The most frequent question I receive via email, in retail outlets and read on internet forums each day is - “How can I build the most muscle, the fastest?” And fair enough. It’s a fairly standard question.
We all want to look and perform at our best, and in this high-paced world, none of us want to wait for it.
Sadly, there is no magic pill, potion, ointment, or training system that will magically sprout muscle tissue overnight. It is a LONG, LONG, LONG process. Did I mention it was long?!
Bodybuilders can take 5-10 years before even reaching development considered moderate in their sport, and that’s with solid nutrition, training, supplementation, and recovery.
But that isn’t to say it isn’t very possible to do. You just have to be smart about it!
The 101 on Muscle Building-Setting the Assumptions:
To build muscle you need to progressively overload your fibres with continually growing loads. You must also cover the basics of a protein-rich, calorie dense diet, plenty of sleep and supplementation tailored towards recovery. These are the underlying fundamentals that are the assumptions this article will be written on.
Now, assuming these assumptions are ticked off, I will delve into what the title offered, and the reason you have read this far for!
How to gain maximum muscle tissue with just one exercise! You see, when people come to me asking how to gain the most muscle I ask them a simple question.
Look at your body in the mirror right now. What is the largest limb on your frame?
Whether 40 or 14 years old, I get the same dumbfounded answer: “Well, I guess that’s my legs”. Correct!
Your legs are home to your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, which hold the most musculature of any limb on your body.
By comparison, your quadriceps alone hold nearly more muscle than the entire front of your upper body combined. Your deltoids, pectorals, biceps, triceps, they are all puny compared to the posterior chain of the human lower body!
So, I implore you to look at the original question again and now let’s re-formulate a game plan!
The One Lift To Rule Them All
Considering the lower body is the gold mine of muscle tissue for your entire frame, which one exercise do you likely predict is going to be the one I suggest here?
The squat of course! More accurately, the barbell back squat…
You see, in light of what we have covered thus far, if you had just one exercise to stimulate hypertrophy in just one group of musculature to build the most muscle, it really does beg another question of the average trainee:
“Why are you still performing biceps curls and cable fly’s every day, if you are trying to pack on the most meat on your frame?!”
The barbell back squat is a brutal homage to muscular development. It can result in an overload of the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, core, and to a lesser extent, back, arms and calves.
These are massive muscle groups with huge potential for hypertrophy more than smaller muscle groups, and all will be worked during this exercise.
To build the most muscle, you must train the biggest muscle groups!
So, on this logic, you can start to understand my frustration when someone comes to me asking why their Turkish single handed, single legged kettlebell get-ups aren’t helping them budge the scales!
If you only had time for one exercise a week and hypertrophy is your goal, this is it! Squats, squats, and more squats!
Now obviously there are significant advantages to all of the numerous training styles, techniques, and intensity modulators. Drop sets, strip sets, giant sets, super sets, forced negatives. These all have a time and a place to be optimally implemented. Likewise, the single arm dumbbell curl also has a place. The high rep cable fly’s you do every week have a place, and in an ideal hypertrophy program, all would be implemented regularly for maximal results.
But that wasn’t the purpose of this article. The purpose of this piece was to highlight how to build the most muscle if you could perform just one exercise, and that exercise is the back squat all day long!
It recruits the most muscle fibres, is the most metabolically taxing and can cause systemic hypertrophy when used properly. So let us look at what is the best way to use squats to build maximal tissue.
Technique Basics of the Back Squat
The squat is to be performed as a full body movement.
Without perfect technique, injury can occur well before a gram of muscle is built from this King of all exercises. So let’s break it down into stages to make it nice and safe to perform at the intensity you will need to, to grow those wheels!
Step 1 - Step up, Unrack and Brace
Place feet shoulder width apart and lower yourself under the bar so it wedges into your back between your rear deltoids and your traps. Depending on high or low bar position will determine exactly where you place the bar, but for now, simply get yourself in a strong, stable position to push through the floor, and unrack the weight. Take two to three steps back, pause, and take in a deep breath. Brace your core, tensing your abdominal wall, tense your glutes, and look straight ahead. You are now in the perfect starting position for the Squat.
Step 2 - The lowering
Break your stance from the top of the movement leading with the glutes. Bring your hips backward and lower yourself in a controlled motion. Remember time under tension is essential for muscular growth to occur, and the negative portion of a lift is where the most tearing down of the fibres can actually occur. So do not rush this part of the lift. Slow, controlled, strong. Remain tight until your reach parallel before pausing for a split second.
Step 3 - Completing the Lift
The Squat can be thought of as a vertical leg press. Think not of rising from the hole of the squat, but rather that you're pushing the ground away from you, pushing primarily through your glutes (focus on your heels, not your toes). This movement, when performed optimally, will elicit maximal contraction from your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps in perfect harmony and correct your technique from just ‘getting back up’ to pushing the ground down. Finally, to complete the lift, squeeze the glutes on the way to lock out, powering through the hips to finish the movement back from the original starting point. Take another deep breath, and just lather, rinse and repeat!
Rep Ranges for Growth
There are mountains of data showing advantages for all modalities of training intensity.
Remember intensity is a measure of weight lifted relative to your 1 rep max, not how 'hard' you train. The traditional school of thought is lower reps for strength, middle reps for hypertrophy and higher reps for conditioning, getting a pump and metabolic waste accumulation. So in my training past, it has seen most logical to tick all the boxes by training with all repetition ranges with squats to get all the potential benefits that exercise can afford.
To illustrate this practically, this would typically mean pyramid sets, going up in weight, until all rep ranges have been covered. For example, a squat workout covering all rep ranges may look something like this:
This pyramid would ensure 2 working sets at the 5, 10 and 20 repetition rep ranges. This would be physically and mentally taxing, flood the muscles with blood, nutrients, and transport waste products in and out of the muscle, whilst also working with enough weight to allow strength increases week to week. Again, this is not ideal, a full program would include fewer sets and more accessories. But staying true to the purpose of this article, if you only had 8 sets to perform at the gym in your next visit, these should be it!
Take Home Message
How do you build the maximal muscle with the least exercise variety?
Hit your biggest muscle group, again and again. If you can build 5% more tissue on a given body part hypothetically, then 5% by weight of your quadriceps is drastically more than 5% of your biceps by weight. So start to prioritise your exercises accordingly!
Squat until you can’t sit down at work without shedding a tear, then eat, sleep and repeat.
Smash your wheels until you associate leg days with Stephen King films.
Hypertrophy of the lower body will lead to more gain in actual muscle mass than any other body part has the potential to do so. So when making exercise programs to develop the most muscle, just remember the king of lower body exercises is the squat.
So yes, typically you will have the time to do all of the accessory working exercises and this is the optimal way to cause balanced, systematic hypertrophy.
But if you are asked again, what is the single greatest movement for muscle gain, I hope this article has given you the answers!