Most people, when they go to the gym, think only in terms of two different types of exercises: strength training and cardio. However, it’s possible to break down strength training exercises into compound and isolation exercises, both of which have very different goals. Understanding the differences between these two types of strength training exercises can have a huge impact on your training routine.
Isolation exercises are those that require curling, raising or extending a single muscle at a time using the movement of a single joint. The most common type of isolation exercise is the bicep curl, in which you are focusing entirely on a single muscle – the bicep – and only using the movement of a single joint – your elbow – to take it through a full range of motion.
Contrast that to compound exercises, which are those that require pulling, pushing or deadlifting. In a compound exercise, you are using multiple muscles as well as multiple joints. Think about the bench press, for example. You are working your chest, but also your shoulders and triceps. In addition, you are using multiple joints – your elbow and shoulder joints.
Isolation exercises, as you might expect, are great at selectively training very specific muscles. That’s why you’ll see people at the gym doing bicep curls or preacher curls to build up their arms, or leg extensions and calf raises to build up their legs. They are also great at improving overall body symmetry. In terms of building arm definition, that means working in a set of tricep extensions after doing a set of bicep curls.
Compound exercises, though, are great at building overall strength by working large groups of muscles at one time. At the gym, that means getting in plenty of time on the bench press or at the squat rack. The idea is that not only are you working one major muscle, you are also working some supporting muscles. Moreover, compound exercises also require the stabilisation of the entire body as you work through the range of motion, which increases the overall effort.
Putting all that together, it’s easy to see that there are different reasons why you’d want to focus on isolation exercises or compound exercises as a beneficial part of weight training. Depending on your individual goals, one may be more useful than the other.
A football player, for example, is looking for overall strength, fitness and size and would tend to focus more on compound exercises. A bodybuilder or someone undergoing physical rehabilitation, though, would probably tend to focus more on isolation exercises, where they can really target specific muscles.
But that’s not to say that one form of exercise is better than the other. Just as you can’t say that strength training is better than cardio, you can’t say that isolation exercises are better than compound exercises.
They are best combined into a single workout program. We usually recommend starting any workout with compound exercises, since they involve lifting the most weight and are the most strenuous, and then adding in isolation exercises to target specific muscles. Utilising both forms of exercise, then, is the ideal solution. By combining them into a single workout routine, you can get the type of body you want.
If you would like some guidance on how to incorporate both forms of strength training into your workout then please let us know. We have experienced Personal Trainers who would love to help you!