We are going to discuss the difference between Compound exercises vs. Isolation exercises. The benefits and which ones you should be doing and why!
Unbelieveable! Whenever you search online and try to do any kind of internet research, nothing you get will give you a good reason to do any isolation exercises! I’m serious! Look for yourself. Simply typing in “compound vs. isolation” is enough to find a full 4 pages worth of sites saying isolation isn’t needed. In fact, Google actually recommends isolation exercises as one of its recommended searches when you begin to type in “isolation exercises.” Ridiculous! Apparently, if you want to be stronger, bigger, leaner there is simply no reason to waste your time with ANY kind of isolation exercise. The goal should be to only push hard with big exercises like squats, deadlifts or of course the bench press-nothing else, but is this really the truth?
Are isolations completely worthless for bodybuilders? Or is this just a load of crap? Let’s dive into this further!
After many hours of research on the internet, it dawned on me that even if you can find at least one site talking about the positive aspects of the big exercises that you should use for body composition, fat loss, hypertrophy, strength and sports specific workouts (the list could go on), that there is only BAD news about isolation exercises. I’m serious! As I said, check it out yourself. Apparently they are “not functional” or even unnatural, unhelpful and unhealthy for our joints. (Yep, some people claim every single isolation exercise is bad for your joints!)
Here, I will elaborate on a description, the pros and cons of these 2 different kinds of exercises and the reason why you need to use both of these to have the maximum in terms of results.
Are Compounds better than isolation? Yes and no.
Yes, they DO help your body produce more natural hormones.
Yes, they are more “Bang for your Buck” perse. I.e. if you only had the time to do 1 exercise squats or curls, squats are a no brainer. However, there are plenty of reasons to do isolation exercises, and I’m going to highlight the benefits of both below.
First off, let’s started with Compound exercises.
What do I mean by compound exercises, exactly? Well, I consider “compound movement” as the exercises that are used to work more on joints and obviously more on muscles or muscle groups.
Some very good examples of compound exercises that every routine should have are squats, deadlifts, chin ups, wide-grip pull-ups, bench presses, military press, etc. All of the big movements I’ve just mentioned are known to work with numerous muscles. if we are to think only about, say the back squat, we can consider the 3 main joints that are involved: 1.) the ankle, 2.) the knee and finally, 3.) the hip; for each joint, we need to consider how they move, work, and act during the concentric phase of the exercise. (Side note: If you need any more information on the difference between concentric and eccentric, be sure to check out our article made to discuss this in detail) In this case: ankle joint extension, knee extension and of course, hip extension. For each action, we obviously have many different muscle groups working; Gastrocnemium and soleum during ankle extension, quadricep during knee extension and hamstrings and gluteus maximus during hip extension; there are also many other muscle groups working indirectly, I obviously can’t name all of them otherwise we’d be here all night. But a few examples are the spine erectors and abdominals which support the spine and maintain balance.
Sounds Good, but what are the Benefits of compound exercises:
Well, they permit us to do our workout in less time; during these exercises we obviously work with many different muscle groups all at the same time, as I stated above. This leads to a greater hormonal response and of course allows us to train many muscles in the same succession. For example, the bench press—We hit our shoulders, our chest, our triceps, and even our biceps. Not bad, is it? Another important concept to consider, is the total time of the workout. It seems that the best results of bodybuilding, and even strength training come from no more than 1 hour of intense exercises, after this our body starts to produce excessive quantities of cortisol. this is certainly something none of us want. And equally as bad it actually reduces testosterone levels, leading us to a state we like to call catabolism-not the best condition if our goal is to build up muscle and burn fat!
So when we do compound exercises, all the stress from heavy barbells and dumbbells is obviously shared among many different joints which, of course, puts a lot less pressure on just one. This is extremely important with the development of strength.
For better results in strength training we need to work with a load between 75% and 90% of our 1RM (obviously I’m talking about relative strength and functional hypertrophy),
So obviously more free weight = more stress on tendons and joints, this point makes compound exercises a better choice for safe training and very effective training.
As stated above, it seems that during a heavy workout with big, hard, heavy compound exercises, we produce much more anabolic hormones in our body, which of course leads to bigger muscles, and strength gains.
So now we should move on and talk about isolation exercises.
In the other corner is Isolation. I’m talking about all those movements that involve only 1 single joint, so basically, only 1 muscle or muscle group. Examples of isolation exercises are the peck fly, dumbbell or barbell curls, leg curls or leg extension, etc; These movements work only ONE muscle group at the same time,
If we think about leg curls for example, we can, of course, easily see that it evidently would only work with the knee joint, if we want to be more specific, during the concentric phase we may have, in some circumstances, a flexion of the knee joint so a contraction of the biceps femoris ( the long and short head of the biceps), semitendinosus and semimembranosus.
What are the Benefits of isolation exercises:
Recovery after injury. For example, let’s say you’ve recovered from a hamstring injury, it might be a pull, a tear, or anything else. But now you want to strengthen the weak leg. One of the most effective and efficient ways to recover from the lost strength and muscle mass on the injured leg is to perform uni-lateral (also known as single leg), single joint exercises.
You will achieve more motor unit activation by isolating the movement pattern and the muscle you are working. Once the hamstring is at a desired strength level, bilateral exercises can and should be added. Simply adding any other exercise that meets the needs of the desired goal helps to build up and lead to further improvement.
Another positive of Isolation exercises is injury prevention. When an individual has a weak muscle within a movement pattern, the body will try to compensate for this by avoiding the weakness, This is extremely common in gymnastics, and especially during complex movements such as running, jumping, squats, the Olympic lifts, chin-ups and shoulder presses, along with MANY more I’ve yet to mention here. Repeated exposure to this faulty movement pattern can and most often DOES result in pain and joint dysfunction.
It has been said, and I tend to agree with this, that you are only as healthy as your joints. And it is true. Once your joints go, you are screwed. I don’t care if your muscles are strong enough to move 500lbs. If your joints can only move 300, the minute you try to move 5, it’ll snap. The best way to address faulty movement patterns (obviously I’m not taking about the ones caused by medical conditions, though I have seen it used to great success on these depending on the situation!)
is to pinpoint the weak muscles, strengthen them with single-joint exercises, and then re-educate the muscular chain with compound exercise.
Another thing is, yes, they DO Improve performance. As said before, all compound exercises work with more muscles at the same time, so our performance can STILL be improved if we understand which one is the weak muscle of the muscular chain and strengthen it-obviously through isolation exercises.
Let’s use the bench press again. If we find out we aren’t able to improve in reps and weights for some time, and our triceps are letting us down, isolating the triceps is A MUST!
While the compound, overall, may be “superior,” for muscle growth and strength, to get a truly desirable physique and or strength gains, you will need to use isolation exercises and use them Correctly.