How to Gain Slabs of Muscle – Without Squatting Or Deadlifting

Have you ever used the Google Machine to search for fitness advice?
I know I sure have. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, and most of the time, there’s no way whatsoever to distinguish between the good and the not so good.


My name is Jason Helmes. I am the owner of Anyman Fitness. We are an online fitness consulting firm dedicated to providing programs for average people with busy lives to get lean and jacked. We’ve had over 1,000 clients to date and have been featured in publications such as Yahoo, Men’s Health, and a few others. Not to mention we have written for this very site – JMaxFitness.

Men have exactly two goals to accomplish when it comes to fitness; everything else is secondary. First, we wish to lose fat. It’s hard to have confidence with an extra layer of blubber surrounding our torsos. We may mask it by using vague phrases like “I want to be healthy” or “I want to feel better.” These sound bites simply cover up the fact that we want to get rid of our excess body fat. I am no exception to this. You see, I’m a former “fat guy” myself, as this picture can attest to:

Ways to gain muscle without squatting or deadlifting.

Shortly after seeing this picture and becoming disgusted with myself, I used the “Google Machine” to try to find the most effective and simple methods of losing fat. I had a lot of stumbles in my journey, but after finding the barbell and incorporating macronutrient counting strategies, I was able to shed about 70 pounds of goo:

Ways to gain muscle without squatting or deadlifting.

As I was diligently dieting, my training consisted of steady doses of The Big 3:  squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing – all using the barbell. In the process, I became much stronger – and ended up with a 430-pound deadlift, a 275-pound bench press, and a 275-pound squat. After I had accomplished this goal, I set out on every man’s second goal when it comes to their fitness level:  to gain muscle. Armed with Google, I again searched for the optimal methods of muscular gain. Every single publication I ran across told me to do the same thing:  squat and deadlift. These two moves, combined with a caloric surplus, were guaranteed to put mass onto my frame quickly. Or so I was told. Into the gym I trekked. I squatted, I deadlifted, I squatted some more, and I deadlifted some more. My strength gains went through the roof. I was able to add weight to the bar linearly, and my previous “PR’s” became “light weight, baby.” (With my respects to Mr. Coleman, of course.) After a year of bulking using these two powerlifting moves primarily, I snapped another picture and compared the two images:

Ways to gain muscle without squatting or deadlifting.

There’s a scale difference of about 15 pounds in these two pictures. I was much stronger, physically. But as I looked at the pictures, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I hadn’t gained much size. I had been squatting and deadlifting religiously for a year, and eating like a horse. But I kept thinking if I went on a cut and lost those 15 pounds, I would be right back where I started. At this point, I began to question the advice of the experts. Was a powerlifting approach the best for me? Should I be squatting and deadlifting so frequently, if my main goal was physique improvement? More importantly, I began to question my own training. Squatting and deadlifting had taken its toll on my quality of life. I have two young daughters, and after an intense squatting session, I could barely get up and down off the floor to play with them. After deadlifting, I felt like I was run over by a train. I could deadlift 500 pounds and squat 330 (my weakest link – I’m 6’8”), but I didn’t really see how chasing such “big numbers” was improving my day to day activities. Armed with these questions, I turned to the one expert I could count on for sound training advice:  Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. Specifically, I read across Brad’s groundbreaking 2010 review paper “The Mechanisms of Muscular Hypertrophy and Their Applications To Resistance Training.” In Brad’s review, he found the three most important factors of muscular growth. They are, according to Brad:

  1. Mechanical tension – this is how your muscle feels when contracted under a load. An example would be how your bicep feels when you are curling, or how your pecs feel when you are performing a push-up.
  2. Metabolic stress – this is caused by your muscles contracting from repeated use. When this happens, your veins cannot allow the blood to flow normally through your body, and lactic acid builds up. In bodybuilding circles, this is referred to as “the pump.”
  3. Muscular damage – this is created when you force your body to work harder than it has worked in the past. When you push your muscles past their comfort zone, they will be momentarily damaged. As your body repairs the tissue, they will become stronger – and bigger – as a result.

After coming across this information, I began to look closely at ways to maximize these variables:  tension, the pump, and muscle damage. I started to write programming for myself to capitalize on these factors. I also made what was a startling discovery:  Brad had mentioned nothing about exercise selection! Instead of spouting off that you should “squat and deadlift” constantly, Brad instead laid out the groundwork for exactly how a muscle hypertrophies. Of course, squats and deadlifts can provide these factors for growth, but I felt as if squatting and deadlifting were actually detracting from me reaching my goals. I wondered how my body would react if instead of performing the CNS-draining, taxing, “big movements,” I focused on muscular tension, activating the pump, and doing just a bit more each workout. I’m a sucker for n=1 experiments. I had nothing to lose. My previous training wasn’t providing me with the results I was after, and it was time to try a new approach. In a few, short months, my physique exploded:

Ways to gain muscle without squatting or deadlifting.

Everything began filling out – quickly. My shoulders became broader, my chest appeared full even under my shirt, and my biceps began stretching out my shirts. I was finally getting the physique I had always envisioned for myself. All by going against the “common advice” I had heard from so many people. This was exciting, but of course, it was still an n=1 experiment. I needed some “beta testers.” I gathered together some of our clients and had them go through the program themselves. And the results were universal. Clients raved about the newfound energy these new, Big 2-less workouts gave them. The “pumps,” the “tension,” and the “damage” were exhilarating and obvious. The workouts were incredibly taxing, but they were able to recover adequately and return to the gym, begging for more gains. Take a look at these three pictures, side-by-side:

Ways to gain muscle without squatting or deadlifting.

In the first picture, I was deadlifting 430 pounds and squatting 275. In the second picture, I was deadlifting 500 pounds and squatting 330. In the third picture…………….not sure. I hadn’t squatted – or deadlifted – in a year’s time. So, how might one set up their workouts and training in this sort of fashion? Here are a few, actionable tips for you to get started maximizing your gains, no matter what exercises you select:

Tip #1:  Focus on keeping tension in the muscle at all times, no matter what move you are performing.

Tension is often difficult to obtain, and easy to relax.

Instead of focusing on moving the weight through space, think of the weight as a tool to produce a maximum muscular contraction. This is known as the mind-muscle connection.

Be extra careful during lockouts. It’s easy to relax the tension for just a split second when you lower the barbell to your chest during a bench press, or when you reach the top of a chin-up. It’s sometimes helpful to stop a quarter inch short of full ROM to maintain that tension at all times.

Tip #2:  Chase the “pump” – don’t be afraid of the high rep ranges.

You often see rep ranges of 8-12 recommended for hypertrophy.

While this is true, being unafraid to lower the weights and aim for 15, 20, or more reps has been proven quite effective in muscle building. When chasing the “pump,” what matters most is how close to full muscular failure you get – not the percentage of your one-rep max.

On isolation moves, sets of 25, 50, or in some cases, even 100 for the well-trained lifter can be extremely beneficial for pure size and aesthetics.

Tip #3: Always play “beat the training log.” Always.

Even in the uber-high rep ranges, you need to be causing enough muscular damage to elicit an adaptive response in your muscle tissue.

Keep detailed notes of your training logs. Even when trying something new, always strive to improve your form, the quality of your contractions, your reps, or your sets.

Do a little bit more each day to ensure proper muscular development over time.

About the Author

jason-helmesJason Helmes is the owner of Anyman Fitness, LLC, an online fitness firm dedicated to improving the health of regular people – the soccer moms and average Joes of the world. His firm has helped thousands of clients to date. Jason enjoys lifting, writing, and playing with princess castles with his two daughters, Brooklyn (6), and Ava (4). He lives with his wife of 11 years, Kate, in Canton, Michigan, USA.