When you think of working out, you probably think primarily of your muscles. That makes a lot of sense — you can’t, after all, lift without your connective tissues. But your joints also play a huge role in your training program.
Every time you perform a dynamic lift — every time you move — you’re engaging one or more of your joints. When you do lifts like a squat or a bench press, you’re moving at more than one of your joints to engage multiple muscle groups. For that reason, those exercises are considered multi-joint lifts. But when you’re only targeting one muscle group and only moving at one joint, it’s a single-joint lift. Think biceps curls, hamstring curls, and triceps extensions.
Both multi-joint and single-joint movements have distinct advantages — but which is better when it comes to strengthening your lifts? Should you do single- or multi-joint exercises to increase muscle mass? Read on to learn more about when to perform multi- and single-joint exercises, how to program these exercises, and the benefits of performing both types of exercises.
What Are Multi-Joint Exercises?
Multi-joint exercises are kind of what they sound like — exercises that directly involve more than one of your joints. They’re also known as compound exercises. Examples of compound, multi-joint exercises are squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, dips, and bench presses.
When you’re trying to figure out whether a move you want to perform is multi-joint, think about whether you’re bending and moving more than one part of your body. When you’re bench pressing, for example, your shoulder joints are heavily involved.
But the lift literally isn’t possible if you don’t also bend at your elbow joints. This makes it possible to move the weight down to your chest. Without being able to move at all of these joints, the bench press won’t happen.
That’s why compound exercises engage so many muscle groups at once. Joints don’t just move on their own — they need your muscles to kick in. The more joints you’re moving during an exercise, the more muscles are engaged.
What Are Single-Joint Exercises?
Single-joint exercises, also called isolation exercises, require the movement of one joint. When performing a biceps curl, for example, everything should be still except your elbow joint. This means that only the muscles that flex your elbow joint, the biceps in this instance, are specifically recruited and activated. In other words, you’re isolating a certain muscle group when you perform single-joint exercises.
Benefits of Multi-Joint Exercises
Because multi-joint exercises involve more than one joint — with very intensive compound lifts like the squat and deadlift muscles are being activated pretty literally from head to toe. So multi-joint exercises are going to give you the most bang for your buck. Consequently, you can develop total-body strength a lot more effectively if you focus on multi-joint exercises.
Because compound movements involve multiple joints and muscle groups working together, they’re also great for kinesthetic awareness. Full-body coordination is bound to increase when you perform multi-joint exercises with proper form. Better coordination means more efficient movement — and more efficient movement means lifting heavier.
If one of your goals is changing your body composition, multi-joint exercises are also likely to help you burn more calories. Since they’re recruiting so many muscles, your whole body will be required to work harder. Because they’re more energetically demanding, compound exercises can potentially help with body fat loss goals.
Benefits of Single-Joint Exercises
Just because they don’t recruit many muscles at once doesn’t mean that single-joint exercises don’t pack a punch. Isolation exercises can be extremely effective at targeting specific muscles for growth. This is especially so when they’re performed with strict form and without rushing.
Isolation exercises can also help reduce strength imbalances and muscular asymmetries. By performing single-joint exercises unilaterally, you can target specific weak points in your lifting. Is your squat (a compound lift) lagging because of your hamstrings? Isolation exercises like hamstring curls can help eliminate those sticking points.
Relatedly, single-joint moves can help lagging muscles (think: those stubborn calves) grow by giving them special attention. That’s why you’ll see so many bodybuilders opting to include a lot of single-joint work into their program.
Should You Do Multi- Or Single-Joint Exercises?
As with anything in the strength world, no one workout prescription works for everyone. In general, you can make good decisions about exercise selection for your program based on your goals and experience level.
In 2020, researchers studied the use of multi- and single-joint exercises for strength and hypertrophy. (1) The study took two commonly used exercises — the bench press and lying barbell triceps press — and pitted them against one another in different combinations. The conclusions explored here challenge the conventional narrative that multi-joint exercises are always better than single-joint exercises.
For this research, 43 young cis men 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 participants did not have prior resistance training exposure with regularity for six months before the study. Before the exercise intervention, all of the study participants had their bench press and lying barbell triceps press one-rep maxes (1RMs) 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. 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.
Following the exercise intervention, the authors re-tested the metrics that were initially explored and recorded. Here’s what they found when it comes to significant improvements with 1RM and muscle cross-sectional areas:
- 1RM 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.
- 1RM 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
Multi- Vs. Single-Joint Exercises for Building Strength
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; conversely, the same logic applies to the lying barbell triceps press. However, it was interesting that the group that performed the multi-joint + single-joint saw greater improvements than its counterpart. This is interesting food for thought for those who do pre-exhaust exercises.
In other words, to make the most of your strength gains, you can use a combination of lifts. But focus first on the compound movement, which seems to build compound strength more than performing single-joint lifts first.
Multi- Vs. Single-Joint Exercises for Increasing Muscle Mass
In the research, there was a discrepancy in the triceps across the three heads. The triceps grew in pretty much every group to some degree, but the heads varied greatly. For example, the lateral triceps head saw significantly more growth when the bench press was involved in training. 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, which could suggest lesser gains when only using the bench press. Remember, though. This was a fairly untrained population, so that’s important to keep in mind when reading the above.
Still, the research suggests that both single- and multi-joint exercises will help you gain muscle (especially as a newbie). But if you’re looking to develop the most size, emphasizing single-joint movements might be your best bet. Just don’t stop performing multi-joint work completely — it’s still important to maximize the effect of single-joint moves.
Multi- Vs. Single-Joint Exercises for Fat Loss
While this research didn’t study fat loss or body recomposition, it is known that exercises that recruit more muscle mass burn more calories. A 2017 study found that even half squats require a great deal more energy than biceps curls. (2) This suggests that compound exercises may be better for fat loss.
However, it depends on how you program your training. If the training volume remains the same, a 2017 study suggested multi- and single-joint movements have the same body composition impact. (3) In other words, if you move the same amount of weight — if you even out the overall volume worked across multi- and single-joint lifts — neither is better nor worse for fat loss.
Still, that’s a lot of total volume to perform with single-joint moves. Assuming your program doesn’t contain absurdly high volume with isolation movements, it’s pretty safe to say that, in general, compound exercises can help more efficiently with fat loss.
That said, someone can have a relatively low body fat percentage and still want to have a more prominent biceps bulge. In that case, targeting the biceps for growth with isolation exercises can be very helpful in achieving the body aesthetics that you might want.
Programming Multi- Vs. Single-Joint Exercises
The studies above suggest that there is no one right way to program multi- and single-joint movements. But some key takeaways that can help guide you when you’re designing your training regimen follow:
- If you want to get stronger at X lift, perform X lift more often. As long as your recovery and form are on point, performing squats will help you get stronger at squats. Performing hamstring curls will help you get stronger at hamstring curls. Pull-ups will make you stronger at pull-ups, and biceps curls will make you stronger at biceps curls.
- Especially if you’re a beginner, both multi- and single-joint exercises will help you build muscle and gain strength, so it’s safe and effective to program both types.
- In general, program your compound exercises first (after your warmup) because they are the most demanding.
- You may want to emphasize compound exercises for fat loss, assuming you don’t want to perform absurdly high levels of isolation reps.
- If you want to develop a primary muscle group like the pecs major, program compound lifts primarily and first.
- If you want to develop a smaller muscle group like the triceps, you can emphasize isolation exercises.
At the end of the day, if you want to improve on a specific exercise, you need to train and practice that exercise. If you want to create well-rounded growth, it’s probably a good idea to use multi-joint and single-joint exercises, as they can provide different stimuli. Most importantly, you’re using exercises in a strategic fashion that has the intent and accounts for muscle function and your specific goals.
- Brandão, L, de Salles Painelli, V, Lasevicius, T, Silva-Batista, C, Brendon, H, Schoenfeld, BJ, Aihara, AY, Cardoso, FN, de Almeida Peres, B, and Teixeira, EL. (2020) Varying the order of combinations of single- and multi-joint exercises differentially affects resistance training adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550.
- Victor Machado Reis, Nuno Domingos Garrido, Jeferson Vianna, Ana Catarina Sousa, José Vilaça Alves, Mário Cardoso Marques. (2017) Energy cost of isolated resistance exercises across low- to high-intensities. PLOS One, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0181311.
- Antonio Paoli, Paulo Gentil, Tatiana Moro,Giuseppe Marcolin, Antonino Bianco. (2017) Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Frontiers in Physiology, doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.01105.