Building a great physique doesn’t have to be as complicated as lifters make it out to be. If anything, we tend to focus too much on the smaller muscle groups hitting them from every angle possible instead of practicing and getting better at the bigger lifts. Don’t get me wrong, isolation exercises have their place, but anyone trying to build a truly great physique should be focusing on the bigger compound lifts first.
The reason you want to focus on the bigger lifts vs the isolated, is that they’ll stimulate more muscles in that given exercise than the others. This is obviously advantageous because it allows you to get more bang for your buck in less time. They will also have better carry over to everyday life situations. The last thing I would like to note is that you should be sticking with the exercises for an extended period of time. Too often I see people cycling out exercises before they’ve even gotten good at them. I mean truly good to where they are pushing a respectable amount of weight WITH good form. If you look at any bodybuilder with a truly great physique, what you should notice is their form, and attention to mind muscle connection is on point.
The squat, sometimes deemed, the “king of all exercises”, is one of the most fundamental movements. Most see a squat as an exercise that just hits the quads, but if done correctly, it is hitting the hamstrings and glutes, while also giving an isometric stimulation towards the upper and lower back. Also, the fact that you can work up to such a high amount of weight compared to say a bicep curl, means your body is getting a bigger central nervous system response which can allow for a bigger adaptation towards overall strength. This can even translate towards the upper body.
The other exercise some may put priority in front of the squat is the deadlift. With the deadlift, you can’t really get stronger at it without having a really strong core, a tight kept upper back, and strong hips. The squat is going to be a little more quad dominant while the deadlift is more posterior chain dominant. I have most of my clients run through at least some version of the deadlift because most people forget how to use their hips. We sit around all day, hunched over tightening our hip flexors and pec’s causing us to have this rounded out posture. The deadlift corrects all of that. It hits all the muscles you can’t see in the mirror and thus often neglect, but is a necessary movement if you want a complete physique and overall functional strength. Being able to correctly fire your hips and pull your shoulder blades back is one of the best things you can do to prevent future injury in the lower back.
A lot of people like to go to the bench press next, but I find the overhead press has more carry over to everyday life. We tend to need strong shoulders for picking stuff up over our heads. Done with strict form, the press also has the added benefit of keeping your core braced and tight. Performing this movement will also hit the triceps and provide low back stability as well.
Part of the “yoked” or “superhero” look that lifters usually seek out is a nice V tapered back. The pull-up will achieve this. Working on the lats and biceps, this exercise also challenges you to get really good at moving your body weight. You can go on a lat pulldown to get stronger, but I advise learning to get really good at body weight pull-ups first. A lot of gyms have pull-up assistance machines if you find you aren’t able to perform 6-8 reps with good form of just your body weight so give those a try if you are struggling.
The classic staple of every bro’s workout routine, the bench press will hit the chest, shoulders and triceps. For how popular it is utilized the one issue I have is it is done with horrible form too often. Elbows should be flared to 45 degrees not 90. Shoulder blades should be pinched back like you are trying to touch them together not laid out flat. The chest should always be leading in front of the shoulders so that the shoulders don’t dominate too much during the lift. Not following these cues causes a lot of shoulder impingement pain for lifters. Make sure your hip does not come off the bench either.
While the pull-up will hit the lats of the back, the row will hit the rhomboids as well as biceps. And we want to stimulate as much as the body as we can for a nice balanced physique. I suggest getting good at barbell rows, but if it is fatiguing the low back too much you can switch to a seated row. Just make sure you are sitting up right and again, pinching the shoulder blades back making sure most of the tension stays between the shoulder blades.
Here’s what a sample workout could look like putting this all together.
Squat - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Overhead Press - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Pull-Up - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Deadlift - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Bench Press - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Row - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Make sure you stay 1-2 reps shy of failure, and maintain good form throughout the movement.