Strength-training exercises fall into two classes: isolation movements and compound movements. Isolation movements are those that work a single muscle group or involve movement around one joint. Examples are triceps kickbacks, biceps curls, leg extensions, and hamstring curls. In general, these movements are less taxing on your muscles and central nervous system. In contrast, compound movements work multiple muscle groups simultaneously and involve movement around more than one joint. Examples are squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, dips, overhead presses, and bench press.
While it would be incorrect to say one is better than the other, compound exercises offer substantial benefits you don’t get when you do isolation exercises. That’s why many trainers recommend doing a higher percentage of compound movements relative to isolation exercises. Let’s look at some of the advantages that doing compound movements offer.
Compound Exercises Burn More Calories and Fat
If you’re trying to get leaner, compound movements give you an edge, thanks to the number of muscles you’re working simultaneously. When you’re working multiple muscles at the same time, you burn more calories. The calorie burn is especially high when you work large muscle groups through compound training. So, squats and deadlifts top the list of exercises that scorch calories. In addition, compound movements place more metabolic stress on your body. It makes sense since you’re working more muscle groups at the same time. This may trigger a greater release of fat-burning hormones, like growth hormone and testosterone, thereby giving you a metabolic advantage. This effect will be greater if you’re doing a higher volume, working large muscle groups, and keeping rest periods short.
Compound Exercises Are More Functional
Compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts, mimic the movements you do daily – squatting down to pick something up or lifting something. You’re working not only the primary movers but the stabilizing muscles as well. As a result, you can do the activities you routinely do on a daily basis more efficiently and with a lower risk of injury. With compound exercises, you train movements rather than muscles and that has practical implications in everyday life and when you play sports as well.
Compound Exercises Increase Your Heart Rate More
You probably don’t think of strength training as offering cardiovascular benefits, but compound exercises elevate your heart rate more than isolation moves. Since you’re working large muscle groups, your heart has to work harder to deliver enough blood and oxygen to your working muscles. As such, it, over time, is forced to become more efficient. If you reduce the rest period between compound exercises, your heart rate may be high enough to give some cardiovascular benefits. Studies show that circuit training with little or no rest between sets offers cardiovascular benefits. In fact, research shows that high-intensity circuit training increases aerobic capacity or V02 max.
Improve Balance and Coordination
Another advantage of compound exercises is they enhance coordination and balance. When you do isolation exercises, you can sit on a bench or otherwise stabilize yourself, but when you do compound movements, like squats and deadlifts, your body moves through space and you have to stabilize. Single-leg deadlifts, lunges, and single-leg squats are the best compound exercises for improving balance. Compare these exercises to leg extensions and hamstring curls where you’re in a seated position. Which build balance better? You know the answer!
Compound Exercises Save Time
If you’re limited for time, doing a short routine that emphasizes compound movements offers maximal benefits. With isolation exercises, you’d have to do two to three times as many exercises to train all the muscle groups you work with compound movements. With only squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups, and rows, you can get a full-body workout and leave no muscles unworked. By doing more compound exercises, you increase the volume of training you do for each muscle group. That’s time expedient and also important for muscle growth.
But Don’t Give Up Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises still have their place. Think of them as a way to “fine tune” your training. For example, if your triceps are lagging behind your biceps in terms of growth and strength, focus in on the triceps with isolation exercises, like triceps extensions. Some compound exercises work one group of muscles more than another and this can lead to training imbalances. Targeting the neglected muscles with isolation moves helps compensate for this. Plus, some muscles don’t get worked well enough with standard compound exercises, an example being the calf muscles. By adding calf raises to your routine, you can give these muscles the attention they need. So, add appropriate isolation exercises to prevent and correct such imbalances. But, in general, make 75% of the exercises you do compound ones, especially if you’re limited for time. If you build your workouts around isolation exercises, you’re getting less return for your training routine.
Keep in mind, compound exercises are more demanding on your body and more easily fatigue your muscles and central nervous system. That’s another reason to include isolation exercises. If you tried to make up for a lagging body part by doing more compound exercises, you’d exhaust your muscles and nervous system. With isolation exercises, you can zero in on lagging muscles with isolation exercises that specifically target them.
The Bottom Line
Don’t give up isolation exercises, but now you have five powerful reasons to include more compound exercises in your training. As mentioned, a ratio of about three compound exercises to one isolation move will ensure you spend most of your time doing the exercises that count the most, yet still have time left over for a few well-chosen, isolation moves. So, don’t underestimate the importance of compound moves if you want to get stronger, leaner, and more defined. They work!
ACE Fitness. “What is Functional Strength Training?”
New Insights into Circuit Training Len Kraviz, Ph.D.
ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal: May/June 2013 – Volume 17 – Issue 3 – p 8–13. doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb1e8.
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