I'm going to preface this article with the following: I train for powerlifting.
This means that I, myself, practice and train the 'big three' exercises, squat, deadlift and bench press, multiple times per week and use accessory movements to improve my strength on them. I'm in no way saying these exercises are 'bad', or that I don't recommend you do them. I'm saying there's a bigger picture.
As I've written about before, gym culture is changing rapidly. When I first wandered into a weight room everyone was 'bodybuilding'. The focus was on feeling a muscle work, stretch, squeeze, the pump and all sorts of other intangibles. A gym was judged on the quality and quantity of its machines, and the size of the Dumbbell rack.
Isolation exercises were hugely popular and it wasn't unusual for people to spend an entire session on arms or shoulders. (In fact, a few training partners of mine who will remain nameless have been known to devote a full day to triceps....). Machine training was all the rage, to the point that completing an entire back workout using 3-4 different machine row variations finished with a Pulldown was standard fayre.
Now it's all about performance and function. Powerlifting and high intensity and functional training are the two main rapidly up and coming training modalities, with compound movements being king and gyms looking more and more sparse.
Nothing but bars and racks and plates - as far as the eye can see. Not a mirror in sight.
Now, this is awesome as far as I'm concerned. Even 5 years ago it was hard to find a gym which allowed you to deadlift but now people walk around wearing tee shirts announcing that they have callouses and a ‘squat butt’, and that means that more and more people are finally waking up to the fact that heavy barbell work is cool, and training legs isn't actually optional. But there's a problem: Somewhere along the way the pendulum swung too far in the wrong direction.
See, there's a trend in fitness which needs to be addressed. In this industry we have a ton of people with different goals and who train in different styles, but we ALSO have fads and marketing. The current fad, whatever it is, becomes the easiest and most effective tool which marketers of EBooks, magazines and supplements can use to drive traffic, and so they will promote relevant information for that fad.
Unfortunately this means that what is good for one goal quickly becomes dogma that is pitched at every goal due to saturation of information, and that's what happened here. Strength sports are in vogue, and therefore any OTHER training methods are wrong by default.
Because powerlifting and strength training became popular, the 'big three' lifts were moved onto some kind of pedestal. Squatting was like a rite of passage and nobody cared about anyone's numbers unless they were talking deadlifts. Thanks to the popularity of routines like Starting Strength and the forums attached to their relevant websites, it became really popular to ridicule machine or isolation work in some kind of pseudo macho posturing effort. You've probably heard things like:
- "If you don't squat you're a pussy."
- "Curls are a waste of time"
- "Leg pressing is stupid"
- "Until you can bench X and do Y chin ups with Z weight around your waist, don't train arms"
- "You build abs with squats and deadlifts, don't do crunches"
And while I am sure the intention is good and the person giving out this advice genuinely believes what they are saying, there are a few major flaws in the thought pattern, and there are some EXCELLENT isolation or machine movements which can benefit strength athletes as well as you guys and girls who just want to look good naked.
But before I go in to that, I feel like I need to address exactly how muscle is built. After all, if I'm saying that leg presses and squats do more or less the same thing, I'm going to need to lay some background information.
So how is muscle built?
Without going into the deep physiology side of things and talking about biological pathways or mentioning too much about nutrition (I’ll assume that people wanting to put on size are eating in a surplus and getting a decent amount of protein), muscle building is down to three factors (1):
- Acute muscle damage or ‘microtearing’
Acute muscle tearing occurs in muscle during a training session. This causes various things to happen including an acute inflammatory response, attracting to the area the proteins required for muscle growth.
- Metabolic fatigue or ‘the pump’
Though this is not strictly an essential part of the growth process, a buildup of metabolites in a specific area can have a significant effect by way of cellular swelling, free radical production and increased activity of growth-oriented factors.
- Progressive tension overload or ‘adding some damn weight to the bar’
This is the biggie. Arguably the single most important thing to consider when trying to cause muscle hypertrophy is, over time, gradually increasing the amount of mechanical tension you place upon a muscle and thusly building up your weekly volume (sets x reps x weight). This causes a massive amount of different things to happen, but all you need to know for the purpose of this article is this: Lifting more weight over time without compromising form makes muscles grow.
So notice above nothing is mentioned about compound exercises or barbells or squats or any of that stuff. In fact, so far as muscle hypertrophy is concerned, ANYTHING which puts increasing amounts of mechanical stress on a muscle which is performed long enough to cause microtears and metabolic fatigue will elicit a growth response. Anything at all. That includes leg extensions, hamstring curls and concentration curls.
So why have compound moves been favoured in the past? Surely there’s something TO the whole ‘squat, bench, deadlift ‘til I die’ attitude which is so prevalent in some training circles?
Well, you need to bear in mind that modern-day training is a pretty new phenomenon, and it was only in recent years that a leg press, for example, was actually a thing which existed (at least in a form which wouldn’t kill you). So OF COURSE the old school guys built their legs using primarily squat and lunge variations – they didn’t have a choice in the matter. In fact, this picture depicts what a leg press used to look like ‘back in the day’. Either get some other guys to ‘load’ you or use your imagination and do it yourself.
Either way – no thanks!
Another thing to take notice of is the ‘hardcore’ mentality of a lot of gym goers. Let’s face it, squats and deadlifts are hard as hell, and ‘how much do you bench’ is a question that everyone who lifts has been asked at some point or another since the dawn of time. By doing these movements, it elevates the ‘hardcore’ from the rest of the pack who perform comparatively easy and safe training modalities (more on this in a second). This makes ‘hardcore’ folks feel superior, and who doesn’t love that?
Of course, like I mentioned in the introduction, I’m not ragging on compound lifts or those who do them, far from it! (I ain’t no hypocrite). Compound lifts which require the most muscle mass to perform should be the backbone of your training career because they provide one thing: The greatest potential for progressive overload. You can improve your squat faster and more effectively than you can improve your leg extension, and an overhead press will shadow a lateral raise any day – meaning more growth.
But – and this may make some people feel a little uncomfortable – what if I told you that a leg press has the same (if not more) loading potential, in almost exactly the same range of motion as a back squat?
In fact, what if I told you that some folks, with long femurs and short torsos will probably suck at back squatting no matter what they do? (Their forward lean will be such that their back gives out before their legs, and even if they manage it their knees will shoot so far forward that they risk knee damage to a really high degree?). OR what if I told you that an athlete who’s main sport requires peak force production would benefit more from leg pressing really heavy than they would squatting, if they sucked at squatting? This would allow them more progress at a faster rate with a much reduced risk of experiencing the kind of injury that could knock their main training goal – performance in their sport.
In these cases, I would argue that in fact a leg press would be more optimal than a back squat for the sake of muscle hypertrophy and training career longevity without injury – yes, sometimes machines genuinely are the safer option to get the same job done. On top of this, a leg press (as noted) is almost the same as a squat but without the spinal loading, and this makes it PERFECT for higher rep sets.
Typically in a squat, the upper or lower back, or core gives in far before your legs do. Thighs have a fantastic potential for endurance whilst stabilising a lot of weight for a lot of time is not really what your back is good at (unless you specifically train it for that) which means that, a trainer who is wanting to get extra volume AFTER the back squats which he/she is build well for would do far better to get onto the leg press station than they would deloading the bar a bit and squatting some more.
That’s leg press, what about the others?
Well, the same arguments could be made for chest presses for long armed guys interested in pec hypertrophy, whilst shoulder press machines are a great boon for those with back issues who cannot perform overhead pressing. I, myself, find that lat pulldowns and seated rows to wonders for my back development as I’m able to perform horizontal and vertical pulling with far more control, keeping form perfect and hitting muscles more effectively than chin ups which I struggle with or barbell rows which are really easy to ‘cheat’ on.
Finally, there is no shame in performing Romanian deadlifts which are a ‘secondary exercise’ to most in place of regular deadlifts if your main goal is leg mass and you simply don’t get on with or don’t like deadlifting.
Remember – there is no NEED to do ANY of these movements at all. The only people who HAVE to squat are powerlifters for whom it’s a competition lift and Olympic Lifters who use it as an accessory movement (though I’d argue until I’m red in the face that a front squat would be better for reasons which should be obvious for anyone who does Olympic lift). No-one has to bench press with a bar other than powerlifters, people applying for the NFL Combine, or bro’s who...well...bro’s just need to bench. And the only folks, again, who NEED to deadlift to achieve their goals are, you guessed it, powerlifters.
If you don’t fall into those categories, your exercise selection is secondary to the muscular tension you can create with it. Provided you cover all movement patterns which these exercises are used to cover, with something else, you are golden.
That’s primary exercise replacement, but what about those isolations?
Isolation exercises have their place in any good program. Contrary to popular belief, you would need to be a genetic freak to get OPTIMAL arm development from presses and pulls alone. At some point a guy wanting big arms is going to need to curl.
That’s pretty easy to get across, but what about strength athletes, or those looking at performance as a main motivation for training in general?
Well, I’ll quote Greg Nuckols’ excellent article which described squat muscle dominance (2) for context:
The three group A lifters (the best squatters in the study) exhibited the largest extensor-dominant (i.e. quadriceps producing more torque at the knee than the hamstrings and gastrocnemius) thigh torques. This is not to be confused with merely having the strongest quads. It means that throughout the movement, the group A lifters’ quads were producing more torque relative to their hamstrings and gastrocnemii, resulting in a higher NET extensor torque.
This means that the best squatters in the group used more quad than hamstring/glute in the squat. To you, this means that even low bar squatters who are typically referred to as ‘posterior chain dominant’ should emphasise quad strength when it comes to maximising their squats.
And what about when their squat volume is maxed out, and they have done as much leg pressing as they can take?
Well, they can feel free to perform 1-3 sets of leg extensions to get an extra training stimulus and some added volume which will have a hypertrophic response. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle within a given individual, and this is the way to do it which adds as little extra lower back fatigue as possible.
Likewise a stronger tendon is a far less injury prone tendon, and biceps curls are the king for improving the integrity of oft-torn biceps tendons.
Like it or lump it, machines and isolations DO have their place, and ignoring this fact doesn’t make you a better lifter.
It doesn’t make you elite.
It just means you probably have small arms…