Illustration showing the different bodybuilding and hypertrophy lifts.

What are the best lifts for bodybuilding and hypertrophy training—for gaining muscle size? How do we sort those lifts and pick between them? Which lifts complement one another, building a balanced routine, and which lifts replace one another, serving as options to pick between?

To find the best lifts, we’ll look at hypertrophy research, with the gold standard being studies that compare different lifts and then measure muscle growth. We can also look at the biomechanics of the lifts, seeing which lifts have the best dynamics to engage different muscles. And when we have no other choice, although this path is fraught with peril, we’ll also look at muscle-activation (EMG) research.

Then we’ll break the lifts down into the main lifts that serve as the foundation of our workout routines, the assistance lifts that train the same movement patterns but that emphasize different muscles, and the accessory lifts that target the muscles that aren’t properly stimulated by compound lifts. That way we aren’t just talking about the “best” lifts, we’re talking which lifts complement one another to give us a balanced workout routine.

So, which lifts are best for building muscle? Let’s see.

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Illustration of a bodybuilding using the leg press exercise machine to build muscle.

Are exercise machines as good as free weights for stimulating muscle growth? It’s often said that free weights engage more overall mass, do a better job of activating our muscles, and give us more general strength. Is that true? And if so, does that mean we should avoid exercise machines?

On the other hand, machines are often thought to do a great job of isolating certain muscles, many of them are designed to have an ideal strength curve for stimulating muscle growth, and some machine lifts, such as the leg extension, can’t be mimicked with free weights. Is it true that there are advantages to exercise machines, and if so, does that mean that we should use them instead of free weights, at least on certain lifts?

Finally, the big compound free-weight lifts can be hard to learn, especially for beginners. Should a beginner start with the barbell back squat, bench press, chin-up, and barbell row, or should they start with easier exercise machine variations, such as the leg press, chest press, lat pulldown, and cable row?

In this article, we’ll cover the pros and cons of using exercise machines for gaining muscle size, how they compare to free weights at stimulating muscle growth, and if/when you should use them.

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Reverse Pyramid Training Workout Routine for Muscle Hypertrophy

Reverse Pyramid Training is a popular way for intermediates to break through plateaus and continue gaining muscle size and strength. It also has the benefit of being a minimalist way of training, typically involving just three full-body workouts per week, with each of those workouts lasting less than an hour.

In this article, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of Reverse Pyramid Training, why you might want to train this way, how to do it, and then give a sample workout program. We’ll also talk about whether it’s a good way of stimulating muscle growth when compared against other training methods, such as traditional hypertrophy training.

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Illustration of a man doing a low-bar back squat, as recommended in Starting Strength.

Starting Strength was created by the former powerlifter Mark Rippetoe as a beginner program for gaining general strength. It has its roots in powerlifting culture, but it’s not a powerlifting program. It’s designed to be good for gaining general strength, but what does that mean? And it’s occasionally marketed as being a good program for gaining muscle size. Is it?

What we want to do in this article is to review it from the perspective of a skinny person who’s new to lifting weights and trying to gain muscle size, become stronger, and improve their appearance. Is Starting Strength ideal for those very specific goals?

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Illustration of a man flexing flaming biceps.

Our specialty is hypertrophy training. More specifically, we help naturally skinny “hardgainers” bulk up. But before that, Marco worked as the strength coach for several college, professional, and Olympic athletes. He also interned under Eric Cressey, the strength coach overseeing the training of the Yankees. So we’ve got somewhat similar roots to Jeff Cavaliere. Not surprisingly, then, we get a lot of questions about his muscle-building program for skinny guys.

Inferno Max/Size is the workout program for hardgainers who are looking to build muscle. That’s the Athlean-X program that best lines up with our area of expertise. So let’s evaluate it based purely on how effective it is at helping hardgainers bulk up.

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Illustration showing a man Olympic weightlifting (doing a snatch).

Is Olympic weightlifting good for building muscle? It depends on what we compare it against. Any type of training that challenges our muscles with heavy loads has the potential to stimulate at least a little bit of muscle growth. That makes it quite a bit better than endurance training and cardio for building muscle. But does Olympic weightlifting stimulate a comparable amount of muscle growth to hypertrophy training (aka bodybuilding)?

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Illustration showing a push, pull, legs workout split routine.

Push/Pull/Legs workout splits (aka PPL splits, bro-splits, and triple splits) have been a popular way of building muscle for several decades, especially among recreational bodybuilders and skinny guys who are eager to bulk up. The idea is to ravage a muscle with a variety of exercises, stimulating a robust amount of growth, and then giving it a full week to recover before training it again. High training volume, low training frequency. Is that the best way to stimulate muscle growth?

Before push/pull/legs splits rose to prominence, the traditional way of building muscle was to train each muscle group three times per week with a lower training volume. For example, a bodybuilder or strength athlete might do three full-body workouts per week, making sure to include a few sets for each muscle group each workout. The idea was to do enough work to stimulate growth, but not to cause excessive muscle damage, allowing us to stimulate another wave of muscle growth a couple of days later. Is that a better way to build muscle?

What’s interesting is that in the past few years, a substantial amount of research has come out comparing push/pull/legs routines against full-body routines. We also have a number of studies looking into how many sets we should do per muscle group per workout, and how may times we should train each muscle group per week.

The findings were surprising, with many hypertrophy researchers being forced to switch their training recommendations in light of this new evidence.

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Illustration of a man doing general strength training

What’s the best way to develop general strength? We get this question a lot. CrossFit claims to emphasize functional exercises to develop functional strength. Is functional strength a real thing? And does doing functional exercises really improve our general strength?

Strength training sounds like it would be designed to develop general strength, and it certainly can be, but more often than not it’s rooted in powerlifting, and thus built around improving our 1-rep max strength on the low-bar squat, bench press, and conventional deadlift. Those are great lifts, they engage a ton of muscle mass, and we absolutely need to be strong in order to lift a big total. But is our general strength best measured by how much we can lift for a single repetition on those three lifts?

Next, there’s calisthenics. Calisthenics is often said to be ideal for developing real-world strength because we’re learning to lift our body weight and move our bodies through space. If someone is good at push-ups, chin-ups, planks, and planches, and a variety of gymnastics movements, they must have good general strength, right?

Finally, a lot of bodybuilders train to build bigger muscles, thinking that bigger muscles are stronger muscles. And that’s kind of the whole point. People do bodybuilding workouts because they want to look strong. But compared to powerlifters, bodies are often comparatively weaker on the big compound lifts. Why is that?

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Illustration of a man doing a Zercher squat.

How many reps should we be doing per set if our goal is to gain muscle size? In strength training, doing five reps per set is a popular way to build muscle. In bodybuilding, most people do sets of 8–12 reps. Which rep range stimulates more muscle growth?

Should we use different rep ranges for different lifts? If doing 5-rep sets on the bench press hurts our shoulders, should we use a higher rep range? If doing 12-rep sets of squats challenges our fitness more than our strength, should we use lower rep ranges? And what about compound versus isolation lifts? Should we use lower rep ranges for our compound lifts and higher rep ranges for our isolation lifts?

Finally, what if we want to gain both muscle size and strength? Does that mean we should use a mix of heavier and lighter loads? For instance, 5–30 reps? Does it mean we should use a rep range that’s halfway between strength training and bodybuilding? 4–6 reps, say?

Is there a hypertrophy rep range? And if so, what is it?

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