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.
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
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.