Building Strong Muscular Arms: Compound vs Isolation Exercises

Date Posted:6 March 2013 

A lot of articles have been written in the past few years almost demonizing the use of isolation exercises whilst compound exercises have been given a super hero status.  Now we are not trying to knock compound exercises off its pedestal, but we do want to speak up for the marginalized view that isolation exercises have been given as of late and give them some due credibility when it comes to building strong muscular arms.

The Benefits of Compound Exercises

We are rightly told time and time again that to get the most out of your workouts we should focus on the use of compound exercises such as deadlifts  squats, bench press, pull ups, rows and other complex lifts like clean and press, as these are all superior to isolation exercises.  Which is certainly true to a point, as isolation exercises can and will take a lot more time to do when you are looking to work your whole body.

Muscular Arms

Not only do compound exercises target the greatest portion of overall muscle fibres in a single exercise, but they cause a greater release of anabolic hormones in the body such as testosterone and growth hormone. However the reality is when you are trying to build strong muscular arms, using compound exercises alone will leave you short of your potential in the arm department for two main reasons.

Range of Movement

The downside of using compound exercises alone is that they do not fully shorten or lengthen the muscles in the upper arm, the same way you can when performing isolation exercises, which can take the biceps and triceps through a greater range of movement.  When performing any kind of pulling or pressing movement, the range of movement in the upper arm is limited to that movement, therefore you won’t recruit as many muscle fibres that you could whilst curling or in extension. So your arms will never be as big as they could be.

Pull Ups

Healthy Joints

Another downside in avoiding isolation exercises is that your arms can become the weak link when it comes to building strength with compound movements, especially when they are exposed to low rep strength work which can take its toll on the elbow joint. Ask any long time power lifter. The elbow joint and its surrounding tendons, ligaments and muscles need to be exposed to higher rep hypertrophy work to flush the upper arms with increased amounts of blood, oxygen to help remove metabolites and nutrients such as amino acids to stimulate greater recovery. This helps to keep the elbows healthy and much less prone to injury from doing much heavy pressing, rowing and deadlifting and as such it increases the size of the sarcoplasm within the muscle cells.

Bicep Curl

So it’s wise to not throw away isolation exercises like they are some kind of worthless tool when they can actually support, assist and help to avoid injury. The smaller muscle groups get to contract with a full range of movement and have increased blood flow and nutrient delivery to your arms, which are needed to stay healthy and strong for executing heavier compound movements. So next time your read or hear someone tell you that you are curling your time away, let them know a combination of compound and isolation exercises is a better and healthier way to go if you want to build strong muscular arms.