Compound exercises are often said to be better mass builders than isolation exercises because they allow you to lift more weight.
For example, I’ve heard it said that chin-ups are the best way to build bigger biceps, because you can lift more weight doing chin-ups than you can doing curls.
Here’s an example of the type of thing I mean:
“Chin-ups beat biceps curls to build bigger arms. Chin-ups force you to lift more weight. They force you to lift your own bodyweight. A guy weighing 75kg like me can easily build the strength to do one chin-up.
“I can do weighted chin-ups with a plate of 20kg for reps. That’s 95kg total. Try to do biceps curls with 95kg or even 75kg. More weight is always better for gaining muscle. If you want bigger arms, do chin-ups instead of curls.”
But when you think about it, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Isolation vs Compound Arm Exercises
The reason you can lift more weight during a compound exercise like the chin-up compared to an isolation exercise like the barbell or dumbbell curl is because multiple muscles are doing the work.
With the barbell curl, it’s mainly the biceps that are responsible for moving the weight from point A to point B.
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But with the chin-up, the lats, shoulders and biceps are all involved.
The work is being distributed across multiple different muscles, which is why you can lift more weight.
It’s much the same story with a compound lift like the bench press.
You can lift a lot more weight in the bench press than you can in a single-joint exercise like the skull crusher.
But that’s because the bench press involves the chest, shoulders and triceps, whereas the skull crusher is only working the triceps.
The amount of weight you lift during a given exercise is less important than the amount of work being done by the muscles involved in that exercise.
Isolation exercises will involve the use of lighter weights, as fewer muscles are contributing to the movement. But that doesn’t make them any less effective than compound exercises for stimulating growth in a particular muscle.
If compound lifts are all you do, especially if you’re relatively new to lifting weights, your biceps and triceps are still going to grow.
What’s more, if you’ve got a few years of lifting under your belt, and you’re happy for your biceps and triceps to stay the same size they are right now, these upper body compound exercises will do the job.
Compound Exercises for Biceps
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Inverted Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Compound Exercises for Triceps
- Bench Press
- Push Up
- Barbell Press
- Seated Dumbbell Press
- Upright Row
A muscle group doesn’t need to be trained directly for it to grow. That’s one of the reasons multi-joint exercises are such an efficient use of your time. They hit multiple muscles, and will stimulate growth in all those muscles.
One study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, shows that a full-body workout – performed three times a week for eight weeks – was enough to stimulate growth in both the biceps and triceps, even in trained participants .
In fact, doing the chest press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, and seated row increased the size of the biceps by an average of 7%. The triceps grew by an average of 6%. All without any direct arm work.
However, if you want to maximise growth in the arms, you’ll want to include some single-joint isolation exercises for your biceps and triceps in your training program.
When a team of Brazilian researchers compared a compound exercise (single-arm dumbbell row) with an isolation exercise (biceps curl) it was the latter that led to bigger biceps .
A group of untrained men did curls with one arm and rows for the other arm, for a total of eight weeks. Each exercise was performed twice a week, for 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps. Ultrasound scans were used to measure muscle growth.
The biceps curl led to faster growth in the biceps, which increased in size by 11%. That was more than double the gains seen in the biceps trained with the dumbbell row, which grew by 5%.
With that said, the ability of a compound lift to stimulate growth in the biceps and triceps depends a lot on the movement in question. Some compound lifts hit the biceps and triceps harder than others.
Pulling movements with an underhand grip (such as underhand barbell rows, chin-ups or reverse grip pulldowns), for example, work the biceps harder than pulling movements done with an overhand or neutral grip.
The bench press, performed with a relatively narrow grip, is going to work the triceps harder than the same exercise done with a wider grip.
Even without any direct arm work, your biceps and triceps are still going to grow. However, if you want to develop a particular muscle group to its maximum potential, you will need to train it directly.
That is, if bigger arms are high on your list of priorities, doing some direct arm work is a very good idea. If not, the training you do for your chest, shoulders and back should be enough to get the job done.
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