Training

The 8 Moves You Must Do If You Need Mass

Whether you're a gym veteran or a new recruit, here are the eight most critical mass-building exercises to pack on muscle.

November 7, 2012

By Jimmy Peña MS, CSCS Members of the Special Forces, specifically Delta Company, are often dropped behind enemy lines and required to live off the land, remaining invisible for weeks and months at a time. They’re trained to adapt to their surroundings, using whatever they can get their hands on to survive, simply because they arrived with virtually nothing. As a bodybuilder, with your own daily battles, you’re not as ill-equipped. You drop into the gym and have a myriad of choices at your disposal. But what if you didn’t? What if you had to choose one exercise per bodypart to hold yourself together, which ones would you pick? This month, we’ve made such a selection for you. Each exercise can be argued as the single best exercise for mass for that bodypart. Sure, we could’ve chosen any number of moves for various reasons, but after you comb through our field assessments, we’re confident you’ll join us in our salute of the best of the best.

Before We Drop You In

As a rule of thumb, the best mass builders are multijoint (compound) in nature, meaning you work more muscle groups through more working joints, enabling you to lift more weight. For that reason, the majority of our selections are compound exercises, with the only exception being the exercises we’ve chosen for arms. Whenever you tackle these eight moves for mass, in general, keep your sets between 3–4 and your rep count in the 8–12 range. However, we’ve also suggested some intensity techniques that work hand-in-hand with these basic mass builders, and we encourage you to try them all on for serious size. Finally, place these exercises early in your routines, when you’re the most fresh and able to move the most weight. You’re ready. Make us (and yourself) proud. Accept these orders like the band of brothers have done before you in gyms across the country. Lift and live big.

CHEST: Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press

8MovesMass_Chest Training with dumbbells, like in the flat-bench dumbbell press, has many advantages, the first being the ability to force each side of the body to handle the weight on its own. If too much time is spent on barbell moves or machines, you miss out on the benefits dumbbells provide such as stabilizer activity. By adding the dumbbell bench press into the mix of exercises, your standard bench press, not to mention the size of your pecs, will improve by leaps and bounds.

Inside the Lift

While the flat-bench dumbbell press allows for stabilizers and balance, it’s possible to relax during the move, and many bodybuilders make that mistake. At the top of the range of motion, most guys bring the dumbbells together, allowing the dumbbells to touch (which actually takes tension off the muscle). But more times than not, they’re not using that moment to squeeze the chest. To keep tension in the pecs at the top, at least for the first few reps, try to press the dumbbells straight up to the ceiling, as if you had a barbell in your hands. You don’t lose any of the attributes the dumbbells provide, but you add constant tension. As you fatigue, you can begin bringing them together over the face to squeeze the pecs as well as to recover.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

At first glance, you automatically assume either drop sets or forced reps would be your go-to tactic, and with good reason, since moving from one set of dumbbells to the next or getting someone to push you past failure seems easy enough. But there is another less popular intensity booster called rest-pause that’s more practical, in which you take brief rest periods during a set of a given exercise to squeeze out more reps. We recommend you use a weight you can lift for 4-6 reps but do just 2–3 reps, rest just 20 seconds, then try for another 2–3 reps with the same weight. Rest again briefly, then try for another mini-set. The reason rest-pause is our method of choice is simple: You don’t need to swap dumbbells and you can do it alone. After each set, you simply sit up and count seconds, then lie back down and continue the reps. The only stipulation is that you can’t drop the dumbbells to the floor from the lying position, which many bodybuilders do. We recommend actually transferring the dumbbells to your quads and rocking forward to a seated position each time; doing so will not only save your shoulders from possible injury, but you’re also already in the proper position to begin the next set.

QUADS: Front Squat

While most bodybuilders would say the traditional squat is king for the entire thigh and glutes (and we wouldn’t argue), our focus with the front squat is its ability to heavily favor the quads. With the bar held in front of the body, your center of gravity changes, and the focus shifts to the front part of your legs. In the traditional move, your hips travel further back, allowing you to engage your hamstrings and glutes to a greater extent. By no means are we implying that the hams and glutes aren’t involved during the front squat, but it’s a good example of a compound exercise that allows a shift of emphasis depending on bar placement.

Inside the Lift

If you’re new to the front squat, get ready to reduce the weight … by a lot. First of all, because you can’t kick the butt back as you typically would during a standard squat, in particular the variety in which the bar is low on your back, your lower back strength will be heavily tested. For that reason, even if your lower back is super strong, we recommend you get a feel for the bar on the front of the body before trying to load up the poundage. And because the front quads are taking the brunt of the load, your knee stability will also be exposed, so be certain to warm-up well.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

Hands down, the best technique for the front squat is to use partial reps, in which you train in only a portion of the range of motion. And since partials are done in a power rack or Smith machine, you’re safe to hit this move without a spotter. While you can apply partials in a number of ways, begin by setting the safety bars at a point that allows you to get your quads parallel to the floor or to the bottom of the rep. When you fail at that range of motion, begin raising the safety bars so that you’re working through a shorter distance. As you raise the safety bars on each set, you can increase the weight. You’ll quickly notice that the more shallow you squat the more weight you’re able to lift. Over time, your starting weight will increase dramatically. You can also reverse the order, starting your sets at the top (and setting the safeties high), working your way down to the full range of motion.

BACK: Bent-Over Barbell Row

Bent-Over Barbell Row The bent-over row is arguably the best barbell move for the back, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to dispute that. However, during your bent-over moves, it’s important to keep your knees bent, your chest big, your head neutral and your upper body fixed in the bent-over position. If you raise your torso up and down on each rep (and nearly every bodybuilder does it to some degree), you’ll not only lose tension in the target muscles (namely the upper lats, rhomboids and middle traps) but you’ll also risk injury to your lower back. You want your torso to be just above parallel to the floor throughout the exercise.

Inside the Lift

There are a few key points you want to keep in mind when doing rows. First of all, invest in straps. You’ve heard us say it before, but if you’re trying a heavy set of bent-over rows without straps, you’re letting the best chance of adding mass slip right through your fingers (pun intended). Remember, there’s no shame in using straps. Your hands can’t hold a candle to what your back can endure, so chew up your pride and do it right. One way to make the bent-over row work in your routine is to use the end of the bench as a means to fix your grip and provide an easy way to end the set. Simply pull the loaded bar off the rack and place it a few inches from the end of the bench. Once you have your grip, you can get close to the bar and stand up with it, take a small step back and begin your set. A small step forward with the bar at the end of the set and you can safely dismount out of the move, placing it back on the bench.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

The bent-over row is one of those rare moves in which forced reps and negatives are impossible, since you need a partner for those. However, drop sets are still in play. Basically, after completing your reps in a heavy set, quickly strip an equal amount of weight from each side of the bar (about 20-25% of the total weight) and continue repping until you fail, then strip off more weight to complete even more reps. With this technique, don’t use clips on the ends of the bar to secure the weights since they can lengthen the time between drops.

BICEPS: Standing Barbell Curl

Standing Barbell Curl The barbell curl is awesome for adding mass because of the amount of weight you can apply to the small biceps. But when guys hear that, they think that’s a license to be absurd with what they throw on the ends. It doesn’t take a ton of weight to spark growth in the biceps, so the best thing to do is to use a heavy enough weight that enables you to use good form throughout the natural range of motion. Be sure to fix your elbows to the sides of your body. Don’t let them travel forward because as you raise the bar up, you’ll automatically call the front delts into play. As a rule of thumb, at the top of the motion, you don’t have to be looking at the bar, but rather the bar will likely be at the top of your chest.

Inside the Lift

Way too neglected is the advantage a change in grip width provides. From week to week or even during the same routine, alternate from a wide, to narrow and then standard grip. Here’s why: Taking a wide grip on the barbell for curls hits the short, inner head of the biceps more directly by reducing the amount of stress on the long, outer head while increasing the tension on the short. Taking a close grip on the other hand places a greater emphasis on the long, outer head (or peak, the highest point you see on the biceps during a back-double biceps pose).

Best Technique to Add Intensity

If you’ve never tried barbell curls 21s style, you’re long overdue. With 21s, you train each half of the curl (bottom half, top half) through seven reps, then finish the set with seven full-range reps. You can even reverse the order, hitting the full range of motion and then the half reps. However, always do the upper half of the range prior to the lower, simply because we typically fail on the lower portion of the repetition, leaving the strongest phase with gas in the tank, so to speak. If you fail in the start of the move before you’ve failed in the upper half, your biceps won’t experience everything the exercise or the technique provides. And it probably means you’re going too heavy.

GLUTES/HAMS: Romanian Deadlift

Romanian Deadlift Not to be confused with the stiff-legged deadlift, the romanian deadlift is the king for the upper hamstrings where they tie into the glutes (you target the lower hamstrings better with various leg-curl moves). Basically, during the romanian-style deadlift, you keep your knees bent and your back as straight as possible. The bar is also very close to the legs throughout and combined with the body mechanics, causes the upper hamstrings and glutes to share the majority of the focus. It’s when you straighten your legs, slightly round your back and allow the bar to travel a few inches away from the legs that the emphasis is shifted to the lower back and away from the hamstrings, which is the stiff-legged version.

Inside the Lift

Like we said on the bent-over row, you’re very strong on this move, so it would be a shame for your hams and glutes to suffer because you don’t have pulling straps. Get the hint? Also, there’s a way to self-spot on this move. Head back to the bench-press station, take the bar off the rack and straddle the bench press while holding the bar. While the bench might somewhat limit the range of motion (although you don’t need to be touching your toes during this exercise) the bench can serve as a slight spot at the bottom if you allow just the slightest bounce. Besides, increasing the range of motion by trying to touch the bar to the floor is a recipe for disaster since many individuals round their backs.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

Our vote for best intensity technique during the romanian is rest-pause because you can load the bar, hit your reps and rest the bar on the bench and never remove your hands from the bar. In fact, in between mini-sets, you can actually sit on the bench and rest your entire body as you watch the clock.

SHOULDERS: Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press

Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press The most obvious benefit of dumbbells is that they allow a wide range of motion. With the overhead press, since both hands can move in any direction, you can move your arms out to your sides a bit to hit more of the middle delts. As opposed to the barbell version of the move, your head gets in the way during the descent of the bar, forcing you to either lean back or use the behind-the-neck version. However, not everyone can go behind the head with the bar, but with the dumbbells, your elbows are in line with your ears allowing maximal emphasis on all three heads. In addition, dumbbells let you lift your arms higher at the top of the exercise as you bring the weights together at the top. This takes the deltoids through a longer range of motion while also bringing into play the traps, which enhance the shoulders as well.

Inside the Lift

Probably the biggest limiting factor to this exercise is actually getting “into” the start position. Our shoulders are pretty strong and we can lift a lot of weight, often more weight than we can seem to get into a start position with. So if you feel like you can move more weight but don’t have anyone to hand you the dumbbells, practice kicking one knee up toward your chest (with the weight sitting atop the knee) to get the dumbbells in place one at a time. If that still doesn’t work, practice the single-arm version of the move, working each arm separately. That’ll help strengthen your core and stabilizers, helping you prepare for the standard overhead dumbbell press when situations and circumstances are optimal.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

Because you’re right there in front of the rack, you might as well run it. Running the rack is basically a giant drop set, in which you do as many reps as you can at a certain weight (say, a weight you can do for 10 and only 10 reps, your 10RM) then upon failure, rack that set of dumbbells and move to the next lightest pair. Grab those and do as many as you can. You continue running down the rack for as many sets as you can. Then after a 3–5-minute rest, if you’re still able to lift your arms, you can reverse direction.

TRICEPS: Seated Overhead Dumbbell Extension

Seated Overhead Dumbbell Extension When it comes to packing mass on to the back of your arms, few exercises can compete with the overhead extension. The bulky, meaty part of the arm (also called the long head) is highly recruited during those moves where your arms are angled toward the ceiling. And this popular isolation move will cause havoc to your triceps in no time. For best results, try keeping your elbows pointed forward. This will not only help you target the muscle, but it’s safer on the elbow and shoulder joints.

Inside the Lift

While you’re most certainly able to do this exercise using one arm at a time and with your opposite arm spotting yourself, the two-hand version is your best bet for mass. The tough part can sometimes be getting the dumbbell into place, especially if you’re working alone. With both hands on the handle of the dumbbell, use one leg to kick the weight up to one shoulder. From there, place your hands cupping the inner portion of the dumbbell and move it into position. At the end of the set, simply rotate it back to that shoulder and down to the knee.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

Because the exercise can get tricky when you’re approaching failure, the best choice for an intensity technique is one that requires a partner. Forced reps tops the list of tactics to help you pack on size. Have a training partner assist you with reps at the end of a set to help you work past the first point of failure. Your training partner should help lift the weight with only the force necessary for you to keep moving and get past the sticking point. He can also get the weight into and out of position as you start and end each set.

OVERALL MASS: Deadlift

Deadlift While it’s arguably the best exercise on our list for mass, it’s probably the least used. Seen more as a move for strength athletes, the deadlift is unfortunately overlooked by bodybuilders who are looking to pack on serious size. Calling into play the arms, shoulders, back and legs, the deadlift recruits more muscle groups than any other move, save maybe the squat.

Inside the Lift

Let’s break the deadlift down. First of all, you start from a dead stop, which means you don’t have any built-up elastic energy from the negative rep prior to pressing through the positive (concentric) portion of the contraction. For perspective, imagine beginning each squat of 405 from the stalled, down position. And notice we said “press” not pull? See, your arms are straight throughout the move (which is key), and the exercise is initiated by pressing through the floor with your legs. So in effect, it’s as much a leg press as it is an upper body pull. One very important aspect of the deadlift is that you need to drag the bar up the legs. In fact, you should try to keep the bar in constant contact with your legs right from the start. That’s why the most successful deadlifters use baby powder on their legs (that’s not chalk) so the bar glides smoothly up and down the legs. At the top of the lift, you can squeeze your legs, glutes and back hard as you lean back slightly. The reverse motion is identical to the positive portion.

Best Technique to Add Intensity

The deadlift is so tough, with so many things to consider and master, we feel no need to add intensity techniques to it. Those who try the deadlift for the first time will feel like they’ve combined every intensity tactic into one exercise at the same time.