Before anything else, one thing must be made clear. The exercises listed here are for those who want to become not only bigger but also stronger at the same time, and not for those men who just want to get big and buff without necessarily getting stronger. If you want to get BOTH bigger and stronger using exercises for size and strength, then read on.
Also, if you lift weights and don’t care about your strength, then I’m not talking to you. But seriously, think about how much it would suck being weaker than a guy who’s smaller than you.
Okay so here’s a fact many people don’t like to hear: the best exercises for getting big (and more importantly, strong) are the old school compound or multi-joint exercises, period. Reason being, these exercises work multiple muscle groups at once in contrast to the more popular isolation exercises which just pump your muscles temporarily. A whole book can be written on this topic, but you’ll get a good overview after reading this article.
Why compound exercises are the best
Before getting into the exercises, it is imperative to justify why compound exercises are the most effective in quickly getting you big and strong. Simply put, these exercises recruit more muscle groups at once, resulting in more effort produced by your body as well as higher Central Nervous System (CNS) activation. When you progressively load higher weights with these compound exercises over time, your muscles and CNS adapt to get stronger, and the stronger you get, the bigger your body becomes naturally.
The good part? the muscle size you obtain from becoming stronger lasts long because compound exercises build dense muscles (that is, higher strength per muscle volume ratio). You may know of buff people that are relatively weak for their size and will deflate as soon as they stop working out – this happens when you don’t do compound exercises.
The bad part? compound exercises are flat-out hard both mentally and physically, meaning they’re not made for wimps (don’t be one). There may be more than one approach to get big, but we will show you the best approach, which is through compound exercises.
Our top 10 most effective compound exercises for maximum size and strength, listed in order of importance.
You don’t necessarily have to do ALL of them, but I suggest you get hooked on a strength training program such as Starting Strength by Coach Rip or Stronglifts 5×5 by Mehdi (check out our review of the program), especially if you’re a beginner, so that you’ll be initially well-guided on how to perform these exercises and learn what particular muscle groups (note: plural) each exercise targets. Here they are:
The ultimate strength builder and the foundation of most strength training programs. If your goal is strength, and you’re not doing Squats, then I don’t know what you’re doing. The huge testosterone releases from this exercise also help you gain muscle mass much quicker. If you find yourself struggling with squats, you can see these 10 tips that will instantly boost your squat.
The deadlift may be our number 2, but if you could only do 1 exercise in the gym, it should be the Deadlift because it works the entire body, and nothing else comes close.
The deadlift recruits more muscles than any other exercise ever created. For this reason, it builds unparalleled strength and adds layers of muscle mass onto your frame. Oh, and it is also one of the manliest exercises.
3. Overhead Presses
The overhead press is the number one forgotten compound movement in the gym, mainly because it’s so hard to do well on, and also because humans are becoming physically wimpier by the day. Hard things yield the best results, and the Overhead Press is a great example of this.
Overhead presses primarily work your shoulders (all three deltoids) and triceps to move the bar, but if you do it right, they also work your entire kinetic chain including your core. Ever wondered why old school lifters were bigger and stronger? it’s because they did more overhead presses than they did bench presses.
4. Bench Presses
If there was an upper body squat, it would be the bench press. The bench press is a very good indicator of your upper body strength since it works your chest, shoulders, and arms. That’s exactly why it’s one of the big three lifts used in competition.
Get your bench press up to 1.5x body weight and there’s no way you won’t have a huge commanding chest.
5. Pull ups/Chin ups
Second only to deadlifts, pull ups and chin ups can work your entire back muscle group. And just like the bench press, pull ups are also a very accurate indicator of overall upper body strength, especially since the core is also involved.
A healthy strong adult male should be able to do 8 or more proper pull ups, and for females, the rough number is at least 2 pull ups.
You can imagine the pull up as a really heavy lat-pull down, just way more compound in nature. Pull ups can build mass really fast because they have a long range of motion (even more if you have long arms) which means more muscle contraction.
6. Farmer’s Walks
In this list, the Farmer’s Walk is the most underrated, unpopular yet the easiest exercise in terms of technique. It’s as simple as picking two heavy dumbbells/barbells in both your hands and walking upright as far or for as long as you can, just like how a strong farmer moves his stuff around.
While it is primarily done for training grip strength, if done with challenging loads (think above 50% of bodyweight), this exercise will brutally train your upper back, traps, lats, abs, obliques, forearms, and even your hands.
On top of that, due to its metabolic nature, farmer’s walks also help you shed fat significantly. Farmer’s walks will highly boost your testosterone levels and will generally make a man out of you.
7. Pendlay rows or T-bar rows
We have a tie for number 7. Pendlay rows and T-bar rows are both excellent exercises for building strength and size in the upper back. They will give you that “thick and strong” look. Unlike regular barbell rows, both Pendlay Rows and T-bar rows allow you to lift heavier weights, which makes them optimal for building strength and muscle mass.
If you pay attention to root words, you could tell that the triceps are composed of 3 muscle heads. Most isolation exercises will only hit one or two triceps heads, but Dips are different because they train all three triceps heads, plus the chest.
Dips will help you build lean, big and strong arms, especially if you add weight to your body to make the exercise heavier and more challenging.
If you are unable to do Squats for whatever reason, then weighted Lunges is the next best exercise to build big and strong legs. Lunges will primarily work your quadriceps muscles, but they also engage the glutes, hamstrings, and core to stabilize you throughout the movement.
As a compound movement, lunges can be exhausting especially if done in higher repetitions, so you should never do them before Squats if you’re doing both exercises on the same day.
10. Barbell curls
We know you’re going to curl anyway, so might as well include it here. Just kidding, barbell curls are actually effective in building bigger and stronger biceps and arms. Among all the other curls, barbell curls allow you to lift the most weight, making them ideal for increasing size and strength in the biceps and forearms.
Also, most people have a dominant arm with stronger biceps in one arm than the other, and doing barbell curls can correct this imbalance by forcing you to produce equal strength from both arms.
There’s a good chance that you currently do not have most of these above exercises included in your workouts. Try and do these compound exercises as the foundation of your routine and you will be surprised at the gains in muscle mass, provided you eat and sleep well. There’s always this one guy in the gym that has been the same for years no matter how hard he trains because he does not do compound exercises. Don’t be that guy.
Hope you learned something out of this post. We’d love it if you share your thoughts in the comments below!
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