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Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises




 Photo credit: 02 Max Fitness, 2008 – Squats:

Nick Jack – CHEK Holistic Lifestyle Coach and Personal Trainer

There are different goals and purposes with certain exercises whether it is to build muscle, burn more fat, improve athletic performance, or for rehabilitation purposes. Overall, compound exercises are the better choice within ALL goals listed, and here are the reasons why:

Compound Exercises Defined

Compound exercises correlate to real life movements as they use multiple joints at the same time, such as walking, bending over, sitting onto a chair, jumping, running and many more. Therefore, whether you’re an athlete that wants to improve sprinting performance or someone who needs to improve strength and mobility to walking up the stairs without pain or limitation, a compound exercise is a much better choice. An example could be a lunge or a cable exercise in a lunge stance that mimics the movement needed in life.

If your goal is to build muscle, a barbell squat or deadlift will use more muscles in one set than any isolation exercise such as a leg extension or leg curl. For rehabilitation purposes essentially we want to improve someone’s movement skills as this can be the cause of the problem in the first place, and so teaching a movement skill (compound exercise) will improve the client more so than an isolation exercise.

I would also like to add that there is variance in the degree of compound exercises. A bench press is a compound exercise, but it is not functional for it is not performed standing up and integrating the entire body. Integration should always be the end goal of every exercise program for this is how we are designed to move!

Isolated Exercises Defined

This does not mean Isolation exercises are to be thrown out, they still have their place. They just need to have a specific purpose, and always with the goal of moving towards compound movement and integration. For example if an athlete has a problem with overactivity of their hamstring while running, glute isolation exercises will help turn on their glutes to prepare for the compound movement of running. I like to think of these exercises useful in retraining lazy weak muscles not working correctly in the “big” integrated movements. They are merely a stepping stone to moving forward with harder movement.

For muscle building purposes, isolation exercises can be used as a last accessory exercise once all other compound exercises have been completed in a session. Often in rehabilitation key abdominal stabilizers such as the pelvic floor or transverse abdominous are often misfiring or lazy and exercises to encourage their activation is crucial before trying more difficult movements. But again this is just a starting point and once correct timing and activation are achieved we move forwards to the more integrated movements.

In summary, the end goal of every exercise program is to use integrated and compound exercises over isolation for this is how we efficiently move. However, isolation exercises have their place when a movement pattern is weak or faulty and can be used in the retraining process to begin moving correctly.

Nick Jack is a qualified CHEK Exercise Coach, Level II Holistic Lifestyle Coach and personal trainer. He runs a personal training business called NO Regrets Personal Training.

Nick likes to lift weights, cycle, run and triathlon. He has played almost every sport at one time in his life. Now, he enjoys spending time walking his dog and relaxing with his wife and friends.

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Disclaimer: The information published in this column are based on each of the author’s own professional and personal knowledge, and opinion. This information and opinion are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any manner. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition and consult a qualified medical professional before beginning any nutritional program or exercise program. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on InShape News.

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