Illustration of a weight lifter doing compound exercises to gain muscle and strength.

The 5 Best Compound Exercises for Building Muscle

All the best muscle-building programs are built on the idea of progressively overloading the big compound exercises. If you aren’t able to progressively overload those exercises, then you won’t build muscle. And if you can’t build muscle, then you won’t be able to progressively overload your exercises.

Most bodybuilding programs prioritize effort. They emphasize doing more sets and reps, pushing harder, and focusing on the pump, the pain, the burn, and the strain. After all, pain is the feeling of weakness leaving the body, right? It can be, but your effort is only productive if it adds up to progress. That’s where strength training comes in.

Strength training is rooted in powerlifting, where your strength is determined by how much you can squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition—your total. If you’re getting stronger at the big compound exercises, you’re improving. If you aren’t, the problem is immediately evident, allowing you to fix it right away.

However, strength training has its own problems. Low-bar back squats aren’t the best compound exercise for building muscle. Neither are wide-grip bench presses or wide-stance sumo deadlifts. The emphasis on progression is fantastic, but the exercises aren’t ideal.

We need to combine both approaches, choosing the best compound exercises for our goals, then attacking them with the vigour of a bodybuilder and the focus of a powerlifter. If you can grow gradually stronger at the best muscle-building exercises, you can consistently build muscle.

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Illustration of a skeleton who had a pre-workout supplement before lifting weights.

Are Pre-Workout Supplements Bad for You? (Full Breakdown)

Pre-workout supplements have had their share of controversies. Think of a crazy professional bodybuilder using all kinds of performance-enhancing drugs. Now imagine the stimulants that guy might be interested in. And then imagine him as the CEO of a supplement company. It’s easy to imagine how they might make a pre-workout that’s bad for you.

When I first started lifting, my favourite pre-workout was SuperPump by Gaspari Nutrition. Gaspari Nutrition was founded by Rich Gaspari, a professional bodybuilder. He got into trouble for secretly spiking his supplements with PEDs. He got sued and filed for bankruptcy, and the company is now a ghost of what it once was.

Jack3d was the other popular pre-workout. It was pulled from the shelves after a marathoner died with it in her water bottle. Her death was blamed on the ingredient that gave Jack3d its edge: DMAA, which is somewhat similar to meth. People loved it, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue it was healthy.

There are still enhanced bodybuilders running popular supplement companies, and they’re still doing shady things. For example, More Plates More Dates and Greg Doucette both recently got caught selling fake turkesterone. That isn’t the same as secretly spiking supplements with banned ingredients, but it’s not a good sign.

However, most pre-workouts are made by big corporations and marketed to the masses. The ingredients are tame, and the tubs probably contain what’s on the label. Are those pre-workouts bad for you?

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Illustration of an Outlift energy drink and pre-workout supplement.

Energy Drinks vs Pre-Workouts: Differences Explained

Pre-workouts and energy drinks both have the same main ingredient: caffeine. The difference is that pre-workouts are specifically for improving exercise performance, fitness, and muscle growth, whereas energy drinks put more emphasis on cognitive and health benefits.

If you aren’t exercising, energy drinks are better. If you are exercising, you could make a strong case for pre-workouts. They really can improve exercise performance and muscle growth. It’s not quite that simple, though.

I’ll explain all the ingredients in pre-workouts vs energy drinks, including all the benefits of having a pre-workout before working out. Then, I’ll explain why I ignore those benefits and buy energy drinks.

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Illustration of a bunch of men deadlifting.

Hypertrophy Training Volume: How Many Sets to Build Muscle?

If you’re following a good hypertrophy training program, you should be able to maximize your rate of muscle growth with 9–22 sets per muscle per week. But that depends on which exercises you choose, what muscles you’re training, and how hard you’re training them.

If you’re training for other goals—strength, power, fitness, or endurance—you’ll stimulate less muscle growth per set, so you’ll need more sets to maximize muscle growth. However, you might also inflict more stress per set, meaning you can’t recover from as many.

So, we’ll start by reviewing the best type of training volume for building muscle. Then, we can talk about how many sets it takes to maximize your rate of muscle growth.

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Illustration of two bodybuilders doing hack dumbbell and barbell hack squat alternatives.

The Best Hack Squat Alternatives (Barbell, Dumbbell & Machine)

Hack squats are a variation of the squat that puts more emphasis on your quads and less on your postural muscles. There are two reasons people choose hack squats instead of regular squats, giving us two ways to swap them out:

  • Greater range of motion: Hack squats make it easy to work your quads through a deep range of motion, probably stimulating a little more growth than back squats. If that’s what you’re after, front squats and goblet squats are the best alternatives.
  • Less fatigue: Hack squats support your back, putting less strain on your spine and postural muscles, stimulating your quads without generating as much fatigue. If that’s what you want, swap your hack squats for leg presses, leg extensions, or split squats.

If you want dumbbell hack squat alternatives, look to dumbbell goblet squats and dumbbell split squats.

If you want barbell alternatives, choose between barbell front squats and barbell split squats.

In the rest of the article, we’ll delve into the pros and cons of each exercise, then show you how to do them.

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Illustration of a skinny guy building muscle by doing workouts that are exactly the right length.

How Long Should Your Workouts Be to Build Muscle?

A good rule of thumb is to start with three full-body workouts per week, each lasting 45–90 minutes. When those workouts start to feel too long or tiring, add a fourth day.

If you’re following a good program, 45 minutes is enough to get you around 80% of your muscle growth. If you want to get closer to 100%, you can add in extra sets and exercises, training for the full 90 minutes.

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Illustration of a muscular bodybuilder doing the bench press to work his triceps.

Does the Bench Press Work Your Triceps? Yes, But Only Sort Of

The bench press does work your triceps, but it only works two of the three muscle heads, and not always very well. The third head (the long head) crosses the shoulder joint, interfering with pressing movements. This cuts your triceps growth in half.

The other issue is that your triceps aren’t usually the limiting factor, meaning they aren’t always worked hard enough to stimulate much muscle growth. That’s especially true with the dumbbell bench press.

We’ll quickly cover the biomechanics, then go over the main study, and then give you some better exercises to train your triceps. There are two triceps exercises that pair perfectly with the bench press.

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Illustration of a muscular man doing a one-armed dumbbell farmer carry while also carrying a barbell.

How to do the Farmer Carry: Benefits & Workout

The farmer carry, also known as the farmer’s walk, involves going on a short walk while carrying heavy weights. It’s popular with strongmen and athletes but less so with bodybuilders, which is a shame. Bodybuilders could benefit from it.

Marco learned the farmer carry while studying under Eric Cressey, the head strength coach for the New York Yankees. He went on to use it with his own clients, ranging from everyday people to college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

When Marco and I started making muscle-building programs together, he convinced me that farmer carries belong there, too. Here’s why.

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Illustration of a muscular bodybuilder or powerlifter setting a PR in the gym.

What Does PR Mean in the Gym?

In gym lingo, “PR” stands for personal record. Getting PRs means your workout routine is working, that you’re adapting, and that you’re growing gradually bigger, stronger, or fitter. They’re important enough that we’ve named our website after them.

If you’re lifting weights, a PR is when you outlift yourself. Usually, it’s the heaviest weight you’ve ever lifted or the most reps you’ve ever gotten. For example, bench pressing 225 pounds for the first time is a PR. Doing 20 push-ups in a row for the first time is another PR.

PRs are similar when doing cardio. If you’re running, then you can set a new PR whenever you run further or faster (or with a lower heart rate) than ever before. The first time you run a 5k without needing a break, that’s a PR. The first time you run a 10k in less than an hour, that’s another PR. When you can run 10k without your heart rate passing 145 bpm, that’s another PR.

As a beginner, you should be getting a new PR almost every workout. As you get better, you’ll need to fight harder to keep adapting, and the PRs won’t come as easily or as frequently. Mind you, the PRs you do get will be much more impressive.

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