As discussed in the “Muscle Training Frequency and Workout Routines” section, full body training is the most optimal in beginners looking to improve their strength and muscle mass.

To coincide with this type of training, exercise selection is vital.

A good mentality to have is to be able to effectively stimulate all muscle groups in the body with as few exercises as possible, therefore saving time and energy. Training should be efficient, with every exercise having a specific purpose that contributes positively towards the goal of strength and hypertrophy.

This training philosophy is the reason why compound exercises are so popular

A compound movement can be defined as any exercise that engages two or more different joints to fully stimulate entire muscle groups and, indeed, multiple muscles. Compound exercises are shown to recruit significantly greater amounts of total muscle fibers, allowing for more weight to be lifted. This is important when looking at ways in which to progress at the fastest rate.

man strength training with heavy squats

I will use a simplistic example of two exercises that focus on lower body development to demonstrate my point:

Squat – 100kg Leg extension – 20kg 20% increased strength over time Squat – 120kg Leg extension – 24kg

Even when the rate of progression is identical, the progression in exercise load is far greater with compound exercises such as a squat. This equates to more mechanical tension and increased total muscle fiber recruitment, the two factors which are the foundation of strength and hypertrophy training.

What about isolation exercises?

Implementation of isolation exercises have a place in training programs, but not for beginners other than in rare circumstances. Joe DeFranco, a highly-regarded training programmer, emphasises that the role of isolation movements should be to provide additional direct work to a lagging body part due to genetic variances, body structure or the balance of a training program. The reality is that the entire body and strength level of beginners is a weak point, and therefore isolation work has little importance outside of experienced lifters.

man strength training with dumbbells

Adding single-joint exercises to programs focusing on multi-joint exercises has consistently shown to provide no additional improvement to strength or muscle growth in untrained individuals. A study saw no differences in arm growth, after a 10 week training program in 29 untrained males, between a group performing only the lat pulldown and bench press, as opposed to a group performing the lat pulldown, bench press, bicep curls and tricep extensions [18].

Within the category of compound lifts, there is no right or wrong answer in which ones to choose, although some may be slightly superior to others.

EMG studies compare the different degrees of muscle recruitment in various exercises by measurement of the electric signal transmission for muscle tissue. An EMG study showed a larger degree of glute and hamstring activation for a Romanian deadlift compared to a glute-ham raise, even when load variations were accounted for [17].

However, the degree of muscle activation and total load used between the exercises were not significant enough for one to stress over which is the superior choice. Minor differences in compound lift effectiveness are not of great value in long-term results.

Below are a list of compound exercises that individuals should be focusing on:

  • Squats OR Front Squats
  • Deadlifts OR Stiff-Legged Deadlifts OR Romanian Deadlifts OR Glute-Ham Raise
  • Overhead Press OR Push Press
  • Bench Press OR Close Grip Bench Press OR Dips
  • Pullups OR Chinups OR Lat Pulldown
  • Barbell Rows OR Pendlay Rows

Summary – Focus on compound lifts.

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17) McAllister MJ, Hammond KG, Schilling BK, Ferreira LC, Reed JP, Weiss LW. 2014. Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 28(6):1573-80.
18) Gentil P, Soares SR, Pereira MC, da Cunha RR, Martorelli SS, Martorelli AS, Bottaro M. 2013. Effect of adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise resistance-training program on strength and hypertrophy in untrained subjects. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 38(3):341-4.