T Nation

The Great Debate

When you want big guns, do you trust in isolation exercises or in the big compound movements? Personally, I’m of the former persuassion, but there are no studies on the subject and the empirical evidence that does exist is conflicting and widely disputed. So I have a plan to put the issue to rest. We choose 20 volunteers that either have had a hard time putting on arm size or want to put on even more mass. Then we have Chris divide the volunteers randomly into two groups. I’ll take Group 1 and devise a routine emphasizing isolation exercises, and someone else can volunteer to take Group 2 and emphasize compound movements. We track their progress over the course of 4 weeks (no supplements but protein powder allowed). Then we compare results and see which method comes out the winner (who knows, maybe you could even publish the results in T-mag).

Whaddya think? Any takers on this one?

Nice question Myo, and it would certainly be interesting to get an answer. My THEORY would be that those of us with bodies that needed to pack on some mass, would do better with the compound training (so everything “grows” together), whilst those who appear to have large frames, but can’t put any meat on the arms, might not be hitting them hard enough with compound training.


You also have the compounding factor of stage of training experience and development. Things may work differently for someone with a solid training background for several years, and a newbie who may well grow like a weed whatever he does!


Interesting to hear others comments on this. SRS

Interesting thoughts, SRS. I know many powerlifters who have impressive torsos, but pathetic arms (from a bodybuilding standpoint), although a few of them have great arm development, despite no direct arm work. To some degree it may be a matter of genetics–how well one responds to compound movements, which is probably related to the relative strengths of the various muscle groups (I’d expect someone with strong arms to benefit less from compound exercises than someone with weak arms, whose arms will often be the limiting factor). Still, as in most cases, I would expect one statement to be true in the majority of cases–i.e. either isolation exercises are better than compound movements for the majority (> 50%) of trainers, or the converse. By doing our own study, we could try to tease out which of the two statements is more correct. We just need to get some volunteers to sign up!

Sorry, had to add that this has been discussed on a recent Dog Pound thread- take a look. Also a good thread currently on CT’s Lair forum. Concensus is as I hinted at: 1) Strong torso base= getting slightly lacking arms up to speed is easy; 2)Basic arm size will develop in the athelete still developing a stronger “fuller” body with tough compound exercises alone.SRS

I think that the basic impulse is a great idea. We should have more of this kind of experimentation in the Forum.

The problem, it would appear, is getting enough volunteers! Maybe we could get T-mag to sponsor the test. Give free T-shirts or free protein bars to all participants? I’d volunteer to write up a T-mag article on the methodology and the results.

I think SRS makes a good point. I’ve always felt that in order to build a good foundation, you need to incorporate compound movements into your training. Without this foundation it makes it very difficult to put on arm size - you don’t see skinny guys with gorilla arms very often.

So it seems to me that the results would vary quite a bit depending on the training that the volunteers have already been doing. For example, I very rarely do any sort of direct arm work in my training, so if I started to do some I would see an instant increase in size. However, someone who's been doing a lot of direct arm work for a while would probably see smaller gains.