I see people in the gym making all kinds of mistakes. I’m not talking about the use of advanced techniques, or taking too much time between sets. Or even too much time spent doing cardio — which is a mistake.
The mistake is with those who want to lift weights but either don’t know how or don’t want to exert enough effort.
They don’t do compound lifts.
What is a compound lift?
When you lift a weight, or push or pull on a resistance training machine (such as a Nautilus), limbs or torso move around the joints.
A compound lift is simply one that moves around two or more sets of joints. They are multi-joint exercises.
Isolation lifts, in contrast, are single-joint exercises.
For example, a row, a move in which you pull a weight (whether a barbell or on a machine) toward you, involves the shoulder joints and the elbows. It’s a compound exercise.
An example of an isolation or single-joint exercise is biceps curls, which is done properly, involves only the elbow joints.
The wrong idea about weight training
Many people seem to have the wrong idea about weight training.
Whether you are in the gym for overall conditioning, for building muscle to prevent aging, or to become an actual bodybuilder, the process should involve working all of the skeletal muscles.
It appears to me — and this is a guess — that many people look at muscular men and see big arms to the exclusion of anything else. They then proceed to do isolation exercises, like biceps curls and triceps pull downs, to the exclusion of most other things.
If your goal is health, work on all of your muscles.
If your goal is size and strength, work on all of your muscles.
Isolation exercises are ineffective
Can you build muscle through isolation exercises?
Yes, you can, but it remains to be seen whether they’re optimal or necessary.
A recent study took a look at the effect of adding isolation, or single-joint, exercise to compound, or multi-joint, exercises, on muscle size and strength in untrained men.1
One group did bench press and lat pulldown, and the second group did those exercises and also did biceps curls and triceps pulldowns. After 10 weeks, the size and strength of the biceps muscles were measured.
No difference was seen between the two groups.
Compound lifts are essential
The basic compound exercises consist of the following:
- bench or chest press
- overhead press
- pull-ups or pull-downs
- leg press or squats
A program that consists of these moves, and/or variations of them, will give you all the muscle growth you need. (I also contend that the average person who lifts weights doesn’t need to do the last on the list, deadlifts. They cannot be done on a machine and require a barbell as well as training and skill to avoid injury. I do them, but I’m experienced.)
Isolation exercises are neither necessary nor sufficient. I must admit that I do them, but I may need to reevaluate. They consist of exercises like the following (not a complete list):
- biceps curl
- triceps pull-down
- leg extension
- calf raise
The study above used untrained men, i.e. newbies to weight lifting. It’s possible that well-trained men may need to use some isolation moves, along with the compound moves, to get the growth that they want.
Isolation exercises may be ineffective in untrained men. Compound exercises suffice for building muscle.
Whether or not you do any isolation exercises, you must do compound exercises for a true, health-promoting weight workout.
PS: Read why strength training is essential and how to do it in my book, Muscle Up.
- Gentil, Paulo, et al. “Effect of adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise resistance-training program on strength and hypertrophy in untrained subjects.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 38.3 (2013): 341-344. ↩