Do compound lifts, instead of isolation exercises for bigger arms

If you want a bigger more dense upper body musculature, i.e. bigger biceps, triceps, forearms, back, and chest, then you need to do compound lifts. Not just any compounds, but exercises like, bench press, overhead press, barbell rows, and deadlifts. Look if you’re a beginner, you simply don’t have the muscle mass to waste time with isolation exercises, like curls, extensions and other machine chest and back exercises. Build strength and mass first, then worry about aesthetics. You cannot isolate what you don’t have.

Do compound lifts to work  smaller muscles also

Remember, if you increase your strength and lift heavier, you will add mass and get bigger. The best types of exercises are compound lifts. They work multiple body parts and will save you a lot of time in the gym. All you need is 4 or 5 key exercises and you’re set. They work all the small muscles like the triceps, biceps and forearms. Forget isolation exercises. These don’t translate into useful strength for everyday activities anyway. The main exercises for increasing size of the upper body and targeting the smaller muscles are: deadlifts, barbell rows, bench press and overhead press. Lets look at some of exercises and the ancillary muscles targeted.

  • Do barbell rows. The curling motion when pulling the bar towards your torso, works the bicep. Because the movement engages the lower back, upper back and hips, it allows for the use of heavier weights than with bicep curls.
  • Triceps. Both bench press and overhead press engage the triceps as you push the weight away from your body. Multiple muscles support this motion, which allows for the use of heavier weights, in a safer manner, than tricep extensions or skull crushers. Off course, bench press will help build a bigger chest and overhead press will work your shoulders.
  • You must do deadlifts. This will increase the size of your forearms by virtue of gripping the bar, as hard as possible, when doing the exercise. This means, it will also increase grip strength, which helps with other exercises, like the barbell row. Plus, you will build your back and hamstrings.

Proper execution of each exercise is important to remaining injury free, and ensuring you work the body part that we you want to. Let’s look at each exercise in turn.


In addition to working the back, and hamstrings, deadlifts also work the forearms as stated earlier. The key here is not only to have a strong grip, but good grip technique as well.

How to grip the bar…and build forearms of steel

The preferable grip is a mixed one. Mixed is simply one hand overhand and the other underhand. This prevents the bar from rotating out and breaking your grip. It is important to hold the bar closer to your fingers than lower on the palm towards the wrist. This prevents pinching of the skin below the fingers, and formation of calluses. If it feels uncomfortable at first, that’s okay, stick with it and eventually you’ll get accustomed to it.

It is important to use your bare hands and not wraps or gloves, which results in a weaker grip. I’ve done it with gloves at lower weights, but as soon as it started getting heavier, I could no longer keep the bar from slipping out. Ditching the gloves made a huge difference and allowed me to pull heavier weights.

Grip the bar as tightly as you can, when pulling and lowering the weight. Really squeeze here. Aside from preventing the bar from slipping, this is where the forearms get a huge workout. Now you’re ready to perform the deadlift.

General Deadlift Technique

Deadlifts start with the bar on the floor. To practice the form, add the least heavy plates you can find in the gym to the bar, that is as big as the 35 or 45 lb plates. If none are available, then either use the adjustable arms on the squat rack, or build up the height from the floor using plastic steps/risers. This is an exercise that you can’t really practice without the bar being the right height off the ground.

Step 1 Start by standing with your shins almost touching the bar. Feet should be shoulder width apart and turned outward slightly. The bar should be just above the center of your feet (if your feet are 10 inches long, bar should be over the 5 inch point).

Step 2 Keeping your back upright, bend your knees until your shins touch the bar.

Step 3 Keep your back neutral (flat), hinge forward at the hips and grasp the bar with both hands (just outside your legs). Use the mixed grip to pull.

Step 4 Lift your chest and keep the back and head neutral. Grip the bar and take the slack out of it.

Step 5 Take a deep breath and hold it. Pull the bar whilst standing up straight. Exhale slowly as you past your sticking point. Lock out the knees and hips as you straighten up. Breathe in again at the top.

Step 6 Lower the bar whilst hinging forward at the hips and bending the knees again. Hold your breath as you lower the bar and exhale at the end of the movement.  DO NOT let the bar bounce. Allow it to come to a dead stop and pull again.

Just remember a good grip with deadlifts also helps with barbell rows and allows for the use of heavier weights.

Barbell rows

Doing barbell rows will target the biceps, in addition to your lower back, upper back and forearms. The pulling motion is similar to that of a bicep curl. However, you can use heavier weights, due to the fact that multiple muscle groups work together to perform the movement. The grip is different from the deadlift, and should be a double overhanded grip. If you use a mixed grip, you will end up working the biceps in an uneven manner. Doing it underhanded will utilize the bicep more, but will result in pain and injury of the wrist and elbow. The general technique is as follows:

Step 1 Start by standing with your shins close to, but not touching the bar. The bar should be just above the center of your feet as with the deadlift. The width of the stance is wider than in a deadlift, about shoulder width. Your feet should be angled out at 30 °.

Step 2 The basic grip is just outside the width of the stance and double overhanded. Grip closer to the fingers, to avoid pinching the flesh below the fingers on the palm.

Step 3 Your torso should be parallel to ground to start. Keep the head and back neutral, so they are in a straight line to your hips.

Step 4 Breathe in and hold. Pull the bar towards your lower chest, with the elbows moving upwards. Don’t allow the bar to crash down to the floor. Lower it under control and exhale at the bottom of the movement.

With heavier weights, it is normal for your torso to raise slightly, about 15 °. To accommodate this rise you should be hinging at the hips and not arching the back. Beyond 15 °, you need to lower you weight to ensure you use good form.


Bench Press

Forget about doing tricep extensions and pull downs. If you want to target the triceps, bench press is the exercise you should be doing. The basic technique is as follows:

Step 1 Start by lying on the bench with the eyes in line with the bar. Keep the feet flat on the floor, about shoulder width apart. Press the shoulder blades into the bench and arch the back, whilst keeping your butt on the bench.

Step 2 Grab the bar with a medium grip, outside of shoulder width. The grip is different from the deadlift and barbell row, in that it is further away from the fingers, and closer to the wrist. Keep the wrist straight and avoid bending backward.

Step 3 Unrack the bar by extending your arms and moving it over the shoulders. Take a deep breath.

Step 4 Lower the bar until it touches the mid chest region. Keep the elbows in at 45 – 75 ° whilst lowering. Hold your breath at the bottom.

Step 5 Without pausing, push the bar back up and at the same time exhale. With the feet planted drive through them into the ground. Squeeze your glutes to tighten up your hips and lock them into place. The elbows will flare as you go back up to the starting position. This is normal. Lock the elbows at the top of the movement without hyperextending to prevent injury to the elbow and dropping the bar on your torso.

Overhead press

Another great exercise for building the triceps is the overhead press. Between overhead presses and bench presses, there really is no need for supplementary exercises. The basic technique for the overhead press is given below:

Step 1 Start with a squat rack and place the bar at the height of the collar bone.

Step 2 Grab the bar with a medium grip, outside of shoulder width. The grip is similar to the bench press in that it is further away from the fingers, and closer to the wrist. Keep the wrist straight and avoid bending backward.

Step 3 Lock your legs and hips. Keep the heels of the feet about hip width apart.

Step 4 Stand with your chest up and out with your shoulders back. Slightly arch the upper back to accommodate this position. Tuck your chin to your chest to avoid hitting it when pressing.

Step 5 Take a deep breath and press the bar upwards. Move your torso forward as the bar passes your forehead. This will ensure that the pressing motion is done in a straight line. Lock out the elbows at the top of the movement.

Step 6 Hold your breath at the top of the movement. Lower the bar back down to your starting position while leaning the torso back as the bar passes the forehead. Exhale at the bottom of the movement. Now rinse and repeat.


If you want bigger arms, forget about doing isolation exercises. Build mass and strength with compound exercises . The following table summarizes the exercises and the smaller, ancillary muscles worked.

So, you not only gain the benefits of working the large muscle groups in the upper body, but indirectly the smaller muscles without having to do separate isolation exercises. You cut your gym time considerably and still increase your muscle mass and strength.

P.S. The Healthy Goat was last seen sleeping in a corner of the local gym. Watching other people do compound exercises can sure drain a goat’s energy.


16 thoughts on “Do compound lifts, instead of isolation exercises for bigger arms

  1. Nice one. A friend referred me to your site and I can say I’m not disappointed going by what I have seen thus far. As a beginner, I have been taught an entirely different thing to what your post says. All these while, I have concentrated more on isolation exercises. However, with the knowledge I have gained here, I’m more comfortable following your lead as an expert. I’m very much interested in the overhead press. I have bookmarked this page for future reference.

  2. Barbell rows, so that’s what they call it! I’ve been doing that for a while and it works, I feel like I can lift more weights easier and I do feel like I’m saving a lot of time. However I do feel like on some days, I overpush myself because my muscles feel very weak and burning, like a muscle tear. Is there a minimum number on how many sets should daily we do to avoid muscle tears?

    1. This depends on your goals..bodybuilding, pure strength training or endurance. You should get that muscle issue checked by a doctor…if you feel any intense pain, it would be a good idea to scale things back…

  3. Awesome! Interesting article to read, I really love this article. Compound exercises are at the heart of today’s fitness programs, as compared with isolation exercises performed with commercial weight machines. The focus is on functional fitness developed by exercises that simulate real-life activities and use a variety of movements through a wide range of motion. I had always want to have 6 packs and a bigger more dense upper body musculature. I do take some up some exercises at the gym most of my time, but I don’t see the required results and after going through your article, I really understand the major reasons. I really find all the tips in this article very useful and I will follow them for the required results I wish to have. Thanks.

  4. I absolutely love what I read in this insightful article because it is full of great information. This is fascinating and interesting to me.this article is well written, I have a friend looking for ways to get bigger arm .these triceps, bicep and forearm exercise shown in this post will help him out. I will bookmark this page and share with him

    This article is really resourceful, I would love to read more of your post. best regards 

  5. I must say I like your blog, a lot of information about bodybuilding and strength training. I do a lot of bench press and over head press, but after reading your post, it seems I have not been doing them the right way. I will follow your post step by step during my next workout session, to ensure I get the best out of my gym time. Thanks for the help, regards

  6. Wow, great article. I couldn’t help but paid rapt attention as I read through your article. The topic is of great important to me because my younger brother needs to build some muscles. He had tried in the past but it didn’t work out.

    Your suggestion to do compound lifts instead of isolation exercises so that one can achieve bigger arms is great.
    Thanks for listing main exercises that helps in increasing size of one’s upper body. I will direct my brother to your site.

    Thanks once again.

  7. I love working out and this article is the one I needed today. I like to change up my workout schedule every now and then. Reading through the whole article I really this arm workout. I am definitely going to add these workouts for my next week. Thank you so much for sharing this article.

  8. Great article detailing how to achieve more muscle mass. It seems so many people get sucked into thinking that curls and other isolation exercises are the key to building big arms. However, as you note, it is so much better to do exercises that work multiple muscles. I’m all for doing things with function in mind as well. How often will anyone be doing a tricep extension in their day to day lives? However, the functional movements are essential to daily living. 

    It’s also nice to know that you don’t necessarily need many different exercises to build overall mass. Thanks for writing this article, as I am sure it will be eye-opening to many struggling to gain muscle. 

  9. This is awesome! I truly love this article. I have always wanted to get bigger arms and even though I’m not strict with my workout routines, I have never seen results and after reading your article, I know why!

    I will bookmark your article because it has details about how to properly work out to get bigger arms. 

    Your summary is totally GREAT! I will follow your recommendation and I’m sure I will get results 🙂


  10. Absolutely, this post is amazing!. I have a friend who is tired of his T-shirt sleeves blowing in the wind. And I strongly believe that bigger biceps, triceps and forearms as shown in this website will surely turn any sleeve into a second skin.
    I will also try mine because each of these arm exercise spark the growth and proves any piece of kit.

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