You’ve heard me go on and on about this before. I just don’t get the single joint movements. You know. . . the biceps curl, the leg extension, the calf raise. . .
It’s not that these movements are inherently evil. It’s that they are thieves of your time. Why do a bicep curl when a pull up is going to hit the biceps and the lats and the shoulders in the same amount of time? Why hit the bicep curl when the movement is seldom, if ever reproduced in real life activity?
If you’ve been hitting the single joint movements and you want a taste of the other side of the fence, here is a quick and dirty crib sheet for your conversion to the “other side”:
Build Muscle Lose Fat
- Bicep Curls vs. Pull Ups. Pull ups, chin ups, call ’em what you want. All I care is that you have full extension at the bottom of the movement and your chin is above the bar at the top of the movement. How you place your hands is up to you. The pullup will work the bicepsa just like a curl will, but it will also give you a crazy strong back.
- Leg Extensions vs. Squats And don’t give me crap about focusing on specific “heads” of the quadriceps unless you shave all of your body hair and have a lifetime supply of bronzer at home. If you are a competitive bodybuilder and that fulfills you mentally and spiritually, have at it. But if you’re the average “joe” or “jane” who reads this site, ditch the leg extension machine for some real deal squats. As my buddy Craig Ballantyne says , “The squat can’t be beat when it comes to building muscle & losing fat”
- Flys vs. Presses. Have you been doing shoulder “flies”? Shame on you. When does your body even remotely reproduce that movement in real life? Answer: NEVER! Same goes for chest flies. If you are going to lay down on a bench, at least press some shit instead of flying some shit.
- Calf Raises vs. Box Jumps. Yes, I said jump. Just what do you think your calf muscles are there for? To provide swift changes in direction laterally and vertically? Or to do the rhythmic up-and-down happy dance under a weight stack while your shoulders are pinched under vinyl clad cushions? Jump rope, do box jumps, or just sprint your ass off for 100 meters. The calves are meant for high impact movements – anything else is a waste of time.
And don’t get me started on triceps inverted rows and what not. Yes, these have a place for some athletes (powerlifters for example). But for your average nine to five Joe just looking to get in shape and look good, single joint movements are inefficient at best and a damn near complete waste of time at worst.
Let me be clear: a compound movement involves two or more joints. That’s it. That’s the secret sauce. For lower body ask yourself if you are using your hip and your knee. For upper body, ask yourself if you are you using your elbow and shoulder. If yes, proceed with maximum intensity!
If you’re not already doing things like squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, burpees, pushups and pullups – please raise your right hand and give yourself a swift “bitch slap” across the face. It’s time to leave the kiddy workouts behind and move on to the big boy workouts 🙂
P.S. – Do you do single joint movements? If so which ones? And if you’ve switched from single joint to compound have you seen a big difference? Leave me a comment below, Im interested to hear your story…
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Haha! Your bitch slap comment had me laughing for a long time. I’m really glad I starting everything off right instead of wasting time on silly machines. I’ve already seen results in only half a month!
Nothing keeps you motivated like quick results. Awesome.
I have actually gone a step further and am training the Russian way: only Deadlifts and Bent Presses. Every evening is a pullup program. Rest days mean training accessory exercises and conditioning work.
Sounds like a solid program too me. I’ll take it even further and say that if all someone did was deadlift, they’d be better off than most people in the big box gyms.
Yes, I switched from single joint…3 sets of 10 to 12, to FULL ON INSANE RUGGED BEASTLY FULL BODY MOVEMENTS.
I may bust out a couple sets of curls after a dirty dirty park workout, on my York barbell. But you wont catch me lifting anything chrome or using any cables to pump my arms.
Unless of course the cable is attached to my truck and im pulling the damn thing across the parking lot!!!
KILL IT JUNKIES!!
Oh man. You are the Ultimate Junkie! Keep killin’ it Mike. 🙂
Have I mentioned lately… VIC.. YOU sir are my HERO? Awww man…you know how much I LOVE playing with the BIG BOYS.. hell yeah.. and just so you know… i told my class yesterday…their xmas this present this year is the burpee ladder drill challenge… 20 burpees down to 1… yeah..I know you say it’s a killer..that’s the reason I’m saving it for XMAS for them…and in the meantime we will be ‘training’ up to it.. starting off the ladder drill with 5 and working our way up to big 20 by XMAS! Great great article as always VIC…your pics look might damn good BOY… (on a ‘personal note”… open your heart..there is one damn fine woman out there for you…who will appreciate YOU for all that you are… and that would be one fine amazing MAN, Vic Magary! I hope you know I mean that with affection as well! ) xoL 🙂
Aww, Lisa. . . you’re making me get all choked up and I’m not even joking. Thanks. 🙂
Walk step your ladies carefully through that burpee drill. I say this with all seriousness, I might NEVER do that drill again. It sucks that bad when you go all out. Enjoy!
I must confess to also being a single joint mover, but your article talk alot of sense.
Im going to to stick with the basic compound movements from now on, and lose the isolation stuff.
thanks for your articles, they are always informative, i look forward to the next!
Thanks, John. If you don’t have all day to workout, then compound movements are the only way to go.
Oooohhhh you want mnore examples of bad form, here are some of the ones that make me cringe at my Globo-gym…
1. Man, (and only men do this) straddles the bench and takes a seat. He has a small barbell in both hands, and he leans forward to rest on his elbows, and begins “forearm curls”.
2. Woman sits down on the lat pulldown machine and uses ONE plate of weight, busts out her reps and demonstrates NO attention to form or resistance.
3. Shoulder presses with dumbbells where they bring their elbows right down to their ribs and turn the weights so the inside of the wrist is facing their chest, then as they start back up they twist the wrist back into the standard shoulder press wrist position.
4. The “Captain’s Chair”. There is no such thing as proper form for this machine. It’s infernal and an insidious waste of time.
Why eat a peanut when you can eat an almond, and why do a bicep curl when you can attempt a pullup?
I love the peanut / almond analogy. And I don’t even know what a “Captain’s Chair” is. But apparently, I don’t want to know! Thanks Dan. 🙂
I’ve been doing only compound exercises for a number of years. I don’t know why push-ups are still so hard for me. I never manage to get upper body almost touching the floor. Any ideas? Any chance language could be a bit ”cleaned up’or is that part and parcel of your approach? Sorry, just being honest here. Rosalie
For the push ups, try putting a “target” under your upper body. Something just barely outside of your current range of motion. Maybe a paper cup, a roll of toilet paper, a hat, really anything. Once you can consistently bring your upper body to the target, switch to something else just a little bit closer to the ground. Keep up this process until you can go full range of motion.
As far as the language, I sincerely appreciate all constructive feedback. As popular as the internet has become, I suppose us bloggers are lucky there isn’t a rating system getting slapped on our home pages. I’ll go ahead and slap one on my self. PG-13. Probably PG most of the time. I can’t think of anything I’ve posted rated R. But let’s go with PG-13 to be safe.
To give you a direct response, no. The occasional shit, bitch, damn, hell, and bastard are gonna still pop up. Hell, I’m not above dropping the f-bomb in a post (I certainly do in “real life”). But I hope I use it more as an exclamation point to draw attention to something particularly important and not just cursing for cursing’s sake.
I sincerely value your feed back and your readership. I hope you value my honesty.
I love your no frills, PG-13 approach. It makes you seem more real and more approachable, to me at least.
Thanks, Erica. 🙂
Something I picked up from another blog recently which was a major “A-HA!” moment for me was the angle at which your arms are at during pushups. If you were looking straight down from the ceiling at yourself in the pushup position, your upper arms should be at about a 45 degree angle to the centerline of your body, like this: /I
Try to avoid them being 90 degrees, or looking like a capital “T”. This will give you a more controllable, more comfortable pushup with a much greater range of motion. Did for me, anyways.
Also, tucking the elbows back can (for some people) reduce shoulder strain in the push up. For years I did push ups in the “T” fashion you mention. Now I keep them at the 45 degree or even closer to the body most of the time and it has helped keep my shoulders healthy I believe.
Vic, you’ve improved my workout lately. I am certainly seeing results. It’s not that I couldn’t do these things previously but your sense of humor and encouragement got me to do it. If I can press a kettlebell over my head, I can do good mornings with a deadlift and a barbell.
It’s amazing–lots of “women’s” type classes have participants do these compound movements with little, little weights but we’re hesitant to go harder. Don’t be afraid ladies! Get that barbell and put it over your head, squat, and don’t let anyone tell you that you need litle weights and single joint movements. Get out of the gym faster and have a real life while looking great!
I couldn’t have said it better myself, Marilyn. Keep spreading the word that ladies need to lift big!
I do use isos for dynamic stretching at the end of a workout and nothing else. In my opinion for anyone who can’t squat around twice their bodyweight, isos won’t help them. Squats, Deadlifts and closed kinetic chain exercises are the only ones I do at the moment.
A double body weight squat is a damned good lift. A fine goal to shoot for (no, I’m not quite there 265lb. squat at 155lb body weight).
right on Vic ! great post, you got me all pumped for my afternoon workout !
Hit it hard, Colin!
Yah, I’ve always been into working out… always did the isolation moves tho… and never seemed to really advance or see real changes in my body composition … then I figured it out, found out about complex moves and WHAMMO! Instant abs, lots of definition all over, dropped fat like mad.. seriously!! Not kidding. I do them all the time now, sometimes combined with SOME *heavy* isolation moves for strength & muscle gain. I’ll never give up my complex moves now that I’ve found them!! they rock!!
awesome post. totally awesome.
Thanks, Jackie! Everyone be sure to check out Jackie’s blog to see someone in the trenches getting fit in the real world. http://www.girlwithnoname.com
I’ve never had big biceps, but I’ve always been able to throw a lot of weight around (and not just my gut). I really wish I could duplicate the full motion of splitting wood with an 8# maul. Great for the shoulders, back, abs, legs, hands and heart.
I’ve been doing some isolated things, but definitely like the way you are approaching this.
I use an 8lb. sledge hammer into an old tire to get that effect. Great exercise for sure.
I like the basic idea of this post: natural, compound movements (i. e. sometimes combining two groups, for example, biceps and pecs on the bench press, arms and back with pull-ups, etc.)
I’m exactly the average 9 to 5 Joe that you mention. I tried your basic workout program to get more volume, and it worked (honestly, I also increased my protein intake).
But I have a question: If the body gets accustomed to an exercise, with which exercise can I replace the squats? (i do want to work this area, but I already got strong thighs).
Anyway, it’s time for me to change the routine. A friend suggested that I never do the same exercises more than three weeks (to continuously “shock” the body). What do you think?
Certain movements should NOT be replaced. And the squat is one of those movements. Change the load (from heavy weight 1 rep max efforts to high rep bodyweight squats), change the frequency (once per week, twice per week, every other week), change your rest interval between sets, change the dynamics of the movement (back squat, front squat, overhead squat), but DO NOT replace the movement.
You rock, Vic.
Completely agree about the compound movements- I did isolation excercises for years and saw no increases in strength. Isolating ab excercises were the worst- I can’t believe how much time I wasted on sit ups. Now I know you can get a killer ab workout with dumbell squats, chinups, and pushups.
Im wanting to impove on pull ups though (palms facing away),and am finding it hard since my grip strength just seems to ‘give out’ after a few. I think my form is off too since my shoulders feel strained. Any tips?
Love the swift-kick-in-the-butt approach.
Use of a band assisted pull up might prove beneficial. Also, I hear about shoulder strain in pushing movements but not too often in pulling motions – it’s certainly possible your form is off. Have a qualified trainer check your technique if you can.
I did some amazing HIIT this morning in pouring rain, cold miserable rain. (Boy do I feel good!) And now I open my inbox and the first mail is your’s – it just hits me in the face! But in a good way! I love LOVE your language please dont ever change it!!
Long story short, I am a doctor of alternative medicine and I was conducting health check ups in our company. This guy had been going to a gym quite regularly. He asked me about some fat loss and toning up and of course I told him about your website and was talking about dead lifts. He asked me -brace yourself – “whats a deadlift?!!” I just shut up after that. But that is the pathetic situation here and I have been to many high end gyms.
Your advice is pure gold Vic. You rock!!
Thanks, Sangita! People don’t know about the deadlift and squat in part because it is hard work. Too many people want the magic pill or machine that is going to cure what ails them. Move heavy weight. That’s the cure in a lot of cases.
I suppose there is a proper time and place for everything, including isolation movements. I suffered a disc injury 6 months ago with paralyzing nerve damage to my left leg. I have had to use various isolaton exercises to maintain movement and to re-gain strength in my left hip, thigh, calf and ankle. These movements have greatly improved the targeted muscles.
BUT, if you are looking for weight loss and muscle gain, compound exercises are the only way to go! I’ve lost 55 pounds and built a toned, hot body….if I may brag ;)….by using the exercises you describe and common sense nutrition.
Also, I was absolutely shocked at how quickly my injured body lost muscle tone and strength. After only one month of having limited mobility in my leg, it had shrunk noticeably smaller than the other one! This was a good visual to drive home the “Use it or lose it” message!
I love your “kick in the pants” attitude, Vic. Keep it coming!
Very true. There is a place and a time for many isolation movements, and you give a perfect example.
And big contrats on your weight loss. Awesome!
“Just what do you think your calf muscles are there for? To provide swift changes in direction laterally and vertically? Or to do the rhythmic up-and-down happy dance under a weight stack while your shoulders are pinched under vinyl clad cushions?”
I love it 😀 It’s also quite sad though, there are millions of people out there that are wasting huge portions out of their life doing useless boring exercises in a gym – and to top it off, they have to pay money for the privilege!
Right you are, Elliot. Plenty of people do waste their precious time in the gym. If we all spread the word, maybe the calf raise machine will someday go the way of the dinosaur. Thanks!
Although I do squats,chest press and overhead press,I do not have the upper body strenght to do a pullup.I have lost 55 lbs,but still am 25lbs overweight.I am a 6ft woman and can barely do two mens pushups.Are weights like bicep curls building blocks for the wimpy?(sigh of embarrassment)
No, single joint movements are not building blocks for the compound movements. Instead use movements that take you through the full range of motion that you are looking for. That means finding some alternatives for the unassisted pull up: body rows or band assisted pull ups are my go-to recommendations. Good luck!
ok heres what I would like If you were to give a basic gym routine what would it be. Also do to bad shoulders I cannot do pull ups
If I were to give a basic gym routine it would be this:
If the pull up hurts your shoulders, then don’t do them. If you can find another pulling motion that does not hurt your shoulders such as one arm rows or body rows, then replace the pull up with those movements. Good luck!