Top 5 Best Weight Training Exercises to Build Muscle Mass

Focus on These Compound Lifts for Maximum Hypertrophy (Growth)


So you're here - now what? The exercises you choose have a huge impact on your results (or lack thereof)



Last Updated: March 7, 2021

If you want the very best muscle growth potential then you need to be performing the right exercises - point blank period. Even if you follow a strict muscle building diet, if you aren't doing the right movements in the gym then you simply won't get any good results. Doing pushups all day every day isn't going to get you very far in terms of muscle growth. So if you want to maximize your time in the gym, these are the best weight training exercises for hypertrophy (muscle gain) that will stimulate the most growth possible.

You may notice that all of the top exercises below are what's known as compound exercises, which are exercises that stimulate multiple muscle groups at once. These are the best "bang for buck" exercises to include in your workouts to stimulate growth, meaning that you'll get the best returns from them in terms of inducing gains. These taxing exercises will also stimulate the most hormone production within the body as well (such as testosterone which is important for gaining muscle).



1. Deadlifts (or Stiff-Leg Deadlifts)

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Lower Back

Secondary Muscles Worked:

  • Hamstrings (Main Focus of Stiff-leg Deadlifts)
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Core/Abs
  • Traps
  • Forearms
  • Middle Back

If you had to choose only one exercise to perform in the gym it would have to be the almighty deadlift. No other exercise puts as much strain and pressure on your body as deadlifts do. They will literally work you from head to toe, hence why they're regarded by many as one of the best muscle building exercises of all. The main muscles worked during deadlifts are the lower back, upper back, and your thighs, but they will also work almost every other muscle group.

Also, just as with doing squats, performing heavy deadlifts will force your body to produce extra growth hormone and testosterone since this exercise stresses the body a great deal (the good kind of stress), and these hormones are crucial to changing your physique. However, you need to be very careful when it comes to proper form, as injuries can happen. If you want to be on the safer side, do stiff-leg deadlifts instead which are a popular alternative to traditional deadlifts and almost as effective in stimulating muscle growth, but with less risk (do some research on that to learn more).

Proper Deadlift Form

There's a few different variations of the deadlift, but I will explain how to perform a standard version, known technically as a bent-legged deadlift (as opposed to the stiff-legged deadlift). Ideally you want a trainer to teach you how to deadlift. Or carefully study a video online at the very least. Here's a general overview though:

  • Before starting, place the barbell on the ground. Stand in front of the bar with your shins as close to the bar as possible (so that you have leverage and can lift the bar straight upwards). Your feet should be roughly shoulder width apart. Grip the bar about shoulder width apart. You can grip it with either an overhand grip, or an alternate grip with one palm facing out and the other palm facing in. Choose whichever is more comfortable to you.
  • Get into a squat position and make sure the bar is close to your shins. Now, whilst keeping your back as flat as possible, your abs tight, and your head looking upwards, lift the bar up off the ground by pushing with your legs. This is important; lift with your legs, not your back. You should lift the bar up like this until you are in a standing position. When lifting the weight up, push through your heels.
  • Now that you are standing with the bar, lower it back down to the starting squat position by following the same path as when you lifted it up. You can rest the bar on the ground for a second and then lift it up back up again, or just touch the floor and go straight back up.

It's critical that you exercise with good deadlift technique, so when starting out only use light weights and slowly build up from there. Besides, if you're brand new to weight training, you won't be able to lift too heavy with deadlifts anyway as you'll need to first build up your core strength and grip strength. Also don't forget to warm up and stretch thoroughly before training, especially when doing such a taxing exercise as this.


2. Barbell Squats (or Dumbbell Squats)

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Quads

Secondary Muscles Worked:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Core/Abs
  • Lower Back

You could say the Squat is just as important and powerful as the deadlift. I mean, they aren't called the "king of all weight lifting exercises" for nothing. Just like deadlifts, Squats will work you from head to toe and spark massive muscle growth all over your body, not just your legs.

There's no substitute for heavy Squats, and including them into your muscle building program is common sense. Most people will avoid them because they are hard work and put a lot of stress on your body, but if you perform them correctly you have nothing to worry about and you will reap the major benefits of squatting every week.

Squat Form Tips

You should always perform your squats in a power rack or a cage for safety reasons so that you can easily re-rack the weight when you need. Before getting into the steps of doing squats properly, keep the following general tips in mind first:

  • Stand up straight with your shoulders back and chin tucked in (ensure good posture)
  • Make sure you're standing up straight, but also have a slight arch in your lower back
  • Make sure your shoulders are back and not rounded forward (puffing your chest out a little may help)
  • Look straight ahead, not up or down
  • Avoid leaning too far forward
  • Breath in on the way down, and breath out on the way up
  • If this is your first time squatting, get an expert trainer to monitor your form

How to Barbell Squat

  • Whilst it is still racked, stand in front of the bar and have it rest along the lower part of your neck (traps) and across your rear shoulders (deltoids). Grab the bar with both hands a little wider than shoulder width apart so that you have a comfortable grip.
  • Lift the bar up slowly to un-rack it from the rack/cage and take a few steps back. Be very careful and slow when stepping back.
  • Place your feet shoulder width apart or a bit wider, and point your feet outwards slightly up to a 30 to 45 degree angle.
  • Now, with your head pulled back into a natural, neutral position, your chest raised up, and a slight arch in your lower back (NOT hunched forward, but your spine erect), lower yourself down in a slow controlled manner as if you were sitting down on a stool that is behind you.
  • Keep good posture all the way down until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, but not too much lower than parallel. Make sure your knees line up with your toes all the way down.
  • When you reach the bottom of your squat - when your thighs are parallel to the ground (or slightly lower to maximize glute activation) - then rise back up without pausing at the bottom. Push through your heels when driving yourself back up, keeping your back straight (but with a slight natural arch).

3. Pulls Ups (or Chin Ups)

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Upper Back (Lats)

Secondary Muscles Worked:

  • Biceps
  • Middle Back
  • Traps
  • Forearms
  • Triceps

A list of the best weight training exercises would not be anywhere near complete without pulls up as well, which are a very versatile exercise that can be performed in various ways to target certain areas of the upper body. All forms of pull ups will work the upper back, lats, and biceps, but depending on your grip type and width you can target specific areas more intensely. For example, doing wide grip pullups (with palms facing outwards) will target your lats more, whereas doing close-grip pulls ups (with palms facing inwards) will hit the biceps a lot more.



4. Barbell Bench Press (or Dumbbell Bench Press)

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Pectorals (Chest)

Secondary Muscles Worked:

  • Front Shoulders (Anterior Deltoid)
  • Triceps
  • Bicep

The bench press is the greatest of all pressing exercises for building chest muscle that has no equal and really cannot be ignored if you want maximum results. There is no substitute, and it is much more effective than pushups because you can push a whole lot more weight. Bench press exercises also work your shoulders and triceps too. Using a barbell allows you to lift the heaviest weight and therefore stimulate the most muscle growth, but dumbbell bench presses are a great alternative and also can help improve balance and correct muscular imbalances (if one side of the body is perhaps stronger than the other).

You can also incorporate both the barbell and dumbbell bench press into your workout routines as many people do, as you get the best of both worlds. If you do this, a smart thing to do is do your barbell press on a flat bench, and then do your dumbbell press on an incline to hit slightly different areas of your chest and shoulders. But if you had to pick just one pressing exercise, make it the barbell bench press (flat) if you can.

Barbell Bench Press Form Tips

  • If doing a barbell bench press, place your hands shoulder width or slightly wider apart. Grip width affects which exact muscles are targeted the most. Wider grips blast the chest the most, while closer grips hits the triceps more (use lighter weight if doing close-grip bench press).
  • Don't lock your elbows at the top when pressing upwards; instead, stop just shy of when your elbows would lock.
  • Have a friend or stranger spot you (don't be afraid to ask; it's common practice in the gym). This simply means having them stand behind you to help you re-rack the weight if you get stuck, or alternatively they can very gently help you press the weight up by pushing on your elbows.
  • Do not bounce the bar off your chest for momentum - lower the bar a fraction above your chest and then immediately push the bar back up in a controller fashion
  • Breath in on the way down, breath out on the way up
  • Always keep your feet firmly flat on the ground at all times

5. Overhead Press (AKA Military Press)

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Front Shoulders (Anterior Deltoid)

Secondary Muscles Worked:

  • Middle Shoulders (Lateral Deltoid)
  • Triceps
  • Traps
  • Biceps
  • Pectorals (Chest)

Known by many different names such as the overhead press, military press, dumbbell shoulder press, or even just the shoulder press, this is simply pushing dumbbells or a barbell up and down from a seated position. You can also do it standing up with dumbbells too, but sitting down allows you to push the most weight. Do so in a controlled manner; avoid moving your torso too much to try and create momentum and keep your core stable and engaged.

Shoulder pressing works and targets your shoulder muscles like no other exercise can, and is a crucial inclusion in a muscle gain program if you want to build big, well-developed strong shoulders. Keep in mind that other exercises like the bench press and pull-ups work the shoulders too, so you don't need to do much direct shoulder work - a couple sets of the overhead/shoulder press goes a long way


Honorable Mentions: Other Good Mass Gain Exercises

Lunges

Another excellent lower body exercise that should be a staple inclusion in a good mass gain program, lunges have many variations and work a wide variety of muscles including the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Bent-Over Rows

One of the best weight training exercises to build your back and lats is the bent over row. This exercise can be done a number of ways, such as palms up, palms down, wide grip, close grip, and with an EZ bar.

Seated Row

Another excellent exercise that works the back and other muscles, and an important inclusion in my opinion in order to target the rear deltoids (shoulders). Bench press and shoulder press exercises mostly work the front deltoids, so don't forget to balance out your program and hit those rear delts too. Bent-Over Lateral Raises are another great inclusion that primarily targets the rear delts, as are One-Arm Dumbbell Rows (though the former is more effective in targeting the rear delts).

Bar Dips

Another very effective upper body builder, especially for the triceps. You can start out with your bodyweight and then add resistance in the form of holding a dumbbell with your feet or using a weighted belt.

Good Mornings

Although not as common as other exercises to build muscle mass, good mornings are a very effective compound movement that works your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, and are known to help improve your squat and deadlift to break through plateaus.

Pushups

Yes, pushups are still one of the best muscle building exercises. They are great for beginners who are starting out to gain initial strength and even a little size, and once you can do them easily enough you can increase the load by doing them on an incline. But if you want the best muscle gains, stick to bench presses (whether barbell or dumbbell) as pushups can only take you so far in terms of hypertrophy.

Bicep Curl

It's not a compound lift, but it's worth mentioning. People put too much emphasis on their biceps and usually over-train them considering that many of the above exercises will work your biceps too. But you still need a direct bicep exercise in your weekly routine, and bicep curls are the way to go. Again, there are many different variations to the bicep curl. 

Tricep Pulldown

Another good isolation exercise that targets your triceps, and worthy of inclusion at the end of a upper body workout to smash those tris. Don't neglect your tris, and make sure to train them as much relative to the workload you've decided to do for your biceps so that your arms develop as a whole.

If these exercises are new to you, make sure to do your research on proper form and technique. But there you have it, the best weight training exercises for muscle mass gains; for tips on how to structure these exercises into a full routine, see how to train for muscle to get off on the right foot with foundational principles and crucial beginner tips.




3 Paths to a Highly Effective Program

If you want to be on the fast-track to consistent results with a solid program you can simply execute on week in and week out without having to think about it, there are 3 ways to get there:


Path A: Plan Your Own Bulking Program

If you're the patient type who likes to know how every little detail works and have the time and interest to learn all the important principles and strategies around building muscle mass, you can strategically piece together a well-balanced, properly structured, effective program yourself.

Just make sure you cover all your bases in planning a program that is well suited for the long-term, otherwise you could be creating bad habits such as overtraining certain muscles groups over another etc (which can cause postural issues or muscular imbalances, a common example being rounded shoulders from focusing too much on chest workouts). 

You also ideally want someone more experienced to look over your program to weed out any potential issues, as there's a fair few things that can go wrong with planning a program. To get started see our introduction to building muscle along with our main guides on training and eating for gains that will set you off on the right foot.


Path B: Follow a Proven Pre-Made Bulking Program

If instead of creating your own program from scratch you'd rather follow an already-made complete program that has been proven to work for others in your shoes (ie skinny hardgainers) this is the path for you. Spending a few bucks to get your hands on a well-crafted, respected program that's specifically been designed with skinny guys in mind can save you time and effort having to design your own program and ensures you don't miss out on all the important details that goes into making an effective program that will get you results week in and week out.

This is what I'd recommend if you're just starting out or quite inexperienced in the gym, as you'll get off on the right foot to kick-start some solid results, so long as you choose your program wisely from someone who has been in your shoes before and understands the science behind building muscle. Sean Nal's Body Transformation Blueprint is currently the most comprehensive, effective bulking program for beginners on the market right now, and has been for a while, and is the program that personally helped me the most when I first started out too. 

There are other good premade mass gain programs out there that were created specifically (and scientifically) for hardgainers, but there's also a lot of overpriced, overly-marketed and low-quality programs that you should avoid out there so be on your toes when looking for a program to follow to avoid wasting your money. I've personally tried out a fair few different programs over the years and I compiled the best ones I can comfortably recommend in the recommended programs guide.


Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer Who Understands Strategic Bulking

This isn't for everyone as a quality trainer who knows what they're doing - and most importantly has got great results themselves - can be quite costly. If you value results, you don't just want any random trainer, as the truth is that many don't understand all of the science behind effective muscle building and structuring good programs (in my opinion based on experience having met a lot of trainers in my time). There's some good ones though if you know where to look.

This is the path you should also definitely consider if you have any type of injury or health problem, or if you are worried about potentially injuring yourself during important, semi-risky exercises like deadlifts or heavy squats (especially when just starting out). But that's not to say these exercises can't be learned on your own if you take it real careful and slow.

Whichever path you choose, never forget the single most important thing: never give up, and keep going no matter what until consistently training and eating well becomes such an ingrained habit that you don't even think about it (and hitting the gym and sticking to your meal plans becomes second nature and takes almost no effort). When you get to that stage of momentum, your success is inevitable. Good luck and train hard.