Illustration of a weight lifter doing compound exercises to gain muscle and strength.

The 5 Best Compound Lifts for Building Muscle

All the best muscle-building programs are built on the idea of progressively overloading the big compound lifts. 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 it can also be an illusion. Your effort is only productive if it adds up to actual progress. That’s where strength training shines.

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 lifts: the squat, deadlift, and bench press. Their goal is to get stronger at these three lifts. 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 lifts 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 lifts 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 lifts to gauge your progress, improvements in coordination can muddy the waters. However, once you’re proficient in the lifts, the silt will settle. I don’t see this as a problem for intermediate lifters.

The other problem is that compound lifts 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.

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 lifts 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 lifts 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 lifts 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.

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. We quickly ran into problems.

We built the program around 6 compound lifts:

  • 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 Big 5 Compound Lifts

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 Lifts 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 lifts 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.