Five Extra-Effective, Full-Body, Muscle-Building Lifts

Forget the complicated, equipment-heavy, personal trainer stuff. This is all you need.

Trying to pick a weightlifting routine can be intimating. Really intimidating. Every gym devotee has his or her own opinion on what works best after years of fine-tuning their own routines, and magazine stands are filled with article after article about movie stars doing complicated, often gimmicky workouts. If you're just starting out, it can be a surefire path to analysis paralysis.

If you want to build muscle, anything that gets you up and moving weight is a good thing – consistency in any kind of routine, plus a good diet, will get you results. But if you want something that's as pared down as possible, with exercises that get you the most bang for your buck, you only need to know a few moves.

These are all "compound lifts," meaning they work a lot of different muscle groups at one – killing multiple birds with one stone, as it were. They're the cornerstone for a lot of well-respected strength routines, since they allow you to do just a few exercises per session. And because you're using a lot of different muscles, you can move a lot of weight, and regularly progress on that weight in small steps.

Learn them, and you'll be able to get a full-body workout with minimal equipment and time commitment.


Squats are the king of exercises for powerful legs, a strong lower back, and a nice backside. It's not easy – squatting way down to a proper depth when you've got a weighted barbell on your back requires a decent amount of flexibility, and a few good, heavy reps will leave you exhausted.

But it's extraordinarily effective at building strength, and the movement works just about every part of your lower body.

How to Do It

Set a barbell on a rack just below shoulder height, then step under the bar. Place it on the back of your shoulders, with your hands gripping the bar on either side. Stand up fully to lift the bar off the rack and step away from the rack, placing your feet shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly out.

Then slowly bend your knees and sit back with your hips, keeping your back straight, to squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor. And then push back up to standing.

Muscles Worked

Legs, glutes, and back.

What to Watch Out For

  • It's easy to slack off, form-wise, on this lift. Make sure you're squatting all the way down until your thighs are parallel with the floor.

  • Keep your feet solidly grounded – you want your weight to be firmly planted on your heels, not teetering on the balls of your feet.

  • Don't round your back. Keep it straight, instead of hunched over, to avoid potential injuries.

Bench Press

This is maybe the most recognizable lift ever, so even if you don't have much weightlifting experience, odds are you already know how to do it.

With heavy enough weight and proper form, it'll do wonders for your chest, but it doesn't stop there. Your arms and shoulders will feel the burn, too, and the narrower your grip on the bar, the more you'll work your triceps.

How to Do It

Lie back on a flat bench and grip a weighted barbell with a medium width grip. Your head should be directly underneath the bar when it's racked. Lift the bar up and hold it over your chest with locked arms.

Slowly lower the bar until it touches your chest and your arms are bent at a 90 degree angle, then push back up to the starting position. Keep your feet firmly on the ground and your backside firmly on the bench throughout the lift.

Muscles Worked

Primarily chest. To a lesser extent, triceps, and shoulders.

What to Watch Out For

  • Don't flare out your elbows too much. Ideally, they should be at about a 45 degree angle to the bar. That puts less stress on your shoulders and elbow joints.

  • Be realistic with how much weight you can lift. If you realize halfway into a rep that you can't get the bar up, and don't have a spotting partner, you have to awkwardly and somewhat painfully let the bar down onto your chest and roll it down your body until you can sit up to move the bar onto the floor.


Deadlifts are especially popular among dedicated weightlifters, but people who are just starting out often steer clear, since they don't do much for the Abercrombie model kind of upper body that a lot of guys want. And that's fair. But trust us: deadlifts are still well worth your time.

You can lift a massive amount of weight because of all the large muscle groups involved, which is a big confidence booster, and the movement does wonders to strengthen a huge range of muscles – it primarily targets the legs and lower back, but just about every other muscle you've got works to stabilize and support the movement.

Even if you're not looking to add too much size to your lower body, it's great for overall functional strength (like when you need to help your buddy move his couch) and long-term back health.

How to Do It

Stand in front of a weighted barbell with your feet underneath the bar. Bend your knees, sit your hips back, and reach down to grab the bar in a shoulder-width grip, keeping your back straight.

To start the lift, push up with your legs and then forward with your hips until you're standing straight up, with your shoulders back and your chest out. Lower the bar by bending at the waist to lean your torso forward, and bending your knees until you're back in the starting position with the bar on the floor.

Muscles Worked

Primarily quads and lower back. To a lesser extent, abs, glutes, forearms, and shoulders.

What to Watch Out For

Like with squats, keep your back ramrod straight, or you'll risk injury. Same with your shoulders – keep them back, not hunched forward.

Overhead Press

Kind of like a bench press, except you're either sitting or standing up straight and pushing the barbell upward instead of forward. It's a great way to hit your upper back, arms, and shoulders all at once, for a broad and powerful upper body.

How to Do It

Set a barbell on a rack, either chest-high if you're performing the lift standing, or just overhead if you're seated on a bench. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, hands slightly further than shoulder width apart. Raise the bar off the rack and, if you're standing, step back with your feet directly under your shoulders.

With your legs and glutes flexed, press the barbell up and over your head in a straight line. Keep your back as straight as possible, and push your head forward once you've cleared it with the bar

Muscles Worked

Primarily shoulders. To a lesser extent, upper back and triceps.

What to Watch Out For

If you repeatedly arch your back too much or lean backwards during the lift, you'll wind up with an injury. Pay close attention to your positioning, and don't sacrifice good form for lifting heavier weight.

Pull Up

This is one of those "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" kinds of exercises. It's been around forever for good reason: it's simple, doesn't require anything other than a bar to grip, and hits your arms, shoulders, and upper back hard.

Keep in mind that you want a slow, controlled pulling motion – no wild swinging or thrusting upwards. To keep building muscle, you need to constantly push yourself to lift heavier, and doing that for pull ups isn't as easy as adding another plate to a barbell. But you can invest in a dip belt, which will allow you to hang some weight from your hips once you need more of a challenge.

How to Do It

Grip a pull up bar, either over or underhand, with your hands shoulder width apart. Slowly pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your body straight and stable. Slowly lower yourself down until your arms are straight, then repeat.

Muscles Worked

Upper back, biceps, and shoulders.

What to Watch Out For

Swinging and jerking your body upwards and/or not lowering yourself down fully are great ways to undermine this exercise. Don't cheat – move slowly and deliberately, even if it means you can do fewer reps.

Doing some or all of those lifts a few days per week, with three sets of about eight reps each, is a good place to start if you're just looking to test out your weightlifting abilities and don't want to commit to a structured program. But there are some simple, finely-tuned routines out there, like Starting Strength or Stronglifts, that incorporate these if you want something stricter that's easy to understand and execute.

Whatever you decide on, consistency will be your best friend. Stick with it, eat right, keep increasing the weights, and you'll see results.

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