When a newbie joins a gyms and eyes a guy with an 18-inch biceps doing concentration curls and cable crossovers both isolation movements to train his chest, he starts to feel that the secret to building a muscular physique and an 18-inch arm is to perform isolation exercises!
What he fails to imagine is that that muscular guy with an 18-inch bicep has spent thousands of hours in the gym for many years doing compound lifts building up his size and therefore his physique.
What he is now doing is simply refining and perfecting his physique.
So first let’s try and understand what exactly do we mean by compound and isolation exercises and then see which one is better or not!
Any exercise that involves multiple joints and muscle groups can be termed as a compound movement.
For example, when doing a squat, the ankle joint, knee joint and hip joint are all involved in doing the movement. Multiple muscle groups like quadricep complex, hamstring complex, hip musculature and the entire core musculature are involved
So besides squats, some more common examples are deadlift, military press, chest press, incline presses, lat pulldown etc.
All these above exercises have a prime mover i.e. the main muscle group doing most of the work and secondary muscles support the prime moves in completing the required movement.
5 Benefits of Compound Exercise
Compound Exercise mimics the real-life movement and builds functional strength.
My boy who is now 4 years old, squats (natural free squat and not barbell squat…hehe…) all the time.
Its a completely natural movement that mimics real life movement. In fact, when visiting my village in Haryana, India a few times a year, I notice that the villagers there sit in a low squat position most of the time. My dad calls this position “Ukudu,” meaning a low squat. When females clean the house with a broom, they do this low squat as well.
Same thing with deadlifts, even so, more with a trap bar. It’s like squatting down and lifting an object. When your workouts comprise of these functional movements, you build real-life functional strength that otherwise is not possible with isolation exercises which we shall discuss in just a while.
Compound Exercise helps you build muscles faster.
Studies have shown that compound movements help release a lot of testosterone and human growth hormone which are key hormones when it comes to building muscles.
Compound Exercise helps you burn more fat and also provides significant cardiovascular benefits.
Squats involve almost 200 muscles, that pretty much your entire body. A rep of a compound lift is metabolically much more challenging than a rep of a bicep curl, as more muscles are recruited to perform the action.
The EPOC effect when doing compound lifts is much higher than when your workouts comprise of isolation exercises. This not only gives your heart a good workout but also burns more calories even after you have done your workout (EPOC-Exercise post-oxygen consumption).
Compound Exercise works your stabilizing muscles to the T.
You might wanna reach this post to understand this point better: Free Weights Vs Machines.
Compound Exercise helps save a LOT of time.
Just three movements, squats or trap bar deadlifts, incline dumbbells press and pull-ups can pretty much cover your entire body.
For people who are short on time, they can easily perform 3-5 main compound movement few times a week to train their entire body and also get good results. The total time commitment, in this case, won’t exceed 90-120 minutes!
Compound Exercise helps you build a fabulous body.
Ok, I know you don’t want to look like a bodybuilder (no pun intended). Bodybuilders have this different look, puffy muscles, and a unique look. In fact, they walk different, this is because of their focus on isolation exercises and working out only in one plane of motion -Sagittal Plane. Muscles don’t work that way.
They work in three planes of motion and always as a unit. Too many isolation lifts disrupt the natural firing and motor recruiting sequencing causing a person to look and walk differently than a person who focuses on functional and compound movement.
With so many amazing benefits of compound exercises, do isolation exercises have any place in a workout routine?
Let’s find out.
Any exercise that involves a single joint and only one muscle group (with no or very little help from other muscle groups) can be termed as an isolation movement.
Some more common examples of isolation exercises are calve raises, bicep dumbbells curls, triceps pushdown, leg extension, leg curls etc.
Any benefits of isolation exercises?
Isolation exercises help you bring up a lagging body part.
Need a 3-D look on your shoulders? Add few sets of lateral and posterior raises to train your medial and posterior heads respectively.
What about your calves?
They don’t get enough stimulation when doing squats or trap bar deadlifts, and since they are a stubborn muscle (comprising mostly of slow twitch muscle fibres) you need to work them out with many sets a week if you need to see them grow.
Although, your biceps get a good pounding when you do back compound movement, so does triceps when you do heavy overhead presses and bench presses, and in fact in a beginners workouts, I don’t recommend too much of isolation arms movement, but as your progress and have gone past your beginners gains, you need to add few sets each for biceps and triceps and train them every 4/5th day if you want to see them grow.
And lastly, who does not want a nice good looking mid-section, with abs popping out?
Compound movement gives your core area (abs included) a damn good workout but won’t make your abs blocky. Therefore, in order to flaunt an impressive midsection you need to train your abs with weights using a couple of isolation exercises few times a week!
The final verdict is that no exercises are superior to one or the another.
Both compound and isolation exercises have their place in one’s workout. However, do note, compound exercise should always be a priority and should comprise at least 70-90% of your total workouts and should be performed before isolation exercises for any given muscle group.
What do you think about this article? Have any doubts or questions. Let me know in the comments below!