So I got inspired to write a bit about this just answering questions on quora. The particular question that got my interest was something along the lines of:
“What is the biggest mistake you ever made in the gym?”
I spent some time thinking about it….but honestly it didn’t take long to come up with the answer. The biggest mistake I ever made was not doing compound exercises.
It’s A Learning Experience
When I first started lifting seriously, all I really cared about was getting big arms. Not that crazy, I feel like a lot of guys go to the gym with this sort of aspiration. I don’t necessarily want to demean this aspiration either—I get it! A huge part of lifting is wanting to look good and consequently feel good about yourself.
I think the issue arises from guys thinking that having big arms and nothing else will make you look good. Protip: It won’t. Also, if you’re hoping it will get you more girls—it won’t. Okay, it might help get you some girls, but trust me, those aren’t the girls you want to be getting with anyway.
“So what DOES look good?”
I was hoping you’d ask. A well proportioned physique is what actually looks good. This looks absolutely terrible:
THIS looks good:
Does Henry Cavill have HUGE arms in this picture? Hell no, they’re probably smaller in circumference than the guy in the first. Why do even just his arms look so much better then? Because his entire body is well developed proportionally. Honestly, having good proportions does a LOT more for how good you look than having “large” muscles.
By now you probably know I’m not a huge fan of working out just for aesthetic reasons. Personally, I don’t think it has a whole lot of “staying power” once you realize that just looking better doesn’t change who you are as a person. With that in mind, let’s talk about what you need to do.
Why You Should Ditch Isolation Movements
To start, I don’t think ditching isolation movements completely is the right thing to do. They have their place, but I guarantee isolation movements will not drive much growth—especially for natural athletes. At a glance, here are the main reasons why compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout:
They develop your overall strength. Isolation movements like curls or tricep extensions do very little in this regard.
You use your time much more efficiently with compound movements. Imagine if you had to work glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves separately. Instead, just squat.
You develop muscles in proportions that make sense! This is why doing functional movements like squatting is so crucial. Developing your muscles evenly ensures peak athletic performance.
Finally, total volume of work and progressive overload are the main drivers of muscle growth. It’s a hell of a lot easier to add 5 lbs to a squat than it is to add 5 lbs to a curl, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to do more work squatting than it is curling.
The flow of why compound movements are so effective looks kind of like this:
More weight lifted -> more work done -> more strength gains -> more muscle gains
Trivial, I know, but that’s the way you should be thinking about it. Start thinking about trying to maximize the amount of work you’re doing over a LONG period of time.
What You Should Change
If your typical workout looks something like: 8 different isolation exercises for 3 sets of 10 each, you should probably rethink your approach to programming. An example of something that would be a LOT more effective would be:
- 2 heavy compound movements performed in a lower rep range (think 3-8 reps) for potentially as many as 6-8 sets
- some conditioning work (movements like farmers walks are great for this)
- 1 or 2 isolation movements to develop lagging muscle groups
- flexibility training and stretching
If you start taking a more sensible approach to your training, I think you’ll start to find your results skyrocketing in terms of both strength and size gains. Do you have any other reasons that I might have missed on why you should be focusing on compound exercises? Leave a comment or shoot me an email if so!