Making A Strength/Size Routine Part I: Exercise Selection
The first thing that has to be considered when putting together a strength and/or size routine 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
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. But for many, that will not satisfy you and convince you to put your faith in these exercises when there is so much more "attractive" advice in the world of weight training. Well, rather than try to debunk every training myth that's been propogated through the years, 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 a lot of total muscle mass - the compound exercises - result in the largest anabolic hormonal response by the body. The proportions of anabolic hormones (mainly growth hormone and testosterone) that are actually secreted are thought to be a function of factors such as 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 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 profound 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 ups the total muscle mass involved to more than just the main muscles targeted in the exercise (the prime movers). Machines, with their confined paths of movement, eliminate the need for as many 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 in building muscular strength and size.
Stressing The Muscles At Their Optimum Range For Producing Force: Borrowing a section from the series The Neuromuscular System on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page:
Particularly relevant to muscle building is the fact that each muscle fiber has a ideal length at which it generates maximum force when contracting. The force generated is directly influenced by the amount of elogation (contraction or extension) that the fiber is under at the start of the contraction. Going back to the sliding filament theory, this optimum length is the point at which the actin and myosin filaments line up in such a way that allows maximum cross-bridge formation (in practice this length usually coincides with the muscles length in its "relaxed" position). When the muscle is extended more than this the actin filaments cannot make contact with as many myosin cross-bridges - they have slid past each other, so to speak. When the muscle is contracted to a shorter length than optimal, less force can be developed for a few reasons. For one, the normal chemical processes taking place within the fiber become altered so that fewer actin cross-bridge attachment sites are uncovered and available for cross-bridging (the reason this happens is unknown at present). In addition, filaments from the opposite ends of the sacromere overlap and cover some actin cross-bridge attachment sites, further reducing the number of possible cross-bridges. Still further, the myosin filaments come up against the ends of each individual sacromere (what's referred to as the z-lines), impeding any further shortening.
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 most isolation movements, the bulk of the stress is delivered where it is most appropriate 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. 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 only be done so if recovery ability allows (this will be dealt with later) or if the isolation exercises are done for injury rehabilitation or prevention.
The core compound exercises are:
Bench Presses (barbell or dumbell)
Bent Over Rows (barbell or dumbell)
Overhead Presses (barbell or dumbell)
The Olympic Lifts and their Power versions
Isolation exercises usually involve the movement of only one joint. Examples would be leg extensions and dumbell flyes. They are called "isolation" exercises because they serve to isolate muscles from the surrounding ones and work them selectively. In addition, isolation exercises usually have the further defining characteristic of maximally stressing the muscles involved in either their stretched position or their contracted position. 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 series The Neuromuscular System 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, the one thing they can do, that compound exercises can't, is isolate a particlular muscle. By doing this it is possible to cause 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 position 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 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 Incline Dumbell Curls. What sets them apart from other exercises, along with the points covered above, is the fact that there is some speculation that by applying a 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 more room 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 should also be mentioned that several bodybuilding and strength coaches (John Parillo and Torbjorn Akerfeldt, for example) have claimed for years that stretching the epimysium (fascial stretching and planning, as John Parillo teaches) creates a larger, fuller muscle. ...Many bodybuilders, in fact, have noticed this effect when they begin such a fascial stretching program. Akerfeldt recommends training the muscle in the stretched position - when it is already "pumped" so as to maximally stretch the epimysium - to achieve this effect. He sites Arnold Schwarzenegger's "full" chest in his prime - he was always fond of performing very deep dumbell flyes.
It also may be possible, by stretching the muscle, to engage a higher percentage of muscle fibers in the subsequent contraction. This occurs through what is called the 'myotatic' reflex. The myotatic reflex exists to protect the joints from sudden hyperextension (and the muscle from tearing due to excessive tension). When quickly stretched, proprioceptors (nerve endings that relay all the information about the musculoskeletal system to the central nervous system) within the muscle 'record' the change in length (and speed of change) of the muscle fibers and send signals to the spine which convey this information. This causes the muscle to attempt to resist the change in length by contracting suddenly. Stretching can also cause 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, is thought by some to be the basis for plyometric training. As you can probably gather, quickly stretching a muscle under load can be a very dangerous practice. Where training longevity is concerned (as it should be for all of us) and depending on the skill of the lifter, it may not be wise to suddenly stretch the muscle under weight. Most plyometric trainees realize the risks inherent with that style of training but continue to do it out of a belief that it will benefit their athletic performance - it's a risk they're willing to take. For a person interested in building strength/size, and maintaining this over the long haul, 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 training.
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 they elicit very minimal 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 be surprised to find that even moderate work on these exercises will cut into their strength gains and that they would be better off channeling the vast majority of their efforts into the compound exercises.
It should also be mentioned that free weight versions of these exercises are, once again, superior to their machine counterparts because they allow you to more completely control the degree of stretch that these movements place on the working muscle(s).
A limited list of examples of these exercises would be:
Pullovers (barbell or dumbell)
Lying Side Laterals
Incline Dumbell Curls
Seated (or Standing) French Presses
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 Triceps Kickbacks. Advanced Bodybuilders claim that these exercises help them achieve muscle separation and striations (when combined with a fat loss diet). Consider the following section from the series The Neuromuscular System:
Particularly relevant to muscle building is the fact that each muscle fiber has a ideal length at which it generates maximum force when contracting. The force generated is directly influenced by the amount of elogation (contraction or extension) that the fiber is under at the start of the contraction. Going back to the sliding filament theory, this optimum length is the point at which the actin and myosin filaments line up in such a way that allows maximum cross-bridge formation. When the muscle is extended more than this the actin filaments cannot make contact with as many myosin cross-bridges - they have slid past each other, so to speak. When the muscle is contracted to a shorter length than optimal, less force can be developed for a few reasons. For one, the normal chemical processes taking place within the fiber become altered so that fewer actin cross-bridge attachment sites are uncovered and available for cross-bridging (the reason this happens is unknown at present). In addition, filaments from the opposite ends of the sacromere overlap and cover some actin cross-bridge attachment sites, further reducing the number of possible cross-bridges. Still further, the myosin filaments come up against the ends of each individual sacromere (what's referred to as the z-lines), impeding any further shortening.
So what is a muscle's optimum length for generating force? Well, generally, it is the length of the muscle while in its relaxed state. How much strength is lost when the muscle contracts at some other length than optimum? Well, at the extreme points of a muscle's extension or contraction (extended ~30% longer and contracted ~30% shorter than optimal) a muscle has the ability to contract only ~50% as forcefully as it can at the optimal length.
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. These exercises have no place in a strength/size program; they are especially inappropriate for the drug-free, genetically abverage weight trainer; save your energy for where it's needed - getting stronger.
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 higher priority than the other types of isolation exercises.
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. How many times have I seen people recommend that the trainee stop Squatting and find another exercise to target the legs when this happens (usually the Leg Press). Or they suggest that the trainee pre-exhaust their quads before doing Squats and they then don't have to Squat as heavy (in fact, they can't). The solution to a weak link is NOT to stick your head in the sand and hope that it goes away! If your lower back is weak 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 probably why a lot of Bench Pressers claim that they 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). Likewise, how often do you hear of weight trainers with bad shoulders. Not only will strengthening these muscles decrease your chance of injury, but it may also boost your Bench Pressing.
Some exercises and muscle groups to receive attention are:
External rotators of the shoulder (Lying L-flyes, etc.)
The Obliques (Side Bends, etc.)
Abdominals (Crunches, etc.)
Back Extensions (lower back)
Reverse Hypers (lower back)
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts (lower back)
Choosing The Exercises
To lay the foundation of your program you 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:
Squats (legs, back)
Deadlifts (back, legs)
Bent-Over Rows (back, upper arm flexors)
Chin-Ups (back, upper arm flexors)
Bench Presses (chest, shoulders)
Incline Presses (chest, shoulders)
Dips (chest, shoulders)
Overhead Pressing (shoulders)
And, if you're really interested in developing functional strength and power - Power Cleans or Clean-Grip High Pulls (back, legs)
You will notice that I have listed the major bodyparts that each exercise 'hits' 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 can safely recommend that everyone 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 http://www.weighttrainersunited.com/lflye.html ). 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.
If recovery ability allows (you will find this out within a few weeks of following your routine), you may consider including some 'stretch position' isolation exercises in your routine. But because adequate recovery and strength gains in the compound exercises are paramount, you are best to limit these only to muscle groups that you feel are underworked by the compound movements. If, for instance, you find that you don't feel your chest very much during Bench Presses (and you wish to continue doing them, instead of switching to Dips or Incline Presses as your primary chest exercise) you may experiment with including Dumbell Flyes in your routine.
"But If I Don't Do Dumbell Laterals My Side Delts Will Shrink!"
This 'Bodybuilder' type of thinking plagued me for years. You believe that isolation exercises are just plain necessary because the compound exercises aren't enough to give you the muscle you want. Every time I was almost convinced to try 'basics-first' training Arnold Schwarzenegger's admonition that a Bodybuilder must hit the muscle with a variety of exercises for full development would suck me back into the quagmire of NO PROGRESS! The compound exercises hit much more muscle than most people realize. Even if you are not aware that Overhead Presses are hitting your side delts, believe me, they are! Likewise, all the pressing movements hit the triceps hard, and Deadlifts (especially the Stiff-Legged variety) do hit your hamstrings.
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 that just a coincidence or was it that people just couldn't gain on those types of routines without the steroids. Think about that.
After all that, it is still possible that a rare bodypart doesn't get hit sufficiently to your liking from just the compound exercises. In this case you should add ONE free weight exercise for that bodypart - one that places the majority of the stress on the muscle at its optimal length for generating force. In a properly constructed, balanced, routine the only examples I can think of in this regard would be Standing Barbell Curls for the biceps and an exercise for the calf muscles (Donkey Calf Raises, for example).
So To Sum Up - Placing Priority On These Exercises
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 do not 'hit' adequately - the biceps and calfs. 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 superior 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 increases) in the free weight compound movements, then they have to go. If you wish to receive the possible benefits of fascial stretching, but cannot tolerate the stretch exercises, you should undertake a weight-free fascial stretching program (as advocated by John Parillo in the Parillo Training Manual http://www.parrillo.com/). The 'peak contraction' exercises do nothing but hamper recovery ability and serve no purpose in a strength/size program.
There will be further related articles in the Making A Strength/Size Routine series on the Training Related Articles page. I hope you found this article useful.