Back To Basics - Time Tested Muscle Building Exercises

By Zach Even - Esh

During the Golden Era of Bodybuilding there were specific exercises ALL of these men did without question. These exercises were the “bread and butter” of their training regimes and their physiques showed it. There were no 2 ways about it, if you worked your butt off on these exercises, you were gonna get results.

The good news is that you can do these exercises yourself and reap the rewards. You won’t need any fancy machines and you won’t even need a gym membership for these exercises. So if you were excited to get on that new bicep isolation machine where you could sit down, concentrate and “feel the muscle”, I hate to burst your bubble but we’re gonna have to take a detour.

These exercises might seem foreign to you if you train at a typical globo gym, but for the die hards who learned the basics through Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, we have lived, breathed and bled doing these exercises, year after year, decade after decade.

Here’s the short list of the best muscle building exercises:

1)  Squats - Yep, good ol’ back squats using a barbell. No smith machine here, instead, YOU become the machine. Make sure you squeeze your entire body during this exercise, everywhere from your feet to your hands, stay tight. Squats only count when you perform full squats, that means getting the top of your thighs parallel to the floor or slightly lower. Reps can vary widely on squats. The good ol’ 5 x 5 is a great blend of strength & muscle building while our advanced lifters can benefit greatly by pushing the envelope for a high rep set of 15 - 20 reps. If you’re unsure how squats look like take a look here, this video has inspired countless people around the world to hit some high rep squats.

2)  Deadlifts - Arnold & Franco would bend the bar on these, nowadays we see gyms outlawing the deadlift. Things like this make me cry tears of pain. Keep your back flat and use an over - under grip as the weight becomes heavy. Low reps work best here. I always recall Arnold’s recommendation in his book. “Do a few sets of a few reps”. No science here, just work them hard and sets of 2 - 5 reps work great on the deadlift.

3)  The Bench Press - Contrary to what you often see in the gym, benching with a wide grip, a safer variation is to take a grip slightly wider than the shoulders, keeping your elbows tucked close to the lats. The bench press is a full body movement, not just for the chest, shoulders and triceps. Push your legs tightly into the floor, squeeze your back against the bench and grip the bar so tightly that you envision crushing it to dust. There is no need to perform a 1 rep max on the bench press unless you’re a powerlifter.

4)  The Military Press - Rather than sitting down and pressing the barbell overhead, power clean the bar from the ground and then perform your military press. The military press involves no help of the legs. If you want to go heavier, you can, just like Louie did when training to compete against Arnold in The Mr. Olympia. I recommend locking the bar overhead and holding for a brief 1 count to demonstrate control. Keep your entire body tight and rigid when the bar is locked overhead. Once again, this too, is a full body exercise. Don’t think about isolation, think about integrating ALL the muscles into working together.

5)  Pull Ups - Arnold used to talk about challenging himself with pull ups until he could no longer hold onto the bar any more. That’s right, he didn’t use straps to aid his grip. Instead, he strengthened his muscles to do the work. Pull ups can be done with various grips and on various bars. The key is to perform the movement strictly, without swinging the legs. Every rep should have your chin clearing the bar and your arms stretching at the bottom with only a very slightly bend in the elbows. If you relax and dead hang at the bottom of each rep you will often times swing your body and kick your legs to initiate the next rep which is what you want to avoid

6)  Ring Push Ups - Back in the Golden Era dips were favored more than ring push ups. Dips are a fantastic exercise but they can be painful for many if not performed properly. The ring push ups will not only pump up your chest but will be a great exercises for developing your abs. Keep your entire body locked tight, elbows and triceps close to the body and keep the rings in a neutral position. Stretch between the rings while maintaining a rigid body and then push up, holding the lock out for a 1 count.

7)  Sprints - If you can read a magazine while doing “cardio” then it’s not cardio. The days of sitting on a stationary bike or stair master are long gone if your goal is to burn fat and get lean. Arnold recommended going for fast paced runs, swimming and bike rides after your workouts or on off days. Get out of the gym and get active with running, biking, hiking, swimming and the like. Don’t be afraid to work hard, either. If you can talk on your cell phone while doing these activities you’re not working hard enough.

8)  Farmer Walks - This one wasn’t popular back when Arnold was a bodybuilder but it’s a must have on this list. You can perform this with Kettlebells or dumbbells. Simply deadlift the weights up and power walk. If the weights pull you around and make you sway then you’ve gone too heavy. Control the weights, don’t let them control you. Distances of 100 - 200 ft are perfect.

You might be wondering how many sets and reps you should do for each exercise. How often should each exercise be performed? In what order?

Those certainly are important questions and the truth of the matter is that it’s different for everyone depending on your fitness level. But the MAIN point behind this article is 2 fold: work hard on these exercises and stick to the tried and true basics.

Through the years the common theme has been to complicate exercise and fitness when it should be something we all enjoy to do. Find passion and joy in the basics and I assure you that you will see results quickly.

Get after it and make it happen!


Zach Even - Esh is the Founder of The Underground Strength Gym located in NJ. A loving husband & father, Zach is committed towards helping others achieve success in mind, body & life. Zach is the creator of numerous books, DVDs & training programs, all of which have been inspired from his 23 years of in the trenches experience.

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