The WeighTrainer

Making A Strength/Size Routine Part I: Exercise Selection

by Casey Butt

The first thing that has to be considered when putting together a resistance routine of any type is exercise selection. This will factor into the workout duration and split of your finished routine. I'm going to split weight training exercises into two categories (in order of priority):

  1. Compound Exercises
  2. Isolation Exercises

Compound Exercises

These are exercises that involve more than one major muscle and involve the movement of move than one joint. Examples would be Squats, Bent-Over Rows, Bench Presses, Military Presses, and so on. The collective experience of generations of weight trainers teaches that these are the most effective movements for producing gains in strength and muscle size. Let's look at what exercise science has to say about the compound exercises.

Hormonal Response: Numerous studies have indicated that weight training exercises that recruit large muscle masses (i.e. the compound exercises) result in the largest anabolic hormonal response by the body. The proportions of anabolic hormones (mainly growth hormone and testosterone) secreted are thought to be functions of factors such as total muscle mass recuited, exercise intensity, rep count and rest between sets - with lower rep sets and longer breaks between them favoring testosterone release and higher rep sets and shorter breaks between them favoring growth hormone (hGH). The more total muscle mass involved, the higher the hormone levels rise. For this reason, Squats will cause a greater hormonal response than Bench Presses.

There has been some speculation that the anabolic hormone release due to these exercises is of no significance because it is only a transient effect (it goes away a short while after your workout). I tend to disagree with this for a few reasons. They are:

  1. As was explained in the Muscular Growth: How Does A Muscle Grow? article on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page, testosterone increases satellite cell sensitivity to the growth factors IGF-1 and FGF. These satellite cells perform a vital role because they provide the means by which muscle cells increase their nuclei - which they must do if substantial growth is to take place. This is important after training because it is at that time that growth factors are released (in response to training) which have marked effects on the satellite cells' proliferation and differentiation. In this way, the hormonal effects of the compound exercises may have long-term effects, even though their increased levels are only temporary.
  2. Testosterone directly increases protein synthesis and the muscle cell's sensitivity to testosterone is increased after training (androgen receptors are upregulated). This may help counter the increased protein degradation that also occurs at that time.
  3. It has been shown that weight trained individuals have greater night time growth hormone outputs than untrained people. Whether this effect is caused by neural or substrate factors, it is only logical to conclude that the compound exercises would promote this more so than exercises which involve smaller muscle masses.

In addition, free weight exercises, as opposed to machine exercises, involve a large number of smaller stabilizer muscles in order to secure joints and maintain balance during their execution. This increases the total muscle mass involved to more than just the main muscles targeted in the exercise (the prime movers). Exercise machines, with their confined paths of movement, reduce the recruitment of these stabilizer muscles to assist in the motion and, therefore, result in less total muscle mass engaged, and less of a hormonal response stimulated. This fact supports free weights over machines for building muscular strength and size.

Stressing The Muscles At Their Optimum Range For Producing Force: Borrowing a section from the The Neuromuscular System series on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page:

The compound exercises, generally, heavily stress the muscles involved in the optimum range referred to in the excerpt above. This is not to imply that they don't provide stress in other ranges, because they certainly do. But unlike many isolation movements, the bulk of the stress is delivered where it is most productive for building strength and size - the muscles' optimum length for generating force. This is what is meant when people speak of compound exercises hitting the "belly" of the muscle (whether they realize the physiology of it or not).

Real World Strength: From a strength perspective, by also strengthening joint stabilizing muscles, free weight exercises lead to increases in functional strength. Balance is also improved because of the coordination needed between muscles in order to perform the lifts. Exercise machines remove these factors from the lift and, hence, result in the trainee becoming stronger in the plane of motion fixed by the lift, but not necessarily in movements requiring motion outside of this plane. From a more intuitive standpoint: When's the last time you came across a leg press outside of the gym? But there are many times when the body has to mimic a squatting motion. Free weight compound exercises build athletic strength.

For the above reasons (and the fact that no other exercises can duplicate these attributes) the free weight compound exercises should form the core of any strength/size program. Any exercises added to a strength/size program in addition to these should be done in an accessory fashion if recovery ability permits (this will be dealt with later) or if the isolation exercises are done for injury rehabilitation or prevention.

The core compound exercises are:

Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises typically involve the movement of only one joint - examples would be leg extensions and dumbell flyes. They are called "isolation" exercises because they serve to reduce the involvement of assisting muscles and deliver most of the stress to the target muscle(s) specifically - working them selectively in "isolation". In addition, isolation exercises usually have the further defining characteristic of maximally stressing the muscles involved in either their stretched positions or their contracted positions. This means that they do not deliver optimum stress along the muscle's optimum range for producing force - the very nature of the muscles' strength (weaker) in the elongated (stretched) or contracted position prohibits this (see the The Neuromuscular System series for reference). Isolation exercises also, because of less total muscle mass being involved, cannot stimulate the same degree of anabolic hormone secretion as the compound exercises. In addition, by their very nature, they cannot stimulate the production of functional strength across several muscle groups, as the compound exercises can.

However, one thing they can do, that compound exercises can't, is work a particlular muscle in relative isolation. Thus increasing growth stimulation and causing the local release of growth factors leading to the isolated growth of that specific muscle (see the Muscle Growth series). Isolation exercises that maximally stress the muscles involved in their stretched positions may even be able to further stimulate growth by fostering the stretch-induced release of specific prostaglandins implicated in the growth process (primarily PGE2 and PGF2-alpha). They may also cause the muscle to add sarcomeres in series, making it appear 'fuller' (for more information on this see the article entitled Are Partial Range Movements Useful?). This ability to target very specific areas make isolation exercises of particular value to advanced bodybuilders looking to refine their muscular development. But, unless in the interest of injury rehabilitation, no isolation exercise should ever impede the progress of a free weight compound exercise in a program aimed at strength and/or size.

Let's split the isolation exercises into three groups: exercises that place the majority of the load on the stretched position of the muscle, exercises that place the majority of the stress on the contracted postition of the muscle and exercises that strengthen the stabilizer muscles of the body (often used for injury rehabilitation and prevention).

Exercises that place the majority of the load on the stretched position of the muscle: These are familiar exercises such as Dumbell Flyes and Preacher Curls. In addition to stretched-induced prostaglandin release and the potential adding of sarcomeres in series, there is some speculation that by applying load to a muscle while in its stretched position it may be possible to actually stretch the epimysium (fascia) surrounding the muscle. It is theorized that this stretched fascia would afford the muscle a less constricted compartment in which to grow and/or acquire a more asthetically pleasing shape. For bodybuilders this would be of some importance. Taking a section from the Are Partial Range Movements Useful? article:

It may also be possible, by stretching the muscle, to engage a higher percentage of muscle fibers in the subsequent contraction. This occurs through the 'myotatic' reflex. The myotatic reflex exists to protect the joints from sudden hyperextension. When quickly stretched, proprioceptors within the muscle's connective tissues (nerve endings that relay information about the musculoskeletal system to the central nervous system) send signals to the spine which indicate this stretch. Reflexively, the muscle attempts to resist the change in length by contracting suddenly. Sudden stretching, or stretching under load also causes Na+ channels to open, thereby setting off a contraction. The more sudden and extreme the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions will be. Some bodybuilding theorists have concluded that this reflex may be of use for delivering the training stimulus to the muscles. It's thought that engaging the myotatic reflex will result in more powerful muscle contractions.

This reflex, and it's subsequent more forceful contraction, forms a partial basis for plyometric training. As you can probably gather, quickly stretching a muscle under load can be a very dangerous practice. Proper conditioning and a gradual introduction of plyometric training is of paramount importance if it is to be used. Most plyometric trainees realize the risks inherent with this style of training and approach it with due precaution - it's a risk they're willing to take. Utmost care must be taken when incorporating any movement which quickly stretches the muscle - especially in it's elongated position. You should also be aware that the myotatic reflex affects mostly type I fibers, so it may not make much of an impact on type II training (i.e. what we're mainly interested in) at all. In addition, it is also suspected that the reflex decreases with repeated bouts.

It should also be considered that the negative (eccentric) phase of the lift is at least as important as the concentric phase in building strength/size. The eccentric phase actually causes more damage to the individual muscle fibers than the concentric phase - although, less total fibers are involved - thus facilitating the release of more local growth factors. Rapidly stretching a muscle would, by the very nature of the movement, reduce the time of the negative contraction. It may be possible that any potential stimulus delivered by the increased contractile force of the myotatic reflex would be offset by the stimulus lost from the reduced loading during the eccentric phase. The weight trainer should seek to exploit all of the possible muscle stimulation benefits of the eccentric phase of the lift by controlling the negative portion at a deliberate pace - not dropping the weight suddenly. If the trainee wishes to incure any of the possible benefits of the myotatic reflex, the negative portion of the lift should only be allowed to accelerate slightly over a very short distance when the muscle approches its most elongated position - and then it must be remembered that this can be a very dangerous practice, requiring substantial skill. Considering the fact that the myotatic reflex can also diminish over time by repeatedly performing such style movements, and that the deliberate style necessary for their safe performance itself reduces the reflex, very little benefit may actually be gained from this style training - with a considerably increased risk of injury.

Because of their ability to isolate a muscle, and the above legitimate merits, exercises that place the majority of the load on the stretched position can have a place in a strength/size routine. But as they, by nature, produce less stress in the muscles optimum length, and elicit minimal systemic anabolic hormone response, they should only be included in the routine if their presence in no way effects strength gains in the free weight compound exercises. Most drug-free, genetically average people will find that they can prosper from the addition of a few carefully selected stretched-position exercises in their routines - but no more. The majority of their efforts should be channeled into the compound exercises.

It must also be mentioned that free weight versions of these exercises are, once again, superior to their machine counterparts because they allow for more complete control of movements.

A limited list of examples of these exercises would be:

Exercises that place the majority of the load on the contracted position of the muscle: These are what are commonly called the 'peak contraction' exercises. They include such exercises as Cable Crossovers and Concentration Curls. Advanced bodybuilders claim that these exercises help them achieve muscle separation and striations (when combined with a fat loss diet). Consider, once again, the following section from the The Neuromuscular System series:


This clearly shows that all 'peak contractions' are necessarily 'weak' by the physiological factors governing them, and this limits their potential for producing muscular growth.

However, in personal training experience I have found that such 'peak contraction' exercises have one very valuable asset: They can help a lifter establish a strong 'mind-muscle' link with a particular muscle/muscle group during compound exercises. The classic example is lifters who cannot 'feel' their chests working during Bench Presses. For them, their recruitment patterns during the exercise is such that the delts and triceps do the majority of the work, while the pecs remain 'under-recruited'. For such lifters I have had substantial success in having them perform peak contraction exercises for the chest in order to develop the ability to selectively recruit their pecs during exercise. This ability then carries over to the compound exercises and can turn exercises that were once ineffective, into effective ones. It is particularly effective for these trainees to perform the peak contraction exercise before the compound exercise in their routine.

This technique can be used with any muscle group.

However, as these exercises do little to increase strength or muscle mass directly, once the lifter establishes strong mind-muscle links during the performance of his/her 'trouble' compound exercises, then the peak contraction exercises should be relegated to a very minor position in the training program ...used primarily to maintain a strong neural connection to the troublesome muscle/muscle group. At that stage, the trainee is better channeling his/her efforts into the compound and stretch-position exercises. If a trainee has no problems 'feeling' the compound exercises in their target muscle groups, then the peak contraction exercises are not to be included in strength and muscle mass training routines.

Exercises that strengthen the stabilizer muscles of the body (often used for injury rehabilitation and prevention): The most popular examples of these type of exercises are ones that strengthen the external rotator muscles of the shoulders, such as L-Flyes and Cuban Presses. I include exercises that specifically strengthen the lower back and abdomen in this category as well, because this area stabilizes the torso and is prone to injury (especially if you Squat heavy - which, in all likelihood, you should). These type of exercises can hold a very crucial place in a strength/size routine and should be given a somewhat high priority.

The fact is that most weight trainers should include some of these types of movements in their routine whether they're nursing an injury or not. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Well, in weight training it holds especially true. If you injure yourself in the gym you were probably using improper form, were overtrained, dropped a weight on yourself or were too weak in a stabilizing muscle group to complete the lift - and you strained yourself. Don't wait until you get hurt to realize that you have a weak link, start strengthening it now.

Aside from the rather obvious benefits of injury prevention, strengthening a weak stabilizer muscle (or group) will increase your strength and allow you to target the prime movers in the compound exercises more effectively. The classic example is the person who's lower back gives out before his legs when he Squats heavy. The solution is not that the trainee stop Squatting and find another exercise to target the legs (usually the Leg Press), or that it is necessary for the trainee to pre-exhaust their quads before doing Squats so that such heavy weights in Squats need not be employed (though, for some trainees this approach has merit). The solution to a weak link is to STRENGTHEN IT!

Research indicates that when a stabilizer group's ability to secure the joint is exceeded, the nervous system will not fire the prime movers of the motion in full force. This is why some Bench Pressers experience increases in shoulder stability and strength when they start performing rotator cuff muscle exercises (specifically, exercises to strengthen two of the external rotators - the teres minor and the infraspinatus). Not only can exercises to strength muscles which assist in joint stabilty decrease the chances of injury, it can often increase strength in the compound movements - allowing these movement to fully stimulate the growth and strengthening of which they are capable.

Some exercises and muscle groups to receive attention are:

Choosing The Exercises

To lay the foundation of your program first pick one free-weight compound exercise for each of the body's major "bodyparts" - legs, back, chest and shoulders. The most effective choices will come from the following goup:

You will notice that I have listed the major bodyparts that each exercise targets in brackets after each one. These are, by no means, the only muscle groups that are hit during these exercises - they only represent the prime movers of each movement (more on this later).

After you have selected the compound exercises - the 'core' exercises of your routine - you should consider which stabilizer muscle groups you believe you should give special attention to. I recommend that most people should be doing an isolation exercise to strengthen the muscles of the rotator cuffs of the shoulders. The most common choice for this task is the Lying L-Flye (though there certainly are other effective movements for this purpose) - if you're unfamiliar with Lying L-Flyes check here. If you choose not to do Deadlifts in your routine (or even if you do) you should consider doing some specialized work for your lower back, such as Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Arched-Back Good Mornings, Reverse Hypers or Back Extensions.

Some trainees will find that, due to personal leverage factors, a specific bodypart will not be trained sufficiently by a compound exercise alone. If this is the case, you should add ONE free weight isolation exercise for that bodypart. If the problem is one of muscle recuitment due to an inability to 'feel' the muscle working then it should be a peak contraction exercise performed before the compound exercise in question. If the problem is one of poor muscle growth despite what 'feels' to be strong contractions during the compound exercise, then the added exercise should be a stretched position isolation exercise performed after the compound movement.

"What About My Arms and Calves?"

In a properly constructed strength and muscle mass routine specific 'isolation' exercises should, generally, be included for the biceps, triceps, abs and calves. These should be, however, isolation exercises that place the majority of stress on the muscle over its optimum range for developing force. These are exercises that many tend to consider 'basics' even though they are, in fact, isolation exercises. Examples are Standing Barbell Curls for the biceps, Lying Triceps Extensions for the triceps, Standing Calf Raises for the calf muscles, and Reverse Crunches for the abdominals.

Even with this is mind, it is often very effective for bodybuilders or strength trainees in pursuit of more body mass and strength to not perform any specific exercises for these groups. In those cases, Squats, Presses, Pull-Ups, Rows and Deadlifts provide adequate stimulation for all the body musculature. Bodybuilding legend Reg Park was noted for this approach when in a 'bulking' cycle. Incidently, Park was the second man in history to Bench Press 500 pounds (the first bodybuilder) and possible the first bodybuilder to Squat 600 pounds.

"But If I Don't Do Dumbell Laterals My Side Delts Will Shrink!"

Many trainees have the erroneous belief that isolation exercises are necessary because the compound exercises aren't enough to give them the stimulation to produce maximal growth. Many trainees will not try 'basics-first' training because of Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous admonition that a bodybuilder must perform many different exercises for full development. While this is, in fact, true over the long term and where advanced bodybuilding is concerned, for individual training cycles and lesser advanced trainees the compound movements are, without doubt, the most effective developer of balanced muscle mass and strength throughout the body. The compound exercises effectively train much more muscle than most trainees realize. As an example, even if you are not aware that Overhead Presses are intensely recruiting your side delts, they are. This is reflected in the fact that many of the pre-steroid era bodybuilders developed outstanding deltoids but trained primarily with overhead pressing movements exclusively. I, myself, have made significant deltoid gains while training for long periods with no specific isolation movements for the delts. I have, for many years, trained others successfully in this manner also. Likewise, all pressing movements effectively traing the triceps, Deadlifts (especially the Stiff-Legged variety) do train the hamstrings, and Pull-Ups and Rows train the biceps.

Effort and time that is placed into isolation exercises is effort and time that could be placed into more effective compound exercises. Only after the compound exercises have been trained sufficiently, and training time and energy permits, should isolation exercises be performed (excluding the special use of peak contraction exercises outlined above).

It may be interesting for you to note that the introduction of anabolic steroids and the widespread use of isolation exercise-laden routines entered into the bodybuilding world at around the same time - the early-to-mid 1960's. Was this just coincidence or was it that people couldn't gain on those types of routines without the steroids?


The first and foremost ingredient of any strength/size training routine must be the free-weight compound exercises. There may also be a need for specialized exercises for muscle groups that these exercises may not train adequately - primarily the biceps and calves. When these exercises have been decided upon, exercises that strengthen the stabilizing muscles of the body should be considered. Isolation exercises that place the majority of the load on the stretched position of the muscle should only be included if the weight trainer has the recovery abilities to tolerate and prosper from their inclusion. How do you know if you are one of those people? Judge everything by strength gains in the free-weight compound movements; if the inclusion of the stretch position exercises cause a ceasation in strength progress (as measured by per-workout fractional strength increases) in the free-weight compound movements, then they must be eliminated. The 'peak contraction' exercises can be used to establish a mind-muscle link with a particular muscle/muscle group, but do little to produce size and/or strength gains directly.

In future articles in the Making A Strength/Size Routine series on the 'Training Related' articles page, the complete construction of an effective strength/size routine will be developed.

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