Think that your biceps are lagging behind? Feel like your quadriceps are particularly weak?
If you’re relatively new to working out (as in about a year or less of training under your belt), the best way to bring up your biceps may not be just doing 5 versions of bicep curls. If you want stronger legs, hop off of the leg extension!
While isolating particular muscle groups is the common idea of how to make them bigger, and although bodybuilders do indeed use these kinds of exercises, for the beginning lifter they shouldn’t be your main focus. And if you’re just looking to bring up your quads because you think they’re weak, ask yourself what kinds of activities you’re doing that make you feel that way. Is it walking up the stairs? Is it trying to pick something up off the ground?
Working out for Muscle Size
If you could care less about how functional your muscles are or how much weight you can lift, it may be hard to convince you that your overall strength is still fundamental to those goals. Again, if all you wanted was bigger biceps, then surely you’d just need to do bicep curls? I’ll take a quote from two much smarter guys than me about this point:
“Your body has no reason to develop your biceps so that they grow out of proportion to other muscles on your body. That would make you biomechanically dysfunctional, and your body will resist that…your body will resist building big, costly muscles unless it perceives a reason to do so. That reason is strength.”
-The New Rules of Lifting – Alwyn Cosgrove & Lou Schuler
So would your biceps be better stimulated and motivated by a 20 pound bicep curl, or by a 165 pound bench press? Even bodybuilders know that for maximal gains, they need to include some more compound lifts. (Look up Ronnie Coleman squatting on youtube for some serious strength) This isn’t just for muscle fiber stimulation – your body’s hormone response to a lift like a bench press is much greater than simple bicep curls as well. And if you’re relatively new to training? The effects will be even greater. Not to mention those just starting out probably need to increase size everywhere: triceps, deltoids, pectorals and lats included!
Would you rather do this workout:
- Tricep Push-down: 5 sets of 20 reps
- Lateral Raises: 5 sets of 20 reps
- Bicep Curls: 5 sets of 20 reps
- Chest Flys: 5 sets of 20 reps
Or this workout?
- Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps
Working out for Muscle Function
There are a few occasions where if I feel someone has a weak muscle group that I’ll work them in isolation – most notably the glutes! But this isn’t to bring up lagging strength, it’s simply to get those muscles firing again so that they can do their part in a large exercise, such as a lunge.
When you get that burning or fatigued feeling in your quads after walking up a flight of stairs, wouldn’t it make more sense to strengthen your ability to perform the movement, rather than isolate and strengthen one of many muscles that works in the movement? Not to mention, even if your quadriceps were the faulty muscle group, training them via the leg extension doesn’t actually make them any better at walking up stairs.
You might find this exercise more effective for getting up stairs more easily.
This is similar to how being a fantastic swimmer doesn’t make you a fantastic runner. If you want to be good at an activity, you have to make sure you train that activity! Certainly it can be helped along with supplemental exercises, but focusing on the main movement you want to be good at will give you the best benefit!
Isolation exercises have their place. Bodybuilders use bicep curls to great effect, and powerlifters will sometimes isolate lagging muscle groups. But for most people, especially if you don’t already have a very solid base of strength, will get the most benefit from focusing on big, compound lifts. Isolation exercises are secondary.