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Are Compound Exercises Better Than Isolation Exercises?

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Are Compound Exercises Better Than Isolation Exercises?

If you want to know if compound exercises are better than isolation exercises for building muscle and strength, then you want to read this article.

 

You want to build muscle.

You want to get strong.

And you want to do these things as quickly and effectively as possible.

What exercises should you do and why?

Ask different people and you’ll get different answers.

Some will say that compound exercises are all you need. They train every muscle in your body and are “highly functional” to boot.

Others will say compound exercises are overrated or even dangerous, and that the right isolation exercises can give you everything your little heart desires.

Who’s right?

Well, in this article, we’re going to find out. By the end, you’ll understand the pros and cons of both compound and isolation exercises and how you should use them in your workouts based on your goals.

Let’s start with a simple question: what exactly are compound and isolation exercises?

What Is a Compound Exercise?

What Is a Compound Exercise

A compound exercise is an exercise that involves multiple joints and muscle groups.

For example, the squat involves moving the knees, ankles, and hip joint and requires a whole-body coordinated effort, with the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes bearing the brunt of the load.

On the other hand, an exercise like the Russian Leg Curl involves moving the knees and focuses on strengthening the hamstrings and glutes.

(Sure, there are other muscles that this exercise engages, but not forcefully enough to stimulate muscle growth.)

That’s why the Russian Leg Curl isn’t considered a compound exercise (it’s an isolation exercise, which we’ll talk more about in a minute).

Here are the most common compound exercises you’ll find in weightlifting programs:

Bench Press

All variations of the bench press–barbell and dumbbell and flat, incline, and decline–are compound exercises.

The primary muscle group trained is the chest (pectorals), but all bench pressing also heavily involves the shoulders and triceps.

Overhead Press

This exercise is also known as the military press, and it’s one of the best shoulder exercises you can do.

It also trains the triceps and, when performed standing, the back and core (to some degree).

Dip

The dip is a fantastic upper body compound exercise that can be performed in two ways:

  1. Upright
  2. With a slight forward lean

When upright, the primary muscle group engaged is the triceps, and the shoulders and chest are the main assistance muscles.

When slightly leaned forward, the chest becomes the primary muscle group and the triceps and shoulders assist.

Deadlift

The deadlift is the ultimate compound exercise because it involves just about every joint and major muscle group in your body.

The primary muscle groups trained, however, are known as the posterior chain (the muscles on the backside of your body, such as your hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles).

Pretty much every other muscle in your body assists in the movement.

Pull-Up

The pull-up is a simple compound exercise that will never go out of style because it works.

The primary muscle group is the back and the secondary muscle groups are the biceps and forearms.

Cable Pulldown

This is essentially a machine pull-up that allows you to specify a weight to pull.

Accordingly, the primary muscle group is the back and the secondaries are the biceps and forearms.

Row

Whether a barbell, dumbbell, or machine row, it’s a compound exercise.

The primary muscle group is the back, of course, and secondaries are the biceps and forearms.

Squat

Like the deadlift, the squat isn’t just another compound exercises–it’s a whole-body exercises.

And that goes for all variations–front squat, back squat, split squat, and so forth.

It’s estimated that over 200 muscles are activated in the squat, but the primary muscle group trained is the quadriceps.

When performed properly, the glutes, hamstrings, and calves are also forcefully recruited.

Leg Press

The Leg Press is a compound exercise that requires less technical skill and stabilizing muscles than the squat.

Similar to the squat, the primary muscle group trained is the quadriceps and the secondary groups are the hamstrings and glutes.

The Bottom Line on Compound Exercises

As you can see, most simple movements that have you push, pull, and squat against the forces of gravity are compound exercises.

You may also notice that all pushing involves the chest, shoulders, and triceps, all pulling involves the back and biceps, and squats and deadlifts involve large portions of the body.

If you have some weightlifting experience under your belt, you also know that compound exercises also allow you to safely use heavy weights.

This makes them particularly good for building muscle and strength. (We’ll talk more about this soon.)

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

What Is an Isolation Exercise?

What Is an Isolation Exercise

An isolation exercise is one that involves just one joint and major muscle group (the participation of other muscles is limited).

The biceps curl is an example of an isolation exercise because the only joint involved is the elbow and the biceps muscles to do more or less all of the work.

Here are the most common isolation exercises you’ll find in weightlifting programs:

Dumbbell Fly

This exercise isolates the chest but is limited by the fact that you can’t use heavy weights without putting your shoulders at risk of injury.

I haven’t done a fly in years but if you like it, I recommend you save it for the end of your chest workouts. (It’s not a replacement for heavy pressing.)

Dumbbell Pullover

Many bodybuilding legends like Arnold, Reg, Ronnie, and Dorian credited this exercise with helping them build their impressive chests.

Research shows they were probably onto something.

Like the dumbbell fly, this exercise is better suited to higher rep ranges and better done after your initial heavy pressing.

Lateral Raise

This is one of the few isolation exercises that I think belongs in every bodybuilding program.

It’s the simplest and best exercise for training your lateral (side) deltoids, which will fall behind your anterior (front) delts if all you do is shoulders pressing.

Front Raise

This is a simple exercise that isolates the anterior deltoid.

It can’t deliver the same results as barbell and dumbbell pressing, but it’s well suited to lighter, higher-rep work.

Cable Straight Arm Pulldown

You don’t see many people doing this exercise but it’s one of the few that allow you to isolate your lats.

Biceps Curl

This is the simplest and most effective exercise for building bigger and stronger biceps.

Leg Extension

This exercise isolates the quadriceps but I generally don’t recommend it because:

  1. It places a large amount of stress on your knee joint and ligaments.
  2. It’s just not a very effective quadriceps exercise.

Leg Curl

This is an isolation exercise for the hamstrings and it’s a worthwhile addition to your legs workouts.

Calf Raise

In many ways, the calves are like the abs.

Some people just come with them and some have to work hard just to have something to show. (I’m in the latter camp.)

The calf raise is the easiest way to isolate the calves and should be used when necessary.

The Bottom Line on Isolation Exercises

As you can see, movements that have you raise, curl, or extend a limb are generally isolation exercises.

These exercises are also generally more suited to lighter weights and higher reps, which makes them good for periodization and controlling workout volume (more on this in a minute).

What Are the Advantages of Compound Exercises?

list of compound exercises

One of the biggest fitness mistakes people make is underestimating the importance of compound exercises.

I should know because I had to learn this lesson the hard way.

When I first started lifting, I let bodybuilding magazines dictate my diet and training.

That means I ate way more food (and protein) than necessary and did a lot of long (2+ hour) high-rep workouts consisting mainly of isolation exercises.

After about seven years of that, here’s what I had to show for my efforts:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

before muscle compound exercises

I looked “okay,” I suppose, but I expected more from so many years in the gym.

Soon after this picture was taken, I threw away the magazines, stopped buying supplements, and got serious about educating myself.

I dramatically changed the way I ate and trained and here was me a year or so later:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

after muscle compound exercises

A huge improvement, if I may say so myself.

But I wanted to gain a bit more size and bring up what I felt were still weak points (my shoulders and lats in particular).

I plied my barbell, dumbbells, and forks and knives for another year and change, and this was the result:

compoun exercise training

(And this is the look I now maintain more or less year round. Read this article to learn how.)

As you can see, just about every aspect of my physique has dramatically improved since the beginning of my journey.

I should also mention that I’m far stronger now than I ever was before.

In those ~2.5 years, I added close to 100 pounds to my bench press, about the same to my military press, and doubled my squat and deadlift.

And better still, I did it all in just 4 to 6 hours in the gym each week, which was about half of what I used to put in.

One of the major changes in my training that helped me achieve all this was shifting my focus from isolation to compound exercises.

There are several reasons for this:

  • They train many muscles at once.

And the more muscles you can effectively train in a given exercise, the more overall muscle you can build as a result.

(This also makes them time efficient. One compound exercise can do the work of several isolation exercises.)

  • They allow you to lift heavier weights.

The best compound exercises put dozens of muscles and multiple joints through a large range of motion.

Consequently, they enable you to move more weight than isolation exercises and thus better progressively overload your muscles.

This is significant because the better you can progressively overload your muscles, the faster they grow.

  • They significantly raise testosterone and growth hormone levels.

The magnitude of post-workout elevations in anabolic hormones relates to the amount of muscle involved in the workout.

This is why research shows that compound exercises produce larger increases in both testosterone and growth hormone than isolation exercises.

These effects don’t influence muscle gain as much as some people would have you believe, but they do have other benefits as well.

The bottom line is this:

I attribute much of my success with my physique to the fact that, after learning about the power of compound exercises, I made them 70 to 80% of the work I do in the gym.

That is, for several years now, 70 to 80% of the sets that I do every week are of compound exercises.

I still do isolation exercises, but I now know which side my bread is buttered on.

Another major change to my training was the emphasis of heavy lifting (80 to 85%+ of 1RM).

I used to spend much of my training time chasing a pump with fancy techniques like drop sets, supersets, and giant sets.

I no longer do that. Instead, I’ve simplified my approach:

Use heavy weights, hit the top of my rep range (4 to 6, mainly), add weight to the bar, repeat.

This, combined with sufficient weekly volume (total reps), has helped me gain a significant amount of muscle and strength.

So, the key takeaway of this section is this:

If you want to build muscle and strength as quickly as possible, you need to focus your efforts on compound exercises.

If you want to know which exercises specifically and how to build a workout routine that works, check out this article.

What Are the Advantages of Isolation Exercises?

best-isolation-exercises

Many people would tell you that isolation exercises have no place in a real weightlifting program.

That all you have to do to build a killer physique is squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.

I disagree.

The first thing you must understand is every compound exercise has a prime mover that is the star of the show and will benefit most from it.

Assistance (secondary) muscles can benefit as well, but not as greatly as the primary muscle groups.

This means that compound exercises can create imbalances in the growth and progression of the various muscles involved.

For example, if all you did for leg training was front squats, you’d likely develop an imbalance between the strength and size of your quadriceps (prime movers) and hamstrings (secondary).

If you didn’t address this, you would, in time, increase the risk of hamstring injury, knee problems, and other undesirables.

Another good example is the shoulder development of someone who has done nothing but overhead and bench pressing.

What’s usually missing here is the round, “capped” look that frames the upper body and makes the shoulders pop off the arms.

To understand why, you first need to know that the shoulders consist of three muscles:

  • The anterior (front) deltoids
  • The lateral (side) deltoids
  • The posterior (rear) deltoids

When you overhead press, the anterior deltoids are the protagonists, the lateral deltoids only assist, and the posterior deltoids aren’t involved at all.

This is significant because it’s the latter two muscles–the side and rear delts–that mostly determine how “3-dimensional” our shoulders look, not the anterior deltoids.

Thus, you can have tremendously strong overhead press and relatively underwhelming shoulder development as a whole.

And this is where isolation exercises like the side and rear lateral raises can save the day. They allow you to train these small, hard-to-activate muscles and bring them up to snuff.

Another benefit of isolation exercises is they allow you to better control volume for each muscle group.

When we’re talking weightlifting, volume is the total amount of reps performed, and it’s an extremely important aspect of muscle building.

  • If volume is too low–if you do too few reps per major muscle group per week–you’ll struggle to gain size and strength.
  • If volume is too high, you’ll run into problems related to overtraining.
  • Get volume right, though, and you’ll be able to gain muscle without compromising your recovery.

I break this down fully in another article on the science of hypertrophy, which I recommend you read, but here’s what you need to know for the purpose of this discussion:

Research shows that, when using weights in the 60 to 85% of 1RM range, optimal volume appears to be in the range of 60 to 180 reps per major muscle group per week.

As you can guess, the heavier the training, the fewer reps you can and should do every week.

These findings also agree with another large review conducted by researchers at Arizona State University.

When lighter weights are used, more sets per week is optimal. As the weights get heavier, however, total sets must come down.

For example, if you were training exclusively in the 80 to 85% of 1RM range, like you do on my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men, you’d want to be around 60 to 80 total reps per major muscle group per week.

If you were doing a low-weight, high-volume type of program, however, you’d want your weekly volume for each major muscle group to be closer to 180 reps.

And if you were doing something in between, like with my Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women, your total weekly reps would be somewhere in between as well.

Now, how does all this relate to isolation exercises, you’re wondering?

Well, isolation exercises allow you to increase the volume on specific muscle groups without impacting others that you need to let rest.

This helps you better program your workout routine to avoid under- or overworking specific muscle groups.

For example…

  • The dumbbell lateral raise allows you to increase volume on the lateral deltoids without putting much stress on the other muscles in your shoulders.
  • The chest fly allows you to increase volume on the pecs without much involving the shoulders or triceps.
  • The front raise allows you to increase volume on the anterior deltoids without involving the triceps.
  • The hamstring curl allows you to increase volume on the hamstrings without engaging the quadriceps.
  • The leg extension reverses this: it isolates the quadriceps without involving the hamstrings. (It’s not a very good exercise, though.)
  • Biceps, triceps, and calf exercises are all isolation movements and are the only way to directly train these muscles without increasing volume on larger muscle groups as well.

This is why a well-designed weightlifting routine includes both compound and isolation exercises.

The compound exercises are the foundation because they’re used to directly train and overload your major muscle groups. This helps you gain overall size and strength.

Isolation exercises are then included to further develop specific muscle groups that aren’t sufficiently trained by compound exercises but that contribute greatly to your overall appearance.

An Example Workout With Compound & Isolation Exercises

compound exercise routine

Cogent arguments and copious PubMed links mean nothing if you can’t use the information to get results.

And that’s why I want to leave you with a few workouts to choose from that will allow you to put my “teachings” to the test.

In terms of overall results, the 5-day program is better than the 4-day, which is better than the 3-day.

The 5-Day Workout Routine

Working sets are done with 85% of 1RM (4 to 6 rep range) unless specified otherwise.

Warm-up by doing 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM.

Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between working sets.

Rest 1 minute in between warm-up sets.

Add weight once you hit the top of the working set rep range for one set.

DAY 1

CHEST & ABS

Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Face Pull – 3 working sets of 8 to 10 reps per set with 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between these lighter sets

3 ab circuits

DAY 2

BACK & CALVES

Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Barbell Row – 3 working sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up – 3 working sets (weighted if possible)

Optional: Close-Grip Lat Pulldown – 3 working sets

Optional: Barbell Shrugs – 2 working sets

Calf Workout A

DAY 3

SHOULDERS & ABS

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Side Lateral Raise – 3 working sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

DAY 4

LEGS

Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Leg Press – 3 working sets

Romanian Deadlift – 3 working sets

Calf Workout B

DAY 5

UPPER BODY & ABS

Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per set with 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between these lighter sets

Barbell Curl – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Close-Grip Bench Press – 3 working sets (no need to warm up after the chest pressing)

Alternating Dumbbell Curl – 3 working sets

Seated Triceps Press – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

The 4-Day Workout Routine

DAY 1

CHEST & TRICEPS & CALVES

Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Dip (Chest Variation, weighted if possible) – 3 working sets

Seated Triceps Press – 3 working sets

Calf Workout A

DAY 2

BACK & BICEPS & ABS

Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Barbell Row – 3 working sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up – 3 working sets (weighted if possible)

Barbell Curl – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

DAY 3

UPPER BODY & CALVES

Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per set with 1 to 2 minutes of rest in between these lighter sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Side Lateral Raise – 3 working sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise – 3 working sets

Calf Workout B

DAY 4

LEGS & ABS

Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Leg Press – 3 working sets

Romanian Deadlift – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

The 3-Day Workout Routine

Rest at least one day in between each workout.

DAY 1

PULL & ABS

Barbell Deadlift – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Barbell Row – 3 working sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up – 3 working sets (weighted if possible)

Barbell Curl – 3 working sets

3 ab circuits

DAY 2

PUSH & CALVES

Incline Barbell Bench Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 working sets

Side Lateral Raise – 3 working sets

Optional: Close-Grip Bench Press – 3 working sets

Calf Workout A

DAY 3

LEGS

Barbell Squat – Warm-up sets and then 3 working sets

Leg Press – 3 working sets

Romanian Deadlift – 3 working sets

Calf Workout B

Pick one of those workouts and do it for the next 8 weeks and see how your body responds.

If you like what happens and you want more, then you should check out my books, which give you a 360-degree understanding of building muscle and losing fat as well as a year’s worth of workouts.

The Bottom Line on Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

No matter how you look at it, compound exercises deserve more attention than isolation exercises.

  • If your goal is to improve athletic performance (run faster, jump higher, be more explosive, etc.), compound exercises will deliver far better results than isolation exercises.
  • If your goal is improve whole-body strength, you may not need to do any isolation work whatsoever.
  • If your goal is to build muscle and look good, you’ll get there quickest by focusing on compound exercises and supplementing with isolation exercises where needed.

The only sensible reasons to emphasize isolation exercises would be related to injury and/or age, but even then compound exercises may still be the better choice.

 

What’s your take on compound and isolation exercises? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

    Feel free to comment below if you have any questions. I do my best to check and reply to every comment left on my blog, so don’t be shy!

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    • manish

      Hello Mike. How are you?
      I was wondering which one has more benefits – seated overhead press or standing one. I can feel the difference when I do them. I think seated version puts more strain on the lower back. Do help. Thankyou.

      • Elia

        Hi! I hear you on the lower back pain… However, it should be more obvious when you perform the standing variation if your core is not strong enough. The seated version should put less strain on your core, thus your lower back. Maybe the problem is that you arch your back too much. Just try to push it against the bench, there should be a small arch at the bottom of the movement but you want to maintain a neutral spine while pressing up. This way, you should feel the weight more on your deltoids… Be sure to lower the weight if that’s the first time you perform the movement with correct form.
        I like the standing version more as it feels a bit more natural for me, I think that it could build better core stability in the long run, even if squatting and deadlifting should take care of it.
        Hope I have been helpful! 🙂

      • Hey hey! They’re both great. Typically, the standing press puts more pressure on the lower back. I talk about them here:

        http://www.muscleforlife.com/military-press/

        LMK what you think! My pleasure. 🙂

  • Jolo300

    Hi mike,
    Just wondering about face pull being on chest day?? I do that on shoulders for rear delts from your tls one year challenge?
    Many thanks

    • Yep. I recommend doing them 1-2 times a week, and I like doing mine twice a week after pushing days.

      Hope that makes sense! Welcome.

  • Sean Haber

    Hey mike i cannot seem to get the romanian deadlift right , i do not feel the stretch or correct form when i do it wheight even though i have watched many instructional videos , any advice?

    • Bill

      Maintain stiff knees (yes a slight bent is ok but don’t think about it bc most likely doing so bents it too much), push your knees back, never leave contact with the bar, arch the spine and don’t let it bent.

    • Have you seen the video of Mark Rippetoe explaining it? He does a great job. Check it out:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XowKMitOVNc

      LMK what you think!

  • Mark Dinsdale

    Hello Mike! I’ve been following bls since 2014 and this time last year hit 10.5% after a cut, but unfortunately screwed it up twice and couldn’t train properly again until winter by which time I’d shot back up to 17% 😢 – but I’m currently on cut and hoping to hit 11% by the end of the month (currently 12%)- I was just wondering when I do begin a bulk how much fat percentage should I be going up per week/month and how much cardio do I do a week? I’m currently doing two sessions of hiit per week but gonna increase to 3 and going to drop my calories to 1900 for this last month to really shave off as much as possible- replying asap will earn you good karma and all your dreams will come true.

    • Hey Mark! Cool you’ve been rolling on the BLS program and awesome job on getting to 10% BF.

      Sorry to hear you ended up shooting back up to 17% BF. 🙁

      What BF% increase you should experience depends on starting weight, genetics, how good you are with your diet, etc.

      When bulking properly, you should be gaining 1/2-1 pound a week. The typical ratio of fat to muscle weight gain is 1:1. So, that should give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of fat gain.

      Regarding how much cardio, check this out:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/how-much-cardio/

      Keep this in mind during your weight loss journey:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/not-losing-weight/

      I hope so. 😉

  • JP Perez

    Mark,

    Great job on getting down to 10.5%! But I feel your pain when you got back up to 17%. I got down to about 13% and did the same thing. LOL!

    But hey getting back on the horse is half the battle. I’m also cutting right now and trying to get back into my summer look. Let me know if you have any protocols that you have been follow maybe it will help me out as well.?Goal is to hit 10% by June. Currently at about 14-15%.

    I’ve also been reading the articles here on MFL for about a year now and on one of the articles (http://www.muscleforlife.com/bulking-up/) it says should try to keep your weight increase from .5 to 1 pound per week.

    My suggestion would be the same as I have tried this. The only other thing I would recommend if you are not already doing this. Is to track your fat gain using some sort of fat measurement instrument, as weight alone is not a very good indicator of fat %.

    Last, Mike mentions to watch your overeating and I would agree.

  • Bro_Camel

    Hey Mike,

    I’m three weeks into BLS and loving it. I need a quick clarification though: I used your macro calculator to get my TDEE. I’ve been tracking macros, calories in and out with an app. (I know the calories burned through lifting is an approximation, of course.)

    Does my calories to be consumed, from the calculator, equal a) the absolute calories taken in, or b) the net amount after taking into account calories burned through lifting?

    Thanks, man.

    • Hey hey! Awesome you’re rolling on BLS.

      Cool you’ve been tracking your macros. The number you get from the calculator is the total amount you’re supposed to take in. Your activity is taken into account already.

      Welcome! LMK how it goes.

  • Nathan Hanak

    Question about rep ranges on the big compound lifts when you “Fail”. Generally, I aim for your 4-6 reps for 3 sets, if I hit 6 reps in a set (usually the first set if it’s going to happen), I’ll raise the weight. However, what happens if it goes like this, say for… deadlifting: Set 1: 5 reps at 300lbs. Set 2: 3 reps at 300lbs, and you can’t get a 4th rep at 300 lbs. Is that set over, and you should then just set up for set 3: X reps at 290lbs? Or, is the set not finished until you hit 4-6, so hypothetically, this would be – Set 2: 3 reps 300lbs, deload, 2 more reps at 290lbs, then Set 3: 5 reps at 290 lbs. I guess, in general, what happens if you fail in your set to reach 4 reps minimum?

  • Juan Garces

    Hi Mike, et all,

    This site breaks down nicely which muscles are employed for each exercise. Here is an example: Barbell Deadlift (http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/ErectorSpinae/BBDeadlift.html), and Deadlift Analysis (http://www.exrx.net/Kinesiology/Deadlift.html). (http://www.exrx.net/index.html) Sorry about including another site here, but information seems really good not to share.

    Also, I would like to know your opinion when completing your 3 sets, you add a set at your 1RM for 1 rep and a set for drop down. I was doing the squat, and using an app, I was able to calculate my 1RM at 225 lbs. So I did that 1 rep as my 4 set. Then I proceed with a drop down set of 12 reps at 150 lbs. Am I overdoing it? I only do this on the Flat Bench Press, Deadlift and Squat.

    Thanks —
    J1

  • Craig Lehrmann

    Hi mike,
    I’m 6’2 40yr old who has dieted down from 339lb to 192lb over last 14 months. I’m very interested in gaining muscle without getting fat and for that reason I’m about to purchase you’re books. My two questions are this
    1.) I’m around 16%bf and VERY tired of dieting but most sites I visit insist I keep cutting to around 10-12%. What’s you’re thought in this.
    2.) I have only free weights at home and no leg press machine. Is there an alternative exercise on you’re program (3x weekly)?
    Thanks for all your help

  • Mearced C

    Still reading through your book. Lots to digest there! What about combining an isolation exercise such as a bicep curl with a squat or lunge? Thanks for your help!

    • Awesome!

      Doing both movements at the same time? I wouldn’t recommend that. They’re both great exercises, but instead, I recommend doing them separately.

  • vadim dreyzin

    Hi Mike: Thank you for another excellent article. Lots of great ideas and information. Keep up the awesome work! from Toronto

    • My pleasure! Thanks for all the kind words and support.

      Will do! 🙂

  • David Bex

    Mike good article Check your grammer….poster chain? Posterior chain. Oops.

  • LifeForMuscle

    Optimal volume appears to be in the range of 60 to 180 reps per major muscle group per week.

    however, your workout have only a maximum of 54 reps per major muscle group such as the chest if you stick with 4-6 reps.

    • Yup, you want the lower end for the heavier lifting, and my program has you do 3 more sets of pressing a few days later.

  • Cole Bauman

    Hey, what’s good Mike?

    I’ve seen that you’re familiar with Kinobody and support at least on some level some of his training/diet principles (fasting, pyramid training, progressive overload to name a few).

    Recently I found some basic guidelines from kino regarding how to develop a good physique. I think it was something like the “superhero look” iirc. The image actually used your physique among others.

    Anyway I wrote down the guidelines. Basically the chart asserted that if you can hit these #’s in the gym you will necessarily have a superhero like body.

    Incline press for 5 @ 1.4x bodyweight
    Overhead press for 5 @ bodyweight
    Weighted pull up for 5 @ 70% bodyweight
    Biceps curls 5 @ 75% bodyweight
    And then also a slim waistline

    Anyway, point is that at 6′ 165 I’m getting relatively close to all of these numbers. However, without a pump my physique is pretty damn unimpressive.

    How much weight do you give to these guidelines? Are there any adjustments you’d make as markers to hit for a decent looking physique?

    Alternatively, when I hit these #s and my shape isn’t quite on par with Greg’s or yours or whoevers, would it be smart to add volume to my routine or to simply keep progressing on these main lifts?

    Lemme know and peace and love

    • Hey man!

      I’m not a big IF advocate like Greg but I think it’s fine if people want to do it because they simply like it.

      Lol he’s using pictures of me to promote his program? That’s funny.

      You can’t directly correlate strength standards with muscle size. Some people’s bodies are much stronger than others’ despite being quite a bit smaller.

      The only way to really know what’s what with your body is to keep going, really. Check this out:

      https://legionathletics.com/hypertrophy-how-to-build-muscle/

      • Cole Bauman

        I was mistaken it’s actually from another site, but yeah there ya go man.

        Feel free to delete this if you think it distracts from your page.

  • Tiffany Jennell

    Is there a good alternate to the side lateral raise? My shoulders are the worst part of me, and whenever I do them with any type of weight, they snap and pop. They’re still fully functional, I’m just looking for a work around so I don’t damage the cartilage and bursas.

  • david

    mike , do I need to rest 3-4 minutes beeween sets even on the isolation exercises? because I feel sometimes that its too much and I don’t need so much time.

    • Nah, you can rest 2-3 minutes on the 4-6 rep isolation movements and then 1-2 minutes on the 8-10 rep isolation movements.

      • david

        ok
        you need to write it in the book also for us to know

        • Some people need more rest, but if you feel fine with less, you can do as I said above. 🙂

          Not a bad idea. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Over the last year I dropped about 20lbs and have gone from 27% body fat to 17% (based on a Withings scale which I’m sure isn’t the most accurate way to measure body fat).

    Since about January I’ve ben seriously lifting weights, typically 5-7 days a week. Throughout this period I’ve been doing a full body “push/pull” split. The rep range was typically 12 reps with 3 and sometimes 4 sets depending on the lift. Some lifts were in the 6 rep range on the second push/pull day.

    I just started the 5 day plan outlined in your book. I’ve done three days so far and I feel like I’m not getting as much of a workout. I know you mention this in your book, but it’s hard to envision at this point that what feels like less work is going to lead to better results (to be clear, I am progressively adding weight to each lift and the last rep of the last set is using all my effort)

    All of the lifts in your 5 day plan were in my “push/pull” plan. The difference is the rep range and the fact that there were more isolation lifts in addition to the compound lifts in the push/pull plan. I also didn’t rest in between sets as long, so my workout took the same amount of time as your workout (45 min – 1 hour) but I just felt like I was getting a lot more done.

    I don’t feel like I was “overtraining”… I didn’t have any of the “symptoms” associated with overtraining and I was still increasing my stats on most lifts. Sure some days I wasn’t able to do quite as much as a previous workout, but then the next week I was pushing past where I’d been before.

    I know that I was enjoying “beginner gains” for sure so the reason I wanted to switch to a new plan was with the hopes of push forward and see better results and just to mix things up.

    But as I said, it’s just hard for me to see how taking away a lot of the lifts I was doing is going to do that. Can I add a set across the board to all the lifts? Add some isolation lifts? Or, just stick with it for the time being? Everything in your book makes sense to me logically, but I guess I’m just afraid of loosing muscle and strength since I’m doing what seems like less work.

    • Hey Jeff! That’s tremendous progress you made. Well done.

      Like “ideal” rep ranges, optimal training frequency is a hotly debated subject. The bottom line is it boils down to workout intensity and volume. The lighter the weights and fewer the sets, the more often you can train the muscle group.

      In the case of BLS, you hit your muscles hard, with about 50-60 reps per workout, with all reps recruiting maximum muscle fibers (due to the load). The reality is unless you have superhuman recovery, you just won’t be able to do these workouts more than once per 5 days. Once per 7 days is probably a LITTLE more rest than some people need, but I think it’s better to err on that side than the side of overtraining.

      The bottom line is INTENSITY and VOLUME are more important than frequency when we look at 5 to 7-day training cycles, and EVERYONE that follows the program makes rapid strength and size gains. Even long-time lifters.

      If you want to learn more about this, check this article out:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/guide-to-muscle-hypertrophy-muscle-growth/

      • Mike… thanks for you the reply and I’m definitely going to stick with the program, I think I just needed to get it off my chest and make sure I was on the right path.

        However, today i was doing the back day and had a slight strain on the lower left side of my back doing a deadlift. Deadlifts are a lift I’ve been scared to do because I’ve always strained my back doing them. I have been doing them recently paying close attention to my form with lighter weights and no problems (typically 95-105lbs in the 12 rep range). Today was the second time doing them under your plan and didn’t have a problem until I got to 160lbs on my fourth rep. I know I must have broke form and that caused the problem but I really was trying to focus on my form and keeping my abs tight. 150 was hard, but I did all 6 so that is why I went ahead and moved up. I guess I shouldn’t have and my form on 150 may not have been as good as it was at 140.

        So, now this has me back to my fear of deadlifts. My thought was, I would go back down to 130 and maybe start doing 8 reps. And then rather than increasing by 10lbs I would do all three sets at 130. Then, the next week, go up to 135 and then 140 the next and so on. That way, theoretically anyway, by the time I get back up to 160 in about 4 or 5 weeks I will be stronger and hopefully have better form.

        Thoughts?

        • NP. Definitely take a break from it until you’ve recovered, and starting with lighter weights is a great idea to ease back in. It’s also a good time to practice form as you progress back to 160. Here’s a great resource for you to check out:

          http://stronglifts.com/deadlift/

  • Reina Polein

    i hope you’re gonna read this but im a 15 year old skinny fat girl.I want to lose my belly fat and gain muscle. I go to the gym 3 times a week but i dont know what i should do to lose the fat and gain muscle. The gym where i go to doesnt allow that people under 18 to lift barbells and etc. i have only access to the machines and dumbbells. i want to get stronger and lose the fat but i dont know how and if i can do it without barbells. Do u have tips and maybe a workout plan for me that will help my skinny fat problem? sorry for my bad english btw!!!
    greeting from reina polein

  • isaul rangel

    Hi mike i was wondering if i can follow this workout plan even though im trying to cut body fat while trying to keep muscle. Im eating 25 percent less calories than i need so i im pretty sure it will be hard for me to gain muscle. My main focus right now is getting to about 9-11 percent body fat.

    • Absolutely! You’ll still be able to gain muscle, though not at as good a pace compared to when you’re eating more calories.

  • RHCP

    Doing Dumbbell Flys and Pullovers on the ground? Your thoughts on these. It decreases the range of motion a little bit.

    I think that the Dumbbell Pullover is an underrated exercise. It develops lats, chest and serratus anterrior at the same time. I think that it is a great supplementary exercise for the end of the workou (8-10 rep range). On which day should I do them?

    • True, not a bad exercise, but not the best bang for the buck compared to heavy presses or dips.
      I wouldn’t do them on the ground because of the range of motion limitation and because you lose tension in that position. Seated or standing flys would be better instead.

      You can do ’em on a chest day or another upper body day.

  • Laurent

    “Add weight once you hit the top of the working set rep range for one set.”
    Sorry for the dumb question, but what exacly do you mean with this?
    Add weight after every working set ??

    • If you’re working in the 4-6 rep range, for example, once you get 6 reps on a set, you add weight to the next set. You’ll probably get fewer than 6 on that next set, and stick with that weight until you get 6. Does that make sense?

  • Darcy

    Just so you know: All exercises, isolation or compound have prime movers, synergists and antagonists so that info was a bit off.

    The REAL limitation with compound exercises is that one joint will be exhausted before the other, weakest link and all that.

    But each joint has it’s own set of agonist/ synergist/ antagonist so don’t get those two concepts mixed up.

    What isolation is important for is helping us get that one joint that didn’t quite reach exhaustion closer to what’s called “Total Volitional Fatigue”.

    eg. performing a DB chest fly after bench press because your Triceps reached exhaustion before the Pecs did or something like that.

    This is where the whole concept of Tri-sets and things came into play.

    Also a Pronated Military Press overhead or any kind of pronated shoulder press would totally be busting the lateral deltoids dude not just the anterior, shoulder abduction for days!

    • Hey Darcy, I actually didn’t even mention synergists, antagonists, etc., so what did you think was inaccurate, exactly?

      I like to focus my routines on compound movements, with some additional isolation movements for some added volume.

      The military press does hit the entire shoulder, but it emphasizes the front deltoids in particular. That’s why I like to do lateral raises, as well as a posterior delt exercise on shoulder day 🙂

  • Camilo prada

    Hi Mark! I started today the 5 days routine but I’m feeling a little bit confused with the working set, some else asked the same before and you replied but still confusing… if I’m doing DB chest press do I have to add extra weight in the next set but what about if adding more weight I can’t do more than 2 reps? Should I stop and try to continue until I hit 6 reps with that weight ? Or should I go down on the weight? As an example, I feel good doing 6 reps with 35 kg on each arm but when I go for 37.5kg on each arm, I struggle… thanks for any reply.
    Cam Prada

    • Camilo Prada

      Also, why on the day 1 m, which is Chest we do Face Pull? I thought it is more a shoulders and back exercise… Thank u again Mark !

      • Camilo Prada

        I meant to say MIKE!!! Lol, damn autocorrect and I just realised (Sorry MIKE) 🙂

    • Hey Cam, I like to move up in weight once I hit 6 reps. However, if you fail to get 4 reps on the next set, you can keep working with the original weight until you get 6 reps on 2 sets. Make sense?

      Face pulls are one of my favorite exercises for the rotator cuffs, which are heavily involved in pressing. That’s why I like to include it 🙂

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