When it comes to building muscle I like to keep things simple. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of hot new products and exercises that promise to be the next best thing in muscle building. These fancy exercises and products use long ‘scientific like’ words and explanations to show you they work to build the most muscle.


In this article I am going to get back to basics. I am going to show you six big muscle building exercises you can’t afford not to do and why you should master them. These six exercises are the grass roots of building muscle and are essential for any serious training program.


You might find it hard to believe, but with these six exercises alone you can pack on a serious amount of muscle. I refer to these exercises as the ‘core’ to any good program. When I start planning a muscle building program for a client I always start with these six basic exercises and build the program around them.


6 Foundational muscle building exercises:


1. Squat

The squat is the biggest exercise for packing on serious poundage. There’s no argument about it. The squat is primarily a leg building exercise. You start the exercise with a barbell resting across your shoulders standing straight up. Then bending at the knees and hips you lower the barbell down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. And then push the barbell back to the starting position.


The main muscle groups pulled into action for the squat are your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. Secondary muscle groups include the lower back, adductors and to a certain extent your shoulder muscles. As you can see many muscle groups are recruited for this exercise making it the biggest exercise and biggest potential muscle builder.


Like all the core muscle building exercises, you should make the squat the first exercise you do on your leg training day. Because it’s the biggest exercise you want your legs to be fresh and ready. If muscle building is your goal, aim for about 5-10 reps on the squat. Because you’ll be lifting heavy weights a good warm up is vital. Squatting is very stressful for the lower body, especially the knees, so 5 minutes on the treadmill followed by some dynamic warm up on the legs such as some light bodyweight squats and lunges first up are recommended.


2. Deadlift


This is the biggest muscle builder there is, period. It hits primarily your hamstrings and glutes. Two of the biggest muscle groups in our body. The secondary muscles used are your lower and upper back, core and arms. Ensure to maintain a neutral (arched) lower back throughout to keep your lumbar spine safe!


3. Bench Press

The bench press is the king of upper body building exercises. For years the bench press has been used to measure a lifter’s strength. How many times have you been asked how much do you bench?’ I bet you’ve never been asked how much do you squat or how many chin ups can you do.


The bench is a simple yet extremely powerful exercise that targets the entire chest (pectorals), front shoulders (deltoids) and triceps. To perform a bench press you must lie on your back on a flat bench, grip the barbell at slightly wider than shoulder grip and press the bar straight down to your chest.


The bench press is the biggest upper body builder because it allows you to move the most amount of weight possible. This is its advantage over the dumbbell press. With the help of a spotter you can also push yourself to lift heavier weights. There are also other advanced bench press techniques like board presses, bench press negatives and chain presses.


4. Wide grip Chin Up

If you were only going to do one exercise to work your back this would be it. The wide grip chin up is the ultimate test of a lifters power to weight ratio. This muscle building exercise is very demanding on the body.


The wide grip chin up primarily hits the lats, but also targets the entire upper back, biceps and forearms. To execute this exercise you need a chin up bar or assisted chin up machine. Hold the bar in a wide grip (greater than shoulder width) with your palms facing away from your body. Start in a ‘hanging’ position with your arms fully extended. Pull yourself up until your can get your chin over the bar and lower back to starting position.


Most people will not be able to do wide grip chin ups without some lat/back training first. You can use the assisted chin up machine or lat pull down machine to strengthen your lats before attempting wide grip chin ups. This is the most demanding back exercise you can do so it must be the first exercise in your session.


5. Bentover Row

This is another exercise for the lats and mid back. It can be done by using dumbbells or barbell. Keep torso to at least 45 degree angle leaning forward. Engage core and keep it tight. With a neutral lower back, pull weight up towards abdominals whilst keeping your forearms vertical. Set and rep range same as for leg work.


6. Overhead Press

Develops size and strength in the front of your shoulders. This exercise can be done standing or seated with back supported and bench at almost 90 degrees. If done standing, use a much lighter weight. Use a pair of dumbbells or a barbell and press directly overhead. 

When you should be doing these exercises?


Like I mentioned previously in this article, these exercises are the biggest muscle builders and also the most taxing on your body so they must be done at the beginning of your workout to get the maximum benefits. I recommend that you do up to 4-5 sets on each exercise and vary the way you perform these sets each week. For example, the first week you do pyramid up sets (increasing weight with every set), the second week you pyramid down (decreasing weight with every set) and the third week you do moderate reps around 10 reps in 3 straight sets; and the fourth week going heavier up to 5 reps for 5 sets. This keeps your muscles from getting accustomed to your routine. Good luck packing on some serious pounds!


Stay Healthy & Strong,
Steven Wong – CPT, Pn1

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