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Pack on Lean Muscle With These 15 Exercises

We can’t all have incredibly ripped and muscled physiques like stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, but all of us can pack on some muscle mass with the right exercises. Many people like to target the “showy” or so called beach muscles like shoulders, arms and calves, but the way to grow these muscles is to grow your whole body. Ask even the most genetically blessed and hard training bodybuilders and strength athletes and they’ll all tell you that every pound of muscle they put on was a struggle. It can be nearly impossible for average trainees to add lean muscle if they focus on little exercises like bicep curls, leg extensions and tricep kickbacks. Big exercises like squats and bench presses work a lot more muscle than the little exercises. Squats and a few other big exercises jump start the metabolism and other physiological processes to accelerate muscle growth.

15. Calves into Cows

The calf muscles located on the back of the lower leg are definitely “showy” muscles and are often considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing muscles on the human body. The powerful calf muscles are made up of two muscles which flex and extend the foot and are instrumental in running and jumping movements. For development of the calves, the standing calf or heel raise is the basic exercise. Various seated raises, leg press raise and donkey all work the muscles in different ways, but you can’t go wrong with the standing raise. Most gyms have either a selectorized or a plate loaded option with padded rests for your shoulders. To perform calf raises stand on the narrow platform with your weight on the balls of your feet and your shoulders braced under the padded rest. Flex your calves and stand up onto your toes as high as you can while keeping your legs straight, but not locked. Flex the calves at the top before reversing course, stretching the muscles and achilles tendons as you lower your heels.

14. Beach Arms

Although the biceps in the front of the upper arm are among the smallest of the muscles they get a lot of the attention. A good pair of biceps, defined with high peaks have been coveted by gym rats and professional bodybuilders alike. Pulling movements like seated rows and pulldowns train the biceps, but for more direct stimulation there are a number of curling movements. Standing barbell curl is the basic exercise, either with a straight bar or a curved bar called an EZ curl bar which can be easier on the wrists. Either one you choose the movement is the same: stand with the bar at arms’ length in front of you. Keep a slight bend in the knees as you flex the biceps bring the bar ip toward your shoulders. Avoid the common mistake of allowing your elbows from moving too far away from your body – this results in the bar traveling to your neck area and takes tension off the biceps. Curls can be done with dumbbells and various cable machines.

13. Dipping For Deltoids

Dips are sometimes overlooked as a muscle building exercise because the bench press and its variations are so popular. While this exercise works the chest, shoulders and triceps, the same muscles as the bench press, it works them from a different plane of movement. They are often used for high repetitions like push-ups, but you can turn them into a strength move with a simple harness. The strap and chain type of harness is made to let you string the chain through the holes in weight plates. The strap rests around your hips with the weight dangling beneath you. Adding weight over time will allow you to perform 5-8 repetitions with a considerable amount of weight. When lowering yourself into the bottom position (above photo) err on the side of prudence and don’t go too deep. Dips put a lot of stress on the shoulder joint and its better to shorten the range of motion a bit than to unnecessarily risk injury.

12. Pull Your Way to Youthful Fitness

It doesn’t get much more basic that the pull-up. You hang from a bar then pull yourself up as many times as you can. Also called the chin-up, it can be a difficult exercise for many people because you are forced to use your entire bodyweight. There are machines that allow you to subtract weight using a counter balance system to perform pull-ups with less than your weight. This assisted exercise is a good way to get stronger so you can eventually do several full repetitions with your body weight. The man in the photo is using a pronated grip – his palms facing away from him.  A supinated grip have his palms facing toward him. Some gyms have a pair of parallel bars for a neutral grip – palms facing one another. Experiment to find  the most comfortable grip so you’ll be ready to start slinging weight plates or a dumbbell underneath you to increase the intensity.

11. Bend Over

The bent over row is considered the bench press for the back working the muscles antagonistic to the chest, shoulders and triceps. It is a basic movement that stimulates a lot of muscle including the middle and upper back as well as the shoulders and biceps. To perform grasp a weighted barbell with either a pronated or supinated grip. Bend at the knees and push your hips back until your back is close to parallel with the floor and the barbell is resting along your shins. Bring the barbell up to your sternum by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling with your arms. Lower the bar under control, just grazing your shins. The bent over row can be done with dumbbells which allows you to brace an arm and a leg against bench for support. It can also be performed as a seated row using various pulley, plated loaded or selectorized machines.

10. Stand and Deliver

The standing press or the overhead press intensely works the shoulders, arms and core muscles. This can be a tough exercise for people used to doing a lot of their exercises seated. The seated variations inhibit the strengthening of the abdominal and back muscles of the core. To perform this exercise position a barbell in a power rack at shoulder height. Take the barbell in a shoulder width or slightly wider grip and position the barbell so it is resting on your shoulders. With knees slightly bent exhale forcefully as you press the barbell up until it is at arms length. The bar will travel a natural path up and around your head. Lower the bar back to your shoulders while holding your breath to keep your core rigid. The standing press can also be done with dumbbells. 

9. Leg InPRESSive

As the above photograph shows you can work up to a tremendous amount of weight on the leg press. There is more than 1,000 lb. on the machine. Most trainees with experience will be able to leg press more than they can squat or deadlift. The various types of leg presses take most of the strain off your back muscles and do not force you to balance the weight across your shoulders. There is a debate concerning leg presses versus squats: leg presses isolate the quadriceps or thigh muscles more than squats, but squats force your thighs, hips and back to work harder and stimulate metabolism and muscle growth. Regardless of where you come down in the debate the leg press is an effective exercise if done properly. Resist the temptation to pile on a lot of weight, especially for the first few months. Too much weight encourages loose form which can stress your knees and back. Perform repetitions at a deliberate pace without bouncing at the bottom or over extending your legs at the top.

8. You’re Benched!

Along with the bent over row/barbell row, the bench press is the most productive upper body exercise. It works the chest, shoulder and triceps muscles. As one of the big three powerlifting moves along with the squat and deadlift, the bench press is  hailed as one of the essentials. If you lift weights regularly you’ve mostly likely been asked “how much do you bench?” The bench press is probably the most recognized weight training exercise, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to do it right. Lay down on a bench so the loaded barbell is above your eyes. Grasp the barbell  a few inches wider than shoulder width and lift it from the uprights. Hold the barbell at arms length above your eyes and take a deep breath. Lower the bar under control to your lower chest. Press the weight up and back in a slight arc so the bar is back above your eyes when it’s back at arm’s length.

7. Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen

The good morning exercise is so named because the movement is reminiscent of the action of getting out of bed in the morning and stretching your back. Good mornings haven gotten a bad reputation for being a dangerous exercise, but this is somewhat unfair. Incorrect technique and/or too much weight account for most of the issues associated with this exercise. You can be injured doing almost any exercise if you do it wrong. The exercise works the spinal erector muscles that run along the length of the back, the glutes or hips, as well as the hamstrings. This is a significant amount of muscle – similar to what the straight-legged deadlift works. To perform the good morning, squat under a barbell resting inside a power rack positioning the bar across your upper back. Stand with chest high, hands gripping the bar, feet about shoulder width and toes turned out a bit. Inhale then deliberately push your hips back keeping your legs straight and your head up – knees should remain unlocked. Stop when your lower back is parallel to the floor – going further will put a lot of unnecessary stress on your back. Exhale as you return to the start position.

6. Snatch This!

Olympic weightlifting consists of two lifts: the clean and jerk and the snatch. The snatch is a quick lift that depends on sound technique (even more than most lifts) and consistent execution. The Olympic lifts should be thought of more as athletic movements, like a sprint or a shot put, instead of as a gym exercise. You should meet a minimum baseline of strength and flexibility before learning this lift. So if you’ve never lifted weights before, hold off on this one as well as the the clean and jerk discussed below. The snatch is a full body exercise that strongly works the hips, back, shoulders and core. To perform this exercise squat down to the barbell and grasp it about six to eight inches wider than shoulder width. Stand up with arms straight, head up. After the barbell passes your knees pull hard accelerating the bar as fast as you can up past your abdomen. As the bar reaches your face change direction (this might cause you to hop off the floor slightly), squatting under the bar and flipping your wrists over. Descend into bottom of squat with arms extended fully overhead then stand up. Lower the weight to the floor in a controlled manner.

5. Clean up Your Act

The clean and jerk is the other Olympic lift along with the snatch. This lift is often considered the ultimate “power lift”. It strongly works the thighs, hips, back and shoulders. Even if you’ve never done it before, you might familiar with the exercises it can be divided into: deadlift, shrug, front squat and overhead press. You should be comfortable performing these exercises before you attempt the clean and jerk. With the bar on the floor grasp it slightly wider than shoulder width. Stand up keeping the arms straight until the bar passes your knees. Accelerate the bar by pulling with your arms and shrugging your shoulders as you rise up on your toes fully extending your body. Quickly flip your wrists over and descend into a squat “catching” the bar across your shoulders. Stand up under control and pause to gather yourself. Dip your knees a few inches then drive up as fast as you can while pushing the barbell up. As the bar passes your face split one leg forward and the other behind you. Recover to a standing position with the bar overhead at arms’ length. Lower  the weight under control.

4. Squat Jr.

Front squats have always been popular with bodybuilders trying to isolate their thigh muscles more than they can with back squats. There are two different methods of holding the bar on your shoulders. The arms crossed method is shown in the above photograph. The other method is used by the lifter performing the clean and jerk in the photograph of Item #5. You can experiment with both before choosing one because it is really a matter of preference. Start with the barbell in a power rack at shoulder height. Dip under the bar and position it high up on your front shoulders so it is just about grazing the base of your neck. Inhale and squat down in a controlled manner until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor. Stand up in a deliberate manner as you exhale. You might have to reset the bar on your shoulders before continuing the set.

3. Go Straight to …

The straight-legged deadlift, also known as the stiff-legged deadlift, is a very productive exercise but has a somewhat negative reputation similar to the good morning exercise. Both reputations are undeserved and due mostly to incorrect technique and or using too much weight. Begin by standing over a barbell squatting down and grasping the bar with a shoulder width grip. With arms straight and head up, stand with the barbell using hips, thighs and back. From the standing position with the bar resting across thighs, inhale then push hips back causing bar to travel toward your knees. Stop descendent when lower back is parallel with the floor (bar will be inch or two past knees depending on length of your arms.) Reverse direction by pushing hips forward while you start to exhale. Legs should remain fairly straight throughout the set, but not locked.

2. Dead Man Lifting

Some people think of the deadlift as a back killer, but this exercise is actually one of the most productive you can do. The bent-legged deadlift or conventional deadlift strongly works all the muscles of the back, hips and thighs, but it is really a full body exercise that boosts your metabolism and other physiological processes that stimulate muscle growth. To begin the deadlift, stand over the barbell with feet about shoulder width apart and squat down grasping the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip. As you inhale tighten your body, straighten arms keep your head up then stand up and begin to exhale. The initial part of the lift is done mostly by the thighs and hips, but as the bar passes your knees and your legs straighten your back muscles come more into play. Stand up straight with arms hanging, but shoulders tight (don’t let them slump forward and do not lean back.) Inhale and lower the weight to the floor in a deliberate manner.

1. Just Squat!

If you go to the right kind of gym you can hear people saying “just squat.” It is a catchall meant to express the idea that whatever your training issue, maybe it can be remedied by squatting hard and heavy. Gaining muscle is hard to to do even for champion bodybuilders. Arnold Schwarzenegger supposedly said he would eat sh*t if it would help him add a pound of muscle. Before you resort to extreme measures give squats a try. Position a barbell inside a power rack or squat rack with safety pins set to catch the bar if you fail in the bottom position. Dip under the bar so it is resting across your upper back and rear deltoids, not your neck. Step back from the supports with your legs at least shoulder width apart. Keep head up, inhale deeply and bend knees and sit back as if sitting down in a chair. Descend until the top of your thighs are parallel with the floor then reverse course deliberately and being to exhale as you return to the standing position. Like the deadlift, squats heavily work the thighs, hips and back and stimulate overall muscle growth.

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