Personal Trainer Myths: Best Exercises for Building Muscle Mass?

In my last post I covered the personal trainer myth that Nutrition Isn’t Important for Muscle Building. In keeping with the Myths of Muscle Building (that are perpetuated by Personal Trainers) theme, in this post I’m covering the myth that there are “Best Exercises” for Building Muscle Mass.

Everywhere you turn there seems to be another article espousing “the best moves for muscle mass.” And, although these articles are written by different trainers they always seem to include the same exercises: Deadlifts, Back Squats, Chin-ups, Bench press, etc.

Although I certainly won’t argue that those exercises are great moves to use, it is still a myth to claim that these specific exercises – or any other specific exercises for that matter – are the “best” for building muscle mass. Why? Because we know that muscle growth (i.e. structural hypertrophy) is not determined by the specific exercise(s) you do, but by the specific physiological training environment you create.  And, as Brad Schoenfeld has described in his paper The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training, that specific training environment needs to create three things: Metabolic Stress, Tension and Muscle Damage.

In short, there are no best exercises for increasing hypertrophy; there are the best mechanisms for eliciting a hypertrophic response. And, you can create a training environment that creates these three mechanisms by using any number of exercise applications from barbells to dumbbells to machines to bodyweight training to unilateral exercises, etc. because all three of these mechanism of muscle hypertrophy are dictated by one thing: force. And, all forms of resistances training by nature apply force to the body. Not to mention, that different exercises apply force to the body in different ways, which is the basis of my Full Spectrum Bodybuilding article series. So, no single exercise can effectively maximize development of any muscle group.

Now, some may want to argue that these “best moves for mass” articles are simply trying to highlight the exercises that get the most muscle groups involved. If that’s the case we must realize that 1) articles like these should be titled more accurately – like “The Best Exercise for Hitting the Most Muscles” to ensure no one gets the wrong impression because 2) talking about maximizing how many muscles you work a once isn’t at all the same as discussing how to maximize a hypertrophic response, as we’ve already established.

In short, compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, chin ups, etc. are just a piece to the hypertrophy puzzle – yes, they’re certainly a big piece – but they’re not the entire puzzle.

Lastly, because we come in all different shapes and sizes, and vary in our injury history, we all perform the same basic movement patterns (pushing, pulling, squatting, bending, etc.) in (slightly) different ways. It is for this reason for which we have lots of (slightly) different exercise variations (of pushing, pulling, squatting, bending, etc.) available to us. These exercise variations allow us to find exercises applications that best fit with our physiology (i.e. structure) and current movement capability.

This is another problem with making people think they need to do certain exercises,  as it causes them to force fit themselves to a limited number of specific exercises – the ones on these lists – instead of fitting the exercises to them, which keeps them trying to force a square peg into the a round hole. And, that’s a quick and easy way to get yourself injured.

In other words, there are plenty of exercises options that allow you to apply force to your muscles to stimulate tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. And, the best moves for mass are the ones that best fit with your physiology and current movement capability.

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