Note: This post is the first of a (hopefully) ongoing series of random observations I make in the gym, at the grocery store, wherever, usually about other people’s misguided attempts at being healthy or huge and what they ought to do instead. After reading these scathing posts, you might wonder why anyone would want to be my friend. That was a trick question. I have no friends. Moving on.
The weight room at my gym is small. It’s bigger than a closet, but small enough so you can hear every conversation, for better or for worse. The highlights of my week are often when these two opinionated old guys have a good-natured yabbering and I have a front row seat to the action. They’re adorable. But that’s not what this post is about.
So the other day I was in the gym, doing my thing. One of the lifeguards walks in to get in a workout once his workday ended and, being a teenage guy, he started doing curls. Curls of every sort. One day I hope to open a museum dedicated to curls and all the variations ever conceived. (I have a lot of bad ideas).
Anyway, one of the trainers he’s friendly with walks in and the lifeguard asks for some advice. He mentions how today he just wants to hit his “shoulders and biceps.” When he tells the trainer he’s been doing curls, the trainer has a visceral reaction, as if a skunk had sprayed him in the face. “Dude, no,” he says, “you gotta scrap the isolation exercises. Do some functional, compound, multi-joint, multi-planar, multiple joints in multiple planes exercises.” (I did my best to recreate that dialogue as accurately as possible because that is literally what he said. I shit you not.)
Now I’m the one who’s been skunk-sprayed. I frantically search for my knife (to stab myself, of course), but, alas, I left it at home. (Note: I don’t stab myself with knives.) I stagger backward, but regain my composure and continue to listen with rapt attention.
The trainer goes on to explain the superiority of compound exercises to isolation exercises and the lifeguard defers to his wisdom, for better or for worse. The trainer’s logic: compound exercises release more hormones in the body, which causes more muscle growth. This theory has actually held a lot of weight in the weight lifting community, but there’s not much evidence to suggest this is true. At best, the evidence is conflicting.
So what’s my answer to the question of how to get big guns? I don’t agree with the trainer as I don’t share his aversion to isolation exercises, but, at the same time, I think compound exercises are the bedrock of a good training program. What that means: use both. Groundbreaking.
Compound exercises give you serious bang for your buck. Weighted chin-ups are one of the best bicep exercises (according to EMG testing) and they work your back, forearms, and core. The bench press (and its many variations) hits your triceps as well as your chest and shoulders. In one fell-swoop you can target a group of muscles. What’s not to love?
But isolation exercises still have a place in my heart. If your biceps are the limiting factor when you perform chin-ups, then you ought to give them some individual attention. A confession: I put hammer curls in my program because they hit both the biceps and the forearms. I also do some isolation work for my shoulders because it improves my posture and prevents injuries. I don’t perform endless sets of tricep pushdowns, however, because that’s not going to be an efficient use of my time.
So, the takeaway message of this post: compound and isolation exercises are great. Use them as needed. The general rule of thumb is that compound exercises should make up the bulk of your program and isolation exercises are used to target specific weaknesses.