I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people in the gym spend their entire session doing exercises like bicep curls or tricep pulldowns. Not surprisingly, these are also the same people that look the same day in and out. They don’t look an ounce more muscular or slimmer. These people either don’t understand the science behind muscle growth or they’re afraid of the punishing pain of compound lifts. I don’t blame the people who fall into the latter, but if they continue to stay in their “safe zone” of pink dumbbell curls, they have a fat chance of trimming down much less gaining lean muscle.
Why Compound Lifts Are Necessary
Compound exercises, as you should know, consist of exercises that work more than one muscle. Examples include squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. These exercises also enable you to use more weight due to the multiple muscle recruitment. Compound movements are also far more strenuous; if you done heavy barbell squats on a squat rack, then you know the pain factor is quadruple times more intense than the discomfort you may feel from a set of curls or arm extensions.
When it especially comes to heavy squats, I get anxious before beginning a set because I know I’m going to be in a world of physical hurt for the next minute or two. Yet, such exercises are what send the signal to your muscle fibers that it must either adapt and grow or die. It puts the body in the state of stress where it releases maximum testosterone. With that in mind, I think it goes without saying that squats or bench presses will give you a far bigger testosterone rush than curls and the like. The intense strain also means more calories burned, thus more fat loss.
Don’t Make the Mistake I Did
Perhaps you’re a “one muscle” type of person, meaning you only care about seeing gains in one muscle. When I started lifting during my teenage years, I was a one muscle guy; I wanted big beefy biceps, so I can wear sleeveless shirts and woo the girls while making the guys jealous.
Since I wanted pythons for arms, all I did was isolation exercises: bicep curls, preacher curls, and tricep extensions. I would work the chest once in a while, though I did absolutely no leg or back work. I also worked my arms almost every day and was convinced that they would somehow get bigger if I kept up at it. Well, as I’m sure you can guess, my arms didn’t grow an ounce.
It wasn’t until many years later that I finally began studying bodybuilding literature and learned about the importance of compound lifts. Once I made the shift and some dieting modifications, that’s when I began putting on the muscle weight, both on my arms and elsewhere.
This is why I love flexing my guns at the beginning of some of my videos. My arms, along with my abs, are the muscle groups I love showing off the most.
Should I Give Up Isolation Exercises Altogether?
If you’ve seen some of my videos or read some of my previous posts, I regularly tout the benefits of isolation exercises. They definitely have their place; it’s just that compound exercises are more important by several notches. As such, compound lifts should make up the bulk of your strength training, while isolation movements can be performed to end your workout.
Here is a sample workout with a heavy emphasis on compound lifts:
|Barbell squats||3-4 sets|
|Bench presses||3-4 sets|
|Bicep curl||2-3 sets|
|Lateral raises||2-3 sets|
In this sample, the exercises would be performed in that order. The first three consist of compound movements while the last two are isolation exercises you may do in the end if you choose to. 90% of the focus and energy, though, should be given to the first three.
On a final note, I also recommend that all compound exercises (or even isolation ones for that matter) be done using free weights rather than on a machine. The few people I see in the gym that actually do perform compound exercises often do lifts like squats or bench presses on a smith machine as opposed to using an actual squat or bench rack with a free weight. Smith and cable machines “lock” your muscles in place and prevent your stabilizer muscles from getting in some of the work. Weak stabilizers leave you prone to injury.
No Pain, No Gain
Believe me, I’m absolutely hating life when I’m in the middle of performing heavy squats or deadlifts. I recognize, however, that they’re necessary for putting my body in an anabolic state that just isn’t possible with isolation exercises alone. Make no mistake about it, compound lifts will make you dig deep, but you got to be willing to push forward in spite of the pain to get in that final rep. This will send a message to your muscles that you aren’t dicking around and that it better grow, or else.
Make sure to check out my program The Simple Shredded Solution.