10 Best Moves for Mass
Pimp your muscle-building plan with these man-sized movements for beastly size
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.