A compound lift is one that uses two or more joints, like a chin up, and it will work many different muscle groups at once (biceps, back, forearms, etc). An isolation lift is one that primarily uses just one joint, like a curl, and aims to work just one muscle group (biceps).
Most guys with a bit of experience weightlifting learn that the big compound lifts produce the best results. When it comes to building muscle you can’t get much better than a deep squat, a full range of motion chin-up, a dumbbell bench press, and a deadlift.
The squats will develop mobility, coordination and power in your lower body and build muscle in your legs, butt, lower back and abs. The chin-ups will do the same for your forearms, biceps, back and abs. The bench press for your chest, shoulders and triceps. The deadlift for your forearms, back and butt.
There’s a lot of mythology surrounding compound lifts. That they, say, cause you to produce more testosterone and thus lead to full body growth. That’s mostly bunk though, because they don’t really lead to chronically higher testesterone levels, and, steroids aside, that doesn’t really result in muscle growth anyway (study, study). Regardless, they do stimulate the most muscle fibres the most effectively, so if you wanted to learn just four lifts, those would be them.
However, you aren’t limited to just four lifts. And strategically adding in isolation lifts will do a few great things:
- You’ll develop more balanced musculature in the muscle groups you’re training, leading to better aesthetics (study) and even better strength (study)!
- You’ll be able to bring up your lagging body parts (study, study). If your arms aren’t growing from your chin-ups, isolation lifts will allow you to burly up your biceps. If your chest isn’t growing from your bench press, isolation lifts will allow you to plump up your pecs.
- Since isolation lifts aren’t as heavy and complex, you can focus on developing a mind muscle connection and optimizing “the pump” (aka metabolic stress). Combined with heavy strength work, this will allow you to build more muscle (study).
- It’s safer. Using a wider variety of exercises means your muscles will grow in a more balanced and versatile way. This will help you avoid injury—both in and out of the gym (study).
So unless you have to keep things simple, use some isolation lifts.
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