If you are wondering which are the best exercises you can do in the gym in order to make gains as fast as possible you are in the right place.
I like to look at the human body as a project – a work in progress project. Your body is your master piece and you are the artist who designs it.
You also have a tool box full of different exercises, different workout routines – high rep, low rep, high volume, low volume, high intensity, low intensity and so on.
The purpose of this article is to see what tools (exercises) we have in that tool box, when and how to use them in order to optimize our progress towards our goals.
If you’ve been asking around about that type of workouts maximize muscle growth I am sure you have received different answers from different people. Some say you need to do high rep isolation movements, some say you need to do compound exercises, how say to stay away from the heavy weights, and so on and so forth. There is a ton of conflicting and confusing information floating around.
Let’s clear the waters a little bit.
As I am sure you know already exercises can be classified in 2 main categories – compound exercises and isolation exercises.
What’s a compound exercise?
Simply put a compound exercise is an exercise that targets more muscle groups and uses multiple joints to perform the movement.
Even if you are remotely into lifting weights you probably know that upper body compound exercises can be further divided into pushing and pulling exercises.
The pushing movements target the chest, shoulders and triceps with more or less focus on each muscle group depending on each exercise.
The pulling movements target the back and biceps, with more or less focus on either of them depending on the exercise.
Examples of pushing compound exercises
Bench press is a good example of a compound exercise. It uses the shoulder and elbow joints and targets primarily chest, but uses a lot of triceps and shoulders (especially the incline bench press).
It includes all variations – incline, flat, decline, barbell and dumbbell.
Close grip variation of the bench press puts most of the tension on the triceps instead of chest.
TIP: focus on the incline variation of the bench press for hitting upper chest and getting aesthetics.
Dips use the shoulder and elbow joints when performed and target triceps, chest and shoulders (front delts). You can put more focus on chest if you lean forward slightly and use the triceps as an assisting muscle, or you can do it upright and move the focus on triceps and use the chest as an assisting muscle.
TIP: do dips if you want to target lower chest or triceps.
Over head press
This compound exercise uses the shoulder and elbow joints and targets mainly the delts but also the triceps or even the core if you are doing the standing version.
TIP: this is one of the best exercises for the shoulders.
Examples of pulling compound exercises
Pull ups use the shoulder and elbow joints and targets the back/lats while putting quite some stress on biceps. Do weighted pull ups once you get strong enough.
TIP: pull ups are one of the best exercises for building a wide back.
This is another compound exercise that targets mainly the back while using quite heavily the biceps as an accessory muscle. The joints involved in the movement are the shoulders and elbows.
Variation of rows includes cable machine, barbell or dumbbell. All of them are compound exercises.
TIP: rows are great for building thick lats.
These are probably the best compound exercises that hit biceps. Even though there is still a lot of back into it, I think it’s the best compound movement you can do for your biceps.
TIP: experiment with form and grip/hand placement until you feel maximum tension on the biceps.
Deadlifts are the king of all compound exercises. In involves a lot of joints and puts a lot of pressure on your back, glutes and hamstrings while using pretty much every other muscle in your body. There are many variations of the deadlifts used to put more back or more legs into it.
TIP: stiff legs deadlifts are great for targeting the hamstrings.
Examples of leg compound exercises
If deadlift is the king, squat is the queen. After deadlifts, squats are the next compound exercise in line that puts every muscle to work.
Of course the main focus is on the quads, hamstrings, glutes and even calves, but you’re also using a lot of core muscles to stabilize the weight and lower back.
TIP: use squats as the main leg exercise in your workouts.
Leg press is the easier version of the squat. In allows you to focus more on the leg muscles – quads, hamstrings and glutes, without putting the effort in stabilizing the weight and putting other muscles at work.
TIP: definitely do leg press if you can’t squat
That sums up all the compound exercises you need to have in your ‘toll box’. My advice is to include all of them in your workout regimen.
Let’s move on to isolation exercises
What’s an isolation exercise?
As opposed to compound movements, isolation exercises are exercises that target a single muscle group and use a single joint to perform de movement.
Isolation movements put very little tension on other muscle groups, if executed with good form.
There type of exercises should be used to complement the compound exercises, fine tune your body, finish off a workout with some extra volume and be very specific with targeting a certain muscle group.
As you might know already, the amount of weight you can when performing an isolation exercise is significantly lower that when you do a compound exercise. That’s because in isolation exercises you are only using one muscle while in compound exercises you are using more muscles.
Therefore, compound movements are superior for promoting muscle growth. This does not mean isolation exercises are bad. In my opinion though all isolation exercises should be used as accessory movements and should be done after doing the heavy weight compound exercises. Never substitute compound movements with isolation movements!
Examples of isolation exercises
The most common bicep exercise is an isolation movement. It uses just the elbow joint and the biceps is the only muscle used to move the weight up and down.
Great for burning off the triceps after doing some close grip bench press or dips. All the focus is on the triceps.
I rarely do any isolation movements for my chest, but if you feel like doing some the dumbbell flyes are worth trying. But definitely put your effort on the bench pressing and dips.
These target the side head of the delts and put quite a lot of stress on the shoulder joints. That’s why you can’t go super heavy with these. Lateral raises are a must in any shoulder workout program in my opinion and are great for developing round shoulders that stand out.
This is another isolation exercise for the shoulders that targets the front head of the shoulders, just like the lateral raises you won’t be able to go very heavy on this because of the joints.
Personally I don’t include this exercise in my workouts because I feel that the front end of my delts get worked out from all the incline bench pressing I am doing.
This is a great isolation exercise that hits the hamstrings. I like to do it in each leg work out after doing squats and stiff legs.
This exercise isolates the quads but puts quite a lot of stress on the knee joints. I am not a big fan of the leg extension; I rarely include it in my workouts, so I don’t recommend spending too much time and effort doing it.
Standing on seated calf raises is great for hitting the calves. To me calves are those muscles that I hit when I remember about them or when I feel like I can squeeze a few more sets in a workout and don’t have anything else to train.
I do both variations – standing and seated – but I feel like the standing calf raises targets the muscle better. Usually I do 20-25 reps per set.
Which are good which are bad?
I’m sure you’ve heard a bunch of people talking shit about isolation exercises and you probably heard some talk shit even about compound exercises such as squats or deadlifts. Who’s right and who’s wrong.
To cut to the chase, generally speaking there is no bad exercise. There’s only poor ways of using them.
What about the whole compound vs. isolation debate? Let me tell you this: you can’t have a great physique if you are doing only compound exercises and you definitely can’t have a great and balanced physique if you are doing only isolation exercises.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
Delts – you definitely can’t build great shoulders if you are not doing isolation exercises. With the compound movements that hit the shoulders – overhead press and bench press you target only the front head of the shoulders.
There are another two heads/ends of the delts which hardly get any load from the compound exercises – the side head and the rear head.
The only way to really put enough load on those in order to make them grow is by doing a whole bunch of side and rear lateral raises. Those are the movements that will make your shoulders round and make them pop out of your arms.
Legs – are another relevant example, hamstrings to be more specific. The major compound movements you can do for training your legs – squats, leg press – use the quads as the primary muscle group which does most of the work. For this reason if you would do only compound movements to train your legs the quads would severely over power the hamstrings.
The only way to fix it is by including enough hamstring isolation exercises to compensate this – do leg curls.
Biceps – you’ll never have great biceps if you are not doing any curls. The few compound movements that involve biceps are simply not enough because the back and forearms muscles are taking away too much of the tension.
I like to look at the compound exercises as a great tool to build a solid foundation and to isolation movements as a must to finishing up your physique and make all the small tweaks in the muscles, including muscle unbalances fixing.
Bottom line of exercise selection for muscle growth
Muscle growth is triggered by heavy resistance training and progressive overload.
The heavier the weights you are lifting and the more weight you add to the bar the better. That being said it’s a no brainer that compound exercises are far superior for muscle growth than isolation exercises.
Compound movements put several muscles and joints at work which will allow you to lift significantly more weight thus increasing the stress and forcing the muscles to grow bigger. With isolation exercises this effect is diminish a lot because the weights you are lifting much lighter and the range.
Another big advantage of the compound exercises is that they allow you to train several muscle groups at once, which can save you a lot of time in the gym.
But the use of compound movements is limited, and that’s when the isolation exercises come into play – to compensate for the muscles that are hit too little by the compound exercises and to fix any muscle unbalances that inevitably happen once you reach a certain level of muscle mass.
Therefore, to wrap things up, here is what you should do:
- Do compound exercises for 70-80% of the training volume and isolation exercises for the rest
- Lift as heavy as 80-85% of your 1 RPM when doing compound movements and stay within 8 reps max
- Lift lighter weights when doing isolation exercises, do higher reps, focus on form and on feeling the burn in the muscle.