Written by Ron Harris & photography by Gregory James
15 November 2016


10 Best Lifts for Mass Part 1

Dennis Wolf Lists the First Five


 They Don’t Call Him ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ for Nothing!

At six foot and 270 pounds on contest day, Dennis Wolf is one of the most massive men to stand under the bright lights on a bodybuilding stage. As such, he knows a thing or two about building thick, massive muscle. And he’s just the guy to demonstrate 10 great exercises you can use to get huge too! Dennis also shares his opinions and experiences to offer perspective on the impact these key movements have had in crafting his physique. Whether or not you will ever get as big as The Big Bad Wolf remains to be seen, but rest assured that hard work on these movements will take you ever closer to your maximum potential size.

 1) Barbell Bench Press

We lead off with a lift that has achieved iconic status over the past 70-odd years not only among bodybuilders, but to anyone who has ever trained with weights— be they kids in their basement, football players in the team’s weight room, or guys hoping to get bigger and stronger in gyms all over the world. It’s been the measuring stick for strength to untold legions who seek to hoist more weight in the bench press than their peers, and need to ask, “How much ya bench?” just to make sure it’s not more than they can.

But far more importantly for our purposes, the barbell bench press is a superior compound movement for building bigger pecs. “This is the big daddy of chest exercises,” Dennis says. “It allows you to use the greatest loads and work the most amount of muscle. Do the reps slowly and squeeze the chest, or else you will get stronger but your chest probably won’t grow much.”

For the first 12 years he trained, Wolf would bench press at nearly every chest workout. In more recent years, he has switched to more dumbbells and machines, yet still keeps the bench press in his rotation. “I bench press once a month now, and even then I don’t like to go very heavy.” Of course, four good sets of 10-12 reps with 315 would be considered very heavy by plenty of guys, but it’s not a tendon-straining amount of iron for The Big Bad Wolf, and that’s the whole point. “I like to do the reps in very good form, with a solid squeeze of the pecs at the top of each rep and a good stretch as I lower the bar slowly.”

 Even though Dennis doesn’t bench press with the barbell as often anymore, he still recommends that beginners pay their dues on it. “It’s the absolute best exercise to build a foundation with. Just be sure you use it the right way to build muscle, not just worrying about how much weight you use and doing just a couple of reps.”


2) Hammer Strength Bench Press

What on earth is a machine doing on this list? It’s true that basic free-weight movements are the staples of accruing greater muscle mass. Yet you can’t deny that some modern machines are also incredibly effective. Both six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, and 212 division legend and former world 202 champion David Henry, used their fair share of machines to pack on thick, dense muscle, particularly when it came to chest and back training. Yet still a certain stigma seems to be attached to using tools such as the machines produced by Hammer Strength, especially within the hardcore bodybuilding community.

Machines were something that Dennis also once looked down on somewhat when it came to pressing, until he started thinking more for himself and stopped worrying about what others did and advocated. “The Hammer Strength incline press machine has been very valuable for me because it targets my upper chest perfectly,” he tells us. “If I avoided it because people say machines are no good, I wouldn’t have been able to get the extra thickness up there that I have now.”

Dennis likes this machine so much that even if he started his workout with incline dumbbells, he will usually make his way to the incline Hammer piece later on also. That’s not to say he doesn’t make use of other Hammer Strength chest machines too. “Sometimes if I feel my outer or lower pecs need to be a little thicker and fuller, I use the wide or the decline press machines.”

From my own experience, all of the Hammer pieces for chest pressing are excellent choices. They all feature independent movement arms, which means that just as with dumbbells, it’s impossible for a stronger side to dominate. The movement arms travel inward toward the midline of the body as you press, allowing for intense, complete contractions of the pecs. Since you don’t need to balance a bar, you can focus entirely on the feeling in the muscle. Ideally, you should do a barbell or a dumbbell press first while you’re fresh, and then move on to a Hammer Strength machine afterward.


3) Barbell Rows

You know how we often ask a pro, “What’s the absolute most effective exercise for this or that body part?” Dennis didn’t hesitate in naming the barbell row as the one exercise that has given his back the most mass. “Haney, Dorian and Ronnie all had incredible backs, and they all did a lot of heavy barbell rows. That’s not a coincidence. It’s very close behind the deadlift for being the top choice for building a thicker back, and for me it’s actually contributed the most.”

Though he doesn’t use the underhand grip that Dorian made famous, you’ll notice that he does pull the bar to a very low point on his torso, lower than his navel. “My upper back has good size now, so I focus everything I can on the middle and lower lats to get those areas thicker.”

Wolf is a stickler for strict form on his rows, and won’t normally use any more than 365 pounds. For a man who hovers around 300 pounds most of the year, that’s really not so heavy. “I don’t care about how heavy the weight is,” Dennis states. “I only care about making the muscle grow, and I need to have good contractions and feeling in the lats for that. I could put 500 pounds on the bar and bounce it up and down, but that would be stupid.”

Reread those last few sentences and let it sink in, because your technique on barbell rows is what will ultimately determine whether they effectively target your lats, or instead hardly stimulate them. I feel obliged to mention that the great Lee Haney felt so strongly about using excellent form on his barbell rows that he typically used just 225 pounds most of the time, and never had more than 275 on the bar throughout his entire Mr. Olympia reign.

One last point I need to make is that you need to be conscious not to stand up too much and turn your rows into a half-assed shrug, cutting the range of motion far short and losing the angle of horizontal pulling needed to properly engage the lats. In other words, you are far better off maintaining roughly a 70-degree angle and using less weight than you are nearly standing upright with twice as much on the bar.


4) T-Bar Rows

Dennis does some type of free-weight row at every workout, as they are essential for developing greater back thickness. He admits that T-bar rows are done only about every third workout, while barbell rows are more of a mainstay. Wolf also likes T-bar rows, though he considers them more of a partial movement due to the width of 45-pound plates interfering with a full contraction.

“In both the barbell and the T-bar row, you always need to be careful not to stand up too much and start making it like the top part of a deadlift,” he advises. To that end, he doesn’t ever go as heavy as he could if he didn’t care about a full range of motion and quality contractions. “I lifted heavy weights with my back for years and didn’t see much improvement,” he tells us. “Once I stopped worrying about using a ton of weight and made the feeling in the muscle the most important thing, my back finally started getting better again.”

Dennis’ observation about using 45-pound plates is important to note, as their size does prevent a full range of motion. You simply can’t pull your elbows back as far because the plates hit your chest or abs, depending on where you are pulling to. One solution is to use 25-pound plates instead. The only problem with that, for someone as strong as Wolf, is that there isn’t enough room on the typical T-bar row to fit enough plates needed to supply adequate resistance. Most gyms no longer have actual, dedicated T-bar rows on a platform with various grip options. Therefore, most of us have to jerry-rig the “corner” T-bar row that Ronnie Coleman made famous, jamming one end of an Olympic bar into a corner and slipping a close-grip cable row attachment under the other end. For every problem, there is always a solution.

If in fact you are so strong that seven or eight 25-pound plates, or “quarters” as many of us refer to them as, is too light when doing T-bar rows, do them at the very end of your back workout when various chins, pulldowns, rows and deadlifts have fatigued you already. Make the most out of the exercise by pausing to fully squeeze your lats to the max at the top of every rep.


5) Deadlifts

Many have argued that the deadlift is the absolute most important exercise for anyone seeking to bulk up their body, since it comes closer than any other of deserving the term “full-body movement.” Think about it. The drive off the ground involves the entire lower body: quads, hams, glutes and even calves. As the bar passes the knees, all the pulling muscles of the upper body come into play: the lats, traps, spinal erectors, rear delts and biceps. Even the forearms get worked, holding on to the heavy weight! When it comes to bodybuilding, we are all aware of how key back development has become. “Shows are won from the back,” is a mantra that rings true more often than not. Haney, Yates and Coleman won a total of 22 Mr. Olympia contests partly by dominating their rivals in all the back poses.

Dennis didn’t move past the level he had been stuck at for years in the two biggest shows, the Olympia and the Arnold, until his own back took on a thicker look. “You will probably never get a very thick back unless you do deadlifts— this is the bottom line,” Wolf says. “I don’t think you have to use 800 pounds like Ronnie, but you do have to try and go as heavy as you can for 8-10 reps.” That’s also the strategy Dorian employed, doing deads at the end of his back workouts when mega-heavy weights weren’t possible anyway.

We often hear that deadlifts are responsible for bulking up a lot of waists and making many thousands of guys look “blocky.” Dennis agrees, to an extent anyway, that they can be a bad choice for some. “I think if you are built for power more so than for having an aesthetic type of physique, you will end up with a thick core,” he says. Dennis has done more than his share of heavy squats and deadlifts over the years, yet his waist has remained small. “I would advise against avoiding deadlifts out of fear they will give you a blocky waist,” he tells us. “They are an excellent exercise for back thickness, and as far as making your midsection grow, that’s either going to happen eventually no matter what, or it isn’t.”

Dennis does add that training for pure power and using very low reps is something to be cautious of. “Any time you are trying to develop maximum strength in the squat or deadlift, like a powerlifter would, you are going to force all your core muscles as well as your glutes to work just as hard or harder than your legs or back. That’s OK for a powerlifter because it’s all about squatting or deadlifting as much weight as you can. But I don’t think bodybuilders should do any less than eight reps on those lifts.”

Rack or half deadlifts are another option to consider, as starting the lift from the knees or just under takes the lower body out of the movement and makes it more of a pure back exercise. Most find that they can overload their backs with far greater resistance in this partial movement, and see excellent improvements in their back thickness as a result.


 So there you have five of Dennis Wolf’s favorite lifts. The second five lists will be posted next Tuesday, August 25.