T Nation

RE: Roundtable on Arm Training

I really appreciate the time you guys put into the Roundtables… and this entire site for that matter.

The only question I have is that based on muscle physiology, the actin and myosin only know tension. Muscle tension is absolute. In other words, the biceps contract whether you are doing chins or a barbell curl, correct?

Therefore, while I agree that the arms get plenty of work when hitting heavy, basic, compound movements, a trainee “should” theoretically see hypertrophy from a program designed around isolation exercises. Let’s say they stick to elbow-supported pull-overs (Nautilus machine) for the lats, this leaves little work for the bicep. They could then add barbell curls 2-3 X week to directly work the bicep, without over-training.

I do understand that compound exercises allow the trainee to use the most weight because they have the greatest leverage. Leverage is generally additive. This maximal loading leads to greater hypertrophy/strength gains. However, any compound movement is only as strong as the weakest link. In other words, a compound movement is like a total body workout for several muscle groups. Hence, just like body parts could be split up to train once per day/per week, I think they could also be trained with isolation movements with some decent success.

Again, if a muscle only knows neural stimulation, not direction or application, then the trainee would see hypertrophy gains with isolation movements IF the program was designed with this in mind. Same principle behind not needing to hit 7 different angles to work a given muscle. A given muscles really only needs 1 exercise per bout. Fiber recruitment is absolute.

Please don’t get me wrong - I don’t train this way, nor do I teach clients this. I ultimately agree that compound lifts are king. But, I wanted to prove a point anyway. Please give me your thoughts!


[quote]TopSirloin wrote:

The only question I have is that based on muscle physiology, the actin and myosin only know tension. Muscle tension is absolute. In other words, the biceps contract whether you are doing chins or a barbell curl, correct?


Interesting point. How would you explain the difference between bicep muscle activation when doing a dbl curl with 50lbs, vs doing a dbl curl with 2.5lbs? There must be a difference - my guess is that lifting the lighter weight causes fewer fibers to be activated.

Did anyone read that book called “Muscle Meets Magnet”? The point of the book was to show that different exercises for any given muscle caused different amounts of muscle activation.

Anyway, I dont have the physiology background to discuss this topic really in depth, but I basically believe that the signal your brain sends to the muscle plays a part in how strongly the muscle contracts, or how many fibers are activated at once. I think compound movements stimulate your nervous system more than isolation exercises. And I think that exercises where your torso is moving through space allows for even further activation - which supports the idea that pullups are superior to pulldowns.

I’ve also heard (and believe) that tensing all the muscles in your body can contribute slightly to your strength in any given lift.

Anyway, I certainly feel that isolation movements have a place in most routines. However, I believe that your nervous system plays a role in what degree a muscle is activated, and in turn - compound movements (which probably result in more nervous system stimulation) result in superior muscle activation.

I’m clearly not an expert in this - this is just what makes the most sense to me. Any constructive feedback is appreciated!

Points well taken. Your point about recruitment is correct in that only a minimum number of motor units will be recruited to perform the given task. The higher the load and the higher the speed of execution, the more will be recruited.

However, what’s the difference in the recruitment pattern of a heavy cheat barbell curl, versus a lat pull down with a heavy weight? As far as your motor units are concerned, the is no difference. All they have to do in contract with tension. It just so happens that the best way to get a great load on a muscle is to use a compound movement, where the additive leverage of all your limbs increases the loads that can be use.

My point is that if your bicep can only curl 80 pounds, than that’s the maiximum portion that it can lift in a pulling movement. It can’t magically lift 90 just because you are doing a compound movement. If I’m lat pulling 350 pounds and each bicep can handle 80, than that leaves 95 for each lat and rear delt (keeping it simplfied to 3 muscles). Therefore, couldn’t I get the same loading by curling 80 pounds per bicep and doing pull-overs with 95 pounds for each lat and rear delt? I certainly think I could get close, but probably not within 10% of the loads used on the compound pulling movement because of the decrease in system leverage and intermuscular coordination.

I am still a big fan of compounds, I just think isolation movements can indeed build muscle almost as well. That being said, I don’t prescibe even one isolation movement for the athletes that I train!



Thanks for the comments. Let me try and give you my perspective on this.

I understand what you are saying, but I think you are looking too much into the “small picture.” Just because a compound exercise doesn’t hit the biceps per se doesn’t mean it won’t have an influence on growth/stimulation of the entire body.

For instance, just because squats don’t hit your biceps direclty doesn’t mean that they won’t improve the size of your biceps in the long run. There is a ton that goes on behind the scenes, primarily the anabolic environment that results d/t heavy compound lifting. I will put money on a guy that squats heavy 2x per week against a guy who does a dedicated “arm” day every week. Think big picture.

As I also stated in my reply, big compound lifts will also result in weight/lean body mass increases (again, party d/t the anabolic environment). While some of this is site specific (e.g. squats will lead to leg hypertrophy), there is also a general effect and carryover where LBM gained from squats will go everywhere, including the arms.

I don’t think anyone stated that direct arm work is bad, it just needs to be properly allocated in your program. If you aren’t doing the big lifts first and foremost, you’re probably not going to see huge benefits from direct arm training alone.

Stay strong

Thanks for the comments Mike. I have to be careful because I feel EXACTLY the way you all do on this. I’m not trying to swim up-stream here. I just wanted a bit deeper discussion on the mechanisms on why these things work.

As far as the squat increasing over-all LBM, I have read that several times. Your body has a tremendous surge in anabolic hormones and increases protein synthesis thorough the entire body when this lift is done. Still, I have seen big guys that don’t squat, thus have chicken legs, yet massive upper bodies. And, I don’t think this is just some rare genetic trait - most of us can attest to this at the gym. Further, I have also seen guys that love to squat who have 28 inch thighs, but a relatively small upper body. So, I don’t think this reasoning on the Roundtable is absolute. But, I think it’s one of the better means to an end.

Personally, I stopped squatting long ago because of knee and back pain from college ball. I sometimes hit a few very light sets for fun. I also rarely deadlift heavy, maybe getting into the mid-200’s for reps. That being said, I have had appreciable hypertrophy in my upper body without these heavy duty compound lifts.

I digress though - I know you guys are just trying to present the “optimal” exercises for hypertrophy. You are not trying to discuss every nook and cranny like scientists.

Thanks for your time.


I don’t believe squats are magical. I believe that squats are one example of an exercise that hits a really huge muscle group, which is why it has such a big effect.

The reason you could do this without squats is because you could work other huge muscle groups, such as the pecs or the lats. These will also hit large masses of muscle. It’s just that squats are #1 in the amount of muscle they hit, where lats are probably #2 and lats #3.

That’s my understanding, anyway, but I’m no expert.

Top Sirloin,

I agree with you in that you can definitely get an appreciable amount of hypertrophy with a properly designed isolation program, but I think you would get better gains with with a program focused on more compound movements with fewer, but complementary isolation exercises.

While the all-or-none principle of muscle contraction is correct, I think it is overly simplistic in regards to this discussion. I’ll illustrate what I mean by this in a minute.

You posed the question of the mechanisms by which the compound movements result in greater hypertrophy. Other than the aforementioned anabolic/hormonal response, I believe that these exercises result in greater loading of the individual muscles due to synergy with the other muscles during the movement. Let’s explore this concept a little. You stated in an earlier post that if you are able to curl 80 pounds, the biceps can not magically lift 90 in a compound exercise. That statement is not necessarily true. What you have to remember is that in the curl you are going to be limited to lifting only the amount of weight that the muscle can overcome at its weakest point or at it’s most biomechanical disadvantage. Therefore, you are not able to maximally stimulate the muscle because you are not overloading it at its strongest point. However, during a chin-up, the lats will provide more effort when the biceps is at a disadvantage, thus allowing the motion to progress to where the biceps is strongest. Also, the eccentric portion of the chin will expose the biceps to greater loading forces than what it can concentrically lift, thereby providing a strong growth stimulus. I hope this makes sense.

Theoretically, you can use bands to provide the accomodating resistance to more fully stimuate the muscle through the full range of the curl. Assisted curls would allow you to overload the eccentric portion of the curl. By combining these training techniques, you may be better able to approximate gains from compound movements.

Take care,

Dr. Ryan-

Now THAT is what I was looking for! I really needed that deeper explaination. I think the over-loading and synergistic action is more of factor than the theorized hormone boost. But that’s just my humble opinion too.

I basically train/teach compound movements twice per week in three areas - back, chest, and legs. Then throw in one day of direct arm work. Since shoulders are already hit several times, one bout of over-head presses suffices. I love Waterbury’s TBT because the program is so wide open to variation, yet one is able to periodize none the less.