I don’t know about you, but when I first started working out I was confused as hell. The typical commercial gym has around 100 different machines. How on earth do you know which ones to use, which are more important than others and which are not as important? Or better put, not optimal for your personal goals.
If you are just starting to get your feet wet with exercising, that may be overwhelming. I know it definitely was for me. But worry no more, this article will go right down your alley. I am going to give you a list of just 7 exercises you need to do in order to get muscular.
Yes, you can do it with just 7 basic exercises. It is more efficient, it takes less time, and most importantly, it works.
But let’s start with the very beginning, shall we?
How do you get muscular?
Muscle building is a slow process that takes a lot of work and time. There is no way around that. There are no shortcuts. And if someone is trying to convince you otherwise, they are either an ignorant or they are trying to sell you a scam product.
Your muscles will grow as a reaction to an external stimulus – namely resistance training. By lifting weights the muscles will need to adapt to that weight and as a result of that, they get stronger and bigger.
Luckily for us, there’s plenty of scientific evidence thanks to all the studies and research that have been conducted over time and we have a pretty exact recipe for optimal muscle growth. And it includes doing heavy compound exercises. That’s really all there is to it, leaving nutrition aside.
“Heavy compound exercises” – that’s a phrase that you will hear getting tossed around a lot in the fitness community. So what does it actually mean?
What does “heavy compound exercises” means anyway
So compound exercises or compound movements are physical exercises which make use of several muscle groups and several joints. On the opposite side, you have isolation exercises which target a specific muscle group and use only one joint.
Examples of compound movements are squats, pull-ups, deadlifts, and so on. Exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions or lateral raises are isolation exercises.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way what does ‘heavy’ mean? Obviously, the name is pretty self-explanatory, but it has a little bit more detail behind it.
So the thing with muscles is that they are made out of 2 different types of muscle fibers. There’s a type I, or slow-twitching fiber, and there’s type II, or fast twitching fibers – each having its own role.
Type I fibers are responsible for endurance and stamina and don’t really have any potential for growth. So your muscles will not get any bigger or stronger if your workouts consist of a routine which involves doing lots and lots of reps using light weights.
Type II fibers, on the other hand, are muscle fibers which are responsible for strength and have a lot of growth potential. The fast twitching muscle fibers are activated when you are using heavy weights and you are doing fewer reps. So if your goal is to get bigger and stronger, which probably is if you are reading this, you will need to target those fast twitching fibers.
OK, but how heavy is considered heavy enough to trigger the fast twitching fibers?
Fortunate for us, we have plenty of data coming out of studies and scientific research which allows us to formulate a pretty accurate answer to this question. It has been proven that using a weight which allows you to perform between 6 and 12 reps, is considered heavy enough, and it is optimal for muscle hypertrophy.
So during your working sets, regardless of the exercise, you are doing, you should pick a weight which would put you in that interval. Usually, that will be somewhere between 85% and 95% of your 1 RPM.
Top 7 muscle building exercises
OK, that’s a pretty lengthy intro, but I think it was worth it and it sets the ground nicely before we jump into the actual exercises that you need to perform.
So without further due, let’s get to it.
This is probably my favorite exercise to do in the gym, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Even though there’s a lot of skepticism around this exercise, I find it to be extremely effective. On the other hand some people find it to be a sure and safe way to getting injured. The truth is that if you don’t have any kind of back conditions or pains and you are doing it with good form, you should be fine.
The cool thing about deadlifts is that it activates a ton of muscles. It will hit your back mainly, but you also get a good lower body workout from it, and it strengthens your grip as well as your core.
It’s super important to do this one right or you might end up snapping something in your lower back. So I’d say to definitely start off with lighter weights until you get the form right. Then you can up the weight.
So here’s how to deadlift properly:
- Place your feet shoulder width apart
- Grab the bar using a wider grip, so that your forearms don’t touch your knees
- Keep your back straight, eyes forward and stick your bum out
- From that point lift the bar by pushing through your feet at first
- When you are halfway through the movement use your back to in an upright positing
- Arch your back just a little bit at the very top
- Put the bar down by leaning forward slowly, while keeping your back straight
- Halfway through the motion bend your knees until the bar touches the ground.
And that’s it.
Just remember to keep your back straight all the time and you will be fine. Also, keep in mind that in the first half of the movement you are using solely your legs and then the back comes in.
Here’s how it’s done.
#2 Incline bench press
Incline bench press, regardless if you are using dumbbells or a barbell is a great exercise for developing your chest, upper chest in particular, but it will give you a good workout of your front delts as well as some tricep activation.
I like to alternate between using the dumbbells and the barbell because each will give you a different range of motion as well as a slightly different targeting of the muscles.
Use an angle of around 30 degrees, and if you bench allows it, feel free to go as high as 45 degrees or experiment with different incline angles. The higher the angle the more stress you will put on the delts instead of the chest.
Here are some tips to guide you through the movement, when using a barbell:
- When you lie do down on the bench, the bar should be right above your eyes
- Firmly plant your feet on the ground for better stability
- Make sure your back is arched and your shoulder blades are resting against the bench
- Hand placement should be a few inches wider than shoulder width apart
- When you un-rack the bar, make sure your wrists are straight up (not bent)
- Bring the bar down slowly until it hits the upper part of your chest
- Then push it back up following the same movement path
Here’s a video to help you out.
I think this is one of the most underrated exercises, and that’s a shame.
Dips can be used to train your triceps, your chest and it will even activate your front delts a little bit. By default, this is a bodyweight exercise, but once you get stronger you can do weighted dips by attaching a plate from your belt or by holding a dumbbell with your legs.
There are many variations you can do, but we’re going to stick with the most common ones – chest and triceps variations. For both of these versions, you’re going to use the parallel bars. Here’s how to do it.
- Use a parallel bar with a wider grip
- Keep your elbows slightly bent so that you don’t put too much stress on the joint
- Bend your elbows slowly and lean forward as you go down
- To put even more stress on the chest, try to bring your legs forward a bit
- Stop when your shoulder joints are at the same level with your elbow joints or even a bit lower
- From there on push through your palms until you are back to the starting position
- Don’t lock your elbows. Keep all the weight on the muscles instead.
The triceps version is pretty similar; I will outline only the differences.
- The grip should be narrower
- As you go down, keep your torso straight up and push your feet backward
- The whole idea is to shift as much weight as possible to the back, on the triceps.
Use this visual explanation to get it right.
This is another awesome exercise which will develop you back as well as your bicep and grip strength.
So, if the deadlift will help you develop more thickness to your back and target primarily the lower part of your back, the pull-up will give you more width and it will target the upper portion of your back muscles. That’s why if you are looking to get a wide back you should be doing plenty of pull-ups.
Now, depending on the hand placement, you will also bring in more or less of the bicep. When you are using an overhand grip, the main focus will be on the back. If you are using an underhand grip, the bicep will do more of the lifting.
The latter is also known as a chin-up, instead of a pull-up.
Just like the dips, these are primarily bodyweight movements and I’m sure you’ve seen the guys who are into calisthenics do them a lot. But if you want to gain some size, you will need to work your way up to attach at least a 45 plate to your waist.
Before you reach that though, let’s check out the form.
- Hand placement should be much wider than the width of your shoulders
- Next, hang from the bar for a second to take out any momentum
- Slightly lean back so that you can stick your chest out
- Pull yourself up to the point where your chin is above your palm level (above the bar)
- Go down slow to the starting position.
With the chin-up variations, you want to use a narrower grip and an underhand grip obviously. The hand placement should be narrower than the width of your shoulders.
The rest of the movement is pretty much the same, with the mention that you don’t need to bring your chest forward that much.
Here are a couple of videos to walk you through the movement.
#5 Standing shoulder press
Next on the big 7 list is the shoulder press. I used to hate training my delts, and I’m not too fond of hitting them that much now either, to be honest. But the overhead shoulder press is an exercise that I really started to enjoy and I can really feel it activating all parts of the delts a lot.
There are a number of variations of this exercises that you can do.
First and foremost you can do it using dumbbells or a barbell. If you are doing it with a barbell you can use a Smith machine which will make it a bit easier for you since you don’t need to stabilize the weight anymore.
Personally, I like doing it with free weights, while standing because it makes the core do some work as well. However, sitting down will make it a little bit more difficult since you can add any momentum to the movement, and you kind of isolate the delts a little bit.
Here’s how it is done.
- Use a power rack to hold the bar for you
- Hand placement should be similar to bench pressing (a bit wider than shoulder width apart)
- Un-rack the bar and have it sit on the upper part of your chest
- Your elbows should be tucked in, pointing a little bit forward (not to the sides)
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, firmly planted on the ground
- Tighten your back and core as you start pushing the bar up
- As the bar moves up, tilt your head backward a little bit so that the bar won’t hit your chin
- At the very top position don’t lock out your elbows
- Go down slowly following the same path, until the bar rests on your upper chest.
And here’s a video demonstration.
No workout could be complete without a lower body exercise. We’ve already included the deadlift which is great for training your glutes and hamstrings. But nothing can replace the squat if you want to hit your quads really hard.
After the deadlifts, squats are next exercise in line that will work out a lot of different muscle groups. Obviously, it will hit your quads and hamstrings really hard, but it also gives you a nice core workout as well as activating your back muscles.
Just as with any kind of exercises there are different variations you can do, but the most common one is the barbell back squat – where you have a barbell sitting on your back. This will put more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. If you want to target your quads more you can do front squats – where you have the bar sitting between the shoulders and the clavicle bone.
Here’s a bullet point list to walk you through the movement.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart
- Keep your spine in a neutral position and stick out your chest a bit
- Keep your head straight and eyes forward
- Slowly go down by bending your knees
- Maintain your back in a neutral position as you descent
- The bottom of the movement should be where your bum is lower than the level of your knees
- Once you’ve reached that position start pushing up (mainly through your heels)
- Continue to keep your back straight and eyes forward until you return to the starting position.
Just like this.
Now, I guess that this one is optional since it doesn’t help muscular development at all.
However, cardio has its benefits when it comes to your cardiovascular and respiratory health. Not to mention that it is a very effective fat loss solution.
Not all types of cardio will work the same though. The most effective cardio workout you can do is called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT.
It takes the less amount of time, it burns the most amount of calories and it doesn’t interfere with your muscular development too much. It has been proven that HIIT is superior from this point of view to any other type of cardio training.
So what I recommend anyone who is trying to lose fat doing is sprint drills.
Get on the treadmill or go outside and do 4 to 6 session of:
- 1 minute of brisk walking (resting)
- 1 minute sprinting
That’s all. You will be done with your cardio in just 15 minutes, and you even don’t need to do it every day.
Always do your cardio after your weight training or on your resting days. This way you will have more energy for the weights, and the cardio will not get in the way of your workouts.
Over to you
So that’s it guy and gals. These are the top 7 most effective exercises for developing your muscles. Sure, there are other exercises or other variations you can do, but these will give you the best bang for your buck.
Remember to constantly challenge yourself by using the progressive overloading technique, and stay on top of your diet. At the end of the day, your workouts will not lead anywhere if you are not eating the right stuff and you are not resting enough.
Tyler has been working as a certified personal trainer for over 10 years specializing in weight loss and functional training with women between the ages of 30 – 65. He also enjoys helping others become industry leading personal trainers through his website PTPioneer.com and YouTube Channel.
Tags: bodybuilding, exercise, fitness, gain muscle, muscle gain, workout
An amazing and very in-depth article that shows the importance of compound exercises in the muscle-building journey.
I just wanted to add one more exercise to your list which is “rowing”. I personally perform barbell and dumbbell rows in my workouts and it has really helped me grow a thick & V-tapered back.