Tag Archives: isolation

Nailing Down Your Accessory Work

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is about accessory work, specifically what exercises you should be doing and how to program it.

Let me hit a few main points, and then I will get into the movements that I think are most important.

Continue reading Nailing Down Your Accessory Work

Building Lifting Programs: 4 Vital Characteristics

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll notice I don’t put a ton of lifting programs up on my site.

That will probably change in the near future but for now there are many reasons that I don’t. The overarching reason is because I pride myself on educating lifters so they can think for themselves, not just follow a program blindly. The fitness community is inundated with thousands of lifting programs that people can follow, but ask the average user to develop their own program and describe the inner workings of their training and they likely can’t.

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”

I’d much rather teach you how to do your own programming so you can sustain yourself over a lifetime, rather than trying to find the next greatest thing after the end of an 8-week cycle.

So in designing your own lifting program, what are the major factors that you need to develop it around?

#1: Your Goals

Far too often when I talk to someone about lifting, they don’t have a clear definition of what their end game is. When embarking in lifting programs, you need to train to both your short-term and long-term goals.

Do you want to add on mass? Or do you want to gain total body strength? Maybe your goal is lift specific and you want to add 25 pounds to your bench press?

You need to have your end game in mind. If you want to add mass, doing programs meant for powerlifters may not add a lot of hypertrophy, and inversely, if you want to get stronger, high-volume bodybuilding style programs probably won’t get you there.

All of your training must be done with intention.

Never Change The Goal
#2: Volume-Intensity Relationship

To induce a training effect you have to stimulate your body with enough volume under heavy enough loads.

Training to your goals will take care of a lot of this dynamic. Strength seekers will favor less volume with more intensity and the mass seeker will probably favor more volume with lighter intensities.

Knowing the relationship between volume and intensity is paramount and may take some manipulating to make the gains you are looking for. Throughout the course of your training life, you will come across periods where your body needs more volume to induce growth, whereas other times you may need to add weight to the bar to boost your gains. Unfortunately there is no magic recipe for this. This comes down to your knowledge as a lifter, understanding what your body is telling you, and your ability to manipulate your programming to what your body needs.

For some general guidelines on volume and intensity check these out:

How to Add More Volume To Your Training

Crank Up the Intensity

What Rep Range Should You Use to Gain Mass?

#3: Training Frequency

This is how often you train, and more specifically, how often you are stimulating your various muscle groups.

Depending on how you break-down your training sessions, your training frequency may vary but typically you should be training at least 3 or 4 days a week.

Your training frequency will also be dictated by the volume-intensity relationship as higher-volume or intensity sessions may require more time in between training sessions. Rule of thumb for Primal lifters is that you allow for 48 hours rest in between muscle groups.

#4: Exercise Selection

This is a big one for me. I’m a firm believer in recruiting more muscle to build more muscle, so I favor a lot of compound lifts. However, you must be careful when using a lot of compound movements and ensure that you are getting proper recovery and not over-training your nervous system.

This is not to say isolation movements don’t have their merits, but you just have to know when and how to use them.

In Summary…

There are four major components of program design:

  1. Your Goals
  2. Volume-Intensity Relationship
  3. Training Frequency
  4. Exercise Selection

These are the only things you need to think about when designing a lifting program.

Any time I write a program for Primal, I am building it around these components. So as you progress in your lifting career, these are the things you need to think of in order to give yourself the proper programming to make both short and long-term gains.

As a parting thought, I want to finish by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect program. It just doesn’t exist.

Something may work for a while, but your body will adapt and your gains will stall. This doesn’t mean the program is garbage, it just means that you need to manipulate a portion of the program to reach your desired end state. This is what I call the 25% rule. To read more about the 25% rule, stay tuned for my next post…

— Tank

When Should You Use Isolation Movements?

Compound movements will always be king. I stress it in all of my writing and programs, and no matter how you spin the argument, you must recruit more muscle to build more muscle. The beginner lifter, or the person struggling to add mass or strength should be focusing on compound movements.


That’s not to say that isolation movements and bodybuilding does not have its place. Quite the contrary in fact; you just need to know how to use isolation movements in your training to maximize your results.

The following situations are times where I incorporate isolation movements.

#1: Adding Pounds to Big Lifts

Accessory work is vital to improving your numbers on things like overhead press, squats, and deadlifts.

A big part of that is isolating the primary and secondary movers on those lifts and building size and strength in them.

If you want to be a better presser, you have to build up your triceps and shoulders, so things like tricep pushdowns and front and side delt raises are great movements.

Want better squat and deadlift numbers? Glute ham raises and RDL’s are crucial to isolate your hamstrings.

This situation is, by far, the most prevalent time I and a lot of my Primal Strength Gym members use isolation, and we usually hit at least one isolation movement per training session.

#2: Direct Arm Work

Arms tend to respond well to higher-volume training, and while I train my arms indirectly through pull-ups, row variations, and heavy pressing, it may take some added sets of curl variations and tricep work (push-downs, dips, close-grip bench) to add mass to your arms.

I tend to do a lot of direct arm work on my lower body days, as opposed to upper body days where my arms already get a lot of indirect time under tension. I also use movements like light banded curl variations for tendon health and rehabilitation from strained and achy muscles.


#3: Bringing Up Weaknesses

If you are doing a lot of compound lifts, especially if you split your routines into an upper-lower split like I recommend, chances are you will need to incorporate some isolation movements to bring up neglected muscles, imbalances, and weaknesses.

Hamstrings are the prime example of this as it seems the vast majority of the population has weak hamstrings.

Upper back can be another common area, especially if you train a lot of compound movements.  For example, outside of deadlifting and farmers carries, I have to be conscious to make sure my upper back is getting trained frequently enough. So at least once a week, I’m dedicating some time to isolate my upper back with face pull variations and even shrugs.

Those examples aside, directly targeting and isolating any muscle that is lagging behind in development is a great strategy if you aren’t getting the results you want from heavy compound lifts.

#4: Adding More Volume to Increase Hypertrophy

Sometimes, especially for more experienced lifters, the solution to build more muscle mass is to increase training volume. If you are doing a lot of compound movements and recruiting a ton of muscle, your physical and neurological exertion will be elevated, making it very difficult to increase your training volume effectively (and it’s stressful on your central nervous system (CNS)).

Isolation movements are a great way to introduce more volume into your training to try and produce mass gains and hypertrophy, without over-taxing your body and CNS.

All the best,

— Tank

How to Build Bigger Arms

When I was a little kid, I always envied Hulk Hogan’s “24-inch pythons”.

strength training big arms

Fast forward 15 years later, and I probably trained my arms harder than anything else in the gym. Truth be told, I got good results but the rest of my body suffered. Rookie mistakes…

Now that I am a little older and a little wiser, I take a more well-rounded approach to building my arms that not only gives me more mass on my biceps and triceps, but improves my overall body mass and strength as well.

Want to make sure your gun show is a hit?

Let’s break down a good strength training approach to building bigger arms.

Top 3 Arm Building Exercises

#1: Dips

These are my go-to tricep builders.  I usually hit these after a heavy pressing exercise like the bench or overhead press.  Knocking out 4 sets of this with 12-16 reps should do the trick.  Once you can crush these with regularity using bodyweight, load up some plates on a weight belt or strap some chains around your neck and get to work.

Avoid doing these with your body straddled between 2 benches, feet propped up on one and your hands on another.  This style is a recipe for a pec tear and is not good on your shoulders.  Go with the classic approach on a dip stand.  Make sure your elbows remain tucked in; no flaring out like a chicken.

#2: Curl Variations

Everybody can do curls.  These are great bicep builders and an exercise you can do with a relatively high frequency since your bi’s are able to recover so quickly.  I tend to favor them with an EZ curl bar.  A straight bar is okay if that’s all you got, but they can be hard on your wrists and elbows.

I don’t ever recommend curling heavy.  Curl for “the pump” by using high volume and moderate weights.  Rep ranges should be in the neighborhood of 8-20 depending on the resistance and keep your rest periods low.

Work the variations into your training.  Concentration curls, reverse curls, and dumbbell work are all good.  One thing you don’t see much are power curls, but if you need to get some volume in with heavier than normal weights, these are a great way to do it.

#3: Close Grip Bench Press

Aside from dips, this is one of the best tricep exercises you can do.  Take a narrow grip on a flat bench, and press a loaded barbell.  Obviously, you will be pressing much less weight than a normal bench press, so pick something you can handle for 16-20 reps.  Again, you could work these in after a normal pressing exercise.  Here I like to keep my tempo pretty fast, almost as if I was doing speed work per Westside methods.

Focus on keeping your elbows tight to your body to emphasize your tri’s.  At least 4 sets here with 12-20 reps a piece.  Focus on volume, not intensity.strength training close grip bench press

Anything else?

When you are doing direct arm work, those are the 3 exercises that I would emphasize.  Others, like skull-crushers or dumbbell presses are fine, but listen to your body.  If you are experiencing elbow or shoulder pain, ditch them.  Injury simply isn’t worth it, and the 3 I laid out above work.  No need to re-invent the wheel.

Arm Building Principles to Live By

#1: Focus on volume

Getting big guns is all about volume.  Volume may be the most important factor to gaining mass in your arms; more so than it is in other parts of your body.  So don’t waste your time trying to train too heavy with curls or dips.  Gradually build your strength but maintain high rep ranges.

Your arms are quick to recover too.  Hit them with a higher frequency during the week, capitalizing on a day or two of rest instead of 4 or 5.

#2: Triceps > Biceps

strength training dips

Big arms are based around big triceps.  A nice peak to your guns looks nice and all, but arm size and strength is mostly concentrated on your tri’s.  So if you want bigger arms, what you are really saying is that you want bigger triceps.

Plus, the bigger and stronger your triceps are, the more success you will have in your other big pressing lifts like the bench and overhead.  In fact, I train my triceps strictly to get better at those lifts, rather than just trying to get bigger arms.  If you want bigger arms, I’m guessing you want mass everywhere else too, so the more you can press, the better off you will be.

#3: Build Your Arms with Indirect Arm Work

This is by far the most important principle to remember.  If you take nothing else from this post, please at least take this.

Spend less time doing direct arm work and hit them indirectly instead.  This will free up a ton of time for you to build more total body mass by focusing on compound lifts like the bench, overhead press, row variations, pull-ups, pushups, etc.

Even though you aren’t isolating your arms, pull-ups and row variations will build your biceps, and presses will crush your triceps.  You will be hitting your arms far more than you realize and then you can supplement this work with curls and dips, albeit spending far less time isolating just one part of your body.

Trust me, your arms won’t shrink if you don’t do 20 sets of bicep curls a week.

I didn’t touch my arms for 6 months, meaning I only did indirect arm work, and they still grew.  Since then, I’ve added curls and dips once a week in addition to standard pressing exercises on my 2 upper body days, and the gun show is in full effect.

So by following this principle, not only will your arms get bigger, the rest of your body will too.  If your guns aren’t growing as fast as you’d like, spend an extra 20 minutes a week getting in more volume but try not to sacrifice the other critical parts of your training.

strength training curls

Wrapping Up

So there ya go.

3 exercises and 3 principles that will get you bigger arms in a hurry.

If you missed the other parts of this series, check them out here:

How to Get Bigger Legs

How to Get A Bigger Chest

How to Get a Bigger Back


— Tank
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Underground Strength Coach

Train Like An Athlete

One of the first things I ask people when assessing how and why they train is to ask them who they want to look like.  The answers I get are almost 100% the same.  Yet, the way they train is completely out of whack with the goals they have.

Let me illustrate.  Take a look at the pics below.  Who would you rather look like?  Jay Cutler or Vernon Davis?

train like an athletetrain like an athlete

Now Jay is huge and impressive, but I’d still venture to guess that most of you picked Vernon Davis on the right.

So let me ask another question.  If you want to look like the guy on the right, why is it that you train like the guy on the left?

The majority of people I see walking around gyms these days are still doing the same sh*t they read out of bodybuilding mags that were idolized decades ago; body part splits, isolation movements, high volume.

If you are a bodybuilder, have at it.  But most of us aren’t getting on that stage any time soon.  We simply want to get bigger, and stronger, and look good with our shirts off.  Most of us want to look like our favorite athletes.  If you want to look like an athlete, you sure as hell better be training like one.

Compound exercises are king.  Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, Olympic lifts.

Sprint, jump, move!  No more isolation, no more 80 reps of one body part training session.  Total body training, or for the intermediate to advanced lifter an upper/lower split, is where you should live.

Do you think Vernon spends his time doing bicep curls and lat pulldowns?  The dude is training for strength and power.  He’s doing pull-ups, heavy squats, clean and presses.  He’s doing total body training sessions.  And guess what?  He still looks good doesn’t he?

Choosing a training plan and exercises that recruit more muscle per movement builds more muscle.  Simple right?  Plus you can work with heavier resistance on the compound movements that will boost your strength, and eventually your mass, for you vain pretty boys…

Ditch the bodybuilding routine.  It’s time to train like an athlete.