Everybody always wants to know what the ‘best exercise’ is.
This is great, but it’s much like asking what the best food is, what the best macro split is, what the best volume is, the best intensity is, or any of the other training variables we’re covering in this series.
What’s best will always depend on a number of factors, from who you ask, to what the goal is, to genetics, body type, schedule, recovery capacity, and a whole host of other factors.
In this article, we’ll aim to give some basic recommendations regarding exercise selection, set some guidelines, and look at what’s best when it comes to various scenarios.
In a broad sense, exercises can be classed as isolation (single joint) exercises, and compound (multi-joint) exercises.
As the names suggest, isolation moves involve the use of just one joint, and usually one muscle group. Bicep curls, calf raises and tricep pushdowns are all good examples.
Compound moves involve using multiple joints and muscle groups, such as the squat, deadlift or bench press.
Most of the research suggests that when it comes to strength and size, compound exercises have the edge. By focusing on more muscle groups, you’re creating a bigger training response, and also hitting several areas at once, meaning training is far more efficient. (1-4)
On the other hand, some studies show that single-joint exercises may have an advantage when it comes to DOMS. (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.) (5) While DOMS itself isn’t necessarily an indicator of muscle hypertrophy, it’s usually a good sign that muscle damage and metabolic stress have occurred, both of which are mechanisms of muscle growth.
One study even found no difference between compounds and isolations in terms of strength and size. (6) It should be noted, however, that this was performed on untrained men, so they were likely to see a positive result simply from resistance training period, regardless of what they did.
Pros and Cons of Isolation vs. Compound
Using mainly compound exercises means you’re going to be training far more efficiently. For example, if you were doing a full-body workout, with compounds you could hit pretty much every muscle group by doing squats, deadlifts, incline bench presses and pull-ups.
It may not be the most effective workout ever, but every major muscle would receive a reasonable amount of stimulus.
Using isolations however, you’d need calf raises, leg extensions, leg curls, straight-arm pulldowns, lateral raises, flyes, bicep curls and tricep pushdowns to hit everything.
Not only is this far less efficient, you’ll need to use lighter loads, and may not get as big a training response, as you’re not recruiting as many muscle fibers or motor units on each rep.
Regardless of your goals - strength, size, or fat loss - it makes sense to have a routine that includes compound moves. Between 60 and 80% would be a good range to shoot for unless you have specific goals surrounding particular muscle groups.
Those training for strength will likely favour compounds more. A powerlifter for example will want to improve their squat, bench and deadlift, and so while they’ll do these lifts regularly, it makes a lot more sense for them to also use compound moves for their accessory exercises, as something like a front squat or safety bar squat has a lot more carryover to a back squat than leg extensions and calf raises.
When bodybuilding-style training is more the goal, compounds should still be the focus, but isolations play more of a role.
This is because with some smaller muscle groups, a higher level of activity is almost always present in isolation exercises. Take the biceps for example; While they are stimulated by chin-ups and rows, because the prime movers for these are actually the muscles of the lats and rhomboids, the biceps aren’t stimulated as much as they are in something like a concentration curl or cable curl. (7)
From a fat loss perspective, the same recommendations apply, but compounds may also have a slight extra edge for the fact the calorie burn from them is marginally higher.
Now we’ve established most of a routine should be based around compounds, it’s important to think about specific exercises.
Again, there are no ‘must do’ or ‘must avoid’ exercises.
A program should include 6 types of movement -
- A knee-dominant movement (Squats, lunges, leg press, etc.)
- A hip-dominant movement (Deadlifts, pull-throughs, glute ham raises, etc.)
- A vertical push (Shoulder press variations)
- A horizontal push (Bench presses, press ups, dips, etc.)
- A vertical pull (Chin-ups, lat pulldowns, etc.)
- A horizontal pull (Rowing variations.)
Most people will do well focusing on variations of the squat, bench press and deadlift, along with rows and pull-ups or pulldowns. If you’re training for powerlifting, your training needs to be specific, i.e. you need to be doing the barbell back squat, barbell deadlift, barbell bench press, and their variations.
For everyone else, these are still fine exercises, and should most probably be included, but there’s also scope to have a little more variety.
You need to be doing exercises you’re comfortable with, and that fit your goals.
That means if you’re looking to build muscle, back squats are great, if you can do them pain-free. If not, you’re going to be looking at similar exercises that mimic the same movement pattern. Front squats for example, or safety bar squats, or even something like belt squats or goblet squats.
If these aren’t doable, single-leg exercises like lunges or split squats would be an alternative.
The key is to stick closely to the basic free-weight compound moves, but don’t feel like they’re absolutely essential, unless you’re planning on competing in them.
It’s important to include variety in a program. Research shows that changing exercise variation may actually be more effective than changing loading schemes for strength and size. (8) You see this in training modalities like the conjugate method, made famous by the Westside Barbell lifters.
They would frequently change their exercises, usually on a weekly basis, and experiment with many different variations.
So instead of always doing back squats in their lower-body workouts, they’d work up to a heavy back squat one week, do box squats the next, paused squats the week after, then use a cambered bar, then add bands and chains, and so on. They may only do the same exercise they started with after 6-8 weeks of training.
This takes exercise variety to the extreme, and it’s not necessarily the ‘best’ approach, but it shows how it can be done.
On the flip side, it’s still important to have consistency, otherwise it’s very difficult to tell if you’re progressing. And, unless you’re extremely advanced, you can become slightly detrained if you don’t do an exercise often enough.
Like most things, a moderate approach is probably best.
If you’re progressing well, there’s no need to change an exercise, or worry about made up terms like ‘muscle confusion.’ But you also don’t want to be doing the same exercises all the time.
We’ve set up the training templates inside MyPhysique so it provides just enough variety to keep things interesting and maintain progress whatever your goal, but without constantly chopping and changing, in order to allow you to make the most progress you possibly can for the duration of the time you run your chosen template.