The primary mass-building exercises are the big compound movements including squats, regular deadlifts, parallel grip deadlifts, bench presses, dips, overhead presses, chin-ups and pull-ups, rows, and pulldowns. Each can build mass in a broad area.
Isolation exercises can also build muscle, but only in localized areas—these are the secondary mass-building exercises. To work your entire physique from isolation work alone, you would need many isolation exercises. But just a few of the big compound exercises work almost your entire physique.
In practice, most bodybuilders use a combination of primary and secondary exercises. But if they want to build a lot of muscle, hardgainers don’t have much “room” in their routines for isolation exercises. Hardgainers nearly always include too many exercises, especially isolation movements.
The most responsive bodybuilders—epitomized by the pros—are another story. They can prosper on routines that comprise many of each category of exercises.
But even the pros’ thigh development owes way more to squats than leg extensions.
Their chest development owes way more to bench presses than the pec deck.
And their shoulder development owes way more to presses than forward raises.
The primary advantages of modern-day machines are ease of use, and safety.
Consider how much easier it is for a gym instructor to guide someone on using a bench press machine than it is to teach how to bench press with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. And consider that good machines are set up so that the user can’t get pinned under a weight, and spotters aren’t essential.
Some of the better machinery can be used well, with good results. But machines aren’t essential. And some are poorly designed, don’t fit many users, and can cause chronic irritations and problems.
Traditional equipment means barbells, dumbbells, power rack or racks with safety bars, and ordinary benches. Properly used, that equipment has produced amazing results.
Because most commercial gyms have an abundance of machinery, including for isolation exercises, most bodybuilders get distracted by some of that equipment, and lose focus from the exercises that matter the most.
But once you’re truly savvy about proper training you should be able to work out effectively in any gym.
Both high reps and low reps can build muscle.
Both high reps and low reps can yield no muscle growth.
Both high reps and low reps can be incorporated in a program that results in fat loss.
Both high reps and low reps can be incorporated in a program that results in fat gain.
But there’s no rule that high reps definitely produce definition, or that low reps definitely build mass.
It’s not the rep number per se that’s critical, but how those reps are done, and within what overall program.
No matter what rep number is performed, if insufficient effort is delivered on the wrong exercises, or even if sufficient effort is delivered on the right exercises but there’s too much training volume or frequency, or there’s insufficient supply of the components of recuperation, there will never be much if any new muscle growth.
Twenty-rep squats, properly performed and within the right overall program, have a tremendous tradition of producing muscle growth. But so have medium- and low-rep squats.
Although there’s no tradition of 20-rep bench presses, overhead presses, and rows, mass has been built on both low- and medium-rep sets of those exercises.
Doing super-high reps for the abs (or any other muscle) isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference for reducing body fat unless it coincides with a sufficient caloric deficit to force your body to draw on its reserves (stored as body fat) to supply the required balance of calories.
You can shed fat while doing high-rep ab work, low-rep ab work, or no ab work whatsoever provided that you’re in sufficient caloric deficit for long enough. But very high rep work may contribute to some loss of muscle.
If you train properly at each workout—which includes training hard enough on the best exercises—you shouldn’t be capable of training more often than three times a week. But working out just twice a week is better for most hardgainers, because they need lots of recovery time between workouts. (Training just twice-weekly is also much more practical for most people than more frequent workouts.)
Of course, if you never push any set to your limit, and you stick mostly to the small exercises, you’ll be able to train four or more times each week without becoming exhausted. But those workouts won’t stimulate muscle growth because they aren’t hard enough.
The main aim of bodybuilding is to build muscle, and to do that you need hard workouts, and when you train hard you can’t train very often.
Genetically gifted bodybuilders, especially if they are drug-assisted, have far better recuperative abilities than the rest of us, and they can make good progress on a greater training frequency, but that’s another matter.
A split program that alternates two different but very short routines, while training three times a week, can be effective for some drug-free bodybuilders if properly designed. I sometimes recommend that, especially when I want to wean bodybuilders off programs of four or more workouts per week.
But generally speaking, just two properly performed workouts a week is better for hardgainers.
Effective training isn’t gender specific. Muscle is muscle regardless of whether it’s on a man or a woman.
But men and women have very different levels of some hormones. That’s what primarily accounts for the big difference in the quantity of muscle that can be built by the two sexes, even when similar training methods and levels of dedication are applied.
But men and women usually have different goals. Few women want to build big muscles.
For a woman to build muscle most effectively, she should train using the same methods that a hardgaining man should apply to build muscle. Going through the motions on a long list of isolation exercises is just as ineffective for building muscle on a woman as it is on a man.
Hard, serious training is required for both sexes to build muscle, but the potential for muscle growth is way less for most women than it is for most men.
Adjustments in your caloric intake comprise the main factor for stripping off body fat. If your average daily caloric expenditure exceeds your average daily caloric intake on a consistent basis, you’ll lose body fat.
Lifting weights has the potential to build muscle, but only when it’s done properly in combination with adequate attention to the components of recuperation. And cardio work will help with stripping off body fat only if it’s supported by an overall caloric deficit on a daily basis for a sufficient period.
You could do two hours of tough cardio each day (spread over several short bouts), but you would still add body fat if you overeat.
On the other hand, you could do no cardio whatsoever, but you would still lose body fat if you undereat.
If you try to lose body fat and build substantial muscle mass simultaneously, you’re going to find it very difficult, if not impossible. The former requires a caloric deficit, but the latter is most readily done with a caloric surplus.
What many people refer to as cardio is really just low- to moderate-effort aerobic work. Cardio is hard, and can be sustained for just short periods. Aerobic work can be sustained for long periods.
Aerobic work is the easiest addition to a fat-loss program because it burns calories without much effort, so it can be sustained easily, day after day, week after week, and month after month. It uses up fewer calories per minute than hard cardio, but hard cardio can’t be sustained for long periods.
And please take a look around this website, and at HARDGAINER magazine and Stuart’s other publications. You’ll find a huge treasury of information that you can draw on to become your own expert personal trainer, and develop a really terrific physique.