You have this construction project that requires you to tear down a wall in your home and build an addition on. Will you be better off throwing several thousand small hammers at it or taking a few really big hammers and doing some damage?
It's going to take thousands of $4.99 hammers from Home Depot to do any real damage to a wall. But if you take a couple heavy-duty sledge hammers (or a wrecking ball) you'll be able to demolish the wall rather quickly.
Imagine your body as the house, and the wall as the muscles you want to exercise and grow. You can use small, isolated exercises in large doses to create a growth stimulus. Or, you can slug some heavy iron with a handful of compound exercises and get the same (or better) results.
Compound exercises utilize multiple joints with free weights. This means maximal muscle recruitment, high nervous system activation, and more of a stimulus for growth. I'm a big fan of the less is more approach - but not less is easier.
Consider me somewhat of an exercise hack. I'm not concerned about isolating a muscle, I'm just going in and stimulating as much muscle as possible! Muscle gets harder and harder to come by as we push the threshold, so take what you can get!
If I had to pick 6 exercises to hit every muscle, what would I do? I encourage you to shift your mindset in this case. Thinking in muscle groups will lead you to choose the wrong choices pretty quickly. If you look at 6 basic movements, you'll see we can hit everything we need to hit to build mass.
Here are the basic movements:
- Horizontal Push And Pull
- Vertical Push And Pull
- Hip Dominant
- Quad Dominant
Horizontal Pushes And Pulls
This category covers our basic bench presses and their variations and all rowing back exercises. One reason I'm an advocate of movement-based distinctions is that things can sometimes get lost in translation.
A great bodybuilder will always have phenomenal back development. But if we take a minute to look at typical programs in the amateur ranks we'll see a "back day" that includes both horizontal and vertical pulls.
On the same program, we'll see a separation (and thus higher volume) of horizontal pushes (bench presses and variations) and vertical pushes (shoulder presses and variations). Overtime this leads to overdevelopment of the anterior structures (shoulders, chest, etc) and underdevelopment the back musculature.
As an additional perk, additional pulling volume can help clear up some nagging shoulder issues. For really bad shoulders I'd stick with more horizontal pulls such as rows. Moving the arms overhead can aggravate many shoulder injuries.
Vertical Push And Pull
Vertical pushes will help shoulder development as well as the traps. Vertical pulls will knock out your lats and some of your other back muscles like the rhomboids and teres major.
The hip dominant category covers the lower body exercises that involve more of a glute and hamstring involvement than the quads. Admittedly there are a lot of gray areas between these two.
A squat for example can be done very hip dominant (low bar, feet wide, hips far back) or quad dominant (bar high, feet shoulder width). In general, there are two ways to approach hip dominant movement: bent leg and straight leg.
Some of the staple movements for the bent-leg hip dominant category include deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, and high foot placement leg presses. The bent-leg is preferable for building your glutes, which are the strongest muscle and help up the poundage on virtually every lower body lift.
The straight leg (bent 10-15°) options place an emphasis on the hamstring muscle belly such as the Romanian deadlift. With hip movement that involves little knee bend you'll be able to put the hamstring on a greater stretch. Stretching under load results in a more forceful contraction of the muscle.
Squat heavy. Squat often. Squats are a notorious muscle builder - all over. Charles Poliquin once made the comparison that to add 1 inch to your arms you must add 10 pounds of total body weight. Squats are good for this. Tangentially, this shows that muscle building is a systemic (whole body) response, not muscle specific.
Exercising your arms will surely result in bigger arms, to an extent. But you will never see a 150-pounds guy walking around with 22-inch guns. Think back to the demolition analogy. You bring the heavy hitters to play and you'll facilitate muscle growth all over. More over, these heavy hitters are responsible for a hormonal milieu favorable for muscle growth.
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Putting These Movements Together
The basic understanding is that going heavy with exercises from these six categories, you'll have a number of heavy pushes and pulls each week that will help build arm mass. The traps should get plenty of work with the pulling variations and the overhead presses.
If you look at extremely strong squatters (such as powerlifters) they never have small calves. Admittedly, this isn't most of the people out there so calves may benefit from some extra direct work.
As another point of interest, if the compound movements take a toll on the joints or you need more direct emphasis then a change in exercise selection would be wise.
For instance, some guys are very deltoid dominant bench pressers. That is, they feel it mostly in their delts and by the looks of their development you see relatively overdeveloped shoulders compared to chest.
If you chose to use these six categories every day take caution. Using large amounts of muscle in the upper body and then switching to a lower body exercise can create a cardiovascular demand as the peripheral blood is circulated from extremity to extremity.
Over time, you'll adapt to this, but supersetting exercises is an experience. A racing heart isn't going to "eat" your muscle away, and may actually help to preserve a more ideal body composition when overfeeding for size. To kick some serious mass there are two options (as I see it) for putting these basic movements together.
Full Body 3x Per Week
Fully body routines have regained popularity in recent years, but are still difficult to take on for many of us.
Upper/Lower Split, 2x Each Per Week
The upper-lower split (ULS) is a great way to counter the demands of the cardiovascular system that occur with using large upper body and lower body movements in succession.
You don't need to go crazy with the number of movements, 3-5 exercises is plenty for each session. I'd limit the total number of sets to about 20-25 as well.
Upper/Lower Routine Example
- Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip
4 sets of 6 reps
- Seated Cable Rows
4 sets of 6 reps
- Seated Barbell Military Press
4 sets of 6 reps
4 sets of 6 reps
In an upper-lower split such as this we're doing 7 total sets for horizontal pushing/pulling and vertical push/pulling, or 28 total sets of upper body for the week. The lower body will also have a total of 28 sets (equally divided between hip and quad dominant).
Each workout by itself might not appear like much, but true attention should be paid to the tempos listed. If you've ever really followed a 2-1-2 or 3-0-1 tempo you'll know the impact of the workout changes dramatically from what you expect to experience.
Most exercises, most of the time, are a 1-0-1 tempo. This is 1-second lowering, no pause, and one second to lift the weight. A 3-1-1 tempo is three lowering, 1 pause, and 1 to lift. This will reduce the amount of weight you can use.
The PRO is the fact that you get an increased time under tension (TUT) for the muscle under load. The standard way guys increase TUT is to increase reps. Not in this case.
Consider this: a set of 6 at 3-1-1 is the same TUT as a set of 15 with a 1-0-1 tempo. Even if you can use relatively less for the set of six with a slow tempo, it should still be more than you can use at a normal tempo for 15 reps.
So a controlled tempo should emphasize a deliberate and controlled lowering of the weight. A fast tempo is your average pace since the reps are higher and the TUT is sufficient.