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Compound vs Isolation Exercises


Weight lifting exercises are categorised into isolation and compound exercises.  Isolation exercises use a single joint for the action to take place and it puts stress on one major muscle, for example, bicep curl (elbow joint), leg extension (knee joint).  Compound exercises are multi-joint exercises, using multiple muscles and incorporating the whole body for stabilisation during the move, for example, squat (ankle, knee, hip joint), chest press (elbow, shoulder and scapulothoracic joint).  The most powerful athletes train with compound exercises, yet bodybuilders will use a lot of isolation muscles.  They both have their place so which do we use?


Compound exercises have a lot of correlation to everyday function.  Compound training, as a whole, is a great approach to training as it not only strengthens and stresses your muscles, but your ligaments, tendons and joints.  You need to have a strong frame to place muscles on, and I’m not talking bulking I just mean general toning, you want to be strong all over.  These types of exercises require significant amounts of body stabilisation.  Due to engaging more muscles in exercises you will in turn use more energy to fuel these and therefore keep burning more energy after training.  This is due to EPOC, excess postexercise oxygen consumption.  Simply put more oxygen is needed to help in recovery after exercise as a larger amount of energy is needed to restore your body back to homeostatis.  This includes return to normal ventilation and heart rate, the re-oxygenation of blood and restoration of circulatory hormones and return to a your regular body temperature. 

Isolation Exercises

Although isolation exercises often get a bad rep, they do have their uses.  First off they help you target muscles more effectively.  This is mainly beneficial with smaller muscles which aid with bigger movements.  Using a lighter weight to target these muscles can help strengthen them proportionately to the rest of your body.  You can train the muscle more thoroughly and through its widest range of movement.  It also helps with the mind muscle connection and firing up specific muscle fibers.

So which do I use?

For a well balanced training plan a mixture of both compound and isolation is ideal.  Start with compound as they require more energy and stabilisation and then move onto isolation to burn out the secondary muscles which were used in the compound exercises.  For example, the bicep is a secondary muscle in a back exercise, and for a squat your abductors and adductors are some of the secondary muscles.  Some of these muscles are just as important to train to help with stabilisation.  This, however, creates a lot of strin on your body so if you’re a beginner stick with one or the other before performing both compound and isolation in the same workout.  If you’re coming back from ny illness stick with body weight compound moves no only do what you can in terms of reps and duration.

Overall go for compound exercises to gain a greater EPOC after your work, but intergrate isolation movements to hone in on specific muscles to strengthen proportionately and keep a balanced stabilisation.


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