Isolation Exercise to Fix a Compound Exercise Stall – Q&A

Question: I have a question regarding volume and stalling on certain lifts because of one body part. For instance, say that when I bench press, my triceps are the limiting factor in the lift, they give out before my chest does. So because of my triceps I can’t progress it weights.

So to remedy that problem, I always hear the advice to blast the failing body part with more volume, which doesn’t make sense to me because they already ‘burned out’ in that workout. I think it would make more sense to isolate the chest because it wasn’t worked to the point of exhaustion like the triceps were.

So I myself think lowering the triceps volume may be beneficial while others want to increase it. This scenario does lack context and I’m sorry for that, but I’d figure there are reasons to bump up volume and decrease volume to be able to progress.

Answer: There are a couple of different ways to look at this. On the one hand, it does make a certain logical sense that the failing muscle group is getting the largest training stimulus and that extra work would be overkill.   By that argument, your suggestion of doing more pec work seems logical at first glance since, in premise, it is your triceps limiting the training effect to the pecs during compound movements.  And certainly systems such as pre- or post-exhaustion have been used based on that logic.

At the same time, just hammering away at a compound movement doesn’t seem to really ‘catch-up’ the lagging muscle groups.  So the logic doesn’t seem to correspond to the training reality.  For whatever reason, the muscle group that is holding a compound lift doesn’t ever seem to catch up with the prime movers when it’s a big weak point.

And this seems to be especially true the worse that a person is built for a movement.  That is, consider someone with long arms, who will typically have problems benching in terms of triceps giving out (simply as a function of the long lever arm due to their mechanics).  In practice, these folks seem to benefit more from isolation work (or a combination of isolation and specific assistance work; see below) than folks built to bench.

Just benching and benching and benching some more seems to work more poorly even if you’d expect it to work better (just as a function of the limiting muscle being trained more due to it being limiting).  I can’t honestly say why this is the case but, again, practically you tend to find that the people who often benefit most from assistance work (of whatever sort) are the ones who are least well built for it.

And you see this approach in systems of training that, empirically at least, seem to work for the most varied groups of people.  In Olympic lifting for example, as I discussed in the dreadfully overwritten Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting Series, while many seem to think that the Bulgarian approach may be ideal, it works best when lifters have no weak points.  The Soviet approach, using more variety and specific assistance work, seems to work for a broader population, especially those lifters not ideally biomechanically suited to the movements.

A similar idea would exist for something such as Westside powerlifting training (where a combination of both isolation work for individually lacking muscles along with specific assistance work for the competition lifts) is used to bring up weak points.  Louie Simmons has said something to the effect that “Movements don’t fail, muscles do” and much of the setup of Westside type approaches is using assistance work of varying types to bring up limiting muscle groups.

Finishing up, I’d also argue that there is often an efficiency aspect to using specific assistance work to shore up weak points and this can be especially true for the big compound movements.  Just benching and benching and benching some more (or squatting or deadlifting or what have you) can get old fast.  If plugging in specific isolation work for a lagging muscle group (or even specific assistant work that uses the limiting muscle group more in it’s limiting range; think board presses for a lifter having trouble at lockout) fixes the problem faster and/or with less grinding effort on more fatiguing movements, that can only be seen as a benefit.  So rather than just bench endlessly and hope that the triceps catch up, I’d see doing specific triceps work (and this might be a combination of both isolation work for muscles and carefully selected assistance work) is a more efficient way of fixing the problem.

I’d mention, in finishing, that I am in no way suggesting that you replace your compound work with isolation or even specific assistance work.  But adding in either direct work for lagging muscles, specific assistance work, or a combination of both along with the compound work is a time-tested way of bringing up weak points for folks who have major limiters.  But you’re unlikely to get any real transfer if you’re not still practicing the compound movement itself, effectively ‘integrating’ any gains in strength in the limiting muscle that you make with the assistance work.

In practice, the most typical approach might be to do some direct work for the lacking muscle group (i.e. direct triceps work of varying types) on one upper body day and something more specific (like board presses of varying heights depending on where the weak point was) on the other upper body day.  That would be in addition to any specific work on bench press and generally done after the bench press work.

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