Do you know the difference between compound and isolation exercises?
A compound exercise utilises multiple muscle groups with movements occurring at more than one joint (e.g. squats and planks), whilst isolation exercises target a specific muscle group and involves only one joint (e.g. bicep curls or knee extensions).
When it comes to strength or resistance training, most people prefer compound exercises because they can be done quickly (we urbanites all want the two- or three-in-one options to save time) and allow the body to move functionally. They replicate tasks done daily such as reaching down for a box and placing it in an overhead compartment or squatting to fix your punctured car tyre.
They also burn more calories and result in significant gains over time, enabling you to reach your goals faster.
Because so many muscle groups are involved when performing compound exercises, you don’t have to do too many different exercises to activate all your muscles.
However, if one part of your body needs extra attention, like the triceps, for example, then you should opt for isolation exercises so you can work on them individually. They may not mimic everyday movements but they are equally important.
If you’re rehabilitating from an injury or have undergone surgery and need to strengthen a particular muscle, then isolation movements are necessary to reactivate it until you build the required strength again.
After an injury, a muscle often becomes weak and other muscles compensate for that weakness. If you don’t retrain the injured muscles to fire properly again, you could end up with a biomechanical imbalance that is difficult to correct. Experts normally suggest doing these in a seated position to prevent other muscles from engaging.
My personal preference when working on isolation exercises is to do one limb at a time. So, if you want to see some bicep definition, do single arm bicep curls with dumbbells. By simultaneously working both arms (with barbells), the stronger often does more work and the weaker one just “follows along”.
Also, most of us unconsciously use the dominant arm in our daily living (lifting grocery bags, opening bottle caps, etc) and over time, the muscles in the passive arm start to weaken, potentially leading to muscle imbalances.
For kicks, trying arm wrestling with the weaker arm and observe how easily you get defeated easily!
Repetitive motions are one of the most common causes of muscle imbalances, which can be characterised by side-to-side (right versus left) or front-to-back (agonist versus antagonist e.g. quardicep/hamstring or bicep/tricep) differences in muscle length or strength.
Most musculoskeletal pain is caused by front-to-back differences, or imbalances of muscles surrounding a joint, rather than side-to-side differences.
Both compound and isolation exercises have their unique advantages but which one produces better results depends on what your intention is.
What is your goal?
If your goal is to get fitter, compound exercises are an excellent addition to your fitness routine.
By working multiple joints and muscles at the same time, you will expend more energy, tax your cardiovascular system and tire out faster. On the plus side, it boosts your metabolism.
Compound exercises are popularly included in workouts such as high intensity interval training because you get the whole body working.
The multiple movements that take place during a compound exercise also prepare your body to lift heavier loads than an isolation exercise.
If you experience any joint or muscle pain that doesn’t go off after 72 hours, then you may need to focus more on isolation exercises rather than compound. Work on correcting a specific muscle weakness or imbalance caused by overuse, injury, illness or surgery before performing compound exercises which may be reinforcing those muscle imbalances.
For better overall gains and to ensure a balanced muscular structure, try combining the two methods.
If you want to increase strength in a particular area or are aiming for more muscle definition (increase in muscle size or bulk), incorporate some isolation exercises.
However, do your compound exercises first, then perform your isolation exercises to supplement the areas of your body that has yet to be worked sufficiently.
Doing isolation exercises first before your compound movements can lead to a weaker performance when doing compound movements, especially if you have already fatigued the larger muscles.
For example, if you’re doing single arm tricep extensions first, followed by narrow arm push-ups, your triceps will be exhausted (with closer arms, the emphasis is on the tricep muscles; the wider apart the hands, the more you engage the chest or pectoral muscles).
To compensate for the lack of strength, other muscles will begin to fire or your form may start to suffer, and this may lead to injuries.
In reality, no muscle moves completely isolated from the rest of the system (though the core should be constantly engaged). This is especially true if the exerciser isn’t using the proper form or hasn’t configured an exercise machine to his or her individual settings.
Besides, if an isolation exercise is performed with heavy resistance or too many repetitions, it may also result in pain or injury.
I liken both of them as team (compound) or single (isolation) effort.
No man is an island but sometimes, you need that “alone” time to reflect so you can work better in a group setting.
Similarly, when more muscles are involved, they can perform better though a flash of brilliance can originate from a single effort.
So, do a bit of both.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul.