Barbells Are the Isolations

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | March 09, 2022

lifter at the top of a squat

What am I talking about? Let me tell you a recent true story. A guy at a globo-gym watched me deadlift 5 plates for a triple (220kg/484lbs). He then approached me and said, “What do you do for your traps?” I sagely nodded towards my platform and replied, “I just did it.” He grumbled, “No, I mean something to do as a superset.” Oh dear. Yet another conversation in which I tried to educate a bro about his lack of training knowledge. In hindsight, I wish I’d just told him to go do some upright rows and fuck off.

Instead, I tried to get all Socratic. I asked a set-up question to tee up a specific answer, hoping it would make him think more logically about training. I know. Clearly watching him think was going to hurt me more than it was going to hurt him. “Why a superset?” I asked, knowing his answer would be bullshit.

“You know, because I like to stay moving and that’s how I like to train.”

Ok. I’ve got him on the ropes, I’m thinking – now here comes the uppercut! “Do you work 100 hours at the office but only get paid for 50?”


“Why do you work? To get paid, right? The office is no different than the weight room. Busy work isn’t the same as actual productive work. There’s doing shit and getting shit done – there’s a difference.” At this, he looked a bit lost and disconcerted. I don’t think he went away any the wiser. I, however, came away with a good story and a new idea for an article. 

When I look around a gym, especially a globo-gym, I’m usually thinking to myself, What the fuck is going on here? Why is everyone wasting their time on this bullshit isolation of small muscle groups? It’s pointless and has very little value or bang-for-buck at the best of times, and especially not for a weak, de-trained, underweight novice. Compound lifts with barbells as used in Starting Strength are superior to any isolation exercise and should be the bread and butter of building a physique – for aesthetics as well as strength. It’s what we like to call a win-win situation: get strong and look powerful at the same time. 


Compound lifts are essentially a movement that involves using multiple joints in one fell swoop. Usually they require multiple limbs to perform a single rep. For example, a squat requires the ankles, knees, hips and back in order to perform a correctly executed full squat, whereas a preacher curl only occurs at the elbow joint and a machine leg extension is a knee-joint-only movement. Not to mention that curls are incredibly boring and one-dimensional. The best compound lifts have what we call the three criteria: they use the most effective range of motion, the most muscle mass and the heaviest loads. These are the squat, press, deadlift, bench and power clean. They all involve an element of balance, as the lifter is interacting with the floor. Apart from in the bench press, but even then, your feet play an important role in stabilizing and planting your body into the bench. But, as seen in the Paralympics, you can still be incredibly strong in the bench and not actually have any legs. RIP Siamand Rahman. 

Stress and Survival

Our body’s language is stress. Your body is very rudimentary: it’s either fight or flight mode most of the time. It doesn’t know about the existence of Tesla, Facebook, underfloor heating, coffee shops with 12 different milks and artificial caramel flavors where they call out your name (incorrectly), or fast-food joints where they hand you a cheeseburger and fries 30 seconds after you have given someone the money. Our bodies haven’t adapted much during the past 6 million years. It still thinks we’re cavemen and our lizard brain wants to hunt-eat-mate, and sleep near a warm fire. We’re still stressed about merely trying to stay alive. We are made up of bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, connective tissue, nerves and, more importantly here, motor units.

Motor units are the basic pieces of your muscles' contractile machinery. In order to work your muscles harder you need to recruit more motor units into contraction. This is your body’s primary way of signaling your muscles to work harder. Increasing motor-unit recruitment can only be done by lifting heavier loads. You are not going to get big and strong by accident, especially if you are a male in your thirties who weighs less than my lunchtime burrito. Your body doesn’t care that you’re doing a dumbbell lateral raise. It only responds to overall systemic stress. Isolation exercises are the equivalent of a hummingbird whispering softly, but you need to blare loud eighties rock guitar into your spine to make it listen.

A 405lb overhead press is a fucking power ballad, training the middle deltoid and trapezius quite perfectly – and believe me, the body knows exactly what you’re saying to it when that load is locked above your head. Ask Chase. No extra laterals or shrugs required, thank you very much. Especially if you’re starting as a weak, de-trained, underweight male wanting to get bigger and more aesthetic. The barbell is your key to this door – not a pink dumbbell. 

I Blame Arnold

Arguably the GOAT of bodybuilding is to blame for a lot of this superset bollocks. By the way, did you ever see what Arnold looked like when he was a teenager? Big. Very fucking big. Arnold was born and raised in a barbell gym and has spoken about the importance of using barbells to build a physique. Our ears are only attuned to the fancy stuff, to what sounds sexy and advanced. Supersets, drop sets, concentration curls, turning your pinky. Arnold was strong though. His deadlift was 700lbs and his bicep curl was 275lbs. If he attempted a drop set on the bench he would start with 20 reps at 315lbs. Many of you reading this couldn’t do one rep at 315. For most of you, a drop set on the bench press is not worth tearing a pec or blowing out your rotator cuff.

Another Arnold myth: he made out that you need to make drastic changes to make the body grow, and that’s not true either. To “shock” the body. We at SS already have a shocking principle layered into the novice training effect. It’s called 5lbs a workout. That’s all you need. No drop sets, supersets or nuts teabagging your forehead while your buddy screams, “All you bro, two more!” Bullshit. Shock the muscles by increasing the load on your barbell 5lbs a workout, doing basic human movement patterns. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Personal Experience

After 16 years of lifting and coaching clients of all age groups, I have discovered one thing that still makes me shake my head. Isolation, deviating away from the big 4 model, really doesn’t work that well. When I’ve used alternative methods that didn’t use heavy barbells as the bread and butter lifts, I’ve most likely had more failures than success stories. However, I can’t think of a single person I’ve coached doing SSLP that didn’t make progress and get stronger. None. 

When it all boils down, time is finite and we all need to just do what we came here to do, which is to get results. That’s what the weight room is for. Direct tricep work simply isn’t as effective as a press and bench for 3 sets of 5, adding weight to the barbell 3 times a week. Even the close-grip bench, pin presses, board presses and dips would be a better choice for triceps than dumbbell kickbacks or rope pushdowns. Heavy rack pulls, snatch grip deadlifts and heavy sets of 5 on the deadlift from the floor trump any dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns or cable exercises for the back – when you don’t have a back to begin with. And proper squats are phenomenal for building big legs when you have pencils.

All this requires a shitload of sleep and the correct fuel, which allows the muscles to grow. The stress accumulated in isolation is so lackluster that there’s very little potency in them. Even partial range of motion compounds are more effective than isolation exercises, as more load and more muscles are being used. And we know that the higher the force production the better the muscles are working. A person who may only be able to hit 50lbs on the tricep rope pushdown could probably hit 200lbs or more for fives on the close grip bench. You don’t want watered-down whiskey at the bar when you order it neat, so why are you doing that in the weight room? 

Bros are Making No Gains

It makes me laugh seeing all those guys doing endless isolation work. Or, as I like to call it, a “junk pump.” That’s why they genuinely look no different after 6 or 12 months of training. Besides the fact that they probably don’t eat enough. I have observed these gym-dwelling indigenous creatures closely. They do a shitload of looking at themselves in the mirror throughout their workouts. Lots of machine-based upper body stuff while flicking through Spotify, making sure their hype songs are teed up while they do their mediocre 3x12 chest presses, a billion curls and triceps pushdowns – while checking themselves out, of course. If you can’t see it moving in the mirror, is the muscle even working? Unfortunately, this is bollocks. Intensity builds muscles. If their exercises worked, all these guys would be walking around with 22-inch arms and matching calves. Sorry to break it to them, but the majority will struggle to fill out a medium dry fit t-shirt, let alone an XXXL. But what do I know, anyways? I’m just a fat powerlifter, right? 

Giant Mythical Backs

Look around a room of dudes who all deadlift 700lbs or more and you will clearly see that they have giant backs: what I call Jurassic Park backs. An enormous back is quite a spectacle – and is a much greater achievement than razor-sharp abs. A kid in poverty can have abs. A grown man with a humongous mythical back? Now that’s something. Seeing someone with a giant set of erector spinae the girth of a Monster energy drink can all the way up and down his back. They look like high-tensile steel cables tough enough to support bridges. These guys didn’t get that type of back development from doing a few sets of shrugs. Heavy barbell deadlifts, squats, benches and presses – that’s what built these guys, and they have been lifting heavy and often for a very long time. That’s why the bros don’t make gains like this. Because their workouts lack intensity, and volume doesn’t make a Jurassic Park back. Ronnie Coleman deadlifted and squatted 800lbs, and we all know what kind of back he had.

The ultimate variable, which has to increase over time, is not volume but intensity. The load on the barbell needs to increase. If you want to get bigger, you should focus on getting stronger. Or just stay a size medium, because that fuck-boy Justin Bieber look is so hot right now. While you’re at it, why not cover your pre-pubescent man-child body with tattoos of random shit that don’t mean anything, like you’re a giant collection of fridge magnets. Maybe they’ll hide your weak shell. 

Barbells are Boring or Too Hard

This is a comment that frequently pops up about barbell training. Deadlifts and squats are too hard. They’re tough on my back and knees. I get bored doing the same exercises anyways. I need to mix it up and keep my body guessing and stay athletic and blah blah blah. B-b-b-bullshit! Here’s an experiment: two men are the same height and weight and have similar strength levels. Both start with a 315lb deadlift, 225lb squat, 135lb bench and 95lb barbell press. One focuses on doing a bro split, doing all the Weider principles: drop sets, forced reps, supersets, giant sets, a million sets – and everything is machine-based or in isolation. The other guy gets his deadlift to 500lbs, squat to 400lbs, bench to 300lbs, press to 200lbs and power clean to 225lbs. Who do you reckon looks more built and will be more athletic? Correct – the dude who got strong.

Lifting increasingly heavier and heavier barbells makes you stronger, and no program does that quicker or more effectively than Starting Strength. And I’ve always found the idea that strength training needs to be fun quite odd. Training isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to yield results. Fun is doing a line of cocaine or jumping off a cliff on a hang-glider in Brazil. Training isn’t a form of thrill-seeking. Training is a purposeful approach to getting exactly the result you desire. How do you spell fun? P - R! When clients makes consist PRs day in and day out, lifting big benchmark numbers, they practically jump for joy. They give me a fist bump or a high five, wearing a smile bigger than the Joker’s.

Making training progress is fun. PRs are automatically built into a correctly laid-out strength training program. As always, this is a personal pursuit, and it is very addictive. We don’t have to do lunges on a Bosu ball on Monday, depth jumps landing into a pistol squat on Wednesday, then knees-over-toes step-ups while simultaneously trying to catch 5 tennis balls on Friday to make it fun. My knees are wincing in pain just thinking about that routine, so please don’t try this at home. Just add 5lbs a workout to your squat, deadlift, press, bench and power clean, and trust me, it will get fun very quickly. Anyone who’s done an SSLP will tell you they wish they could go back in time and still make 5lbs strength gains like they used to. 

Isolations Aren’t Really Isolations

Even if you want to do a barbell curl to target just the biceps, you will still be using a whole host of other muscles, not just your biceps brachii. A curl will train the brachioradialus, the forearm flexors, the muscles in your hands, and (when you start to cheat) your abdominal muscles, your lower back and even your front deltoids. The body’s default is always to move as an efficient system rather than a collection of individual parts. Simply put, we move as a whole organism. If your training takes the form of a chest day, a leg day, a back day and an arm day, what happens when you need to use your arms to put weight on the bar for your leg day? Do you ask someone else to put the weights on because you’re saving your arm work for 3 days’ time? Come on! Again, let’s circle back to our workplace analogy. Do you like getting paid? Yes. Is work fun? Maybe not. (For the majority of us, this is true. To the few exceptions who have a great job, go grab yourself a gold star from the teacher’s desk, well done.) Is getting paid fun? Yes, it's the whole point of working.

There’s a reason people say, “Thank god it’s Friday” and “I don’t like Mondays.” I have been told by a surgeon who delivers babies via c-section that even that eventually got dull – and this doctor is literally bringing a new human into the world. A couple of years down the line, even complex surgery can get tedious and boring. Our minds are such fickle beasts. But there’s a reason why you go to work. Work has a why. To make work have meaning, you require a clear goal in terms of what you want to achieve. You are there to get the job done, that’s all the satisfaction you should ever need. Otherwise you didn’t truly want the end result in the first place. 

There’s no secret to training and building your body. There’s nothing new under the sun. It requires 3 things: hard work, hard work and hard work. The language of the body is stress. Isolation exercises are not the language it responds to; heavy compound barbell lifts are. The real question is, do you want to listen? Are you ready to hear the truth? On second thought, scratch that. I shouldn’t need to convince you. As they say, god invented Nautilus to keep geeks off the barbells.

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