Training

Olympia Legend: Ronnie Coleman

Ronnie Coleman's 6 favorite mass-building exercises.

by
Ronnie-Coleman-The-King
Kevin Horton / M+F Magazine

Let's get right to the guts of the matter. I could run through my list of favorite workouts, principles, techniques and combinations of exercises, but it all comes down to one basic old-fashioned “best” exercise for each bodypart, without which you cannot reach your maximum mass potential. That exercise is not the only one in the workout, but it’s the foundation movement. It works more of the muscle harder, heavier and more thoroughly than any other. Not every workout has to start with one of these favorites, but your training program should be designed around them.

My favorites will come as no great surprise. You’ve probably been doing them all along. I just want to emphasize their importance and persuade you to give them even more prominence in your workouts by reiterating why they are the best and how to get the best out of them.

CHEST: BENCH PRESS

WHY: No other exercise synergizes the entire complex of chest muscles as efficiently as barbell bench presses. This movement is so compound (requiring the coordination of pectoral muscles with all ancillaries and tie-ins to shoulders, traps, arms and midsection) that every chest muscle is developed proportionately. Bench presses facilitate the only position from which maximum compound power can be applied, which produces maximum overall mass. The horizontal position also allows the chest muscles to move through their greatest range of power.

HOW: Your mind plays a big part in getting the most for your chest from bench presses. “Think” the contractions into your pecs. As the bar is lowered, resist with your pectoral muscles. Press by contracting your pecs. I use a fairly wide grip, beyond shoulder width, to accentuate the spread of my pec muscles.

Unfortunately, today’s popular style of benching is the opposite of the correct style for chest development, in that the bar is lowered not across the chest, but to the bottom of the rib cage. The body is crunching inward, rather than expanding upward to meet the bar. This is done for leverage, but it removes the chest from the exercise.

Precisely the opposite motion should occur. The chest should rise to meet the bar, as your scapulae contract together under your back, forcing your chest muscles through their greatest range of motion.

Always pyramid your sets gradually. I get in a couple of warm-up sets, then pyramid up through five sets, starting with 12 reps and finishing with eight.

SUGGESTED CHEST WORKOUT

  • WARM-UP SETS | SETS: 2-3 | REPS: 20-25
  • BENCH PRESSES | SETS: 5* | REPS: 12-8
  • INCLINE BARBELL PRESSES | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12
  • FLAT DUMBBELL PRESSES | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12
  • FLAT DUMBBELL FLYES | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10

*Note: Pyramid up through weights while decreasing reps.

LEGS: SQUATS

WHY: I never think of any specific muscle operating independently of any others. Each muscle has to accommodate stress vectors from every direction, in order to balance moving weight and apply variable power. This is especially true for legs. For those reasons, squats produce the greatest overall and naturally proportioned development, because all of the thigh muscles — quads and hamstrings alike — must coordinate their support, stability and strength duties throughout the ever-changing dynamics of each repetition. You’re putting more into it, so you get more out of it.

HOW: Use a comfortable stance; not so wide that you’ll shear your hips, but wide enough for stability. Maintain an upright position, so the weight is directed through your hips and thighs, not into your lower back. Keep your head up, flex your traps and abs, tighten your glutes and then squeeze all the way down to “hams on calves.”

Halfway down, start thinking “up,” so that your squat movement becomes not “down and up,” but one continuous loop. Never shift gears at the bottom; you should be on your way up before you reach the bottom.

Warm up thoroughly, so your knees are well lubricated. For my counted sets, I pyramid the weight upward through five or six sets, starting with 12 reps and going all the way down to two.

SUGGESTED LEG WORKOUT

  • WARM-UP SETS | SETS: 2-3 | REPS: 15
  • SQUATS | SETS: 5-6* | REPS: 12-2
  • LEG PRESSES | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10
  • HACK SQUATS | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10

*Note: Pyramid up through weights while decreasing reps.

BACK: BARBELL ROWS

WHY: Get used to the expression “compound movement,” until it becomes a beloved cliché. It’s the key to my muscle mass for every bodypart; even more so for back, since that’s the most complex muscle group of all. It needs to be developed simultaneously for thickness, width, drape and detail, and that requires very heavy three-dimensional weight resistance, which coordinates all of its muscles, as well as those of the trapezius complex. Only the barbell rowing movement accomplishes this.

HOW: Don’t fix your back in a concave arch (swaybacked). That will only hurt your spine, reduce the range of motion for your lats and limit your power.

To hit the lats as low as possible, I try to keep my upper body bent at a 90-degree angle for the initial sets and bring the bar up into the middle of my stomach. Reps are explosive but controlled, never with a slack point at the bottom. My glutes and lower back are flexed tightly throughout the set. If they aren’t, I will feel stress more in my lower back than in my lats.

As sets pyramid upward in weight, I might have to bend my knees a bit more. This lets me absorb more shock and elevate the angle of my upper body for balance and maximum power, but my concentration remains on getting a full long pull into my gut; i.e., a full range of motion for my lats. I do four heavy working sets, from 12 reps down to seven, squeezing every contraction and feeling my back muscles pump with every rep.

SUGGESTED BACK WORKOUT

  • WARM-UP SETS | SETS: 2-3 | REPS: 10-12
  • DEADLIFTS | SETS: 4* | REPS: 12-2
  • BARBELL ROWS | SETS: 4* | REPS: 12-7
  • T-BAR ROWS | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • PULLEY ROWS | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12

*Note: Pyramid up through weights while decreasing reps.

SHOULDERS: SEATED MILITARY PRESS

WHY: For separation of each deltoid head, I train them individually. For maximum mass and width of my entire shoulder girdle, and for full development of my total deltoid caps, military presses are the only solution. A free-weight barbell proportionately spreads the stress laterally across the shoulder beam, as well as distributes it evenly from front to back. A seated position on an upright bench provides more pressing power. A machine barbell press distributes the stress across the entire width of the shoulders, but not from front to back. Dumbbells are good for isolating deltoid heads, but they do not yield the power of a free-weight barbell.

HOW: Use a grip just beyond shoulder width; not so close that your triceps do more work than your shoulders and not so wide as to prevent a full range of motion for your shoulders. Do not arch your back. Tighten your abs and your grip for stability and control.

This movement can be used in any order during your shoulder workout — first, middle or last — because no other exercise totally fatigues your shoulder-muscle complex. You’ll probably find that you are almost as strong doing these at the end of the workout as you are when you do them at the beginning.

I do four sets of 10-12 reps.

SUGGESTED SHOULDER WORKOUT

  • WARM-UP SETS | SETS: 2 | REPS: 10-12
  • SEATED MILITARY PRESSES | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
  • SIDE LATERAL RAISES | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10
  • FRONT DUMBBELL RAISES | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10
  • REAR LATERAL RAISES | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10

TRICEPS: LYING EXTENSIONS

WHY: This is not necessarily the most important triceps exercise, but it’s my favorite for pulling the horseshoe of muscle down the back of my arm, so my triceps look like a separate bulging twisted-steel bodypart of their own. Lying extensions offer a combined advantage of focusing heavy compound weight and concentrated stress into the triceps complex, without sapping energy to stabilize the rest of the body.

HOW: It is important to keep your elbows pointed straight up. Do not allow your arms to rotate at your shoulders. Doing so brings your chest and shoulders into the movement and robs your triceps of the extension. Think only in terms of extending your forearms vertically, with your elbows as the only hinge.

I get the best pump from these with six sets, 12 reps per set, in the following manner: do one set, release it, take a breath, do a second set, release it, take a breath and do a third set. After a brief shakeout, repeat that sequence.

SUGGESTED TRICEPS WORKOUT

  • LYING EXTENSIONS | SETS: 6 | REPS: 12
  • SEATED FRENCH CURLS | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12
  • WEIGHTED DIPS | SETS: 4 | REPS: 25

BICEPS: PREACHER CURLS

WHY: This may not be the most important biceps exercise, but it’s my favorite. For maximum size and overall biceps belly mass, do standing barbell curls, but for maximum peak, hardness and split, nothing beats the concentrated pump from preacher curls. It packs my biceps so hard that they end up feeling as solid as forged steel. I credit preachers more than any other exercise for the hardness and cannonball shape of my biceps and for the deep split in their peaks.

HOW: Use heavy weight, but stay tight and don’t fully extend your arms at the bottom; you could tear a muscle and/or hyperextend your elbows. Do not leverage the curl upward by pulling back with your body, no matter how much you’re tempted. Watch your biceps pump and harden as they flex. It’s a great motivator, and it helps keep your mind on how the muscle, not the ballast-effect of your body, functions. At the top, get a peakcontraction squeeze. Maintain a moderate pace, the same during the extension as during the curl.

For every other workout, superset preacher curls with another two-arm curling movement. For the most immediate mass production, I do four sets of eight to 12 reps each.

SUGGESTED BICEPS WORKOUT

  • BARBELL CURLS | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12
  • SEATED ALTERNATE DUMBBELL CURLS | SETS: 3 | REPS: 8-12
  • PREACHER CURLS | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12
    • superset with STANDING CABLE CURLS | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12

MY FAVORITE MASS PRINCIPLES

STRENGTH | Constantly push your limits. Always try to become stronger, every time you’re in the gym, and don’t become frustrated. The stronger you become, the longer your plateaus will last. That doesn’t mean you’ve stopped growing, only that you’re going beyond normal human limits. That’s where you want to be, so keep blasting away. Eventually, you’ll break through to a new level.

DON’T CHEAT | No matter how hard you work, make sure the muscle is doing the lifting and that you’re not cheating. Feel the pump build hard and tight in the muscle you’re working, before you feel it in adjacent muscles.

THE PROPER PUMP | Concentrate on building the highest-quality pump possible: a healthy full coursing of blood precisely where you want it in the muscle. The sensation doesn’t have to be painful or numb, just a wholesome tightness in the muscle belly, telling you it’s swollen with blood under high pressure.

CONSISTENCY | Select a workout schedule and stick with it. Mass gains are a matter of commitment, as much as they are of your workout. Regardless of how hard you lift, if you’re not relentlessly consistent, it won’t work. Don’t let unscheduled rest days become a habit.

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