Depending on how much knowledge you have about fitness, the terms “compound” and “isolation” exercise may or may not make sense. Maybe you have been working out for a while and have heard these terms thrown around, but weren’t quite sure what the difference was. Well, my dear reader, the difference is very important and I will explain why this is the case.
First, a definition of each to make sure we are all on the same page as to why they are different.
Isolation exercises are exercises that focus on only one muscle group or joint at a time. An example of an isolation exercise would be the bicep curl, or some sort of tricep extension (among many others).
Compound exercises are exercises that use multiple muscle groups/joints at one time. An example of a compound exercise would be a squat, pull up, push up or dead lift (among many others).
So which one is “better”? Which one will help you reach your goals the best?
As with almost any fitness question, the full/complete answer could take hours to explain. Here at FM, I understand you may not have hours at the moment to read or talk about this topic. You have chosen to allow for a few minutes to learn some quick points of interest. Therefore, I will do the best I can to explain what i think about this topic and how I go about it in my own life. I will make some generalizations, but would love to engage in a lengthier conversation about the topic to allow for more specific points of focus. If you would like to speak more on the matter, please contact me and we will continue the conversation.
Isolation exercises are not efficient uses of your time. Filling your workout or amount of time you have set aside to work out, with isolation exercises, will accomplish very little compared to compound exercises. The reason being, you are only working one muscle out at a time. Most of us don’t want to spend hours in the gym. We have lives, we have things to do. We care about our fitness and how exercise can benefit our health, but would like our time spent working out to be efficient. Compound exercises are, for the most part, the answer to wanting an efficient workout in a short (er) amount of time.
Take a squat, for example. Regarded by many fitness processionals as one of the best exercises you can do, is a great example of a compound exercise. As you perform the squat motion, you are using multiple muscle groups in your legs, core, as well as upper body to complete the exercise. In the same amount of time that you would have spent doing an isolation exercise, you just worked out most of your body at the same time! This makes your body work harder, which will, in turn, burn more calories and help you build more muscle in a shorter period of time. Compound exercises are tough, for sure. Many people avoid deadlifts, or pull ups because they are hard to do. Well, yeah they are hard to do! They involve many muscle groups in your body at the same time. But that’s the great part. The fact that you are using multiple joints and muscle groups, makes the time spent during that exercise much more efficient than if you were using that same amount of time working one muscle group at a time.
Say you have two people working out for the same amount of time. They both decided they were going to spend 30 minutes working out at the gym. One of them does isolation exercises and the other does compound exercises. The person who did the compound exercises will have worked more muscle groups and will have benefited their body as a WHOLE in that same amount of time, than did the other who only did isolation exercises. I mean, if you work your muscles one at a time, you can only work so many in that period of time.
Another important point to make. Our bodies are made of muscles that are supposed to work together. Forcing your muscles to work individually is not how our bodies are meant to be used (for the most part). When we pick up a box, when we we crouch to look at something, etc our body is using multiple muscle groups at the same time. When you pick up your son/daughter/niece/nephew and walk around with them, you are performing compound movements that require multiple muscle groups. This is how we are built!
From a more superficial perspective. The people who seem to be in the best overall shape, are ones that you will more often than not, see doing compound exercises. If you are a guy and want to build a bit more muscle or add some more mass, look at the guys at the squat rack. If you are a girl who is looking to lose a few pounds, or get that tighter body, take a look at other girls who seem to be in some shape. They probably spend time doing compound exercise as well. Yes, there will be exceptions. There always will be. My point is, if you take the time to look around, you will notice this information is not secret. Many know of the benefit of compound exercises and use them to their advantage.
Now, HOOOOOOOLD the phone.
Don’t you go thinking, “oh, well I don’t want to get too huge, so compound exercises aren’t for me.” No no no no nooooo! That couldn’t be more wrong. There are many different types of exercise programs that can be adjusted for different goals. Whether you want to lose weight, or gain substantial muscle, compound exercises are important. This is a thought many many manyyyy people have. For more on the specific topic of avoiding strength raining for a totally wrong reasons, check out this post “I don’t want to get big, I want to get toned.”
Now, isolation exercises aren’t horrible, either. They can be great for rehab from injury, when using one muscle at a time is necessary for recovery. Yes, isolation exercises can be used to target one muscle group you would like to build, if that is your goal. And yes, lifters successfully use isolation exercises to build muscle and physique. Keep in mind, though, that these same people would need to spend much more time during their workouts to do multiple isolation exercises to hit their body as a whole.
Also, keep in mind that muscles will only grow so much, if their counterparts are not being exercised as well. Our bodies are meant to work in balance. Which brings me to my next point. If you are only working certain muscles over and over, and ignoring the rest of your body, you are setting yourself up for injury. Having one muscle much stronger than it’s surrounding muscles creates a dangerous imbalance that can lead to some serious ouchies and owies.
Does this mean that I never do any isolation exercises, ever? No. Sometimes I will work some curls or tricep extensions into my workout. However, when I only have a certain amount of time, I will devote that time to compound exercises. In my experience, focusing on compound exercises has always led to the best results.
Again, I only have a limited amount of time (and attention span) from my readers so I wanted to make a quick point. Please don’t think that I hate isolation exercises. I don’t. I do, however, have a limited amount of time to work out and have found that compound exercises have helped me reach my goals in efficient amounts of time.
I will post later with more examples of compound exercises and isolation execises. For now, I wanted to get you thinking about the difference between the two, and how you spend your time strength training.