You may have heard through the Bodybuilding circles that basic, heavy, free weight exercises increase overall body mass. Perhaps you have heard movements like squats; deadlifts, bench presses etc… induce endogenous hormone production, leading to acute increases in lactate, growth hormone (GH), insulin-growth-factor-1 (igf-1), and testosterone. These acute increases in specific hormones have been the main reasoning behind the belief that basic free weight movements cause just about every muscle to grow.
I mean, it does make sense when you think about it → heavy exertion + multi-joint activation = heightened anabolic hormones translating to overall muscle hypertrophy!
Not so fast…
In a 2009 Applied Journal of Physiology study, researchers found no increase in strength or muscle hypertrophy in resistance trained subjects performing heavy leg training after a biceps workout.
How they designed the simulation --
12 young male subjects performed bicep curls on different days, under different conditions. The first biceps training session was performed alone with no other exercises afterwards. The second biceps training session was performed with a high volume, heavy leg exercise executed right after the biceps workout. This second session was to determine if the heavy leg resistance training actually activated endogenous hormone production enough to manifest tangible muscle hypertrophy and strength gains.
This program was adhered to for 15 weeks, and they ensured the subjects ingested a protein drink before and after each training session for appropriate nutritional support.
At the conclusion of the 15 week study --- endogenous hormones were measured and after the biceps training PLUS heavy leg training, increases in lactate, GH, igf-1, total and free testosterone were increased at the 15-minute mark post training.
So the question is -- did that acute increase in anabolic hormones increase muscle strength and hypertrophy in the arm trained in conjunction with the heavy leg exercise?
Both maximal strength and muscle cross sectional area increased identically in both arms by 20% vs. 19% increase in strength for biceps trained alone and biceps trained with a heavy leg exercise. An increase in skeletal muscle cross sectional area of 12% vs. 10% in the biceps trained alone compared to the biceps trained with a heavy leg exercise. These differences were not statistically significant.
What can we deduct from this study?
We can conclude that anyone who tries to convince you that performing heavy squats, deadlifts, and bench presses for the sake of increasing acute anabolic hormones is under the wrong train of thought. You perform squats for maximal quad, hamstring, and glute development. You perform deadlifts for upper trap, mid-back and spinal erector development, and you bench press to build fully developed pectoral muscles.
You do not squat and deadlift for big arms or delts. You perform strict bicep curls and triceps extensions for huge guns, and dumbbell military presses for round, 3-dimensional shoulders -- simple as that.
Another factor to consider is this -- people who are avid squatters, dead lifters, and bench pressers most likely will be more muscular and larger than weight trainees that bypass these heavy hitting movements. If you think about it, the people who are pouring energy into demanding exercises like the basics (squats/dead’s/bench), are probably training arms, shoulders, and back intensely too, therefore these individuals will be bigger, stronger, and more prominent with muscle mass.
My advice is to always include multi-joint movements into your weight-training routine. If you suffer from injuries, I highly recommend pre-exhausting with isolation exercises in the beginning, then finish the session with the basic multi-joint exercise at a lighter weight.
If you do not wish to pre-exhaust, I would try experimenting with German Volume Training (GVT), which is typically 10 sets of 10 repetitions with a 60 second rest period. I personally will manipulate GVT with 10 sets of 15 or 20 reps with 45 seconds rest if I really need to be careful with nagging injuries.
What about the subject of “anabolic hormones and how to maximize your endogenous production? Make sure to avoid alcohol consumption, NSAIDS, and xeno-estrogens. Do not neglect dietary fat to a great degree, and if you are reducing calories to lose body fat, reduce carbohydrates, and supplement with essential fatty acids, MCT oils, and mild cholesterol consumption from cage-free, organic whole eggs.
I can guarantee doing all of the above (nutritionally) will aid in anabolic hormone production “chronically” 7 days a week opposed to a mild “acute effect” you temporarily get from performing a few heavy sets of squats and deadlifts.
Elevations in ostensibly anabolic hormones with resistance exercise enhance neither training-induced muscle hypertrophy nor strength of the elbow flexors
J Appl Physiol (1985). Jan 2010; 108(1): 60–67. Published online Nov 12, 2009.