Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

To better guide you towards your fitness goals, I want to teach about compound and isolation exercises. These concepts may seem simple, but they both affect your body differently.  Although you may know how to perform these exercises, let’s take a quick analytical look at their use and how they can best serve you.

Compound Exercises

Compound exercises are better known as “two joint” movements. To perform a compound movement, several joints and muscles move together. An easy example is squats, which primarily involve the ankles, knees, hips and lower back.  Compound exercises have one major advantage over isolation exercises: they can be sport-specific.

Most sport activities involve multiple muscle groups. Take golf as an example. Every muscle group in the body is involved in the golf swing. Compound exercises are used to condition any golfer to have a stronger/faster/smoother swing.

Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises are better known as “single joint” movements. Single joint exercises are exercises that target single muscle groups. An example of an isolation exercise is the single arm bicep curl, which only engages the elbow joint and the bicep muscle. A common use of isolation exercise is to explain parts of a very complicated movement.

In my experience, teaching professional athletes how to perform the most complicated exercises such as a power clean is best started with a combination of specific isolation exercises. It is impossible to teach people how to lift properly without using that protocol. Power cleans can be shown by first teaching separately a partial dead lift (below the knee), an explosive shrug, and a shrug with a jump and then by combining all these movements.

Teaching the squat is another example of a very complicated process. If athletes cannot hold their torso-to-hip ratio, they often will bend forward and perform the squat incorrectly. Specific isolation exercises such as reverse hypers can help someone learn to maintain that ratio better, thus performing the squat better.

“Pump” It Up

To put all this into a useful perspective you can take to your next workout, think about your fitness goals. If you are trying to improve your muscle tone (becoming more muscular for a male or more shapely for a female), then you should feel a “pump” in the area you are training. When you can feel blood being pushed into your muscle, that’s referred to as “a pump”. Continued movement of that muscle is limited by the engorged loading of fluid from training.

To learn this feeling, take a dumbbell with enough weight that you can do 12 reps in a single-arm movement. Move the dumbbell up and down at your normal pace. Now switch arms. This time contract the muscle while you lift the weight. Move slowly and really squeeze on the negative part of the movement. (This is where the muscle is lengthened.) If you perform the movement slower and squeeze the muscle while you train, you should really feel the aftereffects. The pump is that “swollen” feeling, which is just temporary. This “pumped” feeling is the key to success for any athletes who want to improve their muscle shape.

Not all athletes are concerned with looks, and many are only interested in performance. It is massively important for any type of athlete to learn to control a muscle, and isolation exercises are the only way to really learn how to focus on a specific muscle movement. Research shows it is best to learn to control muscles in shorter movements and then add multiple movements into a full ballistic movement.

People often wonder why the mirrors are located in the gym. Training requires a visual understanding of specific movements, and visuals help anyone understand if they are moving the weight correctly. Machines are very helpful to isolate muscles and are great to start with, but if you ever plan on improving your fitness to a competitive level you need to eventually use free weights.

Isolate for Injuries

Learning to lift may seem easy to some people, but individuals who are elderly, injured or limited by a disability may often require isolation exercises to better feel specific muscles. In the typical case of injuries, health professionals such as physical therapists and chiropractors commonly use isolation exercises to target specific muscle groups. It is very important to be patient and move to using combination exercises prior to participating in competition.

The American College of Sports Medicine states an athlete must be able to perform at a minimum of 80% with the injured area before receiving medical clearance to return to the competitive level.Use isolation exercises to learn control over specific muscles, and then use combination exercises to build and coordinate multiple muscles. The final product is a better trained individual who also can recover faster if any injury should occur.

About Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly is suntanned, blond, and reasonably fit. He loves surfing, hence the suntan, eating good food, and writing about health and fitness. His nomadic lifestyle following the waves means he gets to write about what he loves whilst doing what he loves. One day he may turn his interest in health and fitness into a formal degree but for the moment, surfs up.