You heard it here first… doing bicep curls to gain maximum muscle is like drinking a cup of green tea and expecting it to give you the same buzz as a coffee. Ok perhaps I am being a little facetious with the article title, but as I delve further into this article you will see why.
If your goal is to grow maximum muscle tissue in as minimum amount of time as possible (which is limited as it is), you need to be able to also stimulate maximum muscle tissue with an exercise and most importantly, have the ability to progress consistently.
To grow muscle tissue, progression in the weights room is a necessity!
Whether you progress in the amount of weight you lift with each exercise, increase the total weight lifted for the entire session or stimulate the muscle more frequently each week with additional training sessions, the end point still needs to be a progression in performance.
And therein lies the problem with focusing too much on isolation movements (1 joint involved) such as the bicep curl to grow maximum muscle.
- Isolation movements only generate force through one primary muscle group (biceps)
- Isolation movements generally can not handle high weight or volume
- Isolation movements are low bang for buck exercises
On the contrary, compound exercises (more than 2 joints involved):
- Generate force through multiple muscles
- Tolerate high weight and high volume well
- Are maximum bang for maximum buck in their benefits
So, as you can see, there are some notable differences between isolation and compound exercises and the reason for doing fewer curls to increase muscle growth goes as follows.
A compound exercise like the dumbbell row, allows you to use a heavier weight than your biceps can handle in a strict bicep curl, despite still placing the bicep in a flexed position while simultaneously completing shoulder extension and scapular retraction for the back muscles.
In essence, a dumbbell row is maximally activating the target muscle in the back, but also the secondary muscle in the arm flexors such as the bicep.
Week in week out you should be able to progress in either weight lifted or volume achieved in a compound exercise, whereas it is extremely difficult to follow the same consistent progression on an isolation exercise without changing the repetition or set scheme.
Does this mean you should drop isolation altogether, though? No, absolutely not.
But your primary focus should never be on isolation exercises but instead, they should be used to produce a volume overload.
An example may be something like this:
As you can see, the set volume remains constant for the compound exercises in weeks 1 through to week 4 as it is expected of the trainee to be able to progress in weight on these, whereas the isolation exercises use forced volume progression through additional sets only.
Following this protocol will allow for maximum intensity and volume progression, which are the 2 primary variables responsible for increasing muscle growth. Similarly, the risk of injury and joint pain in the smaller target muscle group (biceps) is reduced, as the trainee is not required to focus on heavy weight lifting progressions in the isolation exercises but instead can rely on an increase in sets to achieve more volume.
Remember... gaining muscle is about training both hard and smart.
Lifting volume is the number 1 stimulator of muscle growth and it should be measured in order to ensure optimal growth is achieved.
Knowing this, a training program should, therefore, focus on ensuring volume progression can be achieved in an efficient manner but it should also ensure there is as minimal risk for injury as possible.
So where to from here?
Focus less on the isolation exercises for heavy weight lifting and instead use them as secondary exercises to help stimulate further growth with a low risk of injury.