By David Sandler Flex
FLEX delivers the best exercises to build the most muscle
How many times have you caught yourself asking the question, “Which exercise should I do?” You get cranking on a good program, but still find yourself questioning why certain body parts just aren’t getting any better. You look around the gym and see a lot different exercises being performed and probably say to yourself, “Should I do that?” The better question should really be, “What am I trying to improve?” Exercises are created for a specific purpose, but when it comes to building size and getting razor-sharp cuts, that reason becomes even more important. Choosing the best exercise is difficult, since most exercises have variations and may activate more than one muscle or muscle group, making it difficult to pinpoint the true target. You also have to consider how to get all your body parts worked out inside of a week while ensuring that your overall goal is met.
It’s time to take the guesswork out of training. You need to determine the value of a particular exercise based on your goal and add it to your program based on that end result.
Whether strength, size, or shape is your goal—likely all three—your primary reason for working out should dictate the exercises you choose to help you reach your goals that much faster. To help you with your selection, we will discuss some of the elements of program development and then present the pros and cons—by body part—of two competitive exercises. Then we’ll choose the winner based on its practical application.
But even better, we tell you how to execute them for maximal results.
WHICH PATH TO PERFECTION?
We could argue this point with science, fact, and practice, but in truth the debate should never end because there is no best training protocol, except the one that motivates you to improve. While there is a link between strength and size in that strong guys are usually well built, and well-built guys usually have some strength, being best at one or the other does create some separation. So in reality, while we all want to be strong and ripped, to take your body to its limit in either, you need to focus on one.
Smart programming suggests that you take turns focusing on strength and size by periodizing, planning, and structuring workouts to excel at one particular goal at a time. Thus both strength and size will improve over time. Building strength will create the platform to support size and thus should be an integral part of your overall training program. But focusing on the perfect shape is likely the goal of every man on the planet, and if it isn’t, it should be because it’s cool to be big and lean.
This leads to the question of which method is better as far as sets and reps versus the amount of weight you lift. You’ve heard it before: “Lift big to get big.” You’ve also heard: “More volume equals greater size.” In principle, both are right, but in application it simply depends on the person and how they define the parameters of their program. If you do few reps but lift real heavy, you will increase size in the long run because your strength increases exponentially. However, your size gains will be slower than if you do many reps and sets with slightly lighter weight, because you can achieve greater volume, which, both in theory and practice, increases size more rapidly. In the size race, you tend to sacrifice a little strength, but since the time your muscles spend under load is quite a bit longer it ultimately proves to be the better route. However, a true strength athlete knows that lifting heavy loads with fewer reps—and a never-die attitude that drives home more sets—can create a volume that is not far off the mark to produce some decent muscle mass while keeping strength.
So again, we could challenge the right method, but ultimately you have to choose the one that will keep you in the gym and pushing your limits. My vote? You train for both strength and size in an approach similar to the programs I have advocated in the past.
QUADS: SQUAT or LEG EXTENSION
Neither. Choose a hack squat where you can touch the back of your heels with your butt. Take a narrow stance and get depth and your quads will go through the greatest possible range of motion. Drive through the floor on the way up to maximize quad development. Do 4 sets of 10 reps to activate the quadzilla response and get your legs the needed thickness and shape. I wouldn’t throw the squat out of the program, as it is still king for its ability to develop overall lower body mass and the best pure strength exercise there is. But because so many muscles are involved, the quads don’t always get the work they need. The leg extension gets an honorable mention because it is a true leg definition enhancer.
Finish your leg workout with three or four sets of 10–12 reps on the leg extension.
TRICEPS: SKULL CRUSHER or PARALLEL-BAR DIP or CABLE PUSHDOWN
Okay, so I chose three to pick from since there are three heads to your triceps muscle. Actually, truth is, you cannot go wrong with any of these exercises—if performed with full range of motion.
Dips are the best move for sheer strength because you move your entire body and the motion helps with increasing ******* strength in your bench press. For ultimate size, I take the skull crushers because the gravitational effect of weight over your head seems to provide a serious fight-or-fight stimulus that forces you to work hard bringing out a thick triceps. But for shape, a good triceps pushdown will give you that horseshoe look and bring maximal definition to your triceps.
When in doubt, choose the skull crusher, because after you fatigue you can get some gratuitous extra reps by performing a close-grip bench till failure and not have to worry about nailing yourself in the head. More weight, more reps, more volume equals greater gains. Hit this exercise for four full sets of 8–10 reps with a post-exhaust close-grip bench press for 6–8 reps at the end of each set.
CHEST: BENCH PRESS or PEC FLYE
Easy, right? Wrong.
Most people will choose the bench press and do it first in their program, but likely because they worry about how much they lift. Here’s a news flash: If you want a big chest, isolate it. Since the bench press requires help from the anterior deltoid and triceps muscles, it isn’t uncommon to see men struggling to build their chest even with a ton of extra benching. Instead, try a pec flye using cables or a machine and exaggerate the range of motion. Hit five sets of 8 reps with as heavy a weight as possible, squeezing tight at the end of the movement.
The isolation on the pecs will activate more muscle fibers and build a thicker chest in no time. Then follow this move with a wider than-normal grip on the bench press for four sets of 10. Lighten the load and get great reps. The only one who cares how much you lift is you.
SHOULDERS: BARBELL PRESS or DUMBBELL PRESS
While the barbell version likely builds more mass and overall strength, using dumbbells will allow you to increase the range of motion while maintaining emphasis over the medial deltoid. Often the barbell press will incorporate upper pec fibers and force your arms into a position that activates the anterior deltoid more than the medial head. Grab a seat, use a heavy pair of dumbbells for four to five sets of 10 reps, dropping below shoulder height and driving them up to a complete *******. If you are forced to lean backward, lighten the load to ensure proper execution. Pair this exercise with a full-range lateral raise, and within weeks your shoulders will begin to take a boulder-like shape.
BACK: BENTOVER ROW or LAT PULLDOWN
While I am a fan of the V-shape effect that the lat pulldown helps to create, nothing tops a solid bentover row for sheer mass and overall upper-back thickness. Using a barbell will bring out the best, but dumbbells can certainly suffice in a pinch. Make sure your range of motion is long, bringing the bar to your stomach while keeping your body tight. For optimal back building, choose a weight where you can get eight good reps and two cheat reps for four to five sets. The execution perfection is your ability to dial in the right load that allows for your cheat reps to be pretty clean. Don’t get caught doing trap shrugs or deadlifts because the weight is too heavy, but don’t use a weight that doesn’t cause a struggle. Follow your row with the lat pulldown and carve out a nice V with your thick back.
BICEPS: STRAIGHT-BAR CURL or BARBELL PREACHER CURL
This is a tough one. Preacher curls will isolate your biceps and prevent other muscles from getting involved. But, I have seen some crazy cheat reps at the preacher bench. Trust me, people notice when you are flopping and failing around a bench. Choose the barbell curl to maximize biceps muscle fiber activity, since the arms are supinated (outward rotation) throughout the movement and the range of motion when standing can be pretty large. Be careful not to cheat too soon, but it is fine to do so on the last rep or two. Hit four to five big sets of 10–12 reps. Oh, and throw a preacher curl into your biceps program to get a little extra help developing the perfect peak so you can show of your guns.
GLUTES: SQUAT or STIFF-LEG DEADLIFT
Squats, hands down, are the best glute developer, but only when you take a wide stance and get some serious depth. Range of motion is everything. Straight-leg deadlifts use a lot of lower back and hamstrings, reducing the need for the glutes to fire. Isolated hip extensions and Romanian deadlifts activate the glutes, but often have a short range of motion. The power and strength to drive out of the bucket of a squat comes from the glutes. It is for this reason I suggest hitting five sets of 8 reps going as deep as possible. As an added benefit, your inner quads (vastus medialis) will get some nice activity, bringing out a thicker upper leg at the same time.
HAMSTRINGS: LYING LEG CURL or SEATED LEG CURL
Go with the seated exercise for hamstring isolation, and the lying exercise if you want to get a little extra glute activity. Both are strong exercises, and both could be done in the same program or on their own alternating in consecutive workouts. Hit four good sets of 12 reps and tag a dropset to the last two sets to get a little extra burn and maximize muscle involvement.
CALVES: STANDING CALF RAISE or DONKEY CALF RAISE
It’s all about maximizing the range of motion. Choose the one that allows you to get your heels all the way down and up as far as you can on your toes. If you have access to a special machine, or a pal who is willing to help, choose the donkey version to kick things up, but also to bring back fond memories of those who paved the way to truly big calves.
Splits, single-body-part workouts, push versus pull, supersets, dropsets, pre- and post-exhaust—the list could go on and on. They all work, and they all don’t. Worse, what worked once may not work so well again. The issue lies in one of the most important components in all of exercise: recovery. With too little you do not build. With too much you start again. And while you can partially measure your recovery against your soreness, you really don’t know how recovered you are until you hit that next workout. You plan with an almost militant approach. You take every variable into consideration, and yet, after a while, your program fails. By and large, each training routine on its own has both solid science and a practitioner’s stamp of approval. Each method to overload, extend, and increase the intensity and volume can ignite some very impressive gains. But in the end, it comes down to only thing: execution. Simply put, you need to make every rep count. Your exercise, your set, your rep has to have a reason to exist, and you have to commit to grinding out each one with perfect execution. But remember, a perfect rep is relative to the performance expectation of that exercise and can only be measured by the end result—your goal: Are you bigger or stronger?
THE EXERCISE ENIGMA
In the end, your success boils down to exercise selection. The moves you choose decide how much weight you will use, how many reps you will perform, and most importantly, which muscles are involved. Every phase of program development forces a face-off between exercises. Your selection process should examine each exercise for its value at delivering your goal. If you choose the wrong exercise, all is not lost, but your gains will certainly slow down. Define the purpose of the exercise and its ability to help you reach your goals. Select a set and rep scheme and attack the weights. If you execute with precision, the rest will follow.
DON’T FORGET YOUR PURPOSE
The right move is the one that works for you. It is the move that will get you to dig deep and push hard. The one that will force you to use perfect technique on every rep and make you want to do more. Your results depends on your ability to select the right exercise to build upon your weak area, select the right load, execute each rep with precision, and handle a little extra volume. Determine which goal is most important, then cycle your training so that you continue to build both strength and size, and over time your shape, definition, and muscle quality will improve. FLEX
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