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.

A skinny guy building muscle. Illustrated by Shane Duquette for Outlift.

The Power of Specificity

Powerlifters have their three big exercises: the squat, deadlift, and bench press. Their goal is to get stronger at these three exercises. It’s all about progressive overload. They can invest all of their efforts into:

  1. Bulking up the relevant muscles. The bigger a muscle grows, the stronger it becomes. One study found that four years of weight training resulted in a 56% increase in muscle size and a 60% increase in muscle strength. The increase in muscle size explained 93% of their strength gains.
  2. Training to improve 1-rep max strength. Our muscles prefer to pace themselves, but powerlifters are judged by how much they can lift for a single all-out repetition. They need to learn how to contract all their muscle fibres at once, saving nothing for later. This is why strength training is done in a low rep range (1–5 repetitions per set).
  3. Improving technical prowess on the squat, bench, and deadlift. Powerlifters need to learn how to do the competition lifts in the way that gives them the most leverage, allowing them to lift more weight per pound of muscle mass.

This focused effort is called the principle of specificity. The more specific you are about your goals, the more specific you can be with your training, and the better your results will be.

Training for muscle growth isn’t quite the same as powerlifting, but we should still focus on similar training goals:

  1. Bulk up the relevant muscles. Powerlifters need to figure out which muscles help them squat, bench, and deadlift more weight. We haven’t chosen our main compound exercises yet, but we can sneak up on this one from behind: if we can figure out which muscles we’re eager to grow, we can figure out which compound exercises best develop those muscles.
  2. Train to get stronger in a moderate rep range. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, and vice versa. Whether you care about size or strength, you should train for both. You don’t need to test your 1-rep max, but you need to get stronger in the rep range you’re training in. Maybe that means getting stronger for sets of 6, 10, or 15 reps.
  3. Improve your technical prowess on your main exercises. Instead of trying to lift with better leverage, we can learn to lift in the way that stimulates the most muscle growth. Usually, this means learning to lift deeper and more explosively. More on this in a moment.

Bulking Up the Relevant Muscles

When you were a beginner, your coordination was improving with every workout, you were progressing from beginner exercises to more advanced ones, and your muscles were growing eagerly in response to all of it. This flurry of changes can obscure the link between muscle size and strength.

It can be easy to fall for the myth that bodybuilders can be big but weak. What’s really happening is that bodybuilders are strong where they’re big and weak where they aren’t. For example, a bodybuilder with big arms might not be able to deadlift much weight, but that isn’t because his arms are weak. Rather, it’s because we deadlift with our posterior chains, not our arms.

Illustration showing why bodybuilders can seem big but weak and powerlifters can seem small but strong.

What matters is the strength of the relevant muscles. Powerlifters might have thinner arms, smaller backs, and narrower shoulders, but if their legs, hips, and lower backs are bigger, then they’ll be able to deadlift more weight than the bodybuilder (study). However, if they were measuring their strength with 10-rep sets of barbell curls, the bodybuilder would surely be deemed stronger.

There are genetic factors that influence strength, too. We all have different body proportions and muscle insertions, affecting our leverage and allowing some people to lift more weight with smaller muscles. In rare cases, that mismatch can be so extreme as to be shocking. That doesn’t affect you, though. Your genetics will hold constant. As you grow bigger, you’ll grow proportionally stronger, and vice versa.

Bodybuilding With a Foundation of Strength

Bodybuilding and strength training programs are different for a reason. Bodybuilders know it’s easier to stimulate muscle growth by lifting in a more moderate rep range, using (somewhat) shorter rest times, and bringing their sets closer to failure. They also use a wider variety of exercises, stimulating more balanced muscle growth and reducing wear and tear on their joints.

But a strange transformation has taken place in the bodybuilding world since the invention of PEDs. Bodybuilders have started lifting even lighter, training with even higher volumes, and putting even more emphasis on isolation exercises. It seems that PEDs improve muscle growth more than they improve joint and tendon strength, putting these enormous bodybuilders at greater risk of injury. I don’t know anything about PEDs. I don’t even know anyone who uses them. But bodybuilding routines have been deviating from what works for us naturals for several decades now.

Picture showing the physiques of Eric Helms, Jeff Nippard, and Alan Thrall.

Many of the best natural bodybuilders previously competed in strength sports. Look at lifters like Dr. Eric Helms, Jeff Nippard, and Alan Thrall. Helms and Nippard are former competitive powerlifters. Thrall is a competitive strongman. They all built their muscle on top of a foundation of strength. They all bench around 3 plates, squat around 4, and deadlift around 5, give or take half a plate.

Using Strength to Gauge Muscle Growth

Progressive overload is both the chicken and the egg. To lift more than last time, you need to have gained muscle. To stimulate more muscle growth, you need to lift more than you did before. That means progressive overload is both the stimulus and the result of muscle growth. That’s a good thing.

  • Stimulating muscle growth: When you attempt to outlift yourself, you’ll push your muscles harder than they’re used to, provoking growth. If you’re always trying to outlift yourself, you can be confident you’re working hard enough.
  • Measuring muscle growth: When you succeed at lifting more weight or getting more reps than last time, you can be confident you’re building muscle. Stay the path and collect your results.
Illustration of a bodybuilder doing the dumbbell curl exercise to build bigger biceps.

For a simple example, if you focus on getting stronger at barbell curls, you’ll stimulate biceps growth. When your biceps grow bigger, they’ll grow stronger, allowing you to curl more weight. This shows you when your workout routine is working. And when it isn’t, we can fix it.

I’ve spoken about this with leading hypertrophy researchers, such as Dr. Eric Helms. This is one of his favourite methods, too. We can program for hypertrophy, then use our success at adding weight/reps across sets to provoke and gauge our progress. If you got 10, 9, 8, and 7 reps last workout (34 reps), aim for 35+ reps next workout.

Where we differ is in which exercises we use. Dr. Helms is a fan of using smaller, simpler exercises as a proxy for muscle growth. For example, using leg extensions to gauge quad growth. We like to expand it to compound exercises, using squats instead.

When using compound exercises to gauge your progress, improvements in coordination can muddy the waters. However, once you’re proficient in the exercises, the silt will settle. I don’t see this as a problem for intermediate lifters.

The other problem is that compound exercises can be limited by the strength of more than one muscle. If you don’t know which muscles are limiting your performance, you won’t know much muscles are growing bigger and stronger. However, if you understand the compound exercises you’re doing, this becomes an advantage. You can focus on growing stronger at bigger movements, gauging the progress of larger muscle groups.

Finally, we usually do the big compound exercises early in our workouts, when we’re fresh, giving them our best effort. This lets us test our strength when doing our regular workouts, and it removes fatigue as a confounding factor.

Choosing Exercises That Match Your Goals

If you aren’t a powerlifter, you don’t need to focus on the same compound exercises as powerlifters. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. You should program for hypertrophy instead, judging your progress on exercises that are better at stimulating muscle growth.

If you care more about building bigger arms than bigger legs, biceps curls are more important than squats. If you care more about your shoulders than your chest, overhead pressing is more important than bench pressing. And if you care about every major muscle, you should choose a lift for every major muscle.

If you have a stable of exercises, with at least one for each muscle you’re interested in, then you’ll have a consistent way of stimulating muscle growth. You’ll also be able to track your strength gains and muscle growth over time. That doesn’t mean you always need to follow the same workout routine, just that, like a powerlifter, you’ll have certain lifts you can use to judge your overall progress.

We can’t tell you exactly which exercises are best for you. Different people are built differently. But that doesn’t give us an excuse to send you off wandering alone in the forest of exercise machines, experimenting aimlessly. Much better to give you the best default exercises, explain the pros and cons, and let you pick between a few great options.

Choosing Deeper Exercises, Not Heavier Ones

Your form should match what you’re training for. If you’re training for a strength competition, you should learn to lift with better leverage, allowing you to lift the heaviest weights you possibly can. That often means cutting the range of motion short. For example, you could do low-bar squats to parallel depth.

Illustration of a powerlifter doing a low-bar squat to gain strength.

If you’re training for hypertrophy, you should go as deep as you can. This develops strength through a larger range of motion and stimulates more muscle growth, especially in the distal parts of your muscle fibres. Your muscles will grow bigger, fuller, and longer—faster. For example, you could do front squats to full depth.

Illustration of a weight lifter doing front squats to build muscle.

It might seem like these hypertrophy exercises aren’t as good for gaining strength. That’s not quite true. They’re actually better for developing strength. After all, you’ll build more muscle mass and become stronger through a larger range of motion.

The real downside is that hypertrophy exercises aren’t as good for demonstrating strength. Most people can low-bar squat about 25% more weight than they can front squat. That’s the difference between a 3-plate squat and a 4-plate squat. You won’t ever win a powerlifting competition with that kind of handicap. Mind you, if you aren’t in a powerlifting competition, there’s no downside whatsoever.

The Hierarchy of Muscle-Building Exercises

Many hypertrophy training programs are about little more than accumulating enough hard sets for every muscle group. It’s about tirelessly lifting the weight, then dutifully raising the fork. That isn’t always a problem, but it can be.

Getting a good pump and feeling sore for a few days can be a good sign that you’ve trained hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. The problem is, if you aren’t able to lift more weight or get more reps than last time, your effort won’t add up to anything. Your river of PRs will run dry.

But how that can be? If you’re working hard enough and eating big enough, why wouldn’t you grow? Why would you plateau? The trouble is, unless there’s a need to get stronger, your body won’t want to continue investing resources into building muscle. Unless there’s a need to push outside your comfort zone, your body won’t encourage you to do it. This is why so many people hit a wall after they finish getting their newbie gains.

If you’ve been lifting for a while, you may have noticed that when you’re following a structured workout program, striving for progress every week, your lifts move steadily upwards. When you take a more relaxed approach, it feels like you’re training just as hard, but you don’t make any progress. The difference is that you aren’t striving to lift that extra pound or that extra rep. 

That small difference adds up. No progress this week, plus no progress next week, gives you nothing next month. But a pound now and a rep then will have you steadily moving forward. The difference in effort is almost nothing. You’re only rallying that tiny extra bit. You can’t always feel it. It’s the difference between hard and hard. But the progress is there, on your workout sheets.

It’s almost always more effective to focus on progressive overload than effort. Effort is too vague. If you’re training to get stronger on specific exercises, you can organize those exercises into a clear hierarchy and put in the effort required to make progress, as a powerlifter would:

  1. The main compound exercises: For a powerlifter, the main compound exercises are the squat, bench press, and deadlift. These are the #1 priority.
  2. Assistance exercises: These are compound exercises that support the main exercises, adding their own special emphasis. For example, a Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that’s better at bulking up the hamstrings while being easier on the lower back. These assistance exercises can be used to shore up weaknesses or reinforce strengths. These are the #2 priority.
  3. Accessory exercises: These are exercises used to bulk up specific muscles. For example, if your triceps are holding back your bench press, you can use skull crushers to bulk them up. These are the #3 priority.

If we pilfer this tier list from powerlifters, we can give our muscle-building workouts a stronger structure. For example, let’s say you want to bulk up your back and biceps:

  1. Main exercise: The exercise that places the most mechanical tension on your back and biceps through the deepest range of motion is the chin-up. You can use this as your main compound exercise, focusing on getting a little bit stronger every workout.
  2. Assistance exercises: These are exercises that support the main lift. Think of exercises like pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and rows. These give your muscles the volume they need to grow bigger. They also train the pulling movement pattern, making you stronger at chin-ups.
  3. Accessory exercises: These are the exercises used to bulk up the relevant muscles. If you’re having trouble working your lats hard enough, you can add in extra lat isolation exercises, such as pullovers. You can also add biceps curls to train the long head of your biceps.

Building a back workout around chin-ups, lat pulldowns, and pullovers is hardly revolutionary. That’s exactly what any good bodybuilder would do. The advantage is that now we have a clear way to measure progress. If you’re getting stronger at your chin-ups, you’re on the right track. Your efforts will add up to muscle growth. If you aren’t making progress, we can adjust what you’re doing, getting you back on track.

Illustration of a weight lifter doing the chin-up exercise to build a bigger back.

What Are the Best Compound Exercises?

That finally brings us to the point of this article. Which compound exercises should you care about becoming strong at? We’re not the first people to propose an answer to that question. Every strength training program has its own ideas about which compound exercises are best for gaining muscle and strength. The two most popular of these are Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5. They make for a good place to start.

The Starting Strength Approach

I have a soft spot for Starting Strength. I love how Mark Rippetoe wrote an entire book explaining why he built an entire strength training program out of just 5 compound exercises. He broke down each of those exercises in detail, giving readers a deep understanding of how to do them and why they’re so effective.

Those five compound exercises are:

  • Low-Bar Squats (Main Lift)
  • Bench Presses
  • Overhead Presses
  • Power Cleans
  • Conventional Deadlifts

This is a good set of exercises. I think it makes sense. But I think we can do better.

Rippetoe argued for the link between size and strength, claiming that training for strength was the best way to grow bigger. I agree, but I think the program is rooted too heavily in strength training, borrowing too little from hypertrophy training:

  • The power clean doesn’t belong in a muscle-building program. It’s an Olympic lift. There’s too little time under tension to stimulate much muscle growth, and it overlaps too heavily with the deadlift.
  • There’s no lift for the lats, abs, or biceps. The deadlift is a great back exercise, but a balanced muscle-building program should have chin-ups for your lats, abs, and biceps.
  • The low-bar squat is too heavily emphasized. Every workout begins with squats, giving it twice the training volume of any other exercise. This is at the heart of the program, so let’s delve deeper into why it’s such an issue.

I understand why there’s so much emphasis on the squat. The quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in the human body, meaning that squats stimulate more muscle growth than any other lift, with the possible exception of the deadlift. You could argue that this makes squats the best compound lift for building muscle, and you’d be right.

The thing is, putting so much emphasis on squatting means our upper-body strength and muscle mass will lag behind. That doesn’t line up with the goals of most people, especially most men. Most of us would prefer to gain muscle and strength in a more balanced way.

So there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing the squat if it aligns with your goals, but I think a better default is to train our muscles with more balance, trying to bulk up everything with equal fervour.

The StrongLifts 5×5 Approach

Mehdi from StrongLifts 5×5 created another popular strength training program. Like us, he took issue with the power cleans in Starting Strength, arguing they weren’t ideal for stimulating muscle growth. He also noticed that Starting Strength had a relatively low training volume, so he added 2 sets to every exercise.

According to StrongLifts, the five best compound exercises are:

  • Low-Bar Squat (Main Lift)
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Pendlay Barbell Row
  • Conventional Deadlift

Swapping out power cleans for Pendlay barbell rows was smart. It shifts the emphasis away from developing power, and it makes the program better for building muscle.

Illustration of a man doing a stronglifts barbell row, from the floor.
The Pendlay barbell row: a hip-dominant row variation.

However, the Pendlay row comes with its own problems. The deep hip bend and horizontal torso demand quite a lot from your hips and lower back. That isn’t bad by any means, but it makes the Pendlay row quite similar to the deadlift. In fact, it’s usually used as an assistance exercise for the deadlift.

Illustration of a man doing a barbell row for muscle size.
The bent-over barbell row.

If we wanted to use the barbell row as a back exercise, we could row like bodybuilders, keeping our torsos more upright, lifting in a higher rep range, and lowering the weight more slowly. We could also use a chest-supported variation, such as the t-bar row machine.

Still, the barbell row and deadlift both train our back muscles in nearly the same way. We could build a more balanced workout routine by including chin-ups, which train our lats through a much larger range of motion. They also challenge our abs instead of our spinal erectors, balancing out our core development.

Our First Failed Attempt

When Marco and I first tried to develop our stable of compound exercises, it didn’t work out quite right. We quickly ran into problems.

We built the program around 6 compound exercises:

  • High-Bar Squat
  • Close-Grip Bench Press
  • Conventional Deadlift
  • Overhead Press
  • Bent-Over Barbell Row
  • Chin-up

We were trying for a few improvements:

  1. High-bar squats: switching to a high-bar squat solves some of the problems of the low-bar squat. It allows for a deeper range of motion. It’s also a safer shoulder position for most people.
  2. Chin-ups: adding chin-ups balances out the upper and lower body exercises. It also balances out the pushing and pulling exercises. We chose chin-ups because they work our lats through a deep range of motion, challenge our abs, and do a decent job of engaging our biceps (study).
  3. Narrower bench press grip: the close-grip bench press does a better job of bulking up the triceps, shoulders, and upper chest than a wider-grip bench press. It’s also the lift I used to bring my bench press up to 315 pounds, so I have a soft spot for it. (Starting Strength also recommends a fairly narrow bench press grip. We agree with Rippetoe on this.)

Adjusting the Lifts for Hypertrophy

A few years ago, when we were first testing our Outlift Program, I spoke with Greg Nuckols, the founder of Stronger by Science, about finding the best lifts for gaining muscle. He’s a world-class powerlifter, an authority on strength training, and reviews hypertrophy research for a living.

Marco has a history of helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes build muscle, not powerlifters. If we’re building a program inspired by powerlifting, it helps to talk with actual powerlifters.

Greg had 3 ideas:

  • The front squat: switching from the high-bar squat to a front squat allows for even greater depth, shifts more emphasis to our upper backs, reduces the risk of injury, and does a better job of improving posture. It also stimulates the serratus anterior, which is important for building a big, strong, capable upper body. (The safety-bar squat offers similar advantages while being more comfortable to hold.)
  • The explosive overhead press: switching from an overhead press to a “cheaty” overhead press gives the lift a better strength curve. When we explode out of the bottom of the range of motion, we work our muscles harder at longer muscle lengths, allowing us to drive more weight through the sticking point. (This is great for developing power and athleticism, too.)
  • The trap-bar deadlift: switching from a conventional deadlift to a trap-bar deadlift makes deadlifting more comfortable and versatile. We used trap-bar deadlifts in the very first version of our Bony to Beastly Program but quickly learned most people don’t have access to one.

The front squat was a great idea. It worked beautifully. Greg’s idea to lift more explosively was a good idea, too—more on that here. And we liked his idea to let people pick their own variations based on the equipment they had access to. No sense in locking people into barbell deadlifts if they have a trap bar.

After implementing these changes, we thought we’d found the answer. But after testing the program on ourselves and several more clients, it still wasn’t working quite how we wanted it to.

The Fall of the Barbell Row

The barbell row is too similar to the deadlift. It’s easy to think of the deadlift as a hip hinge, but it’s more than that. It’s also a horizontal pull, just like a barbell row. It works almost all the same back muscles. You could argue that deadlifts work the lats through a pathetically small range of motion, and that’s true, but it’s nearly as true for rows.

We thought the barbell row would complement the deadlift, but it wound up interfering with it. Starting Strength and StrongLifts evade this problem by only doing 1–2 sets of deadlifts per week. However, deadlifts are one of the most powerful exercises for stimulating muscle growth. It’s far better to have more deadlifts than more rows.

So we demoted the row to an assistance exercise. That gives them a lower priority, and it leaves us free to use a mix of barbell rows, dumbbell rows, t-bar machine rows, and cable rows—whichever variations suit your situation best. If your lower back is already being worked hard enough, you can use chest-supported variations.

That leaves deadlifts and chin-ups as the two main back exercises. That’s great for our upper backs and shifts some emphasis from our spinal erectors to our abs, giving us a much more balanced workout program.

The 5 Best Compound Exercises

After demoting rows to an assistance exercise, the feedback was incredible. People were recovering much more smoothly and making far better progress. The program now had a proper mix of horizontal pressing with horizontal pulling, vertical pressing with vertical pulling, and knee-dominant squats with hip-dominant deadlifts. Perfect.

That gave us our 5 big compound exercises:

  1. The Front Squat: to train the quads, glutes, serratus, and upper spinal erectors.
  2. The Bench Press: to develop the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  3. The Deadlift: to bulk up the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and upper back.
  4. The Overhead Press: to train the shoulders, upper chest, traps, serratus, and triceps.
  5. The Chin-Up: to work the upper back, lats, biceps, and abs.
Illustration showing the 5 best compound barbell lifts for gaining muscle mass.

The workouts do a better job of strengthening our stabilizer and assistance muscles, too. We have squats and deadlifts for the spinal erectors, chin-ups and overhead presses for the abs. And both front squats and overhead presses bulk up the serratus anterior, keeping our shoulders healthy.

Like powerlifters, we can keep a running tally of our “Big Five” total to measure our strength and progress. We can sort our lifts into a clear hierarchy. We can compare the results we get from running different programs. We can identify and overcome plateaus.

The Best Compound Exercises for Beginners

Beginners benefit from simpler exercises that encourage good technique and let them push themselves harder sooner. For example, most beginners get more benefits out of goblet squats than front squats, more from push-ups than from bench presses, and more from Romanian deadlifts than conventional deadlifts.

Here are the 5 big compound exercises for beginners:

  • Romanian deadlifts: an easier and safer variation of the deadlift that’s just as good for helping a beginner bulk up.
  • Goblet squats: a dumbbell version of the front squat that’s simpler to learn and helps develop strength in the front rack position.
  • Lat pulldowns and/or lowered chin-ups: the best way to work towards your first chin-up is to start at the top and lower yourself slowly down. Or, you can start with lat pulldowns.
  • Push-ups: until you can do 20 push-ups, you’ll get more out of them than the bench press. It’s easier on the shoulders, better for the core, and you’ll train your serratus muscles as a bonus.
  • One-armed dumbbell presses: It’s easier to keep proper core positioning if you’re only pressing half as much weight at a time. Dumbbell presses are just as good for bulking up your shoulders, too.

Why You Need More Than Compound Exercises

If the big compound exercises are best for building muscle, why do you need smaller exercises? It’s true that the big compound exercises train the biggest movement patterns and engage your biggest muscles. They’re a great foundation to build upon. However, our muscles perform many different movements. Not all of those movements are captured by compound exercises.

Diagram showing that the  long head of the biceps needs biceps curls.

For example, the long head of your biceps pulls your arms forward while flexing your arms. None of the big compound exercises train that movement pattern. Therefore, none of them are ideal for your biceps. If you want big biceps, you can train that movement with biceps curls (study).

Graph showing the biceps growth from doing two different biceps exercises.

The next thing to keep in mind is that your muscles fatigue relatively fast, but they’re fed by numerous blood vessels, allowing them to recover quickly. Your tendons and bones are tougher but recover more slowly. If you hammer them as hard as your muscles, they can start to ache. If you keep hammering away at aching joints and tendons, you can wind up with chronic pain.

An easy solution is to use a wider variety of exercises, stimulating your muscles more often but varying the stress on your joints and tendons. If you train your back with underhand chin-ups, overhand lat pulldowns, and neutral-grip rows, you can build a big back with less chance of aggravating your elbows.

Finally, most research shows that using a variety of exercises yields stimulates a wider variety of muscle fibres, yielding more balanced muscle growth and greater strength gains (study).

You Don’t Need to Test Your 1-Rep Max

If you aren’t a powerlifter, you don’t need to worry about maximal strength. You can let your muscles pace themselves, rationing their effort over several repetitions. Your 1-rep max won’t be as impressive, but your muscles will develop a greater work capacity.

It’s easier to stimulate muscle growth when lifting in a moderate rep range, so you can do sets of 6–20 reps instead of sets of 1–5 reps. To track your progress, all you need to do is see how much weight you’re able to lift for how many reps. If you’re adding weight or reps, you can be confident you’re on the right track.

Lift Explosively But Under Control

One of the best ways to maximize muscle growth and strength gains at the same time is to lift more athletically—more powerfully. There are two aspects to this, the first from powerlifters and the second from bodybuilders:

  • Practice lifting weights with an explosive tempo, as powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and athletes do. When you accelerate out of the bottom of the range of motion, your muscles are forced to work harder at longer muscle lengths, improving the strength curve of your lifts. When you try to move the weight as fast as you can, your muscles need to exert their full force, even when you’re lifting lighter weights.* This is better for gaining strength and stimulating muscle growth.
  • Practice lowering weights slowly and under control, as bodybuilders do. When you lower weights slowly, you keep tension on your muscles for longer. You also maintain better control, keeping the lift safe. And you’ll be better able to lower the weight back down into the proper starting position, setting you up for a better subsequent rep. This is true even for lifts like deadlifts.

Explode the weight up and lower it under control. That might mean lifting the weight in 1 second and lowering it for 2–3 seconds, but this will depend on how heavy the weight is and how much it’s challenging you. Plus, the heavier the weight feels and the more challenging the rep is, the slower time will seem to move. You don’t need to count it out. Instead, think of lifting more athletically—with both power and control.

A good way to practice is with a simple lift, like biceps curls. Stand proudly in front of the mirror with your chest up, your glutes tight, and your core strong. Accelerate the weight up, imagining you’re trying to throw the weight through the ceiling. Then, when you lower the weight back down, imagine you’re slowly stretching out an elastic, charging your biceps up for another powerful effort.

*Force = mass × acceleration. Therefore, you can make up for lifting less weight (less mass) by lifting with greater acceleration. This gets you more growth out of the earlier reps in a set.

How to Use the Big 5 to Build Muscle

This Big 5 approach to building muscle isn’t a specific program; it’s a way of measuring overall strength and progress. It’s a way of sorting your lifts into a hierarchy. It’s a way of linking your muscle, strength, and fitness goals into a system you can tally and track. It’s a way of using progressive overload to gain muscle and strength.

Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a free muscle-building newsletter. If you want a customizable hypertrophy training workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, I think you’d love our full programs.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 65 pounds at 11% body fat and has ten years of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

How to build 20 to 30 pounds of muscle in 30 days. Even if you have failed before


  1. Kevin on September 16, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    Hey Shane,

    Thanks for another awesome article – I love all the content you put out and the new site is looking very aesthetic.

    Are you and Marco planning on releasing a program for more intermediate / advanced lifters through Outlift?



    • Shane Duquette on September 16, 2019 at 4:01 pm

      Thanks, Kevin! What we want to do with Outlift is to create bulking/strength/aesthetics content for more advanced lifters, yeah. We wanted a site without the “Bony” in it because, I mean, spend a few months with Bony to Beastly and you won’t ever be bony again. We needed a brand with some room to grow.

      We’ve already finished beta testing and refining our intermediate program. I’ve also been doing it all year and absolutely loving it. We’re stoked.

      We’re just trying to put up some content here that will go along with it. Our intermediate program is designed to be flexible and tailored. It’s all about options. So we need an article teaching you how to pick which squat variation you want to focus on, and what accessory exercises will go best with it. We also need an article about how to approach accessory exercises in general. And an article like this one that goes over the purpose of all of it.

      That way we can release a simple program with some great default recommendations, but if people want to know the rationale behind it, if they want to further tailor the program, or if they have more nuanced questions, we can address them here in these articles, and in the comment threads that go along with them.

      That’s our thinking, anyway.

      • Kevin on September 17, 2019 at 12:03 pm

        Thanks for the detailed response Shane!

        Awesome, I’m pumped to get my hands on the simple program whenever you guys release it.

        I’ve been doing my own version of the Big 5 and I love it as well. I’ve already read through all the articles on here and switched from DB Military Press over to the Push Press based off your recommendation – so far so good.

        Thanks for all you do man.

        • Shane Duquette on September 18, 2019 at 9:54 am

          My pleasure, man! The dumbbell overhead press is great, too. I’m going to finish up that dedicated push press article soon, going over all the variations and what they’re best for. I think if you’ve been doing the dumbbell overhead press and you switch to a push press, it should spur on some new growth.

          The other thing with the dumbbell press is that it helps to do it with a huge range of motion, bringing the dumbbell all the way down to your chest and then pressing it as high as you can overhead. That way you’re increasing the range of motion for your shoulders, and you’re also getting your upper chest and traps. But you might already be doing that. (And you can add in some lower-body drive to that variation as well, when it helps.)

          Thank you for the comments. It’s nice to get some feedback before even going public about this new site. I really appreciate it 🙂

      • Damien S. on February 18, 2020 at 6:33 pm

        Love the articles, one of the most informative muscle building sites I’ve seen. I really like the bony2beastly site as well. Are you guys going to add more articles to the Outlift site? Doing 3 full body workouts a week with a proper bulking diet brought me from 155lbs to 225lbs at 6’1 in the course of a couple of years. I would love to see more articles pertaining to the more mechanical aspects of the big 5, breaking through plateaus, and diets for the intermediate/advanced lifter. Thanks and keep lifting!

        • Shane Duquette on February 19, 2020 at 10:26 am

          Thank you, Damien! And congrats for gaining seventy pounds—that’s amazing!

          Yeah, we’re going to keep writing articles here. Bony to Beastly is for skinny guys, Bony to Bombshell for skinny women, and then Outlift is at a more intermediate level, for people who already lift weights and who are no longer skinny anymore. I’m not sure if we’ll be writing many diet articles here, though. Maybe, but we might keep the content confined to lifting. I’m working on two more articles about the biomechanics and physics of lifting right now: strength curves and moment arms. I think you might like them 🙂

  2. Jean Dade on January 31, 2020 at 11:16 am

    Hi Shane and Marco

    Great article, it is tough to sift through thousands of practical muscle hypertrophy tips and methods which make no relevance for many hardgainers! What is your take on high rep, lactic acid buildup-focused training (i.e. very low volume (number of sets), per session, sets lasting 40-70 seconds, and hit every muscle with a high frequency (3 times a week) to stimulate follistatin production for brawny guys who can’t seem to add size with the typical 6-12 reps range, 3-5 sets per muscle group twice a week?

    There is a credible notion that focusing on lifting weights in the 80%-plus zone and with a progressive overload is likely not the best way for hardgainers (with slow twitch muscle fibre dominance and genetics that produce excess myostatin after high volume, strength-oriented workouts) to build size.

    • Shane Duquette on January 31, 2020 at 2:10 pm

      You can build muscle brilliantly with sets ranging from 4–40 reps, and the higher end of that definitely has merit. You might not need to go quite that high, but certainly spending some time doing sets of 15–20 can be useful. Some lifts are better for that than others, mind you. Doing squats for that many reps might tax your cardiovascular system more than your strength, and so it might not be the best way to bulk up your quads. With something like curls, though, yeah, absolutely. You can be even more extreme with it, too, using techniques like blood-flow restriction (BFR).

      I’m not sure why you’d combine higher rep ranges with lower volume. If you’re a slow-twitch kind of guy, in theory, you’d benefit from doing both higher reps and more overall volume. You might want a higher training frequency, too. Less of a powerlifter training style, more of a workhorse training style.

      As for whether hardgainers with slow-twitch muscle fibres benefit from training in higher rep ranges, that’s debatable. Some experts, such as Menno Henselmans, say yes, and test their clients to see what rep ranges they’re best at. Other experts, such as Greg Nuckols, say that it doesn’t matter, and just encourage their clients to experiment with different approaches to see what works best for them (which may change over time). I think the idea of different styles of training suiting people with different muscle fibre compositions is super interesting, but I’m not certain there’s enough evidence to say for sure whether it helps. (As opposed to having everyone—regardless of their fibre composition—experiment with both approaches.)

      If your goal is to gain size, I think your best bet will be to do a mix of different rep ranges and training styles, either doing a routine that includes a mix of rep ranges or alternating between different styles of training. That’s the approach we tend to take. We combine a mix of different proven training styles (the shotgun approach), and we have a mix of different proven training routines (the trial and error approach), allowing people to gradually hone in on what suits them best.

      And then for the mechanisms behind why the different styles of training work… I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone really knows with any real degree of certainty. It’s highly debatable, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth, there. I’ll leave that to the experts to debate for now, and then when a clear winner emerges, we’ll write about it then 🙂

      I hope that helps.

  3. Derek on February 9, 2020 at 2:53 pm

    You say, “until you can do 20 push-ups, you’ll get more out of doing push-ups than the bench press.”

    Does that mean in a single set? Or just in a workout?

    I’m trying to decide between your two programs–I’m not bony anymore and can knock out 80+ push-ups in a workout, but won’t get more than a set of 15 in.

    What do you recommend?

    • Shane Duquette on February 11, 2020 at 2:21 pm

      Hey Derek,

      Push-ups tend to be better than the bench press for bulking up until you can do about twenty of them in a row—in a single set. Once you can do around twenty push-ups, you might find that your cardiovascular system or pain threshold limits you more than your muscle strength does, and when that happens, your sets will start drifting further away from muscle failure, and will start stimulating less muscle growth. It can also get pretty unpleasant. So that’s when we recommend switching to the bench press.

      Mind you, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and you could certainly switch to the bench press earlier. But until your sets of push-ups start to drift into the twenties, there’s no real reason to. If anything, push-ups are a mechanically better lift. The only problem is loading them ever heavier.

      Right now, doing up to 15 reps per set, and up to 80 reps per workout, I think push-ups are going to be perfect for helping you build muscle. The bench press wouldn’t be an improvement over push-ups, but it might add in some welcome variety or stimulate your muscle fibres in slightly different ways. You may want to do both.

      If you’re in doubt, I’d recommend the Bony to Beastly Program. We have an optional Phase 0 for beginners, and then Phase 1–5 are great for both novice and intermediate lifters. It will help you build a sturdy foundation that you can keep bulking from. It also includes everything you need to know about the bulking diet and lifestyle, as well as some great bulking recipes. And I think you’ll get up to twenty reps of push-ups per set by the end of it. (We’ll have you doing the bench press alongside push-ups, too.)

      Plus, if you get Bony to Beastly and realize that you’d rather have Outlift, you can always email us and we’ll make the switch for ya. We have a full guarantee and unconditional refund policy on everything we sell 🙂

  4. Fleischman on July 6, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    Help me understand:
    As far as lower body is concerned:
    Is the lowest 1/2 (or lowest 1/3) of the Deadlift essentially a Squat?
    Thank you.

    • Shane Duquette on July 7, 2020 at 9:51 am

      Hey Fleischman, I guess that depends on how you define a squat. The lower part of a deadlift has a deep hip angle and a shallow knee angle, making it more of a hip-dominant movement. The lower part of a squat has a shallower hip angle and a deeper knee angle, making it more of a quad-dominant movement. With that said, the quads do engage at the beginning of a deadlift, especially if you start with lower hips or use a sumo stance, and the hamstrings do engage during a squat, especially if you sit back into your squat. And our glutes and lower backs are worked quite hard by both lifts.

      Perhaps more relevantly, though, it’s rare for someone to be limited by quad strength when deadlifting, meaning that the quads rarely get much growth stimulus from the deadlift. Similarly, with the squat, even though the hamstrings put in some work, they aren’t usually worked hard enough to stimulate growth. That means that even though we may rely on our quads to get the barbell moving at the bottom of a deadlift, that’s not our limiting factor, and so it’s not going to stimulate muscle growth like a squat would.

      So there are definitely some similarities between squats and deadlifts, but they aren’t the same, either.

      • Fleischman on July 9, 2020 at 10:01 pm

        Thank you very much. This reply has helped me understand the differences between the lower part of Deadlifts and Squats.

        One other on-topic question: have you discussed anywhere if training only Outlift’s Big Lifts 5 will result in a significantly different physique versus training Big 5 Lifts plus Accessory/Assistance Lifts? Thanks!

        • Shane Duquette on July 10, 2020 at 10:26 am

          My pleasure, Fleischman 🙂

          Yeah, check out our article on isolation lifts. Long story short, you can build a tremendous amount of overall muscle mass just by focusing on the big compound lifts, and it’s a very efficient way to train, but you’ll gain muscle faster and in a more balanced way if you also include some smart accessory/isolation lifts.

          • Fleischman on July 12, 2020 at 3:17 pm

            Thank you very much!

          • Shane Duquette on July 13, 2020 at 8:21 am

            My pleasure, man. Good luck!

  5. Mike on July 15, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    If I am doing a full-body workout 3x per week, how often should I do the Big 5? Should I be doing each of those on all 3 days along with assistance and accessory lifts?

    • Shane Duquette on July 15, 2020 at 1:42 pm

      Hey Mike, great question.

      It really all depends. For someone newer to lifting, or newer to learning the big compound lifts, repetition can help. It might make sense to do the five big lifts 2–3 times per week to learn and improve your technique. But once you’ve mastered them, it’s often wise to think of variety instead. Instead of doing front squats 3x per week, it might be better to choose a main lift (e.g. the front squat), another compound “assistance” lift (e.g. the leg press), and a smaller isolation “accessory” lift (e.g. a leg extension). Not only will that make your training easier, but you’ll also build more balanced musculature (such as more growth in your rectus femoris) and ward off overuse injuries (such as developing sore knees). If you take that same approach with all five of the big lifts, you can be training each muscle group 2–3x per week with 10+ sets per week in a way that’s fairly manageable.

      On the other hand, if you want to specialize in a certain lift or to accelerate growth in a certain muscle group, you might want to do even more. If you want bigger arms, say, then maybe remove the accessory lifts for your deadlifts and squats to free up time and energy for some extra biceps curls and triceps extensions at the end of every workout.

      • Mike on July 16, 2020 at 10:56 am

        Perfect. Thanks Shane!

        • Shane Duquette on July 16, 2020 at 11:01 am

          My pleasure, Mike. Good luck 🙂

          • Leo on August 26, 2020 at 9:17 am

            I have read the entire article and each of the individual articles for the main lifts (with assistance and accessory).
            I am still unsure on how to apply them. Can you provide a little more detail to your answer to Mike? For example, there are 5 main lifts and you recommend doing the Deadlift once. So do you have 2 main lifts lets say on Monday and Friday + assistance & accesory and rest on Tuesday and Thursday?
            I am trying to decide how to inocorporate the Big5 + assistance + accesory + good rest.

          • Shane Duquette on August 26, 2020 at 10:14 am

            There are tons of different ways to organize the lifts into a training program. Our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program comes with four different ways of doing it, with two 3-day versions and two 4-day versions. I’m working on a 5-day version, too. And each is customizable.

            We’ve also got a sample reverse pyramid training workout routine here.

            But if you want to build your own from scratch, there are a few ways to do it.

            For each main lift, maybe you supplement it with one assistance and one accessory lift. So for the bench press, say, that could be standard-grip bench press + weighted dips + skullcrushers, say. And we want to train each muscle at least twice per week, so you can divide those up into 2+ days. For example, maybe you’re doing bench press + skullcrushers on Monday, then weighted dips on Friday.

            These lifts overlap with one another to a certain extent. So with our overhead press, maybe we do that on the Friday, before doing our dips. For our assistance lift, maybe we choose push-ups or a close-grip bench, doing those on Wednesday (which brings our chest/shoulders/triceps frequency up to 3x per week, which is great). And then for our accessory, maybe some lateral raises at the end of our workout on Monday (or whenever).

            It can sound a bit complicated, but if you start every workout with 1–2 of the big lifts, then add in another 3–4 smaller lifts, you can build a good program fairly easily. A workout might look like, say, front squats (main) + chin-ups (main) + weighted dips (assistance) + lateral raises (accessory).

            There’s nothing wrong with doing big lifts on 2–3 days and assistance/accessory lifts on another day. You can combine the lifts together in a number of different ways. Just spread the work out for each muscle group, aiming for 4–8 sets or so per muscle group per workout.

            I hope that helps, and maybe we could write an article about programming hypertrophy workouts in the near future.

  6. Fleischman on August 2, 2020 at 8:31 am

    Couldn’t/shouldn’t Overhead Press be considered an accessory (and not a main) lift to Bench Press (just like Barbell Row is accessory to Chin Up)?
    Thank you.

    • Shane Duquette on August 3, 2020 at 9:50 am

      Could you do the bench press as a main lift, the overhead press as an assistance lift, and then some skullcrushers and lateral raises as accessory lifts? Absolutely. A lot of programs take that approach, and that’s perfectly fine. There would just be less emphasis on the chest, shoulders, and triceps that way.

      We like having it as its own separate lift to give more priority to both the chest and shoulders, which a lot of guys are eager to develop—and rightfully so. Plus, the overhead press works a number of upper back muscles, it does a decent job of stimulating our side delts, and since our shoulder blades aren’t pinned down and back, it helps to keep them mobile and healthy.

      If we look at our back muscles, we’re taking a similar approach. We have the deadlift to focus on the spinal erectors and traps, and we have the chin-up to focus on the upper back and biceps. Both work a number of the same muscles, but we still count them as separate main lifts. That way we’re giving our backs some extra attention.

      We take the same approach with our legs, too. You could choose low-bar squats (which have a lot in common with hip hinges) or trap-bar deadlifts (which have a lot in common with squats) as your main lower-body lift and then add in some assistance and accessory lifts to balance it out. But we prefer having a dedicated squat and hip hinge as main lifts.

      So a minimalist program might have the trap-bar deadlift, bench press, and chin-up as the main lifts. That’s fine. But we prefer to have the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up. We feel it makes for a more well-rounded program.

  7. Simon Davidson on August 29, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Hi Shane,

    Great article and website, the best I have read. I am training 3 days a week, and want to do only the Big 5 lift. What programme would you suggest? Working on your suggestions for reps and sets this would mean doing 75 sets a week (5×5 per day x 3 days), which I take from your article is too many?

    Cheers Simon

    • Shane Duquette on August 30, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Hey Simon, if you do 5 sets of 5 reps, and you do it 3 times per week, then that’s 15 sets per week, which is fine. It’s 75 repetitions per week, and that’s okay, too.

      I don’t know why you’d do 5×5, though. If your goal is to gain muscle size, I’d recommend doing more reps per set, as outlined in our article on the hypertrophy rep range. More like 3–5 sets of 6–15 reps.

      I’m also not sure why you’d only do the big lifts. You’ll get better results if you mix in some assistance and accessory lifts, as outlined in our article on isolation lifts.

      I hope that helps!

      • Fleischman on August 30, 2020 at 4:16 pm

        I suspect Simon meant
        5 Lifts/day x 5 sets/Lift x 3 days/wk =
        = 75 sets/wk.

        • Simon Davidson on August 31, 2020 at 3:11 am

          Yes, that is right is that too many sets a week?

        • Shane Duquette on September 2, 2020 at 10:26 am

          Ahhh, I see. There’s nothing wrong with doing 75 sets per week, but as mentioned in my previous comment, it’s better to use a combination of main lifts, assistance lifts, and accessory lifts. It will be much easier to do, much easier to recover from, and you’ll get better results.

          Also, start with fewer sets and work your way up as needed/desired. For instance, start with 2 sets per exercise per workout. Then in the next week, move up to 3 sets per exercise. If that goes well, try adding a fourth set to some of the main lifts, still doing 3 sets for the smaller lifts. If you work your way up like that, you won’t run into issues with crippling soreness and recovery. And then every month or two, drop back down to 2 sets per exercise to give yourself a break.

          You probably won’t need to do five sets per exercise, especially if you’re doing more reps per set.

      • Leo Sanchez on August 30, 2020 at 8:48 pm

        Not sure if I am following this. If I do the big 5 in different days, like 2 on Monday, 2 Wednesday and 2 Friday 5 sets of 5. … you are saying is better to do 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps? Not sure I see a difference if I do 3 sets of 6 . I am also doing sets of 10 reps of assistance and accessories each day. Trying to make sure if doing the big lifts as 5×5 is good to gain strength.
        Thank you,

        • Simon Davidson on August 31, 2020 at 3:16 am

          Hi Leo,

          What I wanted to know is it okay to do all of the big 5 exercises day, for the recommended 5 sets Per exercise, three times a week?

          Cheers Simon

          • Leo Sanchez on August 31, 2020 at 8:24 pm

            Hi Simon,
            Sorry. My question was for Shane since I don’t understand why doing 5×5 is worst than doing 3×6 to increase strength.

        • Shane Duquette on September 2, 2020 at 10:36 am

          Hey Leo, it all depends on your goals, and there’s no single right way to do it.

          5×5 is a good way of gaining some muscle size while you focus on getting stronger as a powerlifter for your size. It’s a bit of a bother to do, but sure, you can do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many people have used 5×5 routines with great success, especially if their goals include having a proportionally big 1RM (a big 1RM compared to their 10RM, say).

          If you want to focus on getting both bigger and stronger, then it’s less about strength training, more about gaining muscle size. As you gain muscle size, you will become stronger. After all, bigger muscles are stronger muscles. You won’t be specialized for powerlifting—you’ll be stronger in moderate rep ranges than you are at lifting singles—but you’ll be big and strong in a more general sense (e.g. you’ll have a strong 10RM, even if your 1RM is proportionally a bit smaller).

          As for why you might want to focus on doing 3–5 sets of 6–15 reps, it’s because it’s much more efficient to gain muscle size that way. If you do 3 sets of 12 reps, you’ll likely gain about as much muscle size as doing 5 sets of 5 reps, but it will take less time and be easier to recover from. At that point, either your workouts will become shorter and you’ll have more energy, or you can reinvest that time into doing other lifts, getting better overall results. So it’s not that 5×5 is bad, just that if you want to get bigger and stronger, it’s more efficient to spend more of your time training in moderate rep ranges.

          All of the research for this is given in that article on the hypertrophy rep range.

          Does that make sense?

          • Leo Sanchez on September 4, 2020 at 8:53 pm

            Kind of lol. I really thought the big 5 were supposed to be heavy, lower rep. And then for the assistance and accessory go a little lower in weight and 3×10-12.
            So do you recommend to go 3×10-12 in the three ( big lifts, assistance & accessory)?
            Thanks for all the advise!

          • Shane Duquette on September 7, 2020 at 8:55 am

            The bigger compound lifts often lend themselves better to lower rep ranges, so if you’re lifting in lower rep ranges, those are good lifts for them. If your goal is to gain muscle size and general strength, though, then you might be better served by lifting more like 6–8 reps per set on the big lifts rather than 3–5. It’s not a big deal if you prefer squatting for sets of 5 reps versus 6 reps, but as a general rule of thumb, getting into the moderate range makes it easier to build muscle more efficiently and with less wear and tear on your joints. But there’s no single right way to do it. You can adjust your routine to suit your body and your preferences.

            The smaller isolation lifts are good for doing more reps per set, since you’re less likely to find up limited by your cardiovascular system or pain threshold, and it can be safer. So when doing, say, biceps curls or lateral raises, yeah, best not to be doing sets of 5 reps. Better to be doing sets of 8–30 reps.

            We’ve got a detailed article on the hypertrophy rep range that I think will help 🙂

      • Simon Davidson on August 31, 2020 at 3:21 am

        Hi Shane,

        Thanks for the advice on assistance exercises, I am still looking for clarity on overall volume, is 75 sets per week for the big 5 plus assistance exercises too many?

        Cheers Simon

        • Shane Duquette on September 2, 2020 at 10:38 am

          It may or may not be, it might change, and it will depend on which exercises you choose. I recommend starting with fewer sets and gradually working your way up, as mentioned in the other comment.

          I know that might sound confusing, but it will make more sense once you try it and get used to it.

  8. Adnan Adil on September 21, 2020 at 1:39 am

    Great article! It is good when someone speaks the truth, which is so obvious, but can not be seen from the guys and gals. It is clear that most people hit the gym with one main goal- to become better looking, which includes more muscles and less fat. Definitely Starting Strength, StrongLifts and their clones are going to help you become bigger and stronger, but their primary goal is to make you better in sports like powerlifting.
    Pushing so hard and so much the lower body is great for your squat and deadlift abilities, but in one moment you are risking to turn into some kind of T-Rex. 🙂
    Anyway, I think that for general fitness and good appeal, your approach is better… much better.
    The only thing I wonder about is what would happen, if I superset the big lifts (I still stick to the barbell row, too, so I have 6 main exercises)? Arnold loved that way of training. I personally think the pump is great and the fat lose is easier. But is going to happen in the long run?

    • Shane Duquette on September 21, 2020 at 9:05 am

      Thank you, Adnan!

      Yes, adding a sixth lift is perfectly fine. If your lower back starts to hold you back, just switch to a row variation that doesn’t tax it quite so much. And if that doesn’t happen, great—no problem.

      Supersetting your lifts? Absolutely! Go for it. Best to superset unrelated lifts (e.g. chin-ups with front squats) or lifts that work antagonist muscles (e.g. bench press and rows). It won’t have a big impact on muscle growth, but it will make your workouts much more efficient, and perhaps give you some extra cardiovascular benefit, too 🙂

      • Adnan Adil on September 21, 2020 at 9:19 am

        Thank you for the answer, Shane!

        Yes, for now my lower back and forearms are doing fine, but let’s see who is going to collapse first… 🙂

        Supersetting antagonist muscles feels great for me. Rows with bench pressing, squatting and deadlifting and finally chin ups with OHP and sometimes plank and back plank, if I have time. It seems that you and most of the fitness population prefer first the pushing motions and after this the pulling ones, but I start from the harder exercises first. Plus there are some claims that in that way we make our shoulders more stable.

        • Shane Duquette on September 21, 2020 at 10:52 am

          The squat emphasizes the quads and the deadlift the hamstrings, but both work the glutes and spinal erectors. If you can superset them without a drop in performance, that’s fine, but you might find that you’re stronger if you superset them with unrelated exercises instead. For example, I’ll sometimes superset my squats with neck curls.

          We don’t necessarily recommend doing pushes first. We’ll often put the deadlift and chin-up first in a workout. I’d do chin-ups before overhead pressing, for instance, because it’s the more tiring lift. But, yeah, with rows and the bench, I’ll usually do the bench press first. Again, because, at least for me, the bench press is the more tiring lift.

          As a general rule, do the bigger lifts first. And when picking between big lifts, put the one you’re most eager to get stronger at first.

          • Adnan Adil on September 23, 2020 at 4:17 am

            Yes, I tend to agree with the statement that we should start with the lifts which are harder or which we want to be our stronger lifts.

            Still many claim that our pushing force is increasing after we have done something for the antagonist muscles, but I am not completely sure how corrects this statement is. When the weights are lighter, it is not a big deal, but with the increase of the weights, supersetting antagonist muscles is starting to become more challenging. Speaking from my own experience the fat burning is increasing, too, but it is becoming a real nightmare in the combo of the deadlift and squat. I think that this superset alone is putting the cardiovascular and nervous system on tremendous test.

            As far as the order of the exercises- yeah, combining bigger one with some smaller is best probably, but… Why there always have to appear “but”? Anyway- doing the first superset of big and small exercises is good, but on the second and next sets the things start to go in different way- after all these are compund moves and when we deadlift for instance, we use out back muscles heavily, too, so when we start doing chin ups we hit them again and after this we go again to the deadlift with already tired muscles. But we probably should focus on the primary muscles in every lift, because otherwise, we would be very limited in the choice of the exercises.

            I stop writing, because the reply is becoming too big and big writings are usually boring, excluding your articles, which are always more and more interesting. 😉

          • Shane Duquette on September 23, 2020 at 9:19 am

            You easily test the hypothesis of back exercises increasing pushing strength. One workout, do the back lift first and then see how strong you are at the push. Next workout, start with the push. See how your strength compares. In my case, I tend to bench press better when I do it fresher. With the overhead press, it matters less because it’s a lighter lift and I’m not as good at it.

            The squat and deadlift both use some of the same primary movers: the glutes. And they both use some of the same stabilizer muscles, such as the spinal erectors. As a result, doing one can reduce the performance on the other.

            There’s less overlap between the chin-up and the deadlift. Yes, the lats contract during the deadlift, and sometimes quite hard, but the lats don’t actually do any of the lifting. If your lats are tired going into a set of deadlifts, it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s the spinal erectors that stabilize the back, and the quads, hamstrings, and glutes that do the lifting. Or, if you tire yourself out deadlifting before moving to chin-ups, your biceps, abs, and lats will probably be okay, so your chin-ups should still go well.

            With that said, both deadlifts and chin-ups are big lifts. Even though the main muscles being worked are somewhat different, there’s going to be some systemic fatigue accumulating. After doing deadlifts, even if your lats are okay, you might just be pooped overall. Going right into another big lift can be hard.

            When we were beta testing our Outlift program, we initially had squats on the same day as overhead pressing, and deadlifts on the same day as chin-ups. People found themselves too tired to push themselves on the chin-ups, so we moved them to the squat day: squats, overhead press, chin-ups. They found that felt much better. Then, after deadlifts, we did lighter assistance and accessory work: weighted dips, biceps curls, lateral raises, etc.

  9. Adnan Adil on September 23, 2020 at 9:35 am

    Wow, man, you are simultaneously so scientific and so basic! That’s why I like your style so much. You are going in the deep, in the big details, but you are doing this in some different, special, your way, which is not boring and hard to understand. Everything you claim have good solid foundation in numerous proofs and in the same time is easy for understanding.

    I believe that my bench press is quite weaker than my barbell row (almost 2 and half times more reps on the later exercises with the same weight) and I do it second. You are right that I have to experiment for a little longer to try it in the opposite way. Months ago when I was pushing first, my pulling exercises were much harder than usual for me.

    And yes, I agree with you that doing too much compound exercises in one workout is too tiring. You feel very tired and you are low on energy, but from my low level combat sports experience I can tell you that your coordination suffers bad after such sessions. You don’t need to execute flying kicks to feel that you are not so agile after heavy compound exercises, which have pounded your CNT.

    Still, opposing to the said above, if you give yourself a little longer breaks, you still can do some decent, heavy workout and not suffer from high fatigue levels- do squats and finish every squat with shoulder press and do the 2 exercises one after another and you will see the big difference. 🙂

    And for the overlap- yes, I completely agree with you that the chin ups and deadlift are not targeting in exactly the same way, exactly the same muscles. For example some propose doing first chin ups, after this OHP and to finish the workout with deadlift. In this particular scenario I am not sure that we start with chin ups because it is pulling exercises, but it might be for the reason to give our forearms a little rest, before blasting them with the deadlift.

  10. Mgca on October 3, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    Why not replace deadlift and squat by barbell split squat? It’s a better overall leg mass builder, in my opinion.

    Deadlift: glutes + lower back + really light hamstring activation

    Squat: glutes and quads, no hamstrings

    Barbell split squat: glutes, quads, good hamstring activation

    • Shane Duquette on October 3, 2020 at 2:29 pm

      Hey Mgca, you’re right that the squat is mainly for the quads and glutes, not the hamstrings. The same is true for the split squats.

      The deadlift is great for a whole slew of muscles, including our glutes and lower back, but also our upper backs—traps, rhomboids, rear delts, upper spinal erectors, and so on. It’s great for our hamstrings, too. Maybe not as good as a Romanian deadlift, but one of the best hamstring exercises for sure.

      So what I’d say is that you could do split squats instead of regular squats, no problem. But they don’t replace deadlifts.

  11. JeremyS on October 4, 2020 at 10:46 pm

    Super curious about when we can expect to see the 5-day routine?

    I’ve been doing the Outlift 4-day hard routine since the start of the year and I’m absolutely loving it. I think I’d be best described as an early intermediate – I’ve already gained nearly 20lb of muscle prior to starting the program and I’m generally able to gain 5-10lb on each of the Big 5 lifts (at 5 reps) each time I complete a 15 week cycle of the program. The volume seems perfect for me at the moment.

    I’m assuming the 5-day routine would have a bit more volume and would be good to switch to if/when I start stalling on the 4-day program (although TBH I don’t see that happening any time soon – more likely I would make the switch when I’m ready for something exciting and new).

    • Shane Duquette on October 5, 2020 at 10:46 am

      Hey Jeremy, that’s awesome! Gaining 20 pounds is amazing, and steadily adding 5–10 pounds to your lifts every 15 weeks is awesome, especially at this level of experience.

      Good question. Yeah, it’s been taking longer than I expected. Maybe what we should do is release a beta version and then refine it gradually from there, rather than aiming to release a fully tested version right from the get-go. That way you guys can experiment with it earlier. If we do that, I think it could be ready within a couple of weeks.

      I think we’ll release two version of the 5-day program. One that’s moderate volume. One big compound lift (e.g. front squat), one smaller assistance lift (e.g. Romanian deadlifts), and one isolation lift (e.g. hanging leg raises). And then another that’s higher volume, adding and extra 1–2 assistance/accessory lifts to each workout. That way some people can use it as a way to do more frequent, easier, shorter workouts. And other people can use it as a way to, yeah, increase their training volume.

      • JeremyS on October 5, 2020 at 6:46 pm

        Thanks Shane, sounds great.

  12. Matt Hawksby on December 14, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    I literally love doing all these exercises, my only difference is I deadlift with a trap bar nowadays as my back is temperamental after an injury a couple of years ago.
    Great list though, love the content!

    • Shane Duquette on December 14, 2020 at 1:47 pm

      Hey Matt, thank you!

      Yeah, the trap bar deadlift is awesome. No argument from me there. That’s a great way to do 🙂

  13. Robert on February 3, 2021 at 9:13 am

    Hey Marco and Shane, what would be best upper-body pull if there is simply no way to use pull-up bar (small apartment, not allowed to drill into walls)?

    • Shane Duquette on February 3, 2021 at 10:34 am

      Hey Rob, I’d do rows and pullovers 🙂

  14. Fleischman on February 28, 2021 at 5:29 am

    Hello Shane,
    Assume an intermediate minimalist lifter who doesn’t show lagging parts, and who accepts the drawbacks of a simple training plan, so trains only your Big 5 compound lifts.
    Are there reasons why this lifter shouldn’t program the same frequency & volume for each of the five compound lifts?
    Thank you,

    • Shane Duquette on March 1, 2021 at 10:35 am

      You can still use a frequency of 2–3 times per week. I’d be hesitant to go beyond that for fear of beating up your joints and tendons with repetitive movements. With volume, you probably want to err on the lower side for the same reason. Something like 3–4 sets of each lift per workout, done 2–3 times per week.

      I don’t mean to make you scared, though. Our bodies are good at adapting, good at giving us signals. Plenty of people do great with minimalist routines for their entire lifetimes. And more often than not, you’ll fear aches before you feel pain, pain before you get injured. So you can do the big movements, see how you feel, and play it by ear 🙂

      • Fleischman on March 1, 2021 at 3:39 pm

        Hi Shane,

        Thank you for your reply. I see my question was confusing.

        I wasn’t trying to ask for a specific training frequency or volume for the Big 5. I was asking if (in the context of an “Only Big 5” program) all five Big moves deserve the same frequency/volume. Like, is it reasonable to do the same number of sets (and/or the same frequency) per week each of the Big 5? Or do some of the Big 5 moves warrant more/less frequency/volume than the rest of the Big 5 moves?


        • Shane Duquette on March 2, 2021 at 8:08 am

          Ah, yeah, okay. I see what you mean. That can really depend. Some lifts, like the deadlift, can be hard on the body when they’re done too frequently or for too many sets. My solution for that is to bring in more variety, mixing deadlifts with Romanian deadlifts with good mornings. But if you’re not doing that, you’ll need to try and see. Maybe your lower back is always fatigued, your hands are always torn up, and you need to ease back. Or maybe not. Other lifts, like squats, are commonly done quite frequently without issue.

          Then you need to consider how much muscle stimulation you’re getting out of them. With a bench press, I can blast my chest with just 2–4 sets, and the soreness will last for 4–5 days. With the overhead press, perhaps because it has a worse strength curve, I can do 5 sets and barely feel any soreness at all, allowing me to do another 5 sets the very next workout without issue. But these things vary, and it will change over time. When I was benching 185, the bench press was much easier to recover from than it is now that I can bench 315.

          And your goals matter, too. If you’re more eager to build a bigger upper body, that means more time spent on the upper body lifts, less on the lower body ones. Or vice versa.

          So you’re making a good point. It’s not always as simple as just using the same volume for every lift.

          My wife does a very simple, minimalist routine. Every workout, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, she does chin-ups, push-ups, front squats, and Romanian deadlifts. Same volume and frequency for all of them. Then she does 2 extra lifts of her choosing (overhead press, curls, hip thrusts, etc). That’s been working great for her.

  15. Tatenda on March 22, 2021 at 11:21 am

    Hello Shane,

    Deep article, this site is a game changer! I have just started working out and am basing on these compound lifts and the info from your article. It gave me the motivation to begin. I’m 33 years old, 178cm and 76Kg. I’m in the second of week of hitting the gym. I’d just like it if you could point me in the right direction here. I’ve set myself up to train 3 days per week; each day doing Chin up, Goblet Squat, Benchpress, Shoulder Press and Deadlift. I’m stuck between going in 2 directions:
    1. To increase reps by 1 (starting at 6 reps x 3 sets) each new day within the week and then increasing weight very next week, starting cycle again at 6 reps up to 8 reps on the 3rd day
    2. To maintain at 6 reps x 3 sets while increasing weight on every next session.

    My ultimate goal is to build an athletic/lean body that’s muscular but not bulky, just lean and fit. I do some high interval running in between.

    I hope i’ve made some sense :-). Hopefully down the line I can sign up for your program but in the meantime I’m so motivated to see what I can achieve just by following the info you have here on this site!

    Stay blessed!

    • Shane Duquette on March 22, 2021 at 3:53 pm

      Hey Tatenda, thank you, and that’s awesome! Congrats on getting into lifting!

      If you’re brand new to the gym, I think your proposed routine might be a bit hard on your low back. I’d recommend something a bit simpler, more like the Starting Size workouts we outline in our review of Starting Strength.

      Or, if you want to keep doing that simple routine you’ve got, maybe swap out the deadlift for Romanian deadlifts on 2 of the 3 days that you train. So Romanian deadlift on Monday and Wednesday, full deadlift on Friday. Or you may just want to do Romanian deadlifts all three days of the week until you get the movement down.

      The other consideration is that the overhead press is often really hard for beginners. Depends on the person, but if you aren’t able to do it properly, feel free to swap it for something like a close-grip push-up.

      For your question:

      It’s okay to increase either reps or weight. But if you’re lifting in lower rep ranges (such as 6 reps per set), and you have access to small weight plates (such as 1.25–2.5 pound plates), then it’s usually easier to increase the weight than it is to add a rep. That’s why you’ll see a lot of beginner programs recommending that we increase the weight whenever we’re able to get all of our reps on all of our sets. So when you get 6 reps for 3 sets, add 2.5–5 pounds to the bar.

      So perhaps one workout you get 6 reps, 6 reps, 6 reps. Next workout, you add 5 pounds and you get 6 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps. Next workout, you keep the weight the same because you didn’t get all of your reps, and you get 6 reps, 6 reps, 6 reps. Next workout, you add weight.

      But again, either approach is fine. Totally okay to add reps instead. You just might have some workouts where it seems like you’re not making progress because you’re not able to add that extra rep.

      • Tatenda on March 23, 2021 at 4:51 am

        Thanks for this Shane!

        After going through your response and reading up on the Starting Strength article, I am reviewing and adjusting my routine a bit:

        1. Do Romanian deadlift on Mon and Wed, and full deadlift on Friday with 1 set. I did experience a lot of lower back pain with the full deadlifts thought I had hurt my back!

        2. Replace Overhead Press with Lateral Raises. My back was arching a lot with the overhead press so maybe I need to build up a bit first

        3. Introduce bicep curls and tricep extensions to my routine

        Thanks again!

  16. Patrick Vuleta on March 28, 2021 at 10:30 pm

    I like the points about RDLs, front squats and lighter barbell rows being good for beginners. I like the point about carries, though think that alone (that gyms most only have dumbbells) is reason for investing in a home gym with carry handles, since they’re such an effective lift.

    Similarly, I don’t think I’ll ever remove overhead carries as a shoulder staple (and can be performed with dumbbell clean and press weights), as the times I’ve really needed my strength without getting injured it’s often been holding something heavy overhead.

    • Shane Duquette on March 29, 2021 at 2:51 pm

      Totally, I agree with all of that. And that’s a great point about overhead carries, too. We’re big fans of all types of loaded carries, including waiter and overhead carries.

  17. Dave on June 6, 2021 at 10:11 am

    Great article. I have one quick question about “the cheat press” recommendation from Greg Nuckols: does the reason for this have more to do with (a) the greater amount of weight being used during the eccentric portion of the lift, or (b) is there something about moving a greater amount of weight with the assistance of the legs during the concentric portion of the lift that has a hypertrophic effect? My initial instinct would have been that using the legs to drive the weight through the sticking point would cancel out the additional weight (during the concentric), but am I missing something? The benefit to the eccentric makes total sense, but I just wonder if there’s more to it than that.

    • Shane Duquette on June 12, 2021 at 1:18 pm

      Hey Dave, thank you!

      The cheat press isn’t a full push press. The legs can help a LITTLE bit, but the initiation of the movement is still mainly coming from the shoulders. The idea is to challenge our muscles more at the bottom of the lift (by focusing on maximal acceleration) so that we aren’t as limited at the sticking point. This will let us use more weight, yeah, and it’ll also give our shoulders a greater challenge at longer muscle lengths.

      As for why we care about challenging our muscles at longer lengths, check this article out:

  18. Shay on July 1, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    hi Shane
    what’s the difference between Pendlay row and dead barbell row?
    I’d like the excersise where I start as a conventional deadlift and once barbell pass the knees I pull in a row fashion.

    • Shane Duquette on July 2, 2021 at 9:17 am

      Hey Shay,

      The terms can vary depending on who you talk to.

      A Pendlay row starts with the barbell on the floor, the hips stay hinged, the barbell is rowed up to the torso, and then it’s lowered back down to rest on the floor again. We don’t usually use this row variation. It’s not a bad lift by any means, but I think the other variations are even better.

      A “barbell dead row” or “dead barbell row” is, as you said, using a bit of hip drive. I usually call this a “power row” because it’s more of a power movement—more explosive. It’s less ideal for building muscle in your upper body, but it’s a great assistance lift for increasing your deadlift strength. That’s when we use it.

      For developing your back muscles, we usually recommend a standard bent-over barbell row. This is our default variation of the barbell row for the average person who wants to get bigger and stronger.

      • Shay on July 4, 2021 at 11:30 pm

        Hello Shane, thanks for the reply.

        In fact, I like better the weighted chin-ups and pull-ups for back muscles. The barbell dead row I like better for the explosiveness and deadlift improving, so it works for me. Thanks for clearing that up. I also get some cardio from this movement.

  19. Sam on July 6, 2021 at 10:18 am

    Hi Shane and Marco:

    Thank you for the content!
    In your “Big 6″/”Big 5” compound lifts, what was the idea behind changing the Close-Grip Bench Press to a regular Bench Press at the end?

    Thank you!

    • Shane Duquette on July 6, 2021 at 10:46 am

      Hey Sam, good question!

      I still personally prefer a closer-grip bench press for overall muscle growth. But I have a chest that responds fairly eagerly to training. It’s my arms and shoulders that lag behind. For people like me, a closer-grip bench press often works great for balancing out muscle stimulation between the chest, shoulders, and arms. But when we tested it, we found that a lot of people were having trouble getting enough chest stimulation out of it, especially in their mid and lower pecs. So we switched it to a standard bench press.

      Then, in our article on the bench press, we just make sure to note that the grip width should align with your structure and goals. If you have a chest that dominates the lift, try gripping the barbell a bit narrower to bring in more shoulder and triceps. If you have a stubborn chest, try gripping the barbell a bit wider to emphasize the mid and lower pecs.

      We still love the close-grip bench press, too. It’s one of my favourites. We just use it more as an assistance lift.

      • Sam on July 9, 2021 at 3:45 pm

        Thanks Shane! All makes sense. I myself prefer the close-grip variation of a medium-grip width as well.

  20. mark on July 18, 2021 at 5:12 pm

    Great post and I absolutely love the graphics, really creates a unique vibe to your site 🙂

  21. Miguel on July 24, 2021 at 1:55 am

    Hello, one question: if I do the big 5 in a row 3 times per week, would that be a good training structure to gain overall muscle?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Shane Duquette on July 24, 2021 at 10:42 am

      Hey Miguel, that’s a good question.

      That type of routine can work really well for beginners who are still learning the lifts. You get a lot of practice at the big movements that way. The trick is to make sure that you aren’t always lifting to failure (1–3 reps shy of failure is good), that you aren’t doing too many sets (3 sets is plenty), and that you aren’t resting too long between sets (1–2 minutes is fine). That way your workouts stay short, dense, and easy enough to recover from.

      With that said, we usually recommend full-body splits, where you train your entire body each workout but with different exercises. Instead of doing deadlifts 3x per week, Monday might be deadlifts, Wednesday leg curls, and Friday Romanian deadlifts. That way we build muscle in a more balanced way and with less risk of running into fatigue or overuse issues. Plus, it keeps the workouts shorter and easier, and it frees up room for some valuable isolation exercises.

      Finally, if you’re a beginner, we usually recommend starting with beginner variations of the big compound lifts. Goblet squats instead of front squats, push-ups instead of the bench press, and Romanian deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts. Especially if we’re coaching someone online. Much easier to learn good technique that way.

      • Fleischman on July 25, 2021 at 11:17 pm

        Hello Shane,
        What is your opinion on this minimalist “Modified-Big-4” routine?
        Day 1. Chin Ups with body at around 45 degree to floor (kind of an incomplete “front lever”, half way between vertical/regular pull up and horizontal row). Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
        Day 2. Nine-inch deficit Push Up with elevated feet so body is around 45 degree to floor (kind of half way between vertical/handstand push up and horizontal/floor push up). Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
        Day 3. Front squat. Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
        Day 4. Romanian Deadlift. Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
        Day 5 like Day 1.
        Day 6 like Day 2.
        Day 7 like Day 3.
        Day 8 like day 4.
        And so on…
        Thank you,

        • Shane Duquette on July 27, 2021 at 10:50 am

          Hey Fleischman,

          I think that’s an interesting routine, and if you like it, I think that’s perfectly fine. I think you’re training most muscles decently well that way. I think you’ll see good gains, too, especially in your quads, glutes, chest, back, and shoulders.

          I think you’d get even better results by doubling the exercise variety. Instead of doing 6 sets of chin-ups, doing 4 sets of chin-ups and two sets of biceps curls. Instead of doing 6 sets of push-ups, doing 4 sets of push-ups and 2 sets of skull crushers. That kind of thing. 4 sets are enough to squeeze out most benefits from an exercise, and then by adding in a second exercise, you get a whole new list of benefits (to your biceps, triceps, etc).

          I understand the desire to have a minimalist routine, though. Your routine is fine 🙂

  22. Hansen on July 31, 2021 at 12:16 pm

    Hi Shane,

    Really enjoyed reading your responses;

    I was wondering what 1 or 2 main exercises would you suggest to improve;

    1) gynecomastia
    2) posture (anterior pelvic tilt)?

    Many Thanks

    • Shane Duquette on August 4, 2021 at 8:23 am

      Hey Hansen, thank you!

      1) I’m not sure there are any exercises that will help with gynecomastia. Gynecomastia is extra fat storage in the chest, around the nipples. Exercises don’t affect fat storage, they affect muscle growth. If you’re a teenager, the gynecomastia will probably go away on its own. If it’s from using marijuana or steroids, stopping might help. It can also come from medication or other hormonal imbalances. I recommend speaking with your physician about it to go over your options.

      With that said, building muscle will improve your appearance. It won’t get rid of the gynecomastia, but your chest will still look better with more muscle on it. So think of exercises like the bench press and push-up.

      Finally, almost everyone has something quirky about their bodies. Maybe that’s pectus excavatum, gynecomastia, lumpy shoulder bones, narrow clavicles, wide hips, or any other number of things. We tend to fixate on those things. Other people care about them much less. They probably won’t notice. And if they do, they probably won’t care. After all, they probably have their own thing they’re worried about.

      2) Posture is a different story. We CAN change our posture by lifting weights, building muscle, and growing stronger. For anterior pelvic tilt, think of exercises that strengthen your core in a more neutral position. My two favourites are the goblet squat (or front squat) and the push-up (or plank). The front squat will strengthen your posterior chain (backside) and the push-ups will strengthen your abs (front). Both will help with your obliques (sides). The trick is to make sure that you’re doing the exercises with the best technique you can manage, and that you gradually work on improving that technique. Then, as you build muscle in those areas, your postural muscles will grow stronger.

      I had pretty exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt and lifting weights solved it completely. It took some time, though. It’s not a quick fix. I think it took a couple of years for my posture to become neutral. There was gradual improvement each month, though. And some people are able to get much faster results if they work on it deliberately. (I never focused on it. I just focused on building muscle.)

      I hope that helps!

  23. Iordanis on November 29, 2021 at 8:00 am

    Great article. Thank you very much for offering to us for free. I have only one question, if we dont train the barbell row how we will have growth in low traps and in rear delts? Do you thing chin ups and deaflifts are enough? Because as i know these muscles their primary function is scapular retraction so i thought that rowing exercises where a must for a well rounded program.

    • Shane Duquette on November 29, 2021 at 9:06 am

      You can develop your traps and rear delts with chin-ups and deadlifts. But we aren’t recommending that you don’t include rowing in your programs. We’re just saying that we don’t include barbell rows as one of the main compound lifts.

      In addition to the main lifts, we still recommend doing rows. Those could be dumbbell rows, cable rows, t-bar machine rows, barbell rows, or any mix of variations that you prefer. We also recommend doing biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, some neck exercises, and so on.

    • Ree Turner on January 21, 2022 at 2:45 pm

      Dumbbell raises. Front raises, side raises, and rear delt raises for balanced shoulders. Do all three with the same weight.

      Do single-arm rows for your back, especially full extension negatives. Negatives are very important. Explosive contractions, controlled reactions.

      I just found this page as I’m returning to training after a long, many-year absence. A lot of good info, but once you are comfortable in a routine, it’s time to shuffle it up. If you’re finding a routine easy, then so are your muscles! Train in a way you enjoy, and if you’re struggling to gain weight, eat carbs, carbs, and more carbs. If that doesn’t help you build bigger muscles, change your focus to outright strength or fitness. The surprise inside is always better than the wrapper.

      • Stephen Duncan on July 13, 2023 at 5:40 pm

        Just gave same advice to another member. I’m surprised they never saw your post!

        I haven’t trained for 5 years, but I’m still open to advice on the science.

        Unfortunately, everyone I speak to emphasises protein yet ignores carbs!?!

        • Shane Duquette on July 14, 2023 at 5:16 pm

          We didn’t miss his post! I read everything. It was a good answer and there was no question. It felt complete. I didn’t think it needed a response.

          Lower-carb diets are popular right now, especially for weight loss. That can work, but there’s no denying that carbs are incredible for building muscle.

          • Stephen Duncan on July 14, 2023 at 5:49 pm

            Sorry I thought he missed your post ? I want to thank you btw , last night ‘s experience reawakened my interest . I am now going to start training again with my apprentice. We are scaffolder /trainee I am 55 years 110kg he is 27 years 60kg
            Haven’t trained in gym for 5 years ? Any change in science or still low reps heavy lifts for size/strength ?
            Control and tension ?
            Explosive positives / controlled negatives ?
            Would you advise training double sets eg bi/tri
            Shoulder /back etc b4 a rest ?
            Are dropsets still a thing ?

          • Shane Duquette on July 14, 2023 at 9:07 pm

            That’s awesome!

            Moderate reps usually beat out low reps for hypertrophy. Anywhere from 4–40 reps per set can be good for building muscle. Spending most of your time doing 6–20 reps per set tends to be the most efficient. Usually compound lifts are done for 6–12 reps, isolation lifts for 8–20. You’ve got plenty of freedom, though.

            Lifting explosively and lowering under control is perfect, yeah! That’s the best lifting tempo for gaining muscle, strength, and power.

            Double sets are supersets, right? You could superset opposing or unrelated muscle groups, yep. You could do biceps curls + triceps extensions. You could also do deadlifts + push-ups or squats + chin-ups. If you’re winded, take as much rest as you need to lift properly. You don’t need to hurry your supersets if it’s harming your performance.

            Dropsets are still a thing! The research has been steadily piling up, continuing to show they’re effective.

            The big new advancement is stretch-mediated hypertrophy. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that training muscles at longer muscle lengths stimulates far more muscle growth than training them at shorter lengths. The same old lifts are still effective: deep squats, bench presses, and Romanian deadlifts are all great examples of lifts that work our muscles hard at long muscle lengths. But some old range-of-motion techniques, like 21s, have been replaced by lengthened partials. Some old exercises, like spider curls, have been replaced by incline curls and preacher curls.

            (Lifting explosively is a good way to work your muscles harder at the bottom of the range of motion, so that should help.)

  24. […] majority of your muscle growth comes from doing the big compound lifts along with a few key accessory lifts, and it doesn’t much matter whether you do them with a […]

  25. Doug on November 14, 2022 at 10:09 pm

    I just want to say i really like your philosophy about choosing variations of the big lifts that suit personal strengths and goals. I have always felt like even if somebody was to develop the “perfect” program…but people just hate it, then their results will probably not be very good. Letting them pick their favorite variations of each lift goes a long way towards addressing that and the extra effort they’ll put into a workout that they love doing is no small thing.

    • Shane Duquette on December 8, 2022 at 12:05 pm

      Hey Doug, I totally agree!

      Our approach is to find the best default lifts and build the best default programs, but then we try to give plenty of alternatives, explaining the pros and cons. That way, people have a great place to start, but they can still pick and choose. In our Outlift program, we do this with dropdown menus. You’ll see these five big lifts featured prominently in the workouts, but you can click the dropdown and choose other great alternatives if you prefer. Or you can input your own.

  26. William on January 4, 2023 at 4:58 am

    Loved the article, really motivates me into getting to the gym.
    I do have a question though. I’m a beginner still and can only get to the gym 1-2x a week, maybe a third day if I’m super lucky. Is it possible for me to do all of the big 5 lifts in one workout, and if so can I also do some isolation work afterwards or is it just too much?
    Thank you!

    • Shane Duquette on January 21, 2023 at 9:19 am

      Doing all five exercises in a single workout can be a lot, but most beginners can handle quite a lot. Many intermediates can, too. It all depends on what you get used to.

      You can think about swapping some of the big exercises for slightly smaller variations, too. Maybe you choose Romanian deadlifts instead of deadlifts. Maybe you do goblet squats instead of front squats. Maybe lat pulldowns instead of chin-ups. Push-ups instead of the bench press. Those variations tend to be a bit easier, a bit quicker, and they’re amazing for beginners.

      If you’re doing a lot of exercises, feel free to scale back on the number of sets you’re doing for each exercise. You can get a lot out of 3 hard sets.

      If you’re adding isolation lifts (which is a great idea), be selective. Choose the ones you’re really excited about. Don’t feel like you need to include every isolation lift. You can always train for a few months with some isolation lifts, then swap them out for others. Maybe you start with biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises. Maybe after a few months, you swap them out for neck curls or calf raises or crunches.

      It’s also okay if you only do the isolation lifts once per week. If you’re alternating between two workouts, maybe one of them has biceps curls and triceps extensions while the other has lateral raises and crunches.

      You can make great progress with just a couple workouts per week.

      Good luck, man!

  27. Sam on July 13, 2023 at 1:57 pm

    Hello. I want to get broader shoulders, but I’m not sure about my frame size. Im 179cm and 63kg. My shoulders are probably 43cm. I’m at age 18. Is it possible to make my shoulders wider by getting to 80kg or am I stuck like this? I’ve been working my shoulders for a year with 5kg dumbbells, and theres no improvement after 2 months. Waiting for your response!

    • Stephen Duncan on July 13, 2023 at 2:32 pm

      For size and strength, I advise doing fewer reps with heavier weights. If you can, do 4–6 reps then increase the weight.

      Do front/side/rear raises. You can also do 21s on this, doing 7 of each with no break until you complete 21 reps.

      Arnold press
      Shrugs with dumbbells
      Shoulder press, in front of and behind the neck, either seated or standing.
      Barbell upright row with a z-bar
      Deadlift alternating between full and partial reps

      It’s best to do back and shoulders during the same workout. Also, having 2 rest days can help with size, but it’s awkward to get your head around as you’ll be training different days each week.

      This is how I achieved my best results. It’s not guaranteed to work for you, but maybe it’s worth a try?

      Don’t forget Carbs, Carbs, Carbs.

      You can carb up on a training day before and after working out, then have protein on off days. Or you could just hit both every day.

      Protein is a must, but carbs will give you the energy to push yourself!

      • Sam on July 13, 2023 at 3:22 pm

        Thanks, I’ll try it. <3

        I don’t want to sound annoying, but it kills my head. I just measured my shoulder circumference. It’s like 110, so if I bulk up from 60kg to 80kg, where would my circumference get to?

        • Stephen Duncan on July 13, 2023 at 4:00 pm

          Don’t measure or weigh yourself. Buy a mirror!

          Good form and decent diet are the way forward!

          Mix up your routine. Negatives are more important than positives. Power on lift/pull, control on reverse.

          The longer your muscle is in stress, the better the results.

          Only two exercises: push and pull!

    • Shane Duquette on July 14, 2023 at 5:05 pm

      Hey Sam, props for starting to work out! I wish I’d started at your age.

      You aren’t stuck. You can continue building muscle. Your shoulders will keep growing.

      If you’ve been using those same 5kg dumbbells, you need to make sure you’re progressively overloading the rep range. If you can get 12, 11, 10, and then 9 reps (42 reps), try for 43+ reps next workout. Keep working your way up. If you aren’t making progress, you’ll need to change something. That might mean doing more exercises, training your shoulders more often, getting a heavier weight, or eating more food. For me, it’s almost always that final point. When I stop gaining a little bit of weight every week, I stop getting bigger and stronger.

      I’ve got some articles that might help:
      => How to Build Broader Shoulders
      => How to Train Your Front, Size, and Rear Delts
      => How to Eat a Good Bulking Diet
      => What Measurement Increases to Expect

      • Sam on July 15, 2023 at 2:09 pm

        so that means my clavicle can widen too? if not, its ok too. I’ll keep training them. even trying to do swim moves in my home to expect my shoulders grow lol

        • Shane Duquette on July 16, 2023 at 9:18 am

          Your clavicles might continue to widen for another few years as you continue growing. I haven’t seen any evidence that they grow from training. You can build bigger shoulder muscles, though. You can also bulk up the muscles underneath your armpits by doing exercises like push-ups (serratus anterior).

          Have you heard of the swimmer’s body illusion? Most elite swimmers have broad shoulders. Most people assume, then, that swimming helps people build broader shoulders. In truth, it’s the other way around. Having broad shoulders helps people swim. People who have naturally broader shoulders tend to become the best swimmers.

          Swimming is a great form of exercise, and it will definitely get you fit. It’s fantastic. Definitely stick with it. I’m hoping to head down to the beach for a swim today. But I wouldn’t expect it to change your bone structure. And if you want to build muscle, such as building broader shoulders, I recommend adding in hypertrophy training. Think of exercises like push-ups, rows, lateral raises, and overhead presses.

          • Sam on July 18, 2023 at 8:41 am

            I didn’t know that. I swam yesterday lol, but you’re probably right because as I bulked and trained my lats, traps, shoulders, and etc. I managed to swim a bit better. But I see bone structure is not as important as the weight and muscle you carry. Thanks for the help! I’ll add calisthenics to my workout too.

  28. Amir Hassan on July 28, 2023 at 2:42 am

    Hi Shane, I hope you are well. I did the five-day program and it was enjoyable. I did it for four weeks and I gained weight every week. Also, my strength has remained the same for a few days. Also, I feel that my strength and muscle have decreased, and muscle pain, especially in you. The question I had is, do I need a rest week??? And that the week of rest will not destroy the achievements I have made??

    • Shane Duquette on July 28, 2023 at 10:27 am

      Hey Amir, that’s awesome!

      So if I understand you properly, you’ve been doing the workouts for 4 weeks, and you’ve been making good progress up until this latest week, at which point you feel sore, fatigued, and weak? If that’s the case, I think you’re right. Now is a good time for a rest week (aka a “deload week”).

      You could the entire week off. There’s no problem with that at all. You won’t lose any of your progress. Worst case, you’ll feel a bit rusty during your first week back. You won’t lose muscle or strength. No need to worry at all.

      The ideal way to deload is to continue going to the gym, but doing much shorter and easier workouts. In this case, you could do 2 sets per exercise and stop every set 3 reps shy of failure. It would be a very light, easy week, but you’d maintain your coordination, keep your blood flowing, keep physically active, and keep your habits going strong.

      It’s entirely up to you. When I’m in the middle of a dedicated bulk, I usually do a proper deload, continuing to train. When I’m in a more casual maintenance phase, I take a week off. And if a vacation or trip comes up, I use it as an impromptu deload week.

    • Shane Duquette on July 28, 2023 at 10:28 am

      Also, sounds like you’re doing great! Keep it up, man!

  29. guba on March 4, 2024 at 5:42 am

    This is ridiculous: “The problem is, if you aren’t able to lift more weight or get more reps than last time, your effort won’t add up to anything.”.
    You cannot progress infinitely ! The progress curve will always be logatihmic i.e. until you reach your genetic/body maximum. After that you can only maintain that.
    The thing is, someone will struggle reaching that maximum for long long time due to many reasons while other one will reach it pretty fast (and I am talking years here).

    • Shane Duquette on March 4, 2024 at 11:17 am

      Hey Guba, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      That’s true: you can only progress for so long. At some point, the weight of age will press you down into a grave. Even before then, progress can plateau for all manner of reasons.

      But I’m not sure what’s wrong about my statement. If you’ve plateaued, lifting the same amount as last time workout after workout, that lack of progress won’t magically add up to anything. Rather, you’ll maintain your gains. Perhaps happily. But even so, the effort won’t add up to anything new.

      In an ideal world, progress would be logarithmic, suffering from increasingly diminishing returns. I don’t think that’s ever actually happened, though. More likely, you’ll make some newbie gains, maintain them for a while, decide to bulk again, make some more progress. Maybe later, you realize you’ve never trained your neck, so you make rapid growth there. Maybe one day you decide to train your calves, or take squats more seriously, or try powerlifting, or start running, opening up whole new waves of progress.

      • guba on March 5, 2024 at 5:54 am

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to bash you. I appreciate your effort in your articles.
        I just want to add that after a certain moment in multi-year training, the training effort will almost completely be spent in the *maintenance* of the “genetic maximum” of the trainer rather than in “progression” (be it bigger muscles or more strength).

        • Shane Duquette on March 7, 2024 at 8:20 am

          No need to apologize! I don’t mind disagreement at all. I liked your comment.

          Yes, that’s true. The more impressive your body becomes, the more effort it will take to maintain, and the harder it will be to continue making progress. I think many people overestimate the amount of effort it takes, though. Quite a few advanced lifters can maintain their gains with just a couple of sets of a few compound lifts per week. That could be as easy as 2 half-hour workouts per week. And you need at least that much to maintain your health anyway.

          But you’re right that making progress gets increasingly difficult.

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