You may have heard in bodybuilding circles that basic, heavy, free-weight exercises increase overall body mass. Perhaps you've heard movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and others induce endogenous hormone production, leading to acute increases in lactate, growth hormone (GH), insulin-like 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 plus multijoint activation equals heightened anabolic hormones translating to overall muscle hypertrophy!
Not so fast ...
In a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found no increase in strength or muscle hypertrophy in resistance-trained subjects performing heavy leg training after a biceps workout. Twelve young, male subjects performed biceps curls on different days, under different conditions.
The first biceps-training session was performed alone with no other exercises afterward. The second biceps training session was performed with a high-volume, heavy leg exercise performed 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 followed for 15 weeks, during which time 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 had 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? Unfortunately, no. Both maximal strength and muscle cross-sectional area increased identically in both arms by 20% versus a 19% increase in strength for biceps trained alone and biceps trained with a heavy leg exercise.
An increase in skeletal muscle over a cross-sectional area of 12% versus 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 biceps curls and triceps extensions for huge guns, and dumbbell military presses for round, 3-D shoulders—it's as simple as that.
Another factor to consider is that people who are avid squatters, deadlifters, and bench pressers most likely will be more muscular and larger than weight trainees who bypass these heavy-hitting movements.
If you think about it, those who are pouring energy into demanding exercises like the basics (squats/deadlifts/bench presses) 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 multijoint movements into your weight-training routine. If you suffer from injuries, I recommend pre-exhausting with isolation exercises in the beginning, then finish the session with the basic multijoint 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 reps 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're reducing calories to lose body fat, reduce carbs, and supplement with essential fatty acids, MCT oils, and mild cholesterol consumption from cage-free, organic eggs.
I can guarantee doing all of the above nutritionally will aid in anabolic hormone production "chronically," seven days a week, as opposed to the mild "acute effect" you temporarily get from performing a few heavy sets of squats and deadlifts.