One of the most age-old debates in strength and hypertrophy training is the value of multi-joint exercises compared to single joint exercises. In this article we will look at the benefits of both, and
I will explain why I still believe the best compound exercises or multi-joint movements are far superior than isolation movements for most people.
In a nutshell, multi-joint or compound movements are exercises that require multiple muscles, tendons, and ligaments to work at the same time, through the movement of more than one joint.
A prime example of this is the overhead press, where you stand in one position and push a barbell straight above you from your shoulder until your arms are locked out. As you start to lift and then lower the weight, both your shoulder and elbow joints move simultaneously, so therefore it is a multi-joint or compound exercise. Then take another example, this time from a single joint movement such as a one arm cable lateral raise. To complete a one arm cable lateral raise, you hold one cable down by your sides with your palm facing inwards before raising it to the side with a straight arm. The movement happens mostly at the shoulder joint, with the elbow joint remaining stationary.
Therefore, it is a single-joint exercise. So, which are better, single joint or multi joint exercises.
I will take an unbiased look at what the science says and then give my conclusion on which kind of exercises form the foundation of my programs and why.
A recent study from the National Library of Medicine compared:
“Single joint Vs mutli-Joint exercises and their effects on muscle size in young men “.
The study took 29 untrained young men and split them into two groups, one performing only single -joint exercises and the other only multi-joint exercises, twice per week, for a period of 10 weeks. The subjects had the thickness of their muscle evaluated by ultrasonography. The results showed both groups improving in muscle thickness with NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE IN THE TWO GROUPS.
This suggests that single joint exercises and multi-joint exercises are equally effective in eliciting hypertrophy (muscle growth) in untrained men.
So why do I still prefer the old school compound barbell and dumbbell movements in my programs.
Let’s break it down:
Multi-Joint Exercises will work more muscles at the same time.
OK we do not need a study to prove this. If you the the barbell deadlift for example we are literally firing up every muscle in the body. We hit the lats, the middle back, the hamstrings, the traps, the biceps, the quads calves, the neck to name just a few body part groups. Now if I have a client with limited time to dedicate to the gym, he would surely benefit from hitting as many muscles as possible in the least amount of time.
Multi- Joint Exercises are more Functional
Again, its logic that muscles rarely work in isolation in daily life movements. So, training each muscle to work together is the best way to develop functional strength. Functional strength exercises build strength that is transferable into real-world scenarios and help you with everyday movements. For example, a back squat is a similar movement to standing up from a seated position, but a leg extension machine isn’t similar to any real-world examples. Each of these exercises builds leg muscle, but multi-joint exercises have more value in real world activities.
Multi-Joint exercises burn more calories. Due to the fact that multi-joint movements engage more muscles than single- joint exercises do, multi joint movements also lead to more calories burned. Because of this, a routine that involves:
are likely to burn more calories than a routine that includes hamstring curls, leg extensions, straight arm rows, and chest flies. Not only will we burn more calories when we are training but also in the 48 hours after. This is known as EPOC or excess post exercise consumption.
Multi-Joint Movements make you Stronger
Again, not rocket science, multi-Joint movements engage many more muscles than isolation exercises, which allows you to move heavier loads. Because of this, you generate more mechanical tension, a vital aspect of the growth stimulus. Compound movements create more micro-damage to the muscles, which then repair stronger and bigger than before. The mutli-Joint exercises like the squat and the deadlift are always featured as heats in the World’s Strongest Man for a reason.
Finally Multi-Joint Exercises are EMPOWERING!!
My clients look so forward to seeing their PBs or their personal bests go up on the basic multi-joint exercises like their squat or their deadlift. Many of my clients came to me with a lot of insecurities and lack of self- esteem. They are not looking to be bodybuilders, they are looking for a new hobby which will make them stronger , fitter and leaner in the process. For this reason, my programs are so much more then finding the out the most efficient exercise for each muscle. These programs are to train the whole body and mind as one leaving people feel empowered and confident. There is no greater sense of achievement for someone to achieve a new victory EVERY month they are on my program.
To conclude I would base most of my programs around the basic mutli-joint exercises. Studies aside, I have seen men literally EXPLODE in size and strength, after going from training one body part per day with loads of isolation or single joint movements, to then perform whole body workouts, three times a week with the compound or multi joint movements. I can give you testimonials to the effect.
The only exception to this, would be if someone had a pre-existing injury or movement restriction.
Also, there are adaptions to each multi-joint movement that I would use for certain people. For example, if someone had upper cross syndrome or rounded shoulders I would not use flat barbell bench press I would use a dumbbell bench press with a neutral grip. I may start someone off with Hex bar deadlifts before moving them onto conventional deadlifts.
So, to conclude here are the exercises I use as the foundation of my programs for beginners and intermediates
A Bench Press Movement
An Overhead Press Movement
A Pull Up Movement (or Pulldown )
A Row Movement
A Deadlift Movement
A Squat Movement
Always warm up first and always seek advise from your physician before starting any exercise program.