What is the best way to build muscle? Are movements that combine multiple muscle groups at once the way to go, or should we be isolating specific muscles? There are pros and cons to both, so here is a breakdown of the factors to consider when planning your workout.
What are ‘compound’ and ‘isolation’ exercises?
Weights training exercises generally fall into two categories: compound and isolation. As its name suggests, a compound movement uses a combination of muscle groups and joints. A popular example is the squat, which works the core, hamstrings, calves, glutes and lower back all at the same time. In contrast, an isolation exercise is targeted and works one joint and one specific group of muscles. For example, bicep curls work only the biceps and use the elbow.
Benefits of compound movements
Compound movements are great for overall muscle development, strength and size, and form good foundations for training. As you’re engaging more muscles and joints, you put less strain on specific areas of the body. Also, choosing a workout that uses a compound exercise means you can work out more muscles but spend less time in the gym!
Engaging multiple muscle groups at once allows you to maximise the weight you’re lifting and results in faster progression. Also, using multiple muscle groups allows you to lift heavier weights in general. You also engage and strengthen your core muscles, which helps posture and prevents spinal injuries.
Tips for compound movements
There are a few things to remember when doing compound exercises. Firstly, technique is critical to both the success and safety of your training. Always ensure your neck and back are supported, and warm up fully before exercising. Secondly, it can be easy to forget that compound movements are working multiple muscle groups at once. Take note of which exercises work which muscles in order to avoid overworking your stabilising muscles – the ones assisting the movement. For example, the anterior deltoids and triceps assist the pectorals in a chest press, so be careful not to combine too many exercises in your workout that also work these muscles.
Benefits of isolation movements
Isolation exercises are fantastic for targeting and engaging specific muscle groups. If there is an area of the body which needs greater attention – whether due to injury or underuse – then isolation movements are ideal.
Depending on the muscle worked, a seated position when doing isolation movements is usually preferable and more effective, as even standing still uses a range of muscles that you may be unaware of.
Tips for isolation movements
Pin-loaded cables and free weights are ideal for isolation exercises, and help avoid injuries caused by ‘pattern overload’. As you’re only working one group at a time, variety is important to avoid only training certain muscles. Some muscles are often neglected and can cause unexpected issues later down the track. For example, underdeveloped gluteus medii (which sit above the gluteus maximus) can cause hip, knee and ankle pain. Targeting underused muscles such as these is an absolute must, and can be done effectively using isolation movements.
Ultimately, it is important to establish what your goals are when planning a workout. Function or aesthetics? Do you want to increase strength and performance or are you looking for a great summer body?
If you want to work on a specific area of the body, say building muscle and toning your arms, isolation exercises are perfect. However, your main focus should be on compound movements that work a combination of upper body muscles. You don’t want to put on too much mass in just one area! Instead of a triceps press, try a triceps dip. This uses the pectorals, deltoids, and rhomboids, and will give you a better overall tone.
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It is important to focus most of your workout on compound movements. If you are just starting out or looking to get into weights training, it’s a great idea to build overall strength first and identify areas of improvement later. Isolation exercises can be beneficial in certain circumstances (including injury recovery and appearance) but are less effective and efficient than compound weights training.