Why do you train with weights? Most of us do it to get leaner, stronger, and to maintain muscle mass as we age. All good reasons, right? One of the biggest health problems in older people is the age-related loss of muscle tissue known as sarcopenia, an epidemic that leads to frailty in the elderly. As we gradually lose muscle mass, and as the process speeds up after menopause, we also gain body fat. The loss of muscle leads to frailty and the rise in body fat increases the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Your muscles and the rest of your body deserve better than that! That’s why strength training is so important. It’s your ticket to a healthier old age.
What’s the best approach to preserving muscle? After all, you may have limited time to train and you want the workouts you do to be short but effective. One way to make a weight training workout more time expedient is to focus mainly on compound exercises, movements that work more than one muscle group at a time. You probably already include compound exercises in your workouts. Push-ups, squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups are a few examples of exercises that work more than one muscle group simultaneously. In fact, some fitness trainers recommend that their clients do 75% compound exercises and only 25% isolation exercises, movements that work only a single muscle group.
Another reason serious bodybuilders focus on compound exercises is the belief the compound exercises, due to the extra stress they place on the body, trigger a greater release of anabolic hormones, those that support muscle hypertrophy. These include hormones like testosterone, insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1), and growth hormone that boost muscle protein synthesis. But is this idea supported by science or is it another slow-to-die myth?
Are Compound Exercises More Anabolic?
Some studies show that compound exercises, especially using heavy weights and advanced strategies such as forced reps, stimulates a greater release of testosterone, an anabolic hormone that boosts muscle protein synthesis. But how important is that temporary surge in testosterone for muscle growth? Some research suggests that the brief rise in anabolic hormone release, like you get after doing compound exercises with heavy weights, doesn’t have a meaningful impact on muscle growth. In fact, it may be that the hormone release is designed to mobilize fuel stores rather than directly enhance muscle growth.
What does science say? A 2005 study found that testosterone and growth hormone was higher after a strength-training workout of adequate intensity and the hormones remained elevated for 15 to 30 minutes. Exercises that worked large muscle groups, such as deadlifts and squats, and more intense training led to the greatest gains. Short rest periods between sets and higher training volume also favored the greater release of anabolic hormones.
It’s likely that heavy weight training with compound exercises and movements that work large muscle groups triggers a burst in anabolic hormones afterward. But these hormones fall within 30 minutes of a workout. So, what impact does this post-workout increase in anabolic hormones have on muscle growth? Maybe none, based on research.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at this issue. For this study, 12 young men worked out under two different conditions. In one instance, they did an isolation exercise, arm curls. In the other, they did arms curls followed by a heavy, compound exercise for the legs. The first training condition was designed to assess baseline anabolic hormones. The second to see how adding a compound, a lower body movement, would impact anabolic hormone release above baseline. The groups trained under each condition for 15 weeks. At the end of 15 weeks, the researchers looked at changes in strength and muscle mass.
What did they find? Combining arms curls with the leg exercises stimulated a greater release of testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor 1, all anabolic hormones. However, when they used MRI imaging to look at muscle cross-section area, both groups had gained similar amounts of muscle. In addition, both training conditions led to equivalent strength gains. Therefore, muscle and strength gains were not impacted by the additional post-workout anabolic hormone release.
Why You Should Still Do a High Ratio of Compound Exercises
The idea that compound exercises boost muscle growth due to greater release of anabolic hormones after a workout might be a myth that’s slow to die. You may get a transient surge in anabolic hormone release, but it doesn’t appear to be meaningful in terms of muscle strength or hypertrophy gains. But there are other reasons to focus most of your workouts on compound exercises.
Compound exercises are time expedient because you’re working multiple muscle groups at the same time. Plus, compound exercises train muscles to work together as a unit, as opposed to targeting each muscle in isolation. So, they’re better for building functional strength and for sports performance. In addition, compound exercises work more muscle groups simultaneously, and that boosts calorie burn as well. Also, most compound exercises work the muscles in your core. When you do deadlifts, squats, or even push-ups, your core muscles have to stabilize, so the muscles in your abs and back get in on the action too.
Isolation exercises still have their place. If you have a muscle imbalance, doing an isolation exercise that focuses on that muscle can help you get that lagging muscle up to speed. But spend the bulk of your training time on compound exercises since they offer more benefits for the time you spend training.
The Bottom Line
Compound exercises make the most out of your training time and they can improve your overall strength and functionality while also building muscle and strength. However, the post-workout rise in anabolic hormones you get from doing compound movements probably doesn’t have an impact on muscle growth or strength gains.
· Can J Appl Physiol. 2004 Oct;29(5):527-43.
· Sports Med. 2005;35(4):339-61.
· Journal of Applied Physiology 108(1):60-7 · November 2009.
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