The best way to build muscle is to challenge our muscles through a large range of motion. Lifting through a large range of motion is a good start, but some parts of it might be easy, giving our muscles little resistance, and thus failing to provoke muscle growth. Other parts will be more difficult, giving our muscles the stimulus they need to grow. We call this the strength curve of the lift.
Conventional wisdom says that if a lift is similarly challenging throughout the entire range of motion, then the entire range of motion will stimulate muscle growth, and we’ll build far more muscle with every rep. And there’s some truth to that.
However, it’s not quite that simple, either. Some parts of the range of motion are more important than others. It’s important to choose lifts that challenge our muscles in a stretched position, but not so important for a lift to be difficult at lockout. It can also really help if a lift is heaviest where our muscles are strongest, allowing us to lift more weight through the entire range of motion.
In this article, we’ll talk about resistance curves, the strength curves of our muscles, the strength curves of various lifts, and how to build more muscle.
There are two lifts that are generally considered ideal for building our upper backs and upper arms, and both by very different groups. People who are more interested in strength training and powerlifting will often favour the barbell row, whereas people who are more interested in bodybuilding and bodyweight training will often favour the chin-up.
In this article, we’ll compare the range of motion, biomechanics, and muscles worked by both the barbell row and the chin-up, explain the differences, and then go over which one is better for building muscle.
Now, to be clear, we can certainly use both lifts in our workout routines—and we probably should—but it’s interesting to see which back exercise is better for building muscle, and what their different pros and cons are. That way we know which one we should be investing more of our time and energy into.
The conventional wisdom is to start each workout with the big compound lifts and, to be sure, there is wisdom in that. Even when programming our compound lifts first, though, there are a few mistakes that a lot of lifters make. The first (and biggest) mistake is that bodybuilders will often stack a bunch of lifts for the same muscle group one after the other. Chest day, leg day, and back day are all examples of poor exercise ordering.
Then, with full-body workouts, choosing which exercise comes first is complicated because we need to choose which of the big compound exercises should come first. Should we squat before we bench press? Conventional wisdom says yes. After all, the squat is the bigger lift. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Next, although it’s generally wise to do our compound lifts first, there are situations where we might want to do isolation lifts first, especially if we have stubborn muscle groups that are lagging behind. There’s some nuance to how to do that, though. We risk making our workouts much worse if we do it incorrectly.
Finally, even after we’ve finished our big compound lifts, there’s still some thinking that should go into how we order our isolation lifts.
There are two popular ways of training for muscle growth. The first style of training is a descendant of strength training, and it focuses heavily—often exclusively—on the big compound lifts. These are the programs built around the squat, bench press, and deadlift, often with some overhead pressing and barbell rowing added in afterwards. We see this in programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts, as well as a number of other popular programs that claim to be good for gaining both size and strength.
The second style of training is popular among casual bodybuilders, and it focuses more heavily on isolation lifts, sometimes at the cost of compound lifts. This is the style of training where people might use the leg press as their main lower-body movement, but will also be doing leg extensions, hamstring curls, and calf raises.
The more popular opinion is that compound lifts are better at stimulating muscle growth, but for many of the muscles in our bodies, that’s actually not the case.
Both barbells and dumbbells are great for gaining size and strength. However, they aren’t quite the same thing. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses.
For example, the barbell bench press is the most famous lift for building up our chests, and with good reason—it’s the heaviest, and it does the best job of building our triceps and shoulders alongside our pecs. But if we’re trying to build a stubborn chest, or if we have cranky shoulders, the dumbbell bench press might be a better choice. Why is that?
Or what about when we’re doing biceps curls or overhead presses? Should we grab a barbell or some dumbbells? The barbell allows us to lift heavier, which forces our cores to work harder and our spines to grow tougher, but dumbbells allow us to lift with a freer range of motion, and they engage different stabilizer muscles.
And why are barbells so popular in strength training while dumbbells are more popular with bodybuilders? Is it because barbells are better for gaining strength in our lower bodies whereas dumbbells are better for building bigger and more symmetrical muscles?
It also helps to know the pros and cons of barbells and dumbbells so that we can decide what type of home gym we want to build. Should we build a barbell home gym in a spare room or should we get a pair of adjustable dumbbells that we can store in the closet? If we want the best results, do we need access to both?
Some argue that we should wear lifting belts when training for size because they allow us to lift more weight while protecting our lower backs, and there’s some truth to that. If we can lift more weight because our spines are held rigid in a more neutral position, then that would certainly be an asset while bulking.
Others argue that we shouldn’t wear lifting belts outside of powerlifting because they prevent us from strengthening the muscles in our lower backs and cores. That doesn’t seem to be true, but lifting belts do indeed increase intraabdominal pressure, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for everyone. Furthermore, not all spinal experts recommend lifting belts, especially when our goal is merely to gain muscle size. So there’s some nuance here.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
- How lifting belts can help us build more muscle.
- Why some people may want to avoid them.
- Which lifting belts are best.
- And how to use them.
Recently, research has been coming out showing that long rest periods between sets are best for building muscle. With longer rest times, our muscles can better recover their strength between sets, allowing us to maintain more of our performance from set to set. More weight lifted for more sets means more mechanical tension, higher training volumes, and thus more muscle growth. Because of this, most bodybuilders rest 2–5 minutes between sets.
But a decade ago, short rest times were thought to be best for building muscle. Bodybuilders would rest just 30–60 seconds between sets because it gave them better muscle pumps, kept their workouts short, improved their fitness, and, they thought, helped them build more muscle.
What’s neat is that both approaches are correct. Using long rest times allows us to use heavier weights and gain more strength, helping us to build more muscle. Short rest times, on the other hand, help us to improve our work capacity and general fitness, also helping us to build more muscle.Tell Me More
There are three conflicting ideas about how the range of motion we use while lifting affects our muscle growth:
- The first idea is that lifting with a larger range of motion means doing more work, which will then stimulate more muscle growth.
- The second idea is that keeping constant tension on our muscles throughout the set gives a better muscle pump and thus stimulates more muscle growth.
- The third idea is that doing heavy partials can strengthen our tendons and bones, allowing us to build more muscle in the longer term.
All three of these ideas seem to be true. For maximal muscle growth, we probably want to use a smart mix of all three.Tell Me More
How many weekly sets should we be doing per muscle group per week when trying to build muscle as quickly as possible? That’s a good but tricky question because of how many factors are involved.
- What rep ranges are you lifting in?
- How long are your rest times?
- How close to failure are you going?
- How often are you training each muscle?
- Are you aiming for overall muscle growth (bulking) or are you focusing on a few muscles (specialization)?
In this article, we’ll start by going over the ideal type of volume for hypertrophy—the ideal number of reps per set, how close to failure we should be lifting, and how long our rest times should be. Then, once we’ve narrowed in on how to lift for muscle growth, we can talk about the ideal amount of volume—the ideal training volume per muscle group per week.Tell me More
If we want to make our muscles bigger, we need to challenge them enough to provoke an adaptation. How much our muscles are challenged depends on our leverage. By adjusting our leverage over the weights, we can change which muscles are being worked, how hard they’re being worked, and how hard they’re being worked relative to one another.
For example, by changing our leverage while squatting, we could:
- Lift heavier weights and engage more muscle mass.
- Emphasize either quad growth, glute growth, back growth, or aim for equal stimulation of all three muscle groups.
- Make the lift hard at one specific part of the lift, stimulating a smaller amount of muscle growth, or hard throughout the entire lift, stimulating a larger amount of muscle growth.
By understanding and min-maxing our leverage, we can improve how much muscle we build and how much strength we gain while lifting weights.
What’s kind of neat is that the word leverage has two separate meanings:
- Leverage: the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.
- Leverage: use (something) to maximum advantage.
Let’s talk about the first so that we can do the second.