Big versus Small

Big Exercises contain the Small Exercises

It’s quite common to be overwhelmed by the shear number of exercises available to you at the WCFP or any gym. A common question when faced with 100 exercises choices is, “how many exercises should I do to work all my muscles?”. To answer this question, we present training tip #4, Big versus Small. In this tip you’ll discover that many of the small, single joint exercises included in a typical workout program are already contained within the larger multi-joint exercises. Knowing about this will help you make more practical and efficient exercise choices.

What’s a big exercise and what’s a small exercise? A big exercise is one that involves two or more joints actively moving. A small exercise involves only one joint. Count the number of joints that are active during any weight training exercise. In any exercise, you’ll observe muscles actively move at least one joint (i.e. prime mover complex), and often more than one joint, while other muscles and joints away from the main action don’t move but remain statically contracted to stabilize the body’s position and posture (i.e. stabilizer complex).

Here are some examples of small exercises contained within big exercises

Below are examples of small exercises that are contained within big exercises. What do we mean by this? In the examples below, look for joint actions that are common to both the small and big exercise examples. You’ll see that the single-joint exercise “triceps extension” is contained within the multi-joint exercise, the “push-up”. Further down, you can see that the single-joint exercise, “bicep curl” is contained within the multi-joint exercise, the “pull-up”. What’s the takeaway from this knowledge? Spend your time wisely at the fitness park of gym by placing a priority on the big exercises available to you. The main body of your workout should consist of big movements. Leave any small exercises to be tacked onto the end of your workout, if at all. Remember, you’ve already used those same muscles during their involvement during big exercises!

single joint action:

Tricep Extension

Watch someone perform a standing tricep extension and you’ll see a stabilized, stationary body with action at only one joint, extension (opening) of the elbow joint.

This exercise isolates the triceps muscle. It extends (opens) the elbow joint

multi-joint action:


Observing a push-up you’ll see a stationary, stabilized body with action at two joints: the elbow joint opens or extends; and the shoulder joint moves the upper arm towards the centre front of the body.

Push-ups can be done with knees on the ground to reduce the load

The push-up exercise includes the same elbow joint opening action as the triceps extension exercise above. The big exercise contains the small exercise.

Worth mentioning here is the added involvement of the core stabilizer muscles during a push-up versus a standing tricep extension.

single joint action:

Bicep Curl

Observing a standing bicep curl, you’ll see a stationary, stabilized body with action at only one joint: flexion (closing) of the elbow joint.

This exercise isolates the biceps muscle. It closes or flexes the elbow joint

multi-joint action:


Performing a pull-up (showing a stretchy band to help) involves significant movement at two joints. The elbow joint and the shoulder joint. Lesser degrees of joint movement can be seen in the wrists, and felt in forearms. The mid-section is statically contracted to stabilize the core, but can be actively involved if you flex you hips each time you pull.

An assisted pull-up using a stretchy band to offset some body weight

The pull-up exercise includes the same elbow joint flexion action as the biceps curl exercise above. The big exercise contains the small exercise.

Try a narrower grip than shown with palms facing for maximum biceps leverage

The pull-up exercise in all its variations are difficult movements to perform. It’s best to use an appropriately thick loop of stretchy band to offset some body weight.

Big Exercises involve two or more joints and include more muscles than small or single joint exercises. In fact, small, single joint exercises are already contained within big multi-joint exercises!

Take the Big or Small Quiz

Look at each exercise illustration. Determine if it is a big or small exercise by counting the active joints. See how you did below.


exercise 1: one active joint
exercise 2: two active joints
exercise 3: one active joint
exercise 4: one active joint
exercise 5: two active joints
exercise 6: one active joint
exercise 7: two active joints
exercise 8: four active joints
exercise 9: one active joint
exercise 10: one active joint
exercise 11: two active joints
exercise 12: one active joint
exercise 13: one active joint
exercise 14: two active joints
exercise 15: two active joints
exercise 16: one active joint

The main ideas from this article are…

  • Big exercises involve two or more joints:
    Big exercises involve at least two joints. When more joints are involved in an exercise, more muscles are also involved. Big exercises are the best choice for getting the most value from a workout in the shortest amount of time.
  • Big exercises contain smaller exercises:
    Look closely at any exercise involving two or more joints and you’ll see your favourite small exercises hidden away within the bigger exercises. Inside each chin-up or pull-up there is a bicep curl. Inside each push-up or shoulder press there is a triceps exercise. Inside each squat lies a knee extension.
  • Big exercises more closely resemble real-life activities than do small exercises:
    Real life activities involve relatively complicated movements. Train for these situations by performing big exercises as a rule. Think of “bending over to pick up a box of books to place above your head on a shelf” as a good example of a complicated real life movement. To train for this in the gym, you could place two dumbbells at your feet, bend over from the hips, reach down and grab each dumbbell with a straight arm, extend at the hip until the dumbbells are at your side, perform a curl with each arm and then press each dumbbell upwards, over your head until your arms are extended. Prepare for real world events by choosing big exercises for your next workout.

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