, CSCS, a renowned-strength and-conditioning specialist who also competes in strongman competitions (DieselCrew.com). “I definitely prefer standing presses over seated. Typically, lifters prefer to perform the seated version because they can move more weight, which is due to the fact that it requires considerably less core stabilization and intermuscular coordination. But seated militaries (especially for those with pre-existing low-back issues) force the lumbar into excessive lordosis. Performing the military press standing, on the other hand, builds full-body strength and stability, and it also allows the lifter to fully lockout the weight overhead, which promotes shoulder and upper-back mobility.”
Start: Stand holding a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Clean the bar up to your shoulders, bend your knees slightly and tense your body head to toe. (You can also take the bar off of pegs set at shoulder height in a power rack.)
Action: Keeping your lower body and torso still, press the bar overhead by contracting your delts and extending your arms. Stop just short of locking out your elbows. Slowly lower the bar back down without letting it rest on your shoulders or upper chest between reps.
Honorable Mention: Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press, Seated Smith-Machine Press
Close-Grip Bench Press
Why it’s best: Single-joint movements like cable pressdowns and lying extensions (also known as skull crushers) are great triceps builders, but for adding size, compound movements reign supreme. In other words, don’t forget about close-grip bench and dips on arms day. “I’d say close-grip bench edges out dips as the No. 1 mass builder for the triceps,” Smith says. “One, you can move more weight and, two, for safety reasons (involving the shoulder joint).”
Start: Lie back on the bench and grab the bar on the rack with a narrow, overhand grip — hands inside shoulder-width, approximately 12 inches apart. Lift the bar off the rack and begin with it straight over your chest, your elbows extended.
Action: Bend your elbows to lower the bar down to your lower pecs. When it touches, forcefully press the weight back up to the start position, focusing on contracting your triceps and not letting your elbows flare out to the sides too much.
Honorable Mention: Parallel-Bar Dip
Standing Barbell Curl
Why it’s best: “Barbell biceps curls typically overtake the power cages across the world,” Smith says. And for good reason: No other isolation exercise for the biceps allows you to use as much weight through a full range of motion as the standing barbell curl. “When performing this movement,” Smith says, “make sure to pull the weight — don’t throw it. Also, keep a neutral posture with your head up and shoulders back.”
Start: Stand holding a barbell in front of your thighs with your arms extended and your hands shoulder-width apart on the bar, palms facing forward. Bend your knees slightly.
Action: Keeping your elbows pinned to your sides (don’t let them flare out or shift forward or back), contract your biceps to curl the weight up as high as possible. Squeeze the contraction in the biceps, then slowly lower the bar back to the arms-extended position.
Honorable Mention: Chin-Up, Incline Dumbbell Curl
Seated Barbell Wrist Curl
Why it’s best: When it comes to training the lower arms, many of your exercises involve holding static contractions for an extended period. But when it comes to building Popeye-esque size, nothing beats full-range-of-motion reps. “If you want massive forearms, nothing beats seated barbell wrist curls,” Smith says. “It allows you to overload the forearms with more weight than any other forearm exercise.”
Start: Sit in the middle of a flat bench holding a barbell with a very narrow palms-up grip. Lean forward so that the backs of your forearms are resting on the bench and your hands are extended off it. (Your wrists should be in line with the edge of the bench.) Begin with your wrists extended toward the floor so that you can feel a stretch in your forearms, holding the bar in your fingers instead of your palms.
Action: Keeping the backs of your forearms flush with the bench, flex your wrists and curl the bar upward. As you lift the weight, the bar should move from your fingers to the meat of your hands. Squeeze the forearm and contract hard, then lower the weight to the start position.
Honorable Mention: Barbell Reverse Curl, Behind-the-Back Barbell Wrist Curl
Why it’s best: Squats are king because they hit all the big lower-body muscles, plus stabilizers, with sufficient resistance. “In my mind, squats and deadlifts are tied for the No. 1 mass builder for legs,” Smith says. “Many people believe that squats will wreck your knees and deadlifts will wreck your back. Like all exercises, they’ll injure you if performed incorrectly, with too much weight and too much volume (overtraining). But when performed with caution and common sense, they won’t wreck anything.”
Start: Stand in a power rack with a barbell resting on your upper traps and your hands holding the bar outside your shoulders. Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart and your eyes facing forward.
Action: Keeping your back arched and chest out, bend your knees to lower your glutes toward the floor as if sitting down in a chair. When your thighs reach parallel with the floor, forcefully contract your glutes and quads to stand back up to the start position without locking out your knees at the top. As you press the weight up, you should be focusing on keeping your chest out and lower back slightly arched to keep your lumbar region safe.
Honorable Mention: Deadlift, Lunge, Leg Press, Front Squat
Why it’s best: “The Romanian deadlift is an extremely taxing exercise for the hamstrings and will put plenty of muscle down your whole posterior chain,” Hanley says. “It targets the hamstrings a bit more than regular deadlifts (even though you can’t expect to load the bar as heavy) because it places a more isolated stress in the hams due to the lengthening stretch of the muscle and deep range of motion involved in performing the move.”
Start: Stand holding a barbell in front of your thighs with your arms extended and an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Bend your knees slightly.
Action: Keeping only a slight bend in your knees, bend over at the waist so the bar travels down your legs straight toward the floor. As you lower down, keep your back flat — don’t let your lower back become rounded. When the bar reaches around midshin level, contract your hamstrings to reverse the motion and stand back up. Those who are more flexible can go down lower at the bottom of the rep, so long as the back remains flat.
Honorable Mention: Glute-Ham Raise, Deadlift
Standing Calf Raise
Why it’s best: Whether performed two legs at a time or unilaterally, Smith and Hanley are high on standing calf raises. “Doing standing calf raises develops the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles — both major muscles that make up the calves — by allowing you to overload the two with big weight and contract them through a full range of motion,” Smith says.
“I always opt for a single-limb exercise when trying to increase the amount of muscle fibers engaged in that specific area,” says Hanley, who favors one-leg standing calf raises. “Performing a single-leg calf raise will put more stress on each individual calf muscle.”
Start: Secure your shoulders underneath the pads of a standing calf-raise machine and place the balls of your feet on the platform so that your heels extend off the surface. Begin with your knees slightly bent and your heels below your toes so that you can feel a stretch in your calves.
Action: Keeping your knees in the slightly bent position, contract your calf muscles to extend your ankles and press yourself straight up as high as possible onto your toes. Squeeze your calves hard at the top, then lower to the start position.
Honorable Mention: Seated Calf Raise