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Building Muscle -The Best Basic Lifts for Maximum Gains

Updated on April 4, 2015
Bench press like a powerlifter. It's a whole body exercise!
Bench press like a powerlifter. It's a whole body exercise! | Source
Squatting works for everyone.
Squatting works for everyone. | Source
Arnold deadlifting. Nothing simpler than lifting heavy stuff off the ground.
Arnold deadlifting. Nothing simpler than lifting heavy stuff off the ground. | Source
Standing barbell tricep extension
Standing barbell tricep extension

One barbell set has the potential to build a lot of muscle...

Good morning exercise with barbell.
Good morning exercise with barbell. | Source

Basic Lifts for Big Muscle Growth

Building muscle is frequently advertised as an activity that must be engaged in with the use of supplements, tons of protein packed into shakes or overfeeding, and scientifically chosen sets and reps that are not to be deviated from. Of course there's always the opinion that it can only be done with steroids. What a shame. Here's the truth of it: Muscle building is big money.

For the majority of healthy people who want to build muscle and increase strength, more would be accomplished by shutting off the flow of useless information, and getting down to absolute basics.

What is basic? In this article, it will be defined as an exercise that uses multiple major muscle groups for most or all of the routine, and stimulates supporting muscles in order to manage these compound exercises. Read on for a great mass-building workout example.

*With every workout, get a thorough warm-up. See the link to an article on flexibility below for tips on this. Get warm, but save energy for the workout.

Warm-up: (example:)

  • Bodyweight full squats x10-20
  • Good mornings + deep squat stretch x10-20
  • Straight arm rotations; hip, knee, & ankle rotations.

*Continue with a dynamic warm-up using a light weight for one to two sets on the exercise about to be performed.

Bench Press:5-8 sets (depending on fitness level) x 12, 8, 3,(2,)5,(5,)8, 8. These numbers should be about 65% of the 1 repetition maximum to start out, then up to 75-80%, 90%, and so on.
When you are doing the bench press correctly, it is a huge upper body workout.


  • Arch the back and push the feet into the ground. Tighten abs throughout the lift. This is how you see most power lifters doing this lift.
  • Squeeze the bar hard and pull it apart. This will activate the lats, the platform you're pushing against, that stabilizes the lift on the way down.
  • Gripping the bar very hard will make this exercise feel completely different.
  • Bring the elbows in about five degrees, before pushing the bar off your chest. Flaring them puts unnecessary pressure on the elbow joint.
  • Push the bar up in a straight line.


Back Squat: 6-8 sets (depending on how fit you are) x 12-15, 10, 5, 3, 3, 8. If you need more volume, add another three rep set and another set at the end for eight. Work hard at a heavy weight before you do, though. Load the bar up and challenge yourself. Don't underestimate the effectiveness of this exercise on your whole body.


  • Take a deep breath and hold long enough to go down and come up. Reset the breath and do another rep. This helps stabilize your midsection, adding support to your body through the lift.
  • Tighten your abs from the bottom of the pelvis, Since your midsection is the connection between your legs and the bar, don't let it go slack.
  • Push your neck back into the bar, as you arch your back, look up and stand up with the weight.
  • Keep your eyes looking straight or at an upward angle.

Too simple? Try it, and give it everything. Based on the proper execution of these two exercises alone the body will grow muscle everywhere. Add the deadlift and you will be amazed at the results.

Perform one of the workout examples below on the same day as you do bench/squat or deadlift. Give yourself as much as 72 hours to recover between workouts. Going back to the gym too soon after an intense workout is a sure way to stall progress. That said, listen to your body; you may need more or less time depending on your age and intensity in the gym.

Supporting Workout Example #1 An effective workout for preventing injury in the bench press and facilitating stronger lifts:

  • Warm-up (something like the one above.)
  • Giant set of the following: (Do the exercises consecutively without resting or setting the weight down)
  • Front raises x12/
  • Standing Lateral raisesx12/
  • Bent-over lateral raisesx12.

Perform 2-3 sets. Don't rest between exercises!

  • Pullups (overhand & under)
  • Body Rows: (Body Rows can be performed on a set of gymnastics rings or a suspension trainer; or substituted if you cannot do a pullup)

*Do Pullups and rows or Body Rows and 1 Arm Bent Row, or all three as a giant set, no rest between. Do rest between giant sets though, at least 60-90 seconds.

  • 1 arm Bent over row:

3-8 reps each x 2-3 sets (2-3 giant sets.)


  • French press: 4-5 sets x 5-8. (These can be performed on a bench, but I prefer standing. Use an EZ curl bar or a dumbbell, holding the flat part with two hands.)
  • Good mornings with barbell or Hyperextensions: 2-3 sets x 12-15.


The deadlift is one of those primal, compound movements that has a real "what the hell?" effect on your body. Meaning, although it is considered a lower back and hamstring exercise, heavy deadlifting involves the entire body and will cause muscle to grow in places you would never expect.

Do this exercise in proper form and it is the perfect 'big lift' to round out your routine.

Important training points.

  • Step up to the bar with your shins as close as possible
  • Be mindful of rounding the back. Keep the spine neutral; not too rounded, not too arched, but maintaining the natural curve of the spine. Pull your chest up and 'tall.'
  • Push your butt to the wall. This is called hinging at the hips, and you are basically pushing your hips back until you can feel the tension in your glutes and hamstrings. it feels a lot like pushing your butt to the back wall. Hinge first, then bend your knees.
  • Hands should be lined up with your shoulders or slightly wider than your hips. Imagine you are bending the bar around your body. This activates the major muscles in your back and upper body.
  • Choose alternating grip (one hand over, one hand under) or overhand grip. Generally heavier lifts are facilitated with the alternating grip, but an overhand grip works fine until you are having trouble hanging on.
  • Pull the shoulders back and down. You should now have tension throughout the body as though you were about to lift.
  • Now push through the floor with your feet, pulling the bar into your body. This will naturally cause it to rise and allows you to maintain tension throughout the lift.
  • At the same time you are pulling into your body, push the chest up and drive the hips forward.
  • Lockout by extending hips and knees and pulling shoulders back and tight.

The Age Factor

Think you have to be young to do these exercises? Think again. These basic lifts are well-suited to the older population. Studies show that older and elderly adults can benefit from weight training in many ways.

Chief among these are maintenance of and increasing bone density, fast twitch muscle fiber stimulation (enhancing daily activity/mobility,) and of course maximum muscle stimulation to prevent sarcopenia (muscle atrophy due to aging.)

The best way to get these benefits? Practice the lifts with the greatest effect! Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift. It should go without saying that anyone, but especially older adults, should proceed with caution in these exercises.

That's only one of a thousand workouts that will force muscles all over the body to grow, but you don't need thousands of workouts. If you're an elite athlete already, and progress is stalling, or you are just starting out and aren't satisfied with your results, go back to basics. Simplify everything for awhile. Stick with it for 4-6 weeks and then change things up.

After the workout, when the growth happens, eat a steady increase in quality calories. Remember, a body is an adaptive machine that will gradually create the capacity for eating more calories. Don't give it more than it can handle too soon, or you can slow recovery and dampen your energy levels.

Eating a diet packed with green vegetables, fruits and plenty of protein should take care of most of the nutrients needed. If you need more, try one of the supplements recommended here.

Eat a recommended portion of protein, (a palm-sized piece of meat, tofu or whatever you prefer,) and add an extra meal or two every day.

Keep experimenting to find the right balance of hard training, rest, and nutrition, and the results will come.

An awesome chart from (not affiliated)

Need a good bench?

Ader Olympic Bench Press w/ 300lb Gray Olympic Set
Ader Olympic Bench Press w/ 300lb Gray Olympic Set
Strong flat bench with no uncomfortable break like an adjustable bench.

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