Top 10 Compound Movements for Maximum Mass!
You can’t achieve a massively muscled & aesthetically complete physique without a good selection of heavy basic compound movements. This is not to say that compound movements must exclusively comprise the training regimens of devoted mass seekers. No, there is much more to muscle-building than the basics…
Once a certain degree of development has been achieved, it’s more important to attack the physique from multiple angles with a wider variety of movements of increasing complexity than to continue hammering it with a select few key lifts.
Greater volume combined with ever-changing workouts encompassing a succession of unique lifts designed to hit different aspects of a target muscle is crucial when navigating an entrenched training plateau, as I have found in advising a great many bodybuilding athletes for over 20 years as a high-performance coach. However, front and center will always be the time-honored mass-builders.
grow faster than ever before – guaranteed
In this article I’ll discuss some of the methods I use to program for muscle gains. The training insights I’m about to reveal have worked for many top levels lifters; lifters who’ve plateaued in their progress after years spent crafting appreciable amounts of lean muscle.
I’ll also provide a top-ten list of my favorite compound movements. I’ll explain why each of these movements is an effective size-builder only when executed under certain training conditions, and how you too can utilize each to maximum advantage. Read this article, apply its insights and you’ll soon be growing faster than ever before – guaranteed.
Of course there’s a reason why compound (or multi-joint) movements are most effective in building thick slabs of muscle in the shortest possible time period. It’s because unlike ‘isolation’ movements (which usually work only one specific area) the compounds tax multiple muscles, not only the target areas but also the synergists that support the major groupings. Thus, more total muscle fibers are enlisted to perform each compound lift along with muscles that would not ordinarily be hit with more precise movements. The result: a great deal more muscle growth across multiple muscle groupings and all areas in between.
Because compounds involve more muscles, they also necessarily allow for more weight to be lifted. As we all know, heavy weights combined with precise form creates more muscular development compared to lighter loads using the same technique.
heavy weights combined with precise form creates more muscular development…
Compounds also have a systemic effect on muscular growth, forcing the body to work as a complete unit.1 The more acute stress we can place on the muscular system as a whole, the more growth hormone (GH) and testosterone (T) the body produces during each systemic lift.2, 3, 4, 5 This places the body in a highly anabolic state conducive to maximum muscle protein synthesis and ongoing lean mass gains.
So it’s clear that heavy compounds are a superior means to maximizing muscular growth. The greatest iron game champions have always known this and their physiques reflect their ‘mass-builder’ bias. But building maximum mass is not simply a case of picking up a heavy chunk of iron and using multiple muscles to hoist it multiple times. There are, as always, some important caveats to consider.
When 8-Time Olympia Champion Ronnie Coleman famously screamed ‘light weight’ he did so to psych-up for his equally famous lifts. To his way of thinking, the beckoning weight would feel lighter if he believed it to be so. This would give him a psychological edge that would allow him to bang out a succession of reps with a weight that would likely crush a mere mortal.
Of course, King Ronnie’s weights were by necessity heavy, as they should be when striving for maximum mass. However, the greatest competitive bodybuilder of all time had also spent many years working up to such prodigious poundages. And he had the favorable genetics needed to translate virtually any training approach into solid muscle gains.
It’s easy to get caught up in lifting more weight than is effective to properly stimulate a target muscle.
For most lifters, the lifting of such heavy iron relative to one’s individual strength levels may not be the smartest move. In fact, one of the biggest problems facing aspiring stage warriors remains an emphasis on heavy iron at the expense of perfect form and sufficient muscle stimulation.
It’s easy to get caught up in lifting more weight than is effective to properly stimulate a target muscle. Lifters tend to feel that if they are not getting stronger from week to week then they are not progressing as they should be. Even the term ‘compound lift’ is itself frequently preceded by the word ‘heavy’ thus implying that a multi-joint movement with more moderate weights is a far less effective size-building strategy. But is it?
There comes a point when heavy lifting may provide fewer and fewer returns on muscle-building investment. At this specific juncture, less and less of an emphasis is placed on the actual muscles we wish to work. And compounds being compounds, a great many synergistic muscles are only too willing to take over once a weight exceeds the lifting capacity of its prime movers. Unfortunately, an illusion is conveyed that we are getting stronger when, in fact, more non-related muscles are simply being enlisted to complete the lift and, even worse, form is being compromised in order for a heavy weight to be hoisted skyward.
To fully stimulate a target muscle it’s always best to lessen the weight, tighten up on the form and feel the right muscles working from full extension to full contraction (various effective intensity methods, such as partials, notwithstanding).
So when aiming to fully maximize the effectiveness of a given compound, one should always emphasize form over poundage. And gradually increase the weights in line with a continued emphasis on perfect technique.
Programming the Big Lifts
There are probably as many ways to program for lean mass gains as there are bodybuilders wanting to add another inch to their arms. Nevertheless, here are a few pointers to consider when adding the below-listed mass builders to your program.
Include Isolation Work
A good selection of compound lifts should always form the basis of one’s mass building regimen. This means a smaller percentage of time should be devoted to single-joint isolation movements (though that being said, no muscle strictly functions in isolation and compound lifts can also be used to place major emphasis on specific areas of a muscle).
With the so-called isolation movements more focus can be directly placed on a specific muscle. For example, while chin-ups (palms facing back) are a great way to stimulate biceps growth, more stimulation can be placed on both biceps heads with seated dumbbells curls (supinating at the top of the movement).
A good rule of thumb is one isolation movement to 2-3 compound movements per grouping per workout. For example, a good chest workout might include: barbell bench press supersetted with chest dips (both compounds), incline dumbbell press (compound) and flat bench flyes (isolation for more direct pec stimulation).
One Muscle Group a Week
Assuming you are fully exhausting a target muscle, there is no need to train each grouping more than once a week. Unless you are taking a truckload of steroids and/or have faster than normal recovery rate, training each body-part more than once every seven days can make tremendous inroads in to your ability to recover and may even lead to a retrogression of results.
Remember also that secondary stimulation of a non-target muscle can also occur when training a specific area (for example, when training legs the back and, to a smaller extent, other upper body areas will receive some degree of stimulation).
there is no need to train each grouping more than once a week.
Of all the factors associated with building lean muscle, the frequency in which a muscle should be targeted remains one of the more contentious. Try a variety of approaches for yourself and see what works best for you. In my personal experience, and that of a great majority of my clients, once a week remains the best approach.
Thus you will need to pick 2-3 compounds for each muscle group (depending on its size) and hit them for all that they are worth once a week (four sets of 8-12 reps per movement is usually best but, again, there are many more protocols worth experimenting with).
Superset the Compounds
One protocol I’ve found to work well for maximizing a compound lift is to link it to another similar movement for double the impact. For example, I’ve always gotten great results with medium-stance squats directly followed by walking barbell lunges. The squats hit all the major quad/ham muscles while the lunges finish off areas not specifically targeted by the squats (in particular the glutes and hamstrings).
Furthermore, because the quads are thrashed from the squats they’re unlikely to take over as the hams and glutes become progressively weaker during the lunges. This principle of pre-exhaustion can also be applied to other muscles.
Regardless of which training protocol is used, the real key to continuous muscle gains is to keep the body in an anabolic state at all times. It’s pointless pounding the muscles into submission in the interests of sparking new growth if you fail to capitalize on the prime post-workout period.
Due to their systemic nature the compounds are known to create more muscle damage while fatiguing the physique faster. This means you’ll need to rest longer between workouts and, most important of all, nourish your body with a good selection of specific performance supplements. I personally recommend a good BCAA product taken 2-3 times a day (first thing in the morning, immediately before cardio/weights and during the workout itself).
the real key to continuous muscle gains is to keep the body in an anabolic state at all times.
An advanced pre-workout supplement such as IMPACT IGNITER will supply the requisite key performance factors to power through the toughest sessions. And additional BCAAs like those found in AMINOCORE taken pre-workout and at other times will make all the difference to how well you recover between workouts, especially when in pre-competition mode.
A superior whey protein formulation like ISOFLEX taken first thing in the morning, post-workout and as a standalone protein source will also keep your muscles anabolic, thus allowing you to make the most of your compound-centric training sessions.
The Top Ten Compound Movements (In Ascending Order Based On Effectiveness)
10: Dumbbell Shrugs
There is nothing like a solid set of traps to thicken up the physique in the best possible way. The most powerful bodybuilders are known for their fully fleshed trapezius muscles; think Johnny Jackson, Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler and imagine either of these bodybuilding titans hitting a ‘lights’ out’ most muscular without requisite trap mass.
While it does not engage multiple joints, the dumbbell-shrug does work the entirety of the trap region (upper, middle and lower) while hitting other back areas to build a tremendous degree of mass that’s visible from the front, side and back.
With arms straight and palms facing in, shrug both dumbbells as high as possible and hold for a one count at the top of the movement before slowly lowering (with no backwards or forwards shoulder rotation).
To keep the tension on the traps do not bend the elbows at any point in the range, keep the head facing forward (dropping the head can encourage the back to round) and use pure trap strength to raise the weights as high as possible. Due to the shortness of the range, very heavy weights can be used with this movement. Hand straps may be needed once your trap strength surpasses your gripping strength.
9: Walking Lunge (Bar/Dumbbells)
Entire Leg Region (Emphasis on Glutes & Hams)
Lunges are a great movement for heavily taxing all of the leg muscles (even the calves), most notably the hams and glutes. As each leg is alternately engaged, a great deal of balance is required, each respective leg must bear the burden, and tremendous stress is consequently placed on the working muscles.
Because you are walking, it feels more natural to keep the movement rolling and thus maximum tension can be more readily placed on the enlisted muscles. The walking lunge is also an excellent way to improve hip stability and enhance athletic performance.
Though walking lunges can be performed with dumbbells, a bar tends to provide greater stabilization between the upper and lower body, thereby allowing you to focus on fleshing out the legs rather than keeping the body correctly balanced throughout the movement.
Begin by placing bar across the traps with head facing forward. With each step, slowly lunge until the rear knee is as close to touching the ground as possible. Push off with the front leg in an explosive fashion, squeezing the working quad on the ascent.
8: Close-Grip Bench Press
Pecs, Shoulder & Triceps (Emphasis on Triceps)
An excellent mass builder for the triceps, pecs and delts, this movement was valuable in adding critical upper body mass during my last competition campaign. One of few compound movements to hit the triceps, the close grip bench really hammers all three heads of this key muscle grouping.
Best of all, you can really load up on the resistance, an impossibility when hitting the tris with the usual isolation stuff.
Slightly narrower than shoulder width is the best grip for this movement. Any narrower and you will shorten the range of motion while potentially hyper-adducting the wrist joints, stressing the elbow joints and decreasing stability of the bar, thus reducing the control you may have over the resistance.
Bring the bar to just above the lower pec region in a super slow fashion, before fluidly powering the weight back up. Do not lock out at the top. By stopping short of full extension you’ll keep maximum tension on the tris while forcing as much blood into the muscle to enhance metabolic stress and the corresponding muscle pump.
7: Barbell Shoulder Press (Military Press)
Entire Delt Region (Emphasis on Front Delts)
About as old school as you can get, this movement stimulates growth across all three delt heads to elicit maximum size and strength. While the behind the neck version is arguably superior for adding size, it’s also much more dangerous.
Though proponents of behind the neck presses will debate its relative merits, there’s no denying the fact that it requires a great deal more external rotation at the shoulder joint and scapular retraction, which combined can place excessive strain on the rotator cuff tendons and encourage bursitis (inflammation of the fluid filled pads which cushion the joints) of the shoulder joint.
The front version limits the potential for injury while providing equally impressive mass gains.
I prefer doing military presses seated as these eliminate the inevitable cheating and momentum that can transfer tension from the delts to the lower back and hips. Though standing certainly engages more muscles (from the core to the quads to the back) it’s complete delt destruction that I’m after.
Begin with the bar slightly above the front delts, hands spaced shoulder width apart. With feet flat and slightly turned out, press them into the ground to keep the back and glutes firmly in place. Press the bar, stopping just short of lockout. With elbows in at all times and lower back slightly arched, keep the bar traveling up and down in a consistently fluid motion. No jerking or heaving the weight.
6: Bent-Over Barbell Row (Reverse Grip)
Back/Traps (Emphasis Upper Back, Rhomboid, Mid Traps & Secondary Stress on Biceps)
A favorite of six-time Olympia winner Dorian Yates, barbell rowing with a supinated grip allows for the hoisting of huge weights. It’s superior to those done with a pronated grip (palms down) as it recruits the biceps and thus allows for more weight to be lifted (to the benefit of both bis and back) while providing better core activation due to an increased need to brace the abs and hold the position tight.
I’ve also found that the supinated grip allows for a much tighter concentric contraction and more overall lat activation. This lift, along with the deadlift (to be discussed soon), will add more meat to your back than any other combination of movements.
An undervalued benefit of the reverse grip bent bar row is that it allows more direct loading on the biceps than any other movement. I’ve noticed more fullness in my own bis since incorporating them full time.
To perform, hip hinge by pushing the hips back while bracing the abs and retracting the shoulders. Keep the lower back flat, or slightly arched.
Grab the bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Pull the bar into the midsection while sticking the chest out and pushing the shoulders down and back. Squeeze hard at the top, then complete a two-count eccentric.
Entire Back Region (Emphasis on Lats & Secondary Stress on Biceps/Forearms)
No other movement provides lat stimulation quite like the pull-up (palms facing forward). Also effective when using a palms up grip (which incorporates more biceps), this movement, when performed correctly, will give you lats that are both super wide and thick. Without it, you’ll not be able to fully development that all-important V-Taper so necessary for complete aesthetic development.
While pulldowns do work the lats to a fair degree, nothing replaces the pull-up when it comes to challenging the lats to work hard and grow. Pulling one’s entire bodyweight skyward while having to stabilize the body to prevent swinging and jerky movements also requires tremendous core strength. For all-round athletic development and pure size, the pull-up is non-negotiable.
From a complete hang (an exaggerated lat stretch) with hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder width, pull using lat strength until the chin clears the bar (ultimately you’ll want to touch the upper chest to the bar).
Squeeze hard then return to a full lat stretch. Do not be tempted to flare the elbows. Also, ensure a notable depression and retraction of the shoulders to pre-tighten the back muscles and to eliminate excessive biceps activation.
4: Barbell Bench Press
Chest, Shoulders & Triceps (Emphasis Complete Chest Development with Secondary Stimulation of Back, Core & Glutes)
A true test of upper body strength, the much fabled and revered bench press has also attracted a great deal of criticism for the tremendous stress it can place on the shoulder joints due to excessive muscle/joint stretch upon full eccentric contraction.
While it’s true that dumbbell presses (from various angles) allow for a better concentric contraction (due to the hands coming closer together at the top of the movement) and do not encourage the arms to come too far past parallel to the body (thus overloading the shoulder joints), they also do not work the sheer volume of muscle that the ‘bench’ does and do not encourage the significant loading which produces the systemic effect desirable for extreme mass building.
Yes, the bench press works well if performed correctly. It’s known as one of the original mass-builders for a reason.
Plant feet firmly so as to generate maximum power from the ground up; position chest under the bar; retract the scapula to keep the upper body tight and to protect the shoulder joints; arch the back slightly to keep the spine neutral; and find a grip that works best for your body type (taller people will need a wider grip).
As with all the movements in this article, breathe in upon lowering the weight (contracting eccentrically) to the mid-chest area. As soon as the bar hits the chest, tighten the glutes and press feet into the ground. Press the bar back to the starting position. The chest will be forced to work maximally, provided the shoulder blades remain squeezed together throughout the movement.
Chest and Triceps
My second personal favorite (besides pull ups), the dip (either accentuating chest or triceps) would be my pick for best chest builder of all time (especially when weighted). While legion are those who’ve struggled to build appreciable chest mass with bench presses, very few people will not benefit from properly performed dips.
Few people dip and those who do usually do so incorrectly. When done right, this movement will give you more pec size than any other. And if you are looking to develop the hard to target lower pecs to produce the coveted leveled-off appearance, look no further than the dip.
Like many of the other movements featured in this article, the dip has the potential to be extremely injurious due to over-stretching of the shoulder joint (when going past 90 degrees), which removes stress from the working muscles and, instead, overloads this joint.
For the chest dip, do the following. Use dip bars that allow a medium to wide width grip. Position torso and legs forward. Keep elbows in and contract the abs to maintain good form. Descend very slowly and feel the chest contracting all the way down. Once shoulders have dropped slightly below the elbows, push the upper body to a full contraction of the pecs (but don’t go to full lockout).
Legs (Emphasis on Quads, Hams, Glutes & Secondary Stress on the Back, Core & Arms)
A movement that could easily have slotted into the number one position, many an article has been written on the effectiveness of this king of mass builders. While primarily a hip, glute, quad and hamstring builder the squat also maximizes core strength while systemically hitting all other areas to some degree.
If you’re using this movement, you’ll know its effectiveness. If not, then you’re missing out on some profound total-body mass gains. What’s more, the squat will strengthen your bones, stabilize your knee joints, increase your flexibility and increase athletic performance probably more so than any other single movement.
Try a little experiment. Take measurements of all your muscle groups, stop squatting for three months (but change nothing else in your program), then re-measure these areas. Not only should you notice less size overall but your physique should be noticeably softer and less muscularly dense. You can include all the fancy leg movements into your routine (and there are a great many) but without the traditional bar squat you’ll never experience true size and strength.
There are multiple squat variations. The standard bar squat, as discussed here, is the best of these.
With head facing forward, place bar across the trap region, tighten the core, angle feet out slightly and squat, inhaling deeply as you go. Upon full descent, push with the heels, keep both feel flat on the ground and drive the weight up using quad strength (though other supporting leg muscles will kick in). Minimize stress to the lower back by keeping the back slightly arched throughout the movement.
And forget this half rep business. Be sure to break parallel by going sufficiently low that your knees travel past your hips and full stretch is felt in the glutes. Angling your knees out so they are in line with your feet will allow for greater depth, and much more impressive results.
You want big forearms, massive traps, huge hamstrings and a wide thick back? Rather than hitting four or more different movements and multiple sets and reps, you’d be best served by including the best total body mass-builder of them all.
A truer test of strength than any other movement, the deadlift challenges the entire body to work as a unit. There can be no finessing a heavily loaded bar off the ground: you either have the strength to move it or you do not.
On the rare occasions I’ve removed the deadlift from my program I’ve noticed within weeks less back thickness, and smaller forearms and traps. Few people really give this movement a decent shot, probably because, when done properly and with enough weight, it’s tremendously difficult and extremely taxing. However, it’s also a mass-building mandatory that you simply must do if more size and strength is your goal.
Always begin with the bar on the floor (not positioned in a rack). Grab bar a little wider than shoulder width with palms facing down (or an over/under grip once weight exceeds the lifting capacity of the palms down grip).
Keep head facing forward and lower back in a neutral position, maintaining a natural inward curve of the lower spine. Then drive the weight up, pulling the bar as close as possible to the lower legs until it comes to a rest at mid-thigh level. Lock out the hips and knees at the top and squeeze the back musculature hard.
Keep the arms straight at all times and do not shrug the weight at the top of the movement. Bend the knees and gradually return weight, following the same trajectory as on the upward phase.
The Best of the Rest: Additional Mass-Builders for Maximum Size and Strength
While the above-listed compounds are my personal favorites there are undoubtedly others that may work better for other lifters. Again, try them all (preferably not in the same workout!) and prioritize those that work best for you. Here’s a list of additional compounds that may be added to your training repertoire.
|Lat pulldown (reverse grip) (back)||Lat pulldown (close grip) (back)||One arm dumbbell row (back with an emphasis on inner back/lower lats)|
|Decline bar press (emphasis on lower pecs)
|Incline dumbbell press (emphasis on upper pecs)||Stiff-legged deadlift (hamstrings/glutes)|
|Leg press (legs)
|Front squat (legs)||
Dumbbell Arnold Press (shoulders)
- Ballor D.L., Metabolic responses during hydraulic resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1987;19:363-367.
- Fahey T.D., et al. Serum testosterone, body composition and strength of young adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1976;8:31-34.
- Kraemer W.J., et. al. Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise protocols. J Appl Physiol 1990;69:1442-1450.
- Kraemer W.J., et. al. Endogenous anabolic hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise in males and females. Int J Sports Med 1991;12:228-235
- Ratamess N.A., et al. Androgen receptor content following heavy resistance exercise in men. J Steroid Biochem Mol Bio 2005;93(1):35-42.