Chest – Incline Dumbbell Press
I've recently been switching between flat and incline barbell presses at the start of most of my chest workouts, as I like to switch up my work out every few weeks. But before that I noticed the most chest development when doing incline dumbbell presses first in my chest workout.
Most people will argue that the flat bench press is the best mass builder for the chest, as you can push the most weight on this exercise, but for me I feel a much better stretch and contraction in my chest when I use dumbbells for my presses which in my opinion is vital to grow. Yes lifting heavy is impressive and may feed your ego, but personally I don't feel that strong of a chest contraction during the concentric (pushing) phase of a barbell press as I'm not able to bring my arms up and in, focusing on trying to squeeze each pectoral muscle together, whereas with the barbell I can only move it up and down.
The way I train is for a full range of motion on each exercise with a good controlled negative and a strong squeeze on every rep. I obviously lift as heavy as I can for each set and over time have learnt the importance of progressive overload to keep causing trauma to the muscle fibres, forcing them to grow back bigger and stronger. But I've also learnt that this takes time and just because one week you might hit a new personal best on an exercise or rep target, it doesn't mean that all of a sudden you'll get bigger.
For me it's all about feeling a good stretch and squeeze for each rep and making a strong mind-to-muscle connection, so I'm not obsessed with having to lift heavier every workout. I'd much rather feel the burn of the muscle working with less weight than pushing for more weight and throwing it about with sloppy form just to get the weight moving. This is why, touch wood, to this day I've never had a gym injury or had to take time off from training in five years since I started lifting.
Back – Barbell Bent Over Rows
My back is probably my best body part and the thing that most people comment on. Although I do pull ups and pull downs in every back workout, I focus more on doing lots of rows with different grips and angles. For me, now that I've got good width to my back, I'm focused more on building thickness and adding good muscle to my back and I say "if you ain't rowing, it ain't growing". I feel heavy barbell rows are the best for building good thickness to the back and I will usually switch between overhand and underhand grips each workout. I usually do these near the start of my work out after pull ups and pull downs for the width in the back. I focus on leaning over as much as I can with a straight back, while pulling in my core to support my back and getting a full stretch in my arms at the bottom, then pulling the barbell up to my lower abdominals and getting my elbows back and squeezing hard at the top for a split second.
Shoulders – Hammer Strength Machine Press
Heavy presses build big shoulders no doubt, and dumbbell presses definitely have their place at times, but I feel a more controlled movement during my presses using this plate loaded machine. I can adjust the seat to the right height so that I'm under the handles at a strong starting point, and I can drive the weight up and then control the negative without having to worry about balancing a dumbbell in each hand, so I can focus more on feeling that deltoid working. This machine is also great as I can easily pause and rest if needed, and then drive up again until I hit my rep target without having to lift and lower dumbbells. I can also perform drop sets on it efficiently, by quickly stripping weight off from each side and continuing.
Legs – Leg Press
This may surprise some, but I'm going with the leg press for this one. Squats are excellent for leg development and will help in progressing your overall physique due to how taxing they are on the central nervous system, but for overall leg development I'm choosing leg presses, again due to my love of getting a good controlled movement with a full range of movement.
When I squat heavy I definitely feel them and I find myself questioning myself as to why I put myself through this, but I rarely feel the real intense burn during squats as I do when doing leg presses. During leg presses, I control the weight down until my knees almost touch my chest, and then drive the weight up pushing through my feet and heels without locking out on each rep, which keep constant stress on the legs.
With the leg press, I can easily change my foot placement to hit different parts of the legs – with a low foot placement to hit the quads more, and a higher foot placement to hit the hamstrings and glutes more. Again, using a machine I can rest when needed and perform drop sets quickly, keeping the stress on the muscles. I like to mix things about, so each workout I'll switch between heavy squats, front squats or leg presses to start off my leg workouts.
Biceps – Alternating Dumbbell Curls
Most of the top bodybuilders and top guys in the fitness industry choose the barbell curl as their chosen mass builder for the biceps, but when I'm training biceps I prefer to focus on each arm individually, so do most of my curling movements alternating between each arm per rep. I do of course still perform barbell curls in my arm workouts, but I prefer to focus my mind on one arm at a time and watch it stretch fully and feel it contracting as I squeeze up again, making a strong mind-to-muscle connection.
Triceps – Weighted Dips
You probably know that the triceps make up most of the arm, and having big triceps with that horseshoe detail is what we all crave and focus on in the mirror when doing our various push down movements. To build good mass on the triceps, like most of the exercises I've chosen in this article, I like big compound movements which allow you to handle the most weight. I'm fortunate enough to train in a gym that has a wide range of equipment, so when I'm doing my dips I'll use weighted chains placed over my neck and shoulders to add extra weight to the movement and make it harder. You can, of course, simply hang a weight plate from a weight belt if you have one, or if not, simply hook a dumbbell in between your knees or feet. I feel that weighted dips have definitely helped me to slap on some good mass to my arms and I always do them at the start of my arm workouts when I'm feeling at my strongest. I do recommend that you do some light tricep cable push downs to warm the elbows up before jumping straight in to heavy weight dips, as the elbow joint can be fragile at times, much like the shoulders.
Abdominals – (Upper) Basic Crunches
There are a lot of different abs exercises and most of the exercises that you do in the gym will engage your core and abs at some point. A strong core will help with your progression with squats and deadlifts, but when looking to get a ripped midsection, I tend to keep my abs workouts to just four to five exercises, with one targeting each of the abdominal regions. For upper abs, I perform basic bodyweight crunches, aiming to complete 100 crunches in three to four sets.
Breathing is very important when doing abdominal work – most of the time I see people holding their breath and pulling on their neck when doing crunches, almost trying to pull themselves up by the neck. I recommend you place your hands by your temples, crunching up while breathing out, holding the squeeze at the top for a split second and then lowering controlled until your shoulder blades touch the floor, before crunching up again.
Abdominals – (Lower) Hanging Knee Tucks
Basic reverse crunches are great, but can be a difficult exercise to perform correctly and safely for some people. I choose to use a set of abs slings and hook them on to the pull up bar which can be found in most gyms. Placing my arms through the slings right into my armpits, I let myself hang without swinging, with my legs fully straight and then tuck and crunch my knees up to just below chest level, while breathing out and then lower controlled back to the start. Remember that during any abdominal movement, the abs are working the whole time – not just during the crunching part of the movement, but also the lowering part, so keep your mind focused on keeping your core engaged throughout the whole movement. Again, remember to breathe.
Calves – Standing Calf Raises
Ah calves... probably my worst body part and the most stubborn to grow. I know I'm not the only one that struggles with getting big calves and many people say they can be genetic, but I won't let that stop me from trying to make them grow. I usually walk everywhere during my day-to-day life, so my calves get a lot of work. When I'm doing calves in the gym, I tend to go heavy and aim to get 10-15 reps per set. I see a lot of people doing little short pulse reps for their calves, but they aren't fully stretching and contracting the muscle to its fullest. Focus on getting a full stretch at the bottom of each rep so that your heels almost touch the floor and then squeeze right up onto your tiptoes and get a good squeeze at the top before lowering, slow and controlled, right down to the bottom again. Depending on what equipment your gym has, mix things up for calves, use the leg press or Smith machine with a step or stacked weight plates to work your calves if you don't have the use of a standing plated calf raise machine.