By Nick Tumminello, CPT
Let’s face it: we’re all busy these days. Even the most dedicated lifter -- and even most professional bodybuilders -- need to balance full-time work and a hectic family life with what goes on in the gym.
But if you’re smart about your lifting, more work typically equals more mass, which is why combination lifts, like the seven I’m about to share, are a great way to guarantee growth in less time. Even better, they’ll boost your workout intensity to burn more bodyfat through excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
Some of these combo moves take two exercises and seamlessly blend them into a single, effective movement. Others have you performing two complementary movements back-to-back, without rest and without changing equipment. Either way, if you’re looking for some new methods that are sure to give your muscles a new challenge and spark new growth, these seven battle-tested moves are just what the hypertrophy doctor ordered.
Combination Lifts for Bodybuilders
Before I break down the seven movements, I want to clarify that these exercises are designed for bodybuilders who are looking for hypertrophy (muscle growth) or who need to break through muscle-building plateaus. I didn’t include some of the most commonly known combination lifts, such as Olympic lifting variations, for two reasons:
- The goal here is to give you new ideas and show you exercise variations you may not have seen before.
- Olympic lifts and their variations are primary designed to improve explosive power and to refine the techniques required to be a great O-lifter. As ex-Olympic lifter and world-class strength coach JC Santana says, “Olympic lifts are for Olympic lifters.” These combo lifts, on the other hand, are designed for the sole purpose of sparking new muscle growth for non-Olympic lifters who are interested in new ways to gain new muscle.
Now, that’s not to say that O-lifts can't build muscle. They most certainly can. But they’re definitely not for everyone since they’re technically demanding and they take years of practice to master. Without technical proficiency, they can be risky. Which is why my goal here is to give you a multitude of effective lifting combinations that are safe and not very technical, and that require a minimal learning curve to utilize.
1) Squat + Calve Raise
This is a small tweak on squats that guarantees big results. It’s also a technique that I don’t see used often enough. Not only will this combo give you a more complete lower-body workout, but it’ll also improve your athleticism since it resembles jumping, which is a pillar of athletic
Place a barbell across your traps, and stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes turned slightly outward. Drop into a squat by hinging at your hips. Drop your hips below your knees and return to the top. Once your knees are straight, lift your heels off of the ground and perform a calf raise onto the balls of your feet. Drop your heel back down and return to the bottom of the squat position. Perform 4–6 sets of 8–15 reps.
- Push your knees wide and don't allow your knees to come in toward your midline.
- Keep a strong arch in your lower back while at the bottom of the squat.
- Only squat as low as you can control and maintain good form.
2) Bent-Over Row + Romanian Deadlift
This is one of my favorite total-back exercises. The bent-over row gets your upper-back muscles, while the RDL hits your lower-back muscles in order to maintain that optimal lordotic lumbar curve. It also forces your upper-back muscles to contract isometrically to maintain your thoracic spine alignment.
Stand tall, holding a barbell in front of your hips with a shoulder-width, pronated grip. Hinging at your hips, bend over so that your torso is close to parallel with the floor. Holding this position, perform bent-over rows for 6–8 reps by pulling the bar into your abdomen. Then stand tall and adjust your hands to a wider grip without setting the barbell down. Perform Romanian deadlifts for 10–14 reps by hinging at your hips and keeping your knees slightly bent. Do 4–5 total sets.
- Choose a weight load that will challenge your bent-over row. That’s the weaker of the two moves, which is why you’ll do it first.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift the bar on each rep of RDLs.
- Keep a tight arch in your lower back throughout this entire combo.
3) Biceps Curl + Shoulder Press
Anatomically, your biceps and shoulders are linked together. So why not train them together? This combination does just that. Plus, it’s only natural to lift something overhead once you’ve curled it to your shoulders. This is one of those movements that just feels right.
Stand tall, holding dumbbells by your hips. Perform a biceps curl followed immediately by a shoulder press with both arms moving simultaneously. Reverse the motion in a slow, controlled manor for each rep. Do 3–4 sets of 8–15 reps.
- As you fatigue, switch to alternating arms. You’ll be less likely to cheat by using your lower back.
4) Reverse Lunge + Step-Up
Like legs day itself, most lifters love to hate this combo. Do it right, and it’ll leave your legs smoked and your heart pounding.
Stand in front of a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells by your hips. Step back into a reverse lunge with your left leg. Then bring that same leg forward out of the lunge and place your foot on top of the bench. Perform a step-up without touching your right leg to the bench. Step down using your right leg as the base and step back into another reverse lunge on the left side. That’s one rep. Do 8–12 reps on one side before switching to the other for 3–4 total sets.
- Rest for about 15 to 30 seconds before switching sides since both legs are working regardless of which is the "working" leg.
- This exercise requires some single-leg balance. It’s okay to place your non-working leg down to stabilize yourself while you're learning it.
5) Swiss Ball Push-Up + Abs Pike
By combining the push-up with the pike movement, you’re hitting your chest, shoulders and triceps with a double whammy. Not only do you have to perform a push-up in a manner that requires a lot of stability, you also have to hold your torso up as it shifts from a horizontal position to a more vertical position.
Your abs also require lateral stability to keep you from rolling off of the ball, and they have to contract hard to pull your hips up into your chest and to resist the pull of gravity as it drives your belly toward the ground.
Assume a push-up position with your feet resting on the top of a stability ball and your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor. Perform a push-up. As you rise back to the top of the push-up, pull your legs in toward your head, keeping them straight to make a pike position. Lower your legs back to parallel with the floor and drop back into the push-up position. Repeat for 12–20 reps of 2–3 sets.
- Don’t pike so high that your hips go directly above your head. Doing so will take the stimulus off of your abdominals and place it almost solely on your shoulders.
- Your body should form a pyramid at the top of the pike position — not an L.
6) Pull-Up + Hanging Knee Raise
This combo is just brutal on your abs, lats and especially your grip. Pull-ups have been shown in EMG research to activate your abs more than most ab-specific moves, and this combo takes that core activation one step further by adding the knee raise to the end of the exercise.
Using a pronated grip, hang from a pull-up bar with your hands roughly shoulder width apart or slightly wider. Perform as many pull-ups as you can with good form (getting your chin above the bar on each rep). Then perform hanging knee raises by flexing your hips to bring your upper thighs to 90 degrees (or parallel with the floor). From there, pull your thighs toward your chest and hold for a one-count. Then lower your legs slowly, stopping when your thighs are parallel to the floor. Repeat for as many quality reps (no swinging!) as you can do with good form for 3–4 sets.
By starting the leg raises with your thighs parallel to the floor, you ensure maximal ab recruitment and minimal contribution from the hip flexors.
7) Dumbbell Pullover + Skullcrusher
These two movements go together so well you’d think they were one exercise to begin with. An added benefit of combining them is that you’ll also be throwing in some lat and triceps activation.
Lie supine (face up) on a bench, holding the head of a dumbbell straight up above your eyes. Break from your elbows, lowering the dumbbell behind the top of your head. Once your elbows are flexed at 90 degrees, extend your shoulders backward over your head so that your biceps are by your ears. Pull your arms back up to the start position, fully extending your elbows. Repeat for 8–15 reps.
- If you experience any discomfort in your shoulders, limit the shoulder-flexion motion to stay in a pain-free range.