Illustration showing a man doing a barbell deadlift, one of the best compound lifts for building muscle.

The 5 Big Compound Lifts for Building Muscle

Bodybuilding is the style of training that’s best for building muscle, right? In theory, yes. But most bodybuilding programs fail to emphasize getting stronger at the big compound lifts, and so they fail to produce consistent muscle growth over time. The solution is simple, and everyone who’s ever tried strength training already knows what it is.

In strength training programs, your strength is determined by adding up how much you can squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition—your total. If your total goes up, you’re improving. If it doesn’t, you aren’t. And so the entire workout program is designed to help you lift progressively more weight, making you gradually stronger at those lifts. And if you aren’t getting stronger, you know there’s a problem you need to fix.

That doesn’t mean that isolation lifts are never used. You’ll find them in strength training programs, too. The difference is that they have a clear purpose—to support the compound lifts. If your chest is holding you back in the bench press, you might use an isolation lift to bulk up your chest.

It’s a good system. Or, at least, it’s a good system if you’re a powerlifter. But what if you aren’t? What if you’re trying to gain muscle mass? Would you focus on different compound lifts? How would you choose your isolation lifts? And how would you measure your progress? If we can figure that out, then we can bring the same clarity to our hypertrophy training that powerlifters have in their strength training.

Outlift illustration showing a skinny guy building muscle and becoming muscular.

The Power of Specificity

There’s a great powerlifting textbook called the Scientific Principles of Strength Training. It’s written by Mike Israetel, PhD, James Hoffmann, PhD, CSCS, and the legendary powerlifter Chad Wesley Smith. According to them, the most important principle of strength training is a principle called specificity.

Powerlifters have their three big lifts: the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. Their goal is simply to put up more weight on those three lifts. Their training, then, should be hyper-focused on specifically gaining 1-rep max strength on those three specific lifts.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a powerlifter should only do those three lifts or only practice lifting heavy singles. That’s not what the authors are suggesting, either. They recommend a number of different variations, assistance exercises, and accessory exercises done in a variety of rep ranges. However, all of these exercises are specifically chosen to help them improve their performance at the Big 3 powerlifting lifts.

This same principle of specificity is paramount no matter what you’re training for. You want your goal front and centre, and then everything else should be specifically chosen to help you accomplish that goal.

Here’s the thing, though, my throwers don’t run. My throwers don’t do agility drills or jumping or, really, just about anything other than throw and lift. Why? Because I want them to be fit to throw.

– Dan John, author of Easy Strength

It’s not even limited to sports. Regardless of what it is you’re training for, specificity is still a foundational principle:

The more specific you are about what you want to become good at doing, the easier it is for you to train for success.

– James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Going back to strength training, though, specificity means that powerlifters can boil down their training to just:

  1. Improving technical prowess on the squat, bench, and deadlift. A powerlifter ought to know how to do the competition lifts in a way that gives them the most leverage and allows them to lift the most weight.
  2. Training to improve 1-rep max strength. A powerlifter is judged by how much they can lift for a single repetition. This means that they need to learn how to contract all of their muscle fibres at once, saving nothing for later. This is why strength training is done in low rep ranges (1–5 repetitions per set).
  3. Gaining size in the relevant muscles. The bigger a muscle grows, the stronger it will become. One study found that four years of weight training resulted in a 60% increase in muscle strength and a 56% increase in muscle size, meaning that increased muscle size explained 93% of the strength gains. Therefore, if we’re trying to increase our strength on the back squat, our very first priority is bulking up the relevant muscles: our quads, adductors, and glutes. The irrelevant muscles, of course, don’t matter. Biceps aren’t a limiting factor in the squat, bench press, or deadlift, so there’s no need to build bigger biceps.

If you aren’t a powerlifter, different muscles are relevant. For example, you might care about your biceps because you want to carry heavy things around in your arms. Or maybe you want to build bigger, more badass arms.

Illustration of a man flexing his biceps

And if you aren’t a powerlifter, you don’t need to focus purely on improving your 1-rep max strength. You might want more of an endurance component to your strength, especially since that’s such an important aspect of gaining muscle mass. In that case, it makes more sense to focus on gaining strength in the 6–10 rep range.

Finally, technical prowess means something different to powerlifters. In strength training, getting better at the squat doesn’t mean squatting deeper and more gracefully, it means squatting as much weight as possible to legal powerlifting depth. Prowess on the bench doesn’t mean benching with a large range of motion to improve chest size and strength, it means benching with the shallowest depth possible while still touching your chest.

An illustration of a powerlifter doing a low-bar barbell back squat
The low-bar squat, the best squat variation for powerlifting.

The implications of specificity run deep. A powerlifter might want a rounded upper back (kyphosis) because it helps them gain better leverage on the deadlift. A non-powerlifter, however, might prefer to be able to stand taller and straighter.

For another example, powerlifters benefit from doing the big 3 compound lifts over and over again. This helps them improve their technical prowess, and it also ensures that they’re bulking up not just the specific muscles, but also the specific muscle fibres that they need for those lifts. They aren’t trying to build bigger, more versatile muscles, they’re trying to build highly specialized muscles.

A non-powerlifter might want to take the opposite approach. They might want to train their muscles in more diverse movement patterns so that all of their muscle fibres grow, making their strength more versatile and giving their muscles a fuller appearance.

I’m scared to keep beating a horse that’s so much stronger than I am, so if you want to read more about why powerlifting-style strength training isn’t ideal for building muscle or even gaining general strength, we’ve got an article on strength training here.

The thing is, we don’t want to throw the barbell out with the bathwater either. There’s a lot we can learn from how powerlifters approach strength training. In fact, of all the lifting programs out there, the powerlifting routines are some of the cleverest. So let’s figure out exactly what our goals are so that we can train for them with the same specificity that powerlifters do.

Specificity for Building Muscle

What do you want out of your body? Your goals might be different from ours, but we like the idea of training for:

  • Overall muscle size. I’m a naturally skinny guy. I want to be bigger and stronger. I suspect you do, too. This might mean spending more time in the hypertrophy rep ranges and using a wider variety of lifts.
  • Overall strength. I care about how much I can squat, bench, and deadlift, but I also care about how strong I am in a general sense. This might mean bringing in movement patterns like chin-ups, rows, loaded carries, and overhead presses.
  • Overall health. Admittedly, I find it hard to get excited about lifting for my general health and longevity. But even if exercising for general health isn’t as thrilling as gaining muscle mass and strength, I still care deeply about them, so I absolutely want my bulking program to improve my health. And there are certainly ways to adjust our training to improve both our muscle growth and our general health. This might mean doing squats in moderate rep ranges (6–12 reps, say) to improve our cardiovascular fitness along with our muscle size.
  • Aesthetics. I figure if we’re going through all the trouble of becoming big and strong, we may as well look like total badasses, too. Low-bar powerlifting squats won’t do much to improve our appearance, but front squats sure will, and chin-ups even more so.
Illustration of a man doing a front squat
The front squat, the best squat variation for building muscle.

Now, “overall size, strength, health, and aesthetics” might not sound very specific. And yeah, okay, it isn’t. But these goals still fit together well enough that a single umbrella can keep them dry. We can work with this.

The second question is: if those are our goals, what’s our workout program going to look like?

  1. Gaining size in the relevant muscles. Powerlifters need to figure out which muscles are relevant to the lifts that they care about. We haven’t chosen our main compound lifts (yet), so we can sneak up on this one from behind: if we can figure out which muscles we care about the most, we can figure out which compound lifts best develop those muscles.
  2. Training to improve strength. Outside of the very low (under 4) and very high (over 40) rep ranges, size is strength and vice versa. So there’s actually no problem developing both size and strength at once. The best way to kill these two birds is with a single, moderately heavy stone that we can lift for 4–40 repetitions.
  3. Improving technical prowess on our main lifts. But again, what are our main lifts? Are there lifts where mastering the technique gives us benefits beyond gaining muscle and strength?

Can we kill three birds with one swing of a barbell? I think so. To stand any hope of that, though, we need to get much more organized than the average bodybuilder. To do this, we can rob the powerlifters again. They’ve got a great way of sorting their lifts into a hierarchy.

The Hierarchy of Muscle-Building Exercises

If we’re training to get stronger at certain compound lifts, as a powerlifter would, then this allows us to categorize all of our lifts into a hierarchy.

  1. The main compound lifts: For a powerlifter, the main compound lifts are the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This includes all the variations that can be used in competition, such as sumo and conventional deadlifts. These are the most specific, and so they’re the #1 priority.
  2. Assistance lifts: These are compound movements that emphasize a specific aspect of the main lift. For example, a Romanian deadlift is the same movement as a deadlift, but it’s harder on the hamstrings and easier on the lower back. These are used to bring up weak parts of the main movement. These are the #2 priority.
  3. Accessory lifts: These are exercises that are used to bulk up specific muscles. For example, if someone’s back strength limits them on the deadlift, they might use barbell rows to bulk their backs up. The movement pattern is totally different, but they still train relevant muscles. This takes #3 priority.

When we look at hypertrophy training programs, all of this structure falls away. Bodybuilding programs are often just a bunch of lifts thrown together for each muscle group in an attempt to give them enough volume to grow. We’re then told to lift close enough to failure, to train hard. But that won’t even scratch it, let alone cut it.

If we pilfer this hierarchy from powerlifters, though, we can give our muscle-building workout routine a better structure. For example, let’s say that we want to bulk up our biceps:

  1. Main lift: The heaviest lift that places the most mechanical tension on our biceps through the largest range of motion is the chin-up. We’ll use this as our main lift. Just like powerlifters can choose to deadlift either sumo or conventional, we can do our chin-ups with either an underhand or neutral grip. We make the rules, and both are great, so we allow both.
  2. Assistance lifts: These are similar movements, such as overhand pull-ups, assisted chin-ups, lowered chin-ups, and if you want to push it, perhaps even lat pulldowns. For example, if you’re a beginner, you might want to use lowered chin-ups to place even more mechanical tension on your biceps. Or you might want to use assisted chin-ups to allow you to train in higher rep ranges.
  3. Accessory lifts: These are the exercises that are used to bulk up the relevant muscles. In this case, this is where biceps curls come in. The stronger we can build our biceps with curls, the better they’ll be able to assist us with the chin-ups.
Illustration of a man doing a chin-up.

This hierarchy tells us that it’s probably wisest to invest most of our energy into chin-ups. Then, depending on what’s limiting our performance, we might want to bring in an assistance lift to help strengthen our weak link. And then we might add in some biceps curls near the end of our workouts to bulk them up directly.

Of course, you could also put extra emphasis on your biceps by simply doing more chin-ups. But as we cover in our article on exercise selection, even the best compound lifts aren’t ideal for everything. With chin-ups, our shoulder joint movement prevents one of the two heads of our biceps from fully engaging. So we can improve our biceps growth by adding in an isolation lift where there’s no movement at our shoulders. This is why isolation lifts are such an important part of building muscle and gaining general strength.

Accessory lifts also stress our muscles, joints, and tendons in slightly different ways. This makes them stronger in a wider variety of circumstances and reduces our risk of injury.

What Are the Best Compound Lifts?

That finally brings us to the point of this article. Which compound lifts should we care about becoming strong at? We’re not the first people to think of this idea. There are several general strength training programs, each with its own ideas about which compound lifts are best for gaining muscle size and strength. Of these, two are incredibly popular.

The Starting Strength Approach

Mark Rippetoe recommends the following lifts in Starting Strength:

  • Low-Bar Squat (Main Lift)
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Power Clean
  • Deadlift (lesser priority)

I think this lift selection is wise, especially given who it’s designed for. This is a program for college athletes who are new to lifting weights. A strength coach will work with them in person to help them improve their lower body strength, explosiveness, and overall mass. But for the average casual interested in building muscle and getting stronger, it’s not quite ideal.

  • First, the power clean is good for turning strength into explosiveness, but it isn’t good for developing muscle size or strength in the first place. It’s an Olympic lift. It’s too technical, there’s too little time under tension, and it isn’t very heavy.
  • Second, there’s no lift for the upper back and biceps. That makes sense. That type of strength is a lower priority for football and rugby players. But it’s another reason why this isn’t an ideal routine for developing all-around strength or aesthetics. (For instance, when we surveyed women, they rated our arms as the best muscle group to emphasize.)
  • Third, the low-bar squat is given a massive emphasis, making the program unbalanced. Since this is such a dominant part of the program, let’s dive a little deeper into this point.
Illustration of a woman doing a barbell back squat.

I understand why there’s so much emphasis on the squat. Our quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in our bodies, meaning that squats stimulate more sheer muscle growth than any other lift. You might argue that this makes them the best compound lift for building muscle, and you’d be right.

The thing is, putting so much emphasis on squatting means that 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. If anything, most of us would prefer if our bench press were slightly stronger relative to our squat, not the other way around.

So there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing the squat if it lines up 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 of the most popular strength training and bulking programs. According to him, the five best compound lifts are:

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

Mehdi borrowed from pioneers like Rippetoe, and so the problem remains with the low-bar squat. It’s not the best squat variation for building muscle, and this time it’s given even more emphasis—he recommends doing 2 extra sets.

The main difference between Starting Strength and StrongLifts is that Mehdi swapped out the power cleans for Pendlay barbell rows. This shifts the emphasis away from developing power, and it makes the program better for building muscle. The thing is, the Pendlay barbell row uses a horizontal torso, forcing our hips and lower back to work quite hard to stabilize the weight. This shifts emphasis from our upper bodies to our lower bodies.

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

And similar to the power clean, the Pendlay barbell row is done with an explosive tempo. We explode the barbell up off the floor and then drop it back down. Again, there’s too little time under tension, reducing the amount of muscle we build.

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

Now, that isn’t to say that the barbell row is a bad lift. It isn’t. It’s just that when we’re trying to build muscle, it’s better to row from a hip hinge position and to lower the weight more slowly. This steeper torso angle makes the lift easier on our hips and lower back, shifting the emphasis to our upper backs. And lowering the weight more slowly stimulates more muscle growth.

Still, even if we make the barbell row better for building muscle, there’s still nothing for our biceps. Barbell rows work our biceps, but not hard enough to stimulate much muscle growth. For example, chin-ups stimulate twice as much biceps growth as the barbell row (study). Now, if there were plenty of biceps curls to make up for that, no problem. But there aren’t. These are true minimalist programs that recommend only doing the big compound barbell lifts.

The Big 6 Compound Lifts (Fail)

When Marco and I first tried to develop our stable of compound lifts, it didn’t work out quite right. Just like how fixing one bug in the code often births another, we ran into unexpected problems.

We decided to choose 6 compound lifts:

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

There are a couple of improvements we were trying for.

  1. High-bar squats: switching to a high-bar squat solves some of the problems of the low-bar squat. It allows for a larger range of motion and puts the shoulders in a better position.
  2. Chin-ups: like the row, chin-ups do a great job of building the upper back. In fact, chin-ups work our lats through a much larger range of motion and with a much better strength curve. Chin-ups also produce just as much biceps growth as biceps curls (study). This brings up our upper-body volume, giving us more balanced upper-to-lower-body proportions.
  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 that I used to bring my bench press up to 315 pounds, so I have a soft spot for it. (Mind you, Starting Strength recommends a fairly narrow bench press grip, so that wasn’t necessarily a problem to begin with.)
Illustration of a bodybuilder flexing his muscles after doing compound lifts.

Then we talked with Greg Nuckols, founder of Stronger by Science, about this idea of finding the best lifts for gaining overall muscle mass and strength. He’s a world-class powerlifter, an authority on strength training, a physics whizz, and a force of good in the strength training world.

Marco and I are pretty damn good at helping people bulk up, but Marco cut his teeth helping athletes get bigger, not powerlifters. If we’re stealing powerlifters’ ideas, may as well steal those ideas from the very best and brightest powerlifters.

Greg had a couple of great ideas:

  • The front or safety bar squat: first, Greg suggested switching from the high-bar squat all the way to a front squat or safety-bar squat. Switching to the front squat shifts more emphasis to our upper backs, it reduces the risk of injury, and it’s better for improving posture. It also gives us a far great range of motion, making it better for building overall muscle mass. The safety-bar squat has similar advantages while being easier to grip… but at the cost of requiring specialized equipment.
  • The cheat press: second, he suggested switching from an overhead press to a “cheaty” overhead press. His reasoning was that if we use more momentum on the overhead press, we give the lift a better strength curve. We load the barbell a bit heavier and then clear the sticking point by driving the barbell up with our lower bodies. Driving up a heavier weight gives our shoulders and triceps a better overall growth stimulus. It also helps us develop overall power and athleticism.
  • The trap-bar deadlift: third, he recommended switching from a conventional deadlift to a trap-bar deadlift. I think that’s a great idea in theory. In fact, we used trap-bar deadlifts in the very first version of our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. However, we quickly learned that most people don’t have access to a trap bar (or safety-squat bar). So we’ll offer these specialty lifts as options, but we’ll default to more classic barbell lifts.

By the end of this, we thought we had found the answer. We thought we had improved on these classic programs, adding in all of these advantages without any downsides. But we had flown too high and been blinded by the sun. The wax soon melted, sending us hurtling down into the roiling waves below.

The Fall of the Barbell Row

We tested our “Big 6 Lifts” for a few months on ourselves and our members (both male and female). It worked well. But we ran into some issues with the barbell row. It’s just too similar to the deadlift. If we trained both lifts with similar fervour, we wound up massacring our lower backs.

Starting Strength and StrongLifts both evade this problem by only doing deadlifts once or twice a week and only doing a single set per workout. However, the deadlift is a much better lift than the barbell row. It stimulates way more overall muscle growth. Swapping out the deadlift for more rows is like trading a gold coin for an arcade token.

So we got rid of the barbell row. Now, we’re not total monsters. We still include rowing in all of our programs, and we have a full article going over the many benefits of the barbell row. It’s just that now we program them as an accessory lift for the deadlift. They aren’t a main lift.

Chin-ups are the main upper-back lift, deadlifts the main lower-back and spinal erector lift, and rows are used as needed as a lighter accessory movement. The reason this works so well is that the barbell row is more upper-back dominant in higher rep ranges. When we do sets of 5–10 reps, it’s quite hard on our lower backs. But when we do sets of 15–20 reps, our lower backs can support the weight quite easily. It’s our upper backs and forearms that wind up getting more of the growth stimulus.

So if we start our workouts with heavy squats or deadlifts, then do lighter barbell rows afterwards, all of those fatigue issues disappear. The workout program becomes quite a bit more manageable.

The Big 5 Compound Lifts

After demoting the barbell row to an assistance lift, our workouts became quite a bit more manageable. Fatigue stopped becoming as much of a problem, and our upper backs saw even better muscle growth. That gave us our 5 big compound barbell lifts:

  1. The Front Squat: a knee-dominant lift that develops the quads, glutes, and upper back.
  2. The Bench Press: to develop the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  3. The Deadlift: a hip-dominant lift that develops the posterior chain—the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and traps. And again, hundreds of other muscles.
  4. The Overhead Press: to develop the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps.
  5. The Chin-Up: an upper-body pull to develop the upper back, biceps, and forearms. It’s also a great ab exercise.
Illustration showing the 5 best compound barbell lifts for gaining muscle mass.

With these main lifts, we’ve still got all the benefits of the big powerlifting lifts, but we’ve also added in two extra upper-body lifts. That shifts the program from 2/3 lower body to 3/5 upper body, and these two extra upper body lifts will help us bulk up our chests, upper backs, shoulders, and arms. We’re still squatting enough to build strong legs, but those squats are balanced with a greater number of upper-body lifts, and each movement is given equal priority. Every workout no longer starts with squats.

Like a powerlifter, we can keep a running tally of our “Big Five” total to measure our strength and progress. We can compare our results from doing various different programs. We can identify and overcome plateaus. We can give our lifts a proper hierarchy.

Again, since we aren’t powerlifters, we don’t need to test our one-rep max unless we want to. Instead, we can test our rep maxes. As long as that number is improving, it shows that we’re becoming bigger and stronger overall. After all, going from an 8-rep max of 185 up to 225 shows just as much improvement as going from a 1-rep max of 230 up to 280. But by testing our rep maxes, we don’t need to peak or prepare, we don’t need to increase our risk of injury, and the test itself—doing an 8-rep set—is great for stimulating muscle growth.

Are 5 Compound Lifts All You Need?

Where’s the loaded carry? In our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, which is designed for guys who are still fairly thin, we feature a ton of loaded carries, and so we’ve always counted them as one of the foundational lifts. Moving forward from that, though, I think it makes more sense to count them as another deadlift accessory. Otherwise, once again, we’re going to have too much heavy spinal loading in the program. (It’s also hard to perform heavy loaded carries once you get too strong to use dumbbells.)

Illustration of a man doing a conventional deadlift.

This list is incomplete. We could also add in throws, planks, twists, and all manner of other movements that help build a formidable physique. However, these can often be folded into the above movement patterns. For example, a one-handed overhead press will develop your obliques as a throw would.

However, some lifts still won’t fit in this system. For example, neck curls won’t fit into any of those movement patterns. That’s okay. It’s an important lift for developing overall aesthetics, and it’s essential for building a thicker neck, but it’s still a fairly minor lift. We’ll simply call it an extra.

The same is true with forearm training. Yes, our forearms will be trained to some extend with deadlifts and chin-ups, but those grip muscles won’t necessarily add much to our forearm circumference, given that it’s the wrist flexors and extensors that contribute most to our forearm size. Better to add in some forearm isolation exercises, such as wrist curls and extensions.

Are these lifts for men or women? We tested this system on both men and women, and it worked great in both cases. They often chose to emphasize different muscles, but the system accounted for that. If someone wants to use the deadlift to develop their upper back, they might choose a conventional deadlift and add plenty of barbell rows as an accessory. On the other hand, if someone wants more hip growth, they can choose a Romanian deadlift and then add in plenty of hip thrusts as an accessory.

Men and women are often going to choose different programs, but this system tends to work equally well for both.

Illustration of a man doing a barbell overhead press

The best compound lifts change as we become more advanced. A beginner will get more benefit out of a goblet squat than a front squat. Similarly, they’ll get more out of a push-up than they will from a bench press. The same is true with the other lifts, too.

Here’s a better list for beginners:

  • Romanian Deadlift: an easier and safer variation of the deadlift that’s just as good for helping a beginner bulk up.
  • Goblet Squat: a dumbbell version of the front squat that’s simpler to learn and that helps to develop strength in the front rack position.
  • Lowered Chin-Up: the best way to work towards your first chin-up is to jump up to the bar and then lower yourself down. Sort of a push press but in reverse.
  • The Push-Up: until you can do 20 push-ups, you’ll get more out of doing push-ups 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 Press: 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.

How to Use the Big 5 to Build Muscle

This Big 5 approach to bulking isn’t a specific program; it’s a way of measuring overall strength and progress. It’s a way of sorting our lifts into a hierarchy. It’s a way of tying our size, strength, health, and aesthetics goals into one system—one total that we can tally and track.

Before and after illustration showing a skinny fat man building muscle, becoming lean and muscular.

First of all, make it your own. We don’t all need to pick the same lifts. We don’t all need to lift with the same range of motion. This isn’t a powerlifting competition. The idea is to choose the lift variations that will best help you become big and strong (and with minimal risk of injury).

For example, if you have a long spindly spine, conventional deadlifts will be harder for you. If you were a powerlifter, that would mean choosing a sumo stance. But if your goal is to build a thicker and stronger torso, then sticking with a conventional deadlift might be a better option for you.

We want to teach you how to choose your lifts based on your goals, going over the advantages and disadvantages of each. You can then pick the variation that suits you best and then keep track of how your strength progresses on those variations over time.

We can also choose assistance and accessory lifts for those main lifts, allowing us to build a bigger Big-5 total.

We’ve made a separate article for each main compound lift:

  1. Deadlift Guide (for Bulking)
  2. Front Squat Guide (for Bulking)
  3. Chin-Up Guide (for Bulking)
  4. Bench Press Guide (for Bulking)
  5. Overhead Press Guide (for Bulking)

In these articles, we’ll help you choose your main compound lift based on your experience level, goals, and anatomy. Then we’ll talk about which accessory and assistance lifts are best for building muscle and getting stronger.

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

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.