"Hey Chad, what's the single best exercise for...?"
I get that question every day, and I often shudder because we don't live in a world where we're so limited, especially to just one measly exercise.
But I understand the line of thinking. We all want to know what works best, at least most of the time.
In fact, I've learned to appreciate this once annoying question. After all, choosing effective exercises is more important than just about any other training parameter — even more so than intensity or frequency. You can do a triceps kickback ten times per week with mind-blowing intensity and, by the end of six weeks, you'll be left with the same tiny horseshoes you started with.
So let's get to the list of my favorite bodybuilding exercises for guys with mass in mind. I'll start from the ground up.
Of all the muscle-building challenges I've faced over the years, the calves proved to be my most formidable opponent. I've slogged through a dozen different calf training philosophies trying to get those bastards to grow. Eleven of those twelve proved unsuccessful.
Since the calves get constant, low-level stimulation throughout the day from walking, I figured an opposite approach would work. So I first did calf raises with infrequent, high intensity training to failure.
That didn't work.
Then I started experimenting with different tempo protocols where I'd have my clients hold the stretch position for a few seconds to dissipate the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). I kept the training frequency to twice per week.
That didn't work either.
So I upped the frequency. But I was stubborn and figured that it was still a good idea to override the SSC. I assumed the high elastic component of the calf muscles would impede muscle growth.
Nope, I was wrong.
So that's when I decided to look for real-world evidence. The best calf development I could find was owned by sprinters, volleyball players, and soccer players. None of these athletes did calf raises with a pause at the bottom. In fact, their training emphasized the SSC. And none of them trained their calves only once per week either.
Looking at the muscle actions their sport demands, I realized an important component that I was overlooking was deceleration, whether they were slowing down from a top speed sprint, landing from a spike, or quickly changing directions with a soccer ball.
Therefore, I implemented calf exercises that train the SSC and overload the eccentric (lengthening) phase of muscle contractions. When these types of calf exercises were paired with a relatively high frequency of training each week, I'd found my solution.
Winner: Single-leg hop while holding a dumbbell on the same side.
For years I often prescribed the leg curl in my training programs. Since the hamstring extends the hip and flexes the knee joint, I'd prescribe an exercise for both functions. For hip extension, a squat, deadlift, or good morning would do the trick. To train knee flexion, I used the leg curl, of course.
Importantly, I never prescribed the leg curl without an exercise that also trains hip extension. That's because the leg curl never panned out by itself in my programs. I wasn't sure why, but I didn't care. I just kept prescribing exercises for both hamstring functions because that's how I got results.
Then I had the honor of hanging out with low-back and spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill. Between his writings and our discussions, I quickly learned that my line of thinking was too simplistic. Every real-world action that recruits your hamstrings will also recruit most, if not all, of your posterior chain. Since the leg curl falls short of this requirement, I dropped it from my programs.
Now, I'm not saying that it's useless to ever train a muscle group any differently than it works in real life. The rotator cuff is a good example of a muscle group that can benefit from being trained in a relatively isolated position. However, the hamstrings seem to build size and strength quickest when trained with hip extension: a movement they're designed to support.
Looking back, I think the reason the leg curl never worked by itself was due to limiting factors from the hip, core, and low back muscles. In other words, exercises that emphasize the hamstrings while also recruiting the glutes, low back, and hip abductors gave my clients the greatest size, strength, and performance benefits.
Winner: Single-leg deadlift with a dumbbell held on the opposite side.
The quadriceps represent a unique case study for hypertrophy. Your quads will grow from super-high volume training, unlike many other muscle groups such as the biceps, triceps, or hamstrings.
With regard to volume, I'm not talking about 10 sets of 10 reps, I'm talking about a crazy amount of volume relative to what a typical bodybuilder will do — the amount of volume a professional cyclist does in his training.
But cyclists don't have strong quads like Olympic lifters. If you're reading this, I assume you're after some impressive strength to go along with your size. And since it's not practical to tell a weekend warrior to add 20 hours of cycling to his current fitness plan, it's important to look for other evidence.
Every Olympic lifter I've ever seen has impressive quadriceps development — every Olympic lifter. Which lower-body movement does an Olympic lifter do most?
Winner: Front squat.
There's a seemingly endless debate over the necessity of direct abdominal training. One coach will say that squats, deads, and chins are all you need. Another coach will devote half of an entire session to training the abdominals.
Does every person need to train his abdominals directly? No. A guy who just wants to look good naked and have a balanced physique can get everything he needs from a basic full-body training program that consists of the exercises I just mentioned.
Athletes, however, require exercises that overload their abdominals in order to effectively transfer force between their lower and upper body. A strong puncher has a strong core, as I like to tell my fighters. So if you're a weekend warrior who wants to build athleticism, direct abdominal training is a good idea.
I've seen the best results with abdominal exercises that resist spinal movement (again, thanks to Dr. McGill). I also like abdominal exercises that recruit the lats since they assist the core muscles by enhancing the super stiffness phenomenon that's necessary for force transfer.
Winner: Ab wheel rollout.
When asked about the best biceps exercise, my answer hasn't changed in ten years: the rope climb. You only need to visit Muscle Beach in Santa Monica — a place where there are enough ropes to excite a family of gymnasts — and observe the biceps development of guys who climb them on a consistent basis.
However, climbing up and down a rope isn't practical for most people, so I'm left to prescribe the next best biceps-builder. Before I tell you what it is, let me explain why the rope climb is my first choice.
First, from a biomechanics standpoint, the rope climb forces your arm to pull from a position that's close to the midline of your body. This overloads the elbow flexors more than the upper back muscles.
It's been said that the chin-up won't build big biceps if your back is strong. I can't say I agree, but I understand the argument. The solution, however, is simple: make the movement a biceps-dominant exercise through the law of biomechanics.
Any time you pull with your hands close together, there's no way your back can take over. And when you pair that with the fact that your hand is in a neutral position to target the brachialis (a key upper-arm booster), you've already got yourself a killer exercise.
Second, the rope requires your gripping muscles to work with ferocious intensity. In fact, there's no better exercise to boost your gripping strength than climbing a rope. Indeed, there's a direct correlation between your gripping strength and your biceps mass.
Third, since your upper back is also helping your efforts, some of the burden is taken off your elbow joints. Plus, it appears the biceps will grow only when the supporting (upper back) muscles are strong enough to handle the added girth.
To grow big muscles fast requires you to train a muscle group at least three times per week. The best way to pull it off is to perform exercises that are relatively easy on your joints. It takes significantly longer for your joints to recover than it takes your muscle tissue. This is why the Scott curl (a.k.a. preacher curl) has always ranked at the bottom of my list: It can be brutal on the elbow joints, and this slows your recovery.
The second best exercise for your biceps must possess all three of the elements I just mentioned. You might think it's the towel pull-up. I like that exercise, but it's not the winner. A towel, no matter the type, is always too slick to hang onto long enough to derive any substantial biceps boosting benefits.
Winner: Pull-up with a narrow neutral grip.
For most of the muscle groups I've mentioned thus far, it's been relatively easy to choose one exercise that deserves the top spot. But the triceps ain't so easy. That's because there are a few exercises I could choose.
No one would argue the effectiveness of the dip. It's been a mainstay in my programs since day one. However, if your triceps are deflated, you need an exercise that allows you to really crank up the load. If your AC joints are in anything but tip-top condition, they won't like heavy dips.
I'm a proponent of heavy training, and high frequency training, when the goal is to build muscle as fast as possible. In either case, I must use exercises that don't put any excess burden on your joints.
To get big, it's necessary to do some heavy lifting. Big triceps go hand-in-hand with a big bench press. You'll never find an elite bench presser with small horseshoes. But I don't care how long a heavy, traditional barbell bench press has been part of the iron game, it sucks for your shoulder joints.
I haven't had a client do a full range of motion barbell bench press in three years. I'm happy to report that this change has allowed me to spend more time training them, and less time treating their soft tissue injuries.
So the best triceps exercise is one that allows for super-heavy loads while minimizing the potential for shoulder damage.
Winner: Close-grip bench press lockout from pins (or a board press).
I've already trounced on the barbell bench press, but I have one more thing left to say about it: it's not a great chest builder.
The same can be said for a dumbbell bench press, even though I like the exercise for many other purposes. The reason both of these "chest" exercises fail to add meat is because neither adequately challenges horizontal adduction — the movement your pectoral muscles is designed to do.
When you press a barbell or dumbbell while lying on your back, the line of resistance from the weights is going straight down. In order to challenge horizontal adduction, the line of resistance must be out at an angle, around 45 degrees relative to your torso. You can make up for part of this shortcoming by pressing dumbbells up and out at an angle, but even this modification might still keep a flat-chested guy from building the pecs his girlfriend desires.
That's why my choice is the standing chest press with cables. The cables, when set correctly, will provide resistance against horizontal adduction throughout the entire movement. Besides, this chest exercise was a favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and who can argue with that?
It's important to note that this isn't an exercise that allows you to go super heavy. Sets of less than six reps are typically a waste of time since it's harder to get your body in position than it is to perform the exercise. Shoot for anywhere from 6-20 reps per set and squeeze your pecs together hard when your arms are out in front.
Winner: Cable chest press (standing or lying).
Winner: Heavy deadlift.
It's important to rotate your exercises every month or two, but make these eight exercises an essential part of your bodybuilding plan whenever possible. You'll have a bigger, stronger, and healthier body to show for it!
Model: Beau Myrick
Location: Gold's Gym, Abilene, Texas
Close-Grip Bench Press Lockout from Pins
Cable Chest Press
About Chad Waterbury
Chad Waterbury is a neurophysiologist, director of strength and conditioning at the Rickson Gracie International Jiu Jitsu Center in West Los Angeles, and author of Huge in a Hurry.
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