The idea of training with strategic variations for muscle growth and strength has been around forever in the world of strength & conditioning. This is why we see handfuls of programs that use compound exercises mixed with single-joint accessory movements to promote well-rounded growth in strength and size.
An interesting new study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research explored how varying single-joint and multi-joint exercises could influence gains in both strength and hypertrophy. (1)
The research was really interesting because it took two commonly used exercises including the bench press and lying barbell triceps press, then pitted them against one another in different combinations. Essentially, this study was really fascinating because it shined a light on the importance of specificity, but also, it challenges the conventional narrative that multi-joint exercises are always better than single-joint.
For this research, 43 healthy individuals completed the duration of the study. The individuals were split into four testing groups including:
- Single-Joint + Multi-Joint
- Multi-Joint + Single-Joint
It’s important to note that the healthy male individuals did not have prior resistance training exposure with regularity for 6-months prior to the study.
Testing and Exercise Intervention
Prior to the exercise intervention, all of the study participants had their bench press and lying barbell triceps press 1-RMs tested, along with the cross-sectional area of the pec major and triceps.
Over the course of 10-weeks, every participant partook in a total of 20 lifting sessions. The lifting sessions had a flow that represented the four groups mentioned above. For example, one group only performed multi-joint exercises, one group did single-joint then multi-joint, another did multi-joint then single-joint, and the final group did only single-joint exercises.
Results and Suggestions
Following the exercise intervention, authors re-tested the metrics that were initially explored and recorded. Here’s what they found when it comes to significant improvements with 1-RM and muscle cross-sectional areas.
- 1-RM Bench Press Improved In: Multi-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
- The multi-joint + single-joint group saw a slightly higher improvement compared to the single-joint + multi-joint group.
- 1-RM Lying barbell Triceps Press Improved In: Single-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
- Pec Major Improved In: Multi-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
- Triceps Improved In: Single-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
- Triceps Long Head: Single-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
- Triceps Lateral Head: Multi-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
- Triceps Medial Head: Single-joint group, single-joint + multi-joint, multi-joint + single-joint
When it comes to direct strength carryover, the principle of specificity seems to ring true for the above exercises. To improve the bench press, you need to bench press, and conversely the same logic applies for the lying barbell triceps press. However, it was interesting that the group who performed the multi-joint + single-joint saw greater improvements that it’s counterpart. This is interesting food for thought for those who do pre-exhaust exercises.
Another interesting takeaway was the discrepancy in the triceps across the three heads. The triceps as a whole grew in pretty much every group to some degree, but the heads varied pretty greatly. For example, the lateral triceps head saw significantly more growth when the bench press was involved in training, while the long and medial head saw the most gains following the lying barbell triceps press.
Researchers suggest that the reasoning for the variance in triceps head activation was due to the long head being a biarticulate muscle (a muscle that crosses two joints) versus the medial and lateral head, which are not biarticulate muscle and are pure elbow flexors.
The long head is shortened during the bench press and this could suggest the lower gains when only using bench press. Remember though, this was a fairly untrained population, so that’s important to keep in mind when reading the above.
This study was great because it provided a lot of food four thought when it comes to programming for strength and hypertrophy. The debate of multi-joint versus single-joint for strength and growth will continue on, but the more research we have creating a better lay of the land for effective programming practices is never a bad thing.
At the end of the day, if you want to improve on a specific exercise, then you need to train and practice that exercise. If you want to create well-rounded growth, then it’s probably a good idea to use both multi-joint and single-joint exercises, as they can provide different stimuli. What’s most important is that you’re using exercises in a strategic fashion that has intent and accounts for muscle function and context of goals.
Feature image Maksim Toome/Shutterstock