Sure, the big lifts offer the most bang for your buck, but to maximize size, symmetry and strength, single joint movements play an important, supporting role.
The solution is simple—staggered sets.
Defining Staggered Sets
Staggered sets are essentially a way to multitask. They involve training several muscle groups together, alternating the muscle groups with each successive set or between exercises. Generally, larger muscle groups are paired with smaller muscle groups. An example would be wrist curls in between sets of the leg press. The larger muscle group recovers while you train the smaller one.
In 2008, a Spanish study supported this Weider principle. Two groups with strength training experience did two separate workout protocols. One was a standard bench press workout of five sets, the other was staggered sets of bench press, calf raises and leg extensions. The bench press consisted of the same sets and reps as the first group. Bench press performance was unaffected. Interestingly, the researchers called this “circuit training.” It was more intense than traditional staggered set training. Applied to a training program, more will get done, weaknesses will be brought up, and more calories will be burned.
Staggered sets are a way to complete more during your workout, particularly the extras you normally skip. For example, you can work your forearms with the wrist roller in between sets of squats or perform calf raises between sets of the bench press. The larger muscle group recovers while you train the smaller one.
Of course, the big movement is the priority; the key to success is to avoid interference. Between sets of deadlifts, grip work is out (you have to grip the bar), biceps are out (unless you want to tear a biceps), back, abs and hamstrings are out, but triceps pushdowns, lateral raises and flys are in. You get the idea!
If your forearms need extra work, try the wrist roller between sets of lunges. For the neck give the four-way neck machine a shot between exercises on arm day. According to the immortal Lee Haney, the idea with staggered sets is to stimulate muscles, do not annihilate them.
Time to hit the pig iron!