There is no one size fits all when it comes to building muscles and what exercises one should do. However, there are a few exercises known as compound movements that make it easier to target more muscle groups than any isolation exercises would. Here we will be discussing some of these exercises as well as alternatives that you can do at home or at the gym to build more muscle and strength along the way. Some exercises might require people at home to get nothing more than free weights (a pair of dumbbells), a pull-bar or resistance bands, which are both easily available and cost friendly. So without further ado, here are the top exercises for building muscle
What does it work: The bench press works your chest, triceps, back and shoulders.
The stronger these supporting muscles (triceps, back, shoulders) are, the more your bench press can increase.
The bench press is an incredible and almost a staple exercise when it comes to building your chest. However, due to an injured shoulder or by choice, you want to avoid bench pressing and still build your chest. There are other options.
Alternative one (Dumbbell Press) (Home / Gym)
If at the gym or have a pair of free weights at home. Lay down on the bench or the floor and do dumbbell presses. When at the peak of your lift, squeeze your chest for maximum contraction, wait a few seconds and take it back down. Do not count your reps but go until you can’t do any more repetitions. Train to failure as that is the best way to go about it with dumbbells. Read how-to-build-more-muscle-why-should-you-train-to-failure/
Alternative two (Cable flyes) (Gym / home (need bands and an anchor))
Cable flyes are one of the best if not the best exercises that you can do for both your shoulders (front delt) and your chest. It targets your middle chest particularly more which allows you to get the separation between your pecs to give you that aesthetic look.
Cable flyes at the gym are easier to perform but if you want to replicate that movement you can use resistance bands that can used on a door frame or with any other immovable object to replicate the movement. It’s effect on your chest is the same and is a good at home way to replicate cable flyes.
Alternative three (Pushups) (Gym/ Home)
You might have heard these everywhere and this might seem like an obvious choice but there are ways you can make sure your pushups effectively replicate the effect that a bench press has on your chest. That is by slowing down your push-up when going down and holding it for about 5 seconds and then coming back up and when reaching the peak (top) of a rep. Squeeze your chest together each rep for maximum contraction. All this put together, puts more resistance on your chest and shoulder developing them both.
The number of push-ups you can do is drastically reduced when following the 5 second method but the chest activation is second to none when compared to any home workouts that you might do for your chest. This will make you stronger while building more muscle as the tougher or heavier the workout gets the more muscle and strength you will build through progressive overload.
Pull-downs are one of the best exercises that you can do at the gym for building your back.
What it works: It works your lats, backs, biceps, traps and rear delts. Although, The biceps and lats get a much better workout while the rest of the muscles act as support. Training all support muscles contributes to overall strength during a lat pull-down
When doing a lat pull down grip the bar wide with your thumbs at the point where the bar bends (wide grip). Bring the bar down to your upper chest while leaning a little backwards with your chest out. Once completely lowered try to squeeze your back muscles as if you are trying to bring them close together for maximum activation. Hold for 3-5 seconds and go back up but as slow as possible while controlling the weight.
Alternative one (pull-ups) (chin-ups) (Gym/ Home)
Pulls-ups are an effective way to work your back, lats, shoulders, chest and core (abs). If you change your grip to a chin-up on the bar, you can target your biceps and triceps as well, but not as much back. Doing both pull-ups and chin-ups on a bar is an effective way to train 6 different muscles.
It is not restricted to the gym and can be done at home or in a park. All you need is a bar attached either to a wall or to a door or a monkey bar in a park.
Alternate two (Seated rows) (Gym)
Another alternate to the pull-downs is seated rows. These target your back, lats, biceps and triceps. The biceps and triceps act as support muscles while the back and lats are the primary muscles that are targeted in this exercise.
To further optimize the muscle contraction, as you pull the v-grip attachment all the way to your upper abs, squeeze your back and hold it for 3-5 seconds and let it go slowly as you return and focus on your lats. Try not to pull with your biceps but your back and do slow and clean reps for better mind-muscle connection and growth.
What it works: The squat is a complete leg workout compiled into a single movement and hence is one of the hardest exercises to perform. This exercise is one of the most recommended compound movements as it works your complete lower body.
One of the best ways to squat is to go slow while descending and when your thighs are parallel to the ground. Hold your position for a few seconds and get back up for maximum effect. It’s always better to start out by squatting without weights and then adding weights as you get the strength and proper form right. For those at home, just squat your own weight and if you want to add more, you can hold something heavier like a kettlebell or anything heavy in the same way and progressively overload your muscles.
Squats are another staple exercise done by body builders or people looking to get in shape. People who have bad backs or are injured and can no longer do squats. There are no alternatives that are going to be as effective as squats, but they can be a close second and help you build muscle just the same.
Alternative one (leg press) (Gym)
The leg press is another amazing alternative that trains your front quads, glutes and hamstrings. The way you should do them is support your lower back on the machine and then slowly let the weight come down. While pushing the weight back up, do not do partials. You have to take the weight back to its starting position each rep and hold it there for a few seconds before letting it come back down slowly. Doing little jerks just for the sake of being able to put more weight on the machine will not result in more muscle or strength.
Alternative two (Lunges) (Gym/ Home)
Lunges are another alternative to squats and are versatile. You can easily grab some free weights and progressively overload this exercise. Lunges are by no means an easier exercise and work your glutes, calves and thighs as well. When performing a lunge, make sure your back is straight and you are facing directly in front of you while keeping your core flexed for better control. Regardless of if you’re at home or at the gym, lunges are an excellent alternative to squats that can help you target some of the major muscles that a squat would.
Deadlift is the one exercise almost everyone who has any knowledge about the fitness world has heard of.
What it works: Deadlift works your traps, glutes, core and back. It is one of the most well rounded exercises, like squats.
However, deadlifting is not for everyone. As much as every other gym bro recommends it and for good reason. Some people are actually better off without doing them. People with bad backs or injured shoulders should avoid it. Deadlifts are known to cause lumbar spine issues along with other back related problems in the long term. If done wrong, those long term issues can become short-term issues. Especially if deadlifts are not done with proper form as it is not a forgiving exercise if you mess up.
Alternative to deadlift (Farmer’s carry) (Gym/ Home)
Farmer’s carry can be done at the gym or at home but requires free weights like a pair of dumbbells.
It targets your entire body but its main focus is your biceps, core, triceps, forearms, back and obliques.
Doing this exercise properly requires you to stand completely straight with your chest out and core flexed throughout the movement. It helps you reinforce proper posture which can be a huge benefit if your someone who has a desk job.
5. Shoulder press
What it works: The shoulder press not only works your shoulders but your traps, triceps, chest and back as well. It’s an effective exercise and is one of the very few compound movements that targets major muscle groups effectively.
People with back issues should do the seated shoulder press instead of standing. However, those who have a shoulder injury should avoid doing this exercise entirely.
Alternative (lateral raises) (Gym/ Home)
Lateral raises are another shoulder exercise that you can perform to train your front delts and traps and is easier on the shoulders as you can train to failure with lighter weights. This makes it a better option if you have a bad shoulder. As you can effectively hit muscle hypotrophy without having to lift heavy weights. At home, the movement is still the same. All you need is just a pair of dumbbells or anything that you can replicate the movement of a lateral raise with and just train to failure. You can use resistance bands as well.
Alternative (Rear delt dumbbell pulls) (Gym/ Home)
To effectively train your shoulder you need to train your rear delts as well. This is where the rear delt dumbbells pulls come in. Be precise and use weights that are suitable for you. The method of training them is the same as that of lateral raises. However, with rear belts, it’s possible to lift more weight if you feel the need to do so.