Illustration of a muscular man doing dumbbell lateral raises.

The Best Lifts for Building Broader Shoulders

We’ve already written an article about how skinny guys can build broader shoulders over on Bony to Beastly, including a bunch of neat information about genetics, aesthetics, and hypertrophy training in general.

In this article, I want to talk about how a more intermediate lifter can build broader, wider shoulders. Lifters often have a fairly easy time building bigger front delts from bench pressing and overhead pressing, but it’s common for guys to have trouble building bigger side delts, which is what will make their shoulders broader, giving them a greater shoulder-to-waist ratio.

So in this article, let’s talk about the three best lifts for building bigger side delts and how to get the most growth out of them.

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Illustration of a man doing a leaning biceps curl.

The Sissy Curl: A Barbell Alternative to the Preacher Curl

Our biceps are the limiting factor in even the humblest barbell and biceps curl variations, and so every variation of curl will reliably provoke at least a little bit of biceps growth. The only problem with most curl variations is that they’re relatively easy at the bottom of the range of motion, when our biceps are stretched. This is a problem because that’s by far the most important part of the range of motion for stimulating muscle growth. To make matters worse, the chin-up has the same problem, and underhand rows are even worse.

That’s where the preacher curl comes in. It allows us to fully extend our arms at the bottom of the lift, and it challenges our biceps quite a lot in that stretched position. This makes it a great curl variation for building bigger biceps. Perhaps the best variation of all. As a result, most bodybuilding gyms have a preacher curl station, and many biceps aficionados even buy one for their home gyms.

Fortunately, you don’t need a preacher curl station. In this article, we’ll show you how you can get the benefits of the preacher curl with just a barbell and some body English.

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Illustration of the anatomy of a biceps curl with internal moment arms.

Min-Maxing Strength Curves for Hypertrophy

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.

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Illustration of a man doing barbell Pendlay rows.

Chin-Ups vs Barbell Rows for Back and Biceps Growth

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.

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Illustration of a woman doing a barbell front squat.

Exercise Order for Building Muscle

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.

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Illustration of a man doing neck side raises.

Should You Do Isolation Lifts to Build Muscle?

Isolation lifts, also known as accessory or single-joint exercises, are smaller lifts that are designed to “isolate” certain muscles. It’s a bit of a misnomer. No exercise works just a single muscle group, but isolation lifts can certainly be quite effective at emphasizing certain muscle groups. For example, the barbell bench press is used to gain size and strength in the chest, shoulders, and triceps, whereas the skull crusher is used to emphasize the triceps.

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 5×5, 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, and in a general sense, that’s true—they stimulate more overall muscle growth. But for many of the muscles in our bodies, isolation lifts are better. In fact, some muscles are only stimulated by isolation lifts.

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Illustration of a man doing a double-dumbbell front squat.

Are Dumbbells or Barbells Better for Building Muscle?

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?

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Illustration of a lever weightlifting belt.

Are Weight Lifting Belts Good for Building Muscle?

Some argue weight lifting belts help us build muscle 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, that can certainly help us stimulate more muscle growth.

Others argue that we shouldn’t wear weight lifting belts outside of powerlifting because they prevent us from strengthening our lower backs, abs, and obliques. That doesn’t seem to be true, but lifting belts do indeed increase intra-abdominal pressure, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for everyone. Plus, not all spinal experts recommend weight 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:

  • Whether weight lifting belts can help us build more muscle.
  • If weight belts increase our risk of hernias, varicoceles, and hemorrhoids.
  • How weight belts impact our risk of lower back injuries.
  • How much stronger weight belts can make us.
  • Which belts are best for building muscle.
  • And how best to use them.
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Illustration of a sweating man with flaming shoulders doing the overhead press.

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Build Muscle?

Recently, research has been coming out showing that long rest periods between sets are best for building muscle. When you rest for longer, your muscles recover more of their strength, allowing you to lift more weight in subsequent sets. Lifting more weight means more mechanical tension and, thus, better strength gains. Because of this, most powerlifters rest for 2–5 minutes between sets.

A decade ago, short rest times were thought to be better for building muscle. Bodybuilders would rest just 30–60 seconds between sets, keeping their workouts short, their heart rates high, and revelling in their muscle pumps. They built tremendous amounts of muscle.

Both approaches can be ideal for building muscle. The trick is to build your program in a way that takes advantage of both styles of training.

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Illustration of a man doing a heavy partial back squat

How Range of Motion Affects Muscle Growth

There are three conflicting ideas about how the range of motion we use while lifting weights 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 at least the first two, and perhaps even the third.

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