The number one mistake most people make when looking to increase muscle size is not lifting enough weight. You absolutely have to lift heavy and it should be a challenge to do otherwise your not forcing your muscles to adapt.
The scientific name for growing muscle size if called hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is not for everyone but there are many benefits to it. Aside from the aesthetics of big muscles you also have increased strength, power, anaerobic endurance, soft tissue health, caloric expenditure and as a side benefit it helps you focus on diet.
If you are trying to achieve muscle hypertrophy I believe compound exercises are superior to isolation exercises for a few different reasons. One being that it is more time effective because one compound movement can cover many muscles that several isolation exercises could in much less time. Second is that because you are using more muscles you can use more weight than in isolation so you can better progressively overload the muscles which is ideal for muscle growth. Isolation exercises use only one muscle group at a time and usually don’t require any stabilizing muscles to help support the weight. Compound exercises utilize multiple joints and muscles with free weights that must be stabilized. This means maximum muscle recruitment, high nervous system activation, and more stimulus for growth so that’s why I recommend you do mostly compound exercises rather than isolation exercises. Now this doesn’t mean isolation exercises are never warranted but as a beginner you want to build a base and compound movements are the way to go.
The benefits for your body when you strength train aren’t just limited to your muscles however. Bones, tendons, and ligaments that make up our joints also get stronger. Bone density is especially important for women while they get older. Many people think of their bones as just structure that keeps our body together and it is unchangeable or you can drink milk to get stronger ones. However your bones are just like your muscles, tissue that can grow stronger, and the best way to do that is through weight bearing exercise.
Best Exercises for building size:
Foundational compound movement
Mainly targets quad growth especially if it’s high bar (bar sits on top of traps)
Protects from knee instability and poor patella tracking
Full range of motion is key so drop weight if necessary to get upper leg at least parallel to floor
If you can’t get parallel without your back rounding get a box that you can sit down into that is within your range of motion
Targets your hamstring and glutes better than a conventional deadlift
Increases hip mobility
It is a hip-dominant hamstring exercise so it targets the upper part of the muscle so it is ideal to pair with a knee-dominant exercise such as glute-ham raise or swiss ball hamstring curl
Deadlifts are an option over RDL’s however it uses your entire posterior chain therefore using many more back muscles than leg muscles
Targets your hamstring and glutes as the name entails
It is a knee-dominant hamstring exercise so it targets the lower part of the muscle
Time under tension and full range of motion increase muscular recruitment and engagement which leads to increased size
Targets all major leg muscles but specifically activates the glutes so it is excellent to pair with another glute exercise
Many variations such as walking lunge, reverse lunge, lateral lunge, reverse crossover lunge and can be done with just bodyweight, dumbbells or barbell
Unilateral exercise so it can help correct any muscular imbalances
Increases joint stability and control in the ankle, knee, and hips and increases the neurological and muscular demands
Improves balance and coordination
Targets your glutes
Weak or inactive glutes can result in poor movement mechanics and joint health in the knee, and even reduced ankle stability
Many people are prone to having weak glutes due to how we are very sedentary which tightens are hip flexors which is the opposing muscle to the glutes
Bulgarian Split Squat
Targets your quads
Helps balance due to it being an unilateral exercise
Important to keep your front knee from tracking in front of your toes; focus on lowering your back knee towards the ground rather than lunging forward to get lower down
Increases your 1RM back squat just as much as doing squats themselves but puts less pressure on lower back
Machine assisted lifts like I said are not ideal but can be used. For example you can do squats, RDLs and bulgarian split squats in a smith machine which will make it easier because there is no need to stabilize. There is large list of machines such as the hack squat, machine squat, leg press, leg curl, leg extension and many more that you can use instead of or in complement to the above exercises.
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Dewar, Mike. “5 Benefits of Lunges.” Barbend, 3 Aug. 2017, barbend.com/benefits-of-lunges/.
Dewar, Mike. “5 Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift.” Barbend, 6 June 2017, barbend.com/romanian-deadlift-benefits/+.
English, Nick. “6 Things I Learned from 6 Months of Hip Thrusts.” Barbend, 29 July 2017, barbend.com/hip-thrust-lessons/.
Hyde, Parker. “10 Best Muscle-Building Leg Exercises.” Bodybuilding.com, Bodybuilding.com, 18 Aug. 2017,
Matthews, Michael. “Are Compound Exercises Better Than Isolation Exercises?” Muscle For Life, Muscle For Life, www.muscleforlife.com/compound-exercises/.