If you pass by The Zone on Brock University’s campus, you will more than likely see people standing in the free weight section, performing endless sets of biceps curls and triceps extensions in order to get a set of bigger and/or more toned arms. You will also see gym-goers doing lat pull-downs, leg extensions, chest flyes, and endless variations of machine workouts to exercise the legs, back, and core.
What many don’t know is there is a much simpler and faster, way to build muscle and strength. Part of this lies in two big ideas in exercise physiology: compound exercise and closed-kinetic chain exercise versus open-kinetic chain exercise.
First, we must look at compound workouts. A compound exercise is simply an exercise that engages multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously. Some common examples include bench presses (chest, triceps and shoulders), the standing overhead press (shoulders, core, triceps) for the upper body, squats (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes) and deadlifts (essentially your entire posterior chain, or back of your body) for your lower body.
These compound exercises are much more effective than isolation exercises, where only one muscle group is worked at a time (think bicep curls) for multiple reasons. Compound exercises work multiple muscles at once, meaning they are more efficient. You can use heavier weight with a barbell row than with a bicep curl, meaning you are stressing the muscle more effectively and making it easier to progressively overload your musculature. They also elicit much more of a growth hormone response and do a better job overloading your central nervous system. Want bigger arms? You are better off doing some heavy deadlifts than a million bicep curls.
As for the difference between open-chain and closed-chain exercise: a closed-chain movement is one where your hands or foot are not moving when you are performing the workout. Think pull-ups, dips, squats and deadlift; your hands or feet, are fixed in position while you perform the exercise. This is in contrast to an open-chain exercise, such as bench press, lat pulldowns, and extensions.
To compare an open-chain exercise and a closed-chain exercise that target the same muscle group, look at the pull-up versus the lat pull-down. According to Bodybuilding.com, the pull-up works your back and arms, but also “activates the abdominals more than many conventional ab exercises like sit-ups and crunches” whereas a pull-down “intentionally removes the muscles of the core from the equation”. In a contest between the two, the website voted in favour of the pull-up as the better exercise.
In short: want to get in better shape on campus, while hitting the gym between classes and studying? Ditch the bicep curls and leg extensions and get really strong on chin-ups and squats.