As an athlete, you train because you want to be bigger, stronger and faster. But let’s be honest, the meathead in all of us just wants to get bigger muscles. Sure, your classic exercises such as the bench press, squat and deadlift will build trainloads of muscle, but there are so many exercises that can build muscle.
If you are in the bodybuilding mindset, you tend to think about muscles groups not movements. I mean, it makes sense. You want bigger biceps, then do some bicep curls. You want a bigger chest, start pressing. But don’t you think that there are some other ways to build giant thighs and arms without trying to isolate them?
Don’t get me wrong; you need to do some isolation work to round out your routine in order to build a quality physique. You also need to do deadlifts for a solid posterior chain, squats for awesome quads, and bench for big shoulders and chest. What I also like to do in order to build muscle are what I call “underrated anabolic movements”. What does that exactly mean? The exercises do the following:
- Work a ton of muscle across the whole body
- Require a lot of metabolic cost
- Stimulate a lot of hormonal release (IGF-1, testosterone, Growth Hormone)
What does produce a high metabolic cost and anabolic hormonal release is intense exercise or more specifically, intense exercises or combinations of intense exercises that stimulate all the major muscle groups. This induces the highest metabolic costs possible. So, as you can see, they all coincide with each other.
Please note: I included dumbbell side laterals in this article for a good reason. They don’t do the above but I will explain this later.
Without further ado, here are my top 5 underrated muscle-building exercises.
The sled push has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years. This exercises is mostly known for conditioning football players and now even the adult fat loss client. If used appropriately, it is not only for conditioning and fat loss. Most sleds can be loaded up with a ton of weight. You don’t have to always sprint with the sled. Slow and steady will win the race, when looking to build muscle.
One of the keys to building muscle is time under tension and time under tension with heavy loads is even better. The heavy sled push will put the entire body under load and force your body into overdrive. The sled push is a self-limiting exercise, meaning at some point, your body will simply not be able to move it anymore. It is also a safe way to go to failure and has a low learning curve. Just create good posture, stay tights and drive your legs. It is also a great alternative to those that can’t squat or deadlift heavy due to bad joints.
Cable Lateral Raises
This exercise may stick out like a sore thumb in this article. From my description above, it doesn’t follow the rules. Cable side laterals don’t really produce that much of a metabolic cost or stimulate a lot of hormones. At least not compared to exercises like the sled push.
So why do I feel that this exercise is overrated? Well, people have shrugged it off in recent years. Sure, a lot of pure bodybuilders still do it. But if you ask a lot of strength coaches, Crossfitters and functional training enthusiasts if they do them, most likely they will just tell you to press to get bigger shoulders.
Here is the problem with that statement; during presses, the front deltoid and traps take up most of the work. The medial head of the deltoid does not get hit that much. So, if you want that cannonball shoulder look that fills our your t-shirt, you need to get that medial head bigger. End of story and there is no other exercise that does it better. Just ask bodybuilders. They know a thing or two about building muscle and they all do cable side laterals.
Why cables over dumbbells? Well, when it comes to building muscle, once again, the time under tension comes into play. With dumbbells, the load vector and the ability to cheat place less stress directly on the medial head as opposed to cables. So to really nail that medial head, the cable side lateral is king.
The farmer’s carry is an excellent exercise to build muscle in the upper back area as it creates high levels of muscular tension and allows you to maintain that for an extended period of time. It has been shown to stimulate a big hormonal response for muscle growth. Strongman type movements like the farmer’s carry have been shown to increase testosterone naturally that is similar to traditional bodybuilding workouts (1).
Again, we see the high time under tension. The more load you can carry for a greater amount of distance or time, the more anabolic stimulus you will receive. Many bodybuilders are missing out since they don’t see it as a true muscle builder. I have worked with bodybuilders that implement this into their routine and they are shocked at how much better shoulder and upper-back development they receive.
I think another reason why this happens is that the carry improves work capacity. Improving Work Capacity
The term work capacity has also gained some ground in recent years. Some refer to it as simply increased fitness conditioning but it is a little more than that.
Supertraining author, Mel Siff defined work capacity as “the general ability of the body as a machine to produce work of different intensity and duration using the appropriate energy systems of the body.”
The farmer’s carry is a great way to improve conditioning, work capacity, and mental toughness. By putting the body under a load for an extended period of time, in a good position, creates pressure in the chest and abdomen, challenging your breathing. This will also carry over (no pun intended) into some significant muscle growth.
If I could pick one exercise to do for the rest of my life, the kettlebell would be it. The swing is a movement that provides so much bang for the buck. The ballistic nature of the movement requires a lot of joint angles, movement patterns and muscles to fire on all cylinders when done correctly. If the swing is not done correctly, it just looks like a circus act ready to kill your lower back.
In order for the swing to work, the shoulders need to be stable, hips need to be mobile and hinge, the thighs need to be locked and engaged at the top of the motion, and the core and spine need to create a stiffness to handle the load.
The kettlebell swing is often known as a conditioning tool, which it is. You can ramp up the reps and produce some great cardio output. Time under tension will also be huge during high-rep swings, making it a great muscle builder. You can also do heavy swings to produce real power and mass to the backside.
Don’t think of this exercise as just a cool kettlebell movement for fat loss. Including this movement on a lower-body or posterior chain/pull day will add slabs of muscle to your physique.
Before the inverted row became popular, we relied on machines; cables, dumbbells and barbells to build a razorback guerrilla physique. But when you watch people perform some of these pulling movements, especially with a free weight, form gets compromised, usually because people are using too much weight.
The inverted row (I prefer using a strap suspension system instead of a bar) is also a self-limiting exercise. You must keep a stable core and show proper range of motion or else it will be very apparent that you are cheating. You can utilize physics decreasing or increasing the lever-arm to decrease or increase intensity. This allows you to isolate the upper-back and really hit the lats, rear delts, rhomboids, teres minor and, biceps, forearms, and the entire scapular area.
When performing an inverted row, especially when elevating your feet and/or putting on a weight vest, you will be humbled with its toughness. Many bodybuilders shrug this movement off since it has been popularized in metabolic-type workouts such as boot camps but once you try it and really get after a set, the metabolic cost and hormone production from the intensity of the movement will set right in.
This exercise is also a great finishing move for your back when you are fatigued. You can fry your upper-back and hit every last muscle fiber in a safe manner and reduce the risk of an injury when trying to go to failure. If you are looking to add some thickness to your upper back, the inverted row should be in your routine.
Go Outside The Box
Bodybuilders tend to be creatures of habits but also look for every angle to gain muscle. It is sometimes tough to add new exercises into a routine that don’t appear to be pure muscle building movements. But don’t let that fool you. Including exercises that hit a ton of muscle and demand a lot of the body are crucial when trying to stimulate muscle growth. Go outside the box and include these in your routine.
Justin Grinnell is the Owner of State of Fitness in East Lansing, Michigan. State of Fitness opened up just four years ago and is already one of the leading training facilities in the Midwest. State of Fitness has over 450 members who train every day under his leadership. In addition to being a facility owner, Justin has his own blog at www.grinnelltraining.com (link below), and has been a featured writer for over 6 years in the magazine Healthy & Fit and is a writer for Muscle & Fitness.
- Ghigiarelli et al (2013). Effects of Strongman Training on Salivary Testosterone Levels In a Sample of Trained Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), 738-747.