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Do Compound Exercises Really Build More Muscle?

Search the web and you’ll no doubt be advised by most muscle heads that compound exercises are where it’s at.

Some routines out there are ‘compound-only’ zones, excluding the so-called “inferior” isolation movements. Apparently there is something terribly wrong about applying DIRECT resistance to a particular muscle.

Quick definition: A compound exercise is one that involves movement around more than one joint.

You’ll even see guys advise you to steer clear of bicep curls because you can ‘overhead press‘ your way to big biceps!

I’ve read a lot of these type of articles that bash isolation exercises.  They all sound the same. It usually goes something like this…

“If you want big muscles, bicep curls won’t do it. Neither will lateral raises and the like. If you’re going to isolate muscle groups you might as well give up and go home. You need to work the body together or it won’t happen.”

The scientific rationale? Uh, well, none is ever provided.

Like me, if you’re expecting the science, or at least the logic, to follow this bold argument in favor of compound-only routines, you’ll be disappointed.

It appears that just saying it makes it so. Of course, forgoing science and parroting what’s currently popular is all too common in this game.

You might be able to guess where this article is going. Yes I’m going against the grain again. But it isn’t based on opinion, it’s based on facts of muscle physiology.

However, before I go any further, let me say that I like compound movements. Here’s what I think they are great for:

  • Beginners – a short, compound-only workout is all they need to produce growth
  • Specialization of a body part – used WITH isolation exercises e.g. the pre-exhaust method
  • Dedicated, infrequent periods of compound-only workouts to involve smaller muscle groups that would get little stimulation from an isolation-only workout

Another argument for compound movements is that they release more anabolic hormones. While this is true when comparing 1 compound movement with 1 isolation movement, over the course of a whole workout, I contend that there’s no difference. In fact, if someone “saves time” by hitting multiple body parts in 1 exercise and hits them all in 20 minutes, he would, in my opinion, release LESS of these hormones than the guy who performs an isolation movement to muscular failure for each body part and finishes in 50 minutes.

And that brings me to my next point…

Since when was saving time the goal of someone training for muscle growth? Yes you shouldn’t train for much longer than an hour at any one time (if you’re a natural bodybuilder).

But in exercise science we identify the stimulus that provides the adaptation we desire, then impart that exact stress to the body. If it takes 60 minutes to produce this result rather than 20 minutes, so be it. At the end of the day, if you’re not willing to spend an hour in the gym, you haven’t got the right mindset for success.

Now, for all but beginners and genetic freaks, I say compound movements can actually be inferior because of the following 3 reasons:

(1) What I call the “WEAK LINK” effect.

If one muscle within the group being worked is quite weak, it will be responsible for the termination of the set before the other muscles obtain the requisite intensity to stimulate growth. With compound movements, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Take the lat pulldown for example:  the weaker biceps and forearms will fatigue before the more powerful lats do, meaning you didn’t thoroughly stimulate the body part you intended to when you selected this exercise!

(2) The “DILUTION” effect.

Compound exercises work MULTIPLE MUSCLES to a LIMITED degree, whereas an isolation exercise can work a SINGLE MUSCLE to its MAXIMUM degree. Think about it, a compound movement DILUTES the resistance across many muscles which is not optimal for growth of the intended muscle e.g. the pecs in a bench press.

Actually, for the example above, the bench press will only impart 40% of the available resistance to the pecs! The rest being taken by the triceps and deltoids.

(3) The “NO PCP” effect.

The PCP or PEAK CONTRACTION POINT is the only point in any exercise where it’s possible to recruit 100% of the available muscle fibers. If the exercise you’re employing doesn’t take the intended muscle into this position, it is absolutely impossible to recruit all the fibers.

Example: the bench press doesn’t bring the arms all the way across the chest and in NO point in the rep can it stimulate all the fibers of the pecs to grow. The Pec Deck can however.

To really understand this, we need to look further at muscle fibers. Read on…

Muscles are composed of striated muscle fibers.

Maximum growth can only come from recruiting as many of these fibers as possible and inducing the micro-trauma that stimulates the compensatory adaptation of THICKER muscle fibers. Thicker individual fibers means larger muscles.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

So how do we ensure that we recruit as many fibers to which we impart this stimulation?

Like I’ve stated in the latest batch of articles, you must use an exercise for each body part that:

(1) Works the muscle along the path of its FUNCTION because this is the ONLY way to bring a muscle into its position of PEAK contraction, which is where MAXIMUM recruitment of muscle fibers occurs

(2) Provides resistance in this PEAK CONTRACTION POINT to induce the damage to the recruited fibers. For example, Standing Barbell Curls will not do it for the biceps, but Cable Preacher Curls will.

From a factual standpoint, you can only do this by incorporating isolation movements, and in particular, the ones I have listed in my recent series of articles on the subject as they fulfill the above criteria.

Put simply, an isolation exercise will provide a more COMPLETE stimulation of the fibers of the muscle trained!

In summary, will your next few pounds of muscle growth come from hitting as many muscles as possible in 1 movement? It may help, but it should be abundantly clear that your next slab of hard muscle will come quicker as a result of ensuring that each major muscle worked is done in a fashion that MAXIMIZES muscle fiber recruitment and more thoroughly stimulates those same fibers to GROW once recruited.

Note: The advice in this article applies only when the specific training goal is muscular hypertrophy. Other goals/outcomes require different stimuli to produce the desired adaptation e.g. functional strength, endurance etc. Put simply, if you want to grow, and do it as fast as possible, implement the advice in this post!

Stay Motivated!

Mark

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Richey Rich April 1, 2010, 11:16 pm

    you’re ridiculously smart dude ;) . Most articles say do this do that but this is beyond all that. Im new but great site here!

  • Rob April 1, 2010, 11:24 pm

    Mark,
    Whens your new E-Book coming out and will all the exercises focus on 100% PCP contraction?

    Need any readers to review/edit it before you release it? =)

  • John April 1, 2010, 11:29 pm

    Mark, I know you have spoke about this countless times but it goes hand in hand with something I’ve been thinking about. What do you think about peoples advice on using isolation exercises not just compound but for low reps, i.e a 5×5 style routine with isolation exercises but low reps? Say for someone struggling to put on mass but also who doesn’t have much strenght would you say this would be a better approach or would you still say to continue in the 8-12 rep range ang get stronger and bigger like that?

  • Adam April 1, 2010, 11:30 pm

    Another epic article Mark!

    Cable preacher curls and pec deck all day long, 24/7. Single cable curls for max arm isolation too!

    MuscleHack.com has definitely saved my body! I am in your debt, sir.

    Adam

    North Bay, ON, Canada

  • Alex Oliveira April 1, 2010, 11:31 pm

    Strange… maybe the item #5 on this article is valid only for newbies, but i’m pretty sure it is worth checking out.

    http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/cosgroves_five_ahha_moments

  • Mark McManus April 1, 2010, 11:31 pm

    Thanks Rich!
    @Rob. It’ll be read in early April. I tend to read everything I write a few times before I hit ‘publish’ anyway so I don’t think I need any proofreaders. Thanks for the offer and I’m glad you’re looking forward to it.

  • Jason April 1, 2010, 11:44 pm

    what works best for me is compounds, with 2-3 isolations at the end to finish off

  • Mark McManus April 1, 2010, 11:47 pm

    Thanks Rich!
    @Rob. It’ll be read in early April. I tend to read everything I write a few times before I hit ‘publish’ anyway so I don’t think I need any proofreaders. Thanks for the offer and I’m glad you’re looking forward to it.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  • Wouter April 1, 2010, 11:48 pm

    Hi Mark,

    ever since you wrote about the PCP principle my mind’s been racing on and a few weeks ago I came to the conclusion that most if not all of the “classic” compound exercises have the minimum amount of load at pcp. Which is quite disturbing actually, looking back to all the years I actually wasted doing mainly compounds. Now that you’ve confirmed my suspicion, there’s a big pillar of my understanding of how to build muscle just gone. I’m also really looking forward to the new book, to have an arsenal of pcp-focused exercises to take to the gym.

    However, I will continue to do squats and deadlifts. Maybe it’s because they’re “super-compounds” that require almost every muscle in your body, but the cardio-like effects of doing heavy squats or deadlifts, and probably also the psychological impact of seeing yourself in the mirror with a sh!tload of weight in your arms… I feel it’s too important a part of my workout to favor isolation exercises over them. I’m really curious about your thoughts on that subject. But that’s probably because I’m impatient to read the book!

    As always, great stuff!

  • Andrew April 1, 2010, 11:55 pm

    Hi there Mark,

    How about for beginners, would you tell them to do compound only workouts before moving onto isolation based routine?
    Should I as a beginner expect to see some decent gains doing a workout like the one you provide in your ebook Total Anabolism?
    Cheers

  • Mark McManus April 1, 2010, 11:59 pm

    @Alex. The study quoted tested whether extra VOLUME (by the addition of isolation exercises) increased growth over 10 weeks. It found no difference. As I’ve stated in previous, recent articles, it isn’t VOLUME but INTENSITY that creates the growth stimulus. The author then comes to the conclusion that compound exercises are superior to isolation exercises. You can’t reach that conclusion from the data. It’s not an accurate statement because that was not the hypothesis being tested, it was a question of volume.
    Also, what was the protocol. Did they train to failure? What type of isolation exercises were used? Was there resistance at the PCP? Did the sets fall within the anaerobic window? Did they allow the Isolation group more time to recover and grow because of the extra workload? Failing to do so would have stopped any extra gains from coming in the first place (see my article on peak overcompensation point for more on that).
    Basically the study doesn’t prove anything about the efficacy of compound vs isolation movements in regards to muscular hypertrophy.
    On another note, I know (and I’m sure other people do too) guys who have trained only for the ‘glory muscles’ i.e. arms and chest and have the results to show for it. One guy at 5’5” has massive arms, no lats, or shoulders, and chicken legs because he doesn’t train them. Very much an example of localized muscle growth. Not that I recommend such an approach though, squats and deadlifts are still great exercises guys ;)

  • Mark McManus April 2, 2010, 12:01 am

    To everyone. It’s just gone midnight here and I gotta get some sleep. Thanks for all the great comments. I’ll have some time to read any more that are posted tomorrow.
    Take care,
    Mark.

  • BsH April 2, 2010, 12:12 am

    I love this site, and the programs make alot of sense to me. But this article im not quite sure about. I have trained for several years, and can remember starting out like i see alot of trainees, using mainly isolation exercises. The preacher curl machine, pec dec , leg extensions , leg curls . But staying away from the Squats, Deadlifts , Bench Press , Standing curl, etc. The hard core exercises.

    It wasnt until I started following MAX-OT which is almost all compound movements as you know. And with the advise of Jeff Willett and Paul Cribb who i think is also very well respected and quite the scientific buff, I really started growing and had major strength increases. Forgoing the isolation exercises and using ones that I could really move weight with.

    But like you had stated before, the rep range(4-6) was hard to keep your form and your 10-12 rep range has kept me improving and been better on my joints. The THT program appears to mirror Max-OT with compound movements primarialy and is an awesome program and I dont see the isolation only exercises listed in it. And I know THT has helped alot of beginners as well as advanced like myself.

    Am i to gather that your saying forget the bench press and only use pec dec now? Forget the squat and use leg extensions? Forget the Barbell Curl and use the cable preacher curl instead if your an experienced bodybuilder?

    Your right, this is a complete turn around from the other professional trainers in this field. I like isolation exercises personally, such as pec dec AFTER I have trained heavy on the Bench Press. Seated Preacher cable curls After I have spent out on the heavy Barbell curls.

    I hope this isnt taken wrong because I love this site have purchased your program and appreciate the time and devotion you put into this. Im just not sure if what im reading is exactly what you mean.

  • John April 2, 2010, 12:28 am

    I think you make good points. I am glad you made it clear that hypotrophic adaptation versus, functional strength adaptation are two drasticly different goals and require different approach’s. I started off as a person wanting to be a like Arnold as a young boy then moved on to power-lifting and now train for fitness. Drastically different goals, different tools and even when the tools are the same they are applied differently to the body to create what ever effect you are seeking! That is a hard point to get people to understand. I think the current push by the hard core to compound exercise’s is due to the long and almost total domination of the media coverage being aimed at Steroid Using Pro Body Builders not that any of them would ever admit to using drugs as they are cowards! So it is an over correction of the pendulum from the far left to the far right. I am glad it has happened in a a way because it has brought a lot of people back to the middle where most of us no drug using amateur weight lifting fitness types and drug free body builders belong! Neither extreme serves the greater population at large. I am always telling people to let their goal determine what tools they use and how they use them. So good job.

  • Debbie April 2, 2010, 12:37 am

    I LOVE getting your articles. I’ve added back in pec deck, cable preacher curls, cable pullovers and cable kickbacks thanks to you. I follow the 6-pack ab training. I lowcarb, and like isolation exercises. You always speak to what makes sense to me. Thanks Mark. :)

  • Vincent Blacke April 2, 2010, 12:49 am

    Thank god, someone has the balls to go up against all the pro-compound freaks like “StrongLifts.com”… Compound exercises are a necessity, but not at the expense of maximum muscle growth.

    Great Article :)

  • Zipper April 2, 2010, 12:55 am

    Well I have to say, Mark, you hit it spot on there my friend. I can’t tell you how many times I see it in the Gym with these idiots telling me what’s what. And some of the most ridiculous suggestions I hear to others that are noobs in there. I cringe and turn up my ipod a little bit louder. I wish I could run around telling these people that “no no NO!” but I’d be wasting my own time, although, I do get some guys here and there asking what I’m doing and how I’m achieving what I do etc. Then and only then, am I happy to yap a little and tell them if they want to learn a little more, then to meet me in the lobby afterwards for some insight.

    Very well done and very well said, it’s going to take a long time to get us robots out of this mindjob of wrong expectations and doings.

    Hats of brother! And hey….I’m a noob to your site too. Inspiring job! Keep it up.

    Zipper.

  • Chas April 2, 2010, 1:07 am

    Hey Mark,
    Great article as usual. So if you are saying that normal dumbbell curls are somewhat inferior because they are not hitting pcp. Would you suggest doing single arm curls using cables and then replace ez bar curls with cables as well? Or continue to do those and just incorporating the cable preacher curls? If yes to continue doing normal alternating dumbbell curls and ez bar curls would you say its best to do those before or after the preacher curls for best results or does it not really matter. Thanks in advance.

  • Darrin April 2, 2010, 1:39 am

    Hey Mark – I love the contrarian view you often take. It challenges the herd-thinking. In this case, I definitely fall in the camp of “compound is better” but my goals are usually not pure hypertrophy. For getting stronger, I’d contend that nothing beats compound movements. When I am training for hypertrophy though, I have this rule: do compound movements at the start of your workout and put the isolations at the end. To me, that’s the best of both worlds – strength and hypertrophy.

  • yogi isbell April 2, 2010, 2:10 am

    Thank u mark i agree with what you said what about pre-exuast what are your thoughts

  • Tim Stovall April 2, 2010, 3:08 am

    Hey, Mark!
    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Arthur Jones eventually came to the same conclusion as well as John Little. This makes perfect since, as you said, if the goal is hypertrophy.

  • John April 2, 2010, 4:03 am

    Both are key for results, use the some compounds to crankout the T and iso’s for PCP.!

  • Steve April 2, 2010, 5:55 am

    Good article, but in saying all this I think variety is also a key to growth. You mentioned the guy who just trained his biceps for bigger arms but it is important to also note that the human body is very clever and from a natural and evolutionary point which means adaptation to our environment (lifting heavy weights) our bodies cannot grow large abnormally. For example you will experience limited growth in certain muscle groups if other muscle groups are not built equally. How could one have a well developed chest and abs if their backs are weak and not worked. How can biceps be well defined and bulked without developed triceps. Quite simply the body will restrict growth if not kept in reasonable proportion. I learnt this the hard way by working biceps to failure and not working triceps hard enough. As soon as I worked them harder then results started to happen on the biceps front. Obviously here I am referring to muscle groups and related groups. Yes before anyone says anything I know you could have great legs and no arms but our bodies like to stay relative and in proportion that is how we are designed and develop naturally. As natural body-builders then we need to work with natural ways for maximum development.

  • Darshan Weerasinghe April 2, 2010, 2:44 pm

    Hi All

    Firstly I must thank Mark for the TSPA and helping me get down to 9.8% bodyfat (from 20%+). But guys this article am just not buying…..

    There is NO WAY that isolation exercises can produce more hypertrophy than compund movements at least over the long term. Lets take the lower body…..do you really believe that performing leg extensions, leg curls, adductor/abductor and calf raises and taking all of them to failure and being progressive will lead to more growth in the legs than squatting and leg pressing hard?? NO WAY!

    In fact squats and deadlifts especially for high reps are best mass building exercises ever. Countless old time lifters and reguar ppl have gotten big this way.

    I believe in iso movements and think they are ESSENTIAL for balanced development and correcting weaknesses. But prescribing them over compund moevements for growth is a huge disservice especially for hardgaining trainees. Sorry guys but this is just my opinion. I know Mark knows his stuff but I just cannot agree with him on this one.

    Maybe I’m biased due to my powerlifting backgorund but I have gotten very big from many many years if just focsuing on sqauts, deads, benches and the like and have trained and seen many others do the same. I just don’t believe isolation exercises can do this. Furthermore look at top class olympic weightlifters….they are very big and muscular and do very few iso moves. You can’t just attribute that to genetics

    anyway all the best to everyone with their training

  • Bob April 2, 2010, 6:08 pm

    I really like your comments but I do have one question about the equipment. I notice you use a Smith Machine and so do I. Infact they are quite similar. I have been told by other so called experts on the web that I need to get rid of it because they are a waste of time. I feel that I can safely lift alone with it when I need to but again I ve been told that they don’t work the body properly. Are Smith Machines ok.

  • Mark McManus April 2, 2010, 6:19 pm

    To the few of you who have read this article as meaning
    “ditch compounds for isolations” – this is not the case. I don’t have time to respond individually but this response covers a few people’s comments.
    The article’s purpose is to show the effectiveness of isolation exercises in the face of a huge amount of ill-informed criticism on the web.
    It is not the purpose of this post (nor the opinion of the author) that you should ditch compound exercises in favor of isolations. I have been using BOTH to great effect for years.
    This isn’t an either/or type thing.
    But the effectiveness of isolation exercises in recruiting the MAXIMUM no. of muscle fibers of ONE intended muscle needs to be put out there for public consumption.

  • Mark McManus April 2, 2010, 6:27 pm

    @Chas. Yes if there’s no resistance at the PCP the exercises is inferior (but by no means useless). For now add in the cable movements as first priority. I’ll detail it all out when the latest Total Anabolism is released.
    @Yogi. Recently I’ve been adding a pre-exhaust to one body-part that I choose to specialize for the length of the current training cycle. You can’t do it for all muscles at the same time because the recovery time would start getting ridiculous.
    @Tim. I know Little did but I don’t think Jones did (unless I’ve missed it). Although Jones did incorporate iso’s, he didn’t iso-only if that’s what you mean. Let me know if you have any different info on that though.

  • Mark McManus April 2, 2010, 6:29 pm

    Thanks to everyone else for the kind comments. MUCH appreciated! :D

  • Mark McManus April 2, 2010, 6:41 pm

    @Bob. I train alone so a smith machine is great for safety. Smith machines are fine, use it. Less of your concentration will be diverted away from keeping the bar secure and more on lifting and lowering the weight. I really like that about them. Will you use less stabilizer muscles? Perhaps, but you’ll probably (like me) be able to hammer out an extra rep or 2 at the same weight. It’s better than being unsafe when training alone.

  • Carolyn April 3, 2010, 8:06 am

    I am 44 year old female in good shape. I want to build muscle, but lose fat. Considering my age and I have 2 boys , 12 and 2, I can’t afford to do more damage to me knees with heavy lunges and such. How can I build muscle in my legs with out damaging my knees? How do I get rid of the baby pooch at 44, work hard or realize that some women just will have that pooch? I have more questions , but can write more later. Thanks for answering in advance.

  • Rich April 3, 2010, 6:19 pm

    Hey Mark

    Can’t help but notice that this is a big U-turn from all of your previous advice and is a big divergence from the principles of say Jeff Wilet and MAX-OT which I know was a heavy influence factor for you with THT. What have been your personal results based on these new principles, are you recording a big difference?

    Cheers
    Rich

  • Mitchell April 4, 2010, 8:27 pm

    Marc, you’re right, this did rub me the wrong way. I do hope you get ranked for this search term because you wrote a very compelling article. I think those reading this need to keep in mind the specific goal which is Muscle Hypertrophy. From my studies and my experience, Compound Exercises are better for those that are seeking fat loss and as you said, beginners, and athletes. It will give them a good foundation of functional muscle to work with. I’ll be putting together my own program later this year and I will def experiment with this concept. Thanks for the insight.

    Mitch

  • Steve April 7, 2010, 4:57 am

    If you would like to see the science of compound muscle growth check out this study:

    Rogers et al

    The Effect of Supplemental Isolated Weight-Training Exercises on Upper-Arm Size and Upper-Body Strength

    Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie, IN.
    NSCA Conference Abstract (2000)

    It showed that adding isloated weight training exercises to compound movements added nothing.

    If you want to continue this, can you please present a study that shows that isolated movements result in more hypertrophy compared to compound movements? Since you allegedly subscribe to the scientific method.

  • Mark McManus April 8, 2010, 7:56 pm

    @Carolyn. Weight lifting is for everyone. Resistance training actually helps with bone density so I would still recommend squats and such, but take it light at first until you build up a little strength and confidence.
    As far as the pooch is concerned. You can’t spot-reduce the fat there. You’ll have to lose overall body fat which is primarily a matter of diet, then exercise to supplement it.
    @Rich. No U turn buddy. I always have used both and still do. This post is to defend isolation movements against unfounded criticism.
    @Steve. This study was already brought up in comment 10 to which I responded in comment 11. Additionally, the Nautilus North study used exclusively isolation movements with quite astonishing results (bodpod used to track changes in lean mass). Furthermore, you cannot force muscle fibers to grow that haven’t been recruited in an exercise. Deadlifts are therefore an inefficient way to stimulate bicep growth (though I don’t argue that they can contribute to their growth). If you want a particular muscle to grow, recruit as many fibers that make up that muscle as possible. This will usually, but not always, require an isolation movement. Induce the requisite microtrauma and the body will heal it and overcompensate (assuming enough intensity was used). Again, you can’t impart this microtrauma to fibers that haven’t been recruited in an exercise. Thanks for your comment.
    Take care guys,
    Mark