Should You Focus on Compound or Isolation Exercises?

You walk into a commercial gym and no doubt you will find a few guys that focus majority of their time working on bicep curls or forearm extensions to build those areas. Or you notice a few girls performing a million kickbacks to develop their booty or working on triceps extensions to rid that rear arm flab. So what do you focus majority of your training time on? Compound movements? Or Isolation exercises. In this article I will break down the benefits of each and when the appropriate time to use them is. A personal trainer in Richmond can distinguish between the two.

I believe a good rule of thumb to answering most fitness or nutrition based questions is relating it back to the goal – make it goal orientated. Does it get us closer to our goal? So to answer the question, it depends on the goal. Our goal will highly determine our training time devoted to which type of exercise we perform. Deciding which type and how many of each to perform will affect our goals whether it is to get stronger, lose weight or recover from an injury.

Most of our fitness goals fall into the category of get stronger, get better, lose weight and ultimately look better. In my knowledge and experience, it is almost always to focus majority of the training time into compound exercises as they bring numerous benefits. One of these reasons are they burn more calories. Let’s take a squat for an example. This movement is a multi-joint movement as it requires more than one joint. It also targets multiple muscles including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and numerous stabilizing muscles. In order to utilize these muscles we must put energy in. Everything in the universe is a balance; thus energy in must equal energy out. The more energy we have going in, the more we have going out. Performing multi-joint (compound) movements give us the caloric expenditure needed for losing weight. A personal trainer in Richmond Gym can explain this mechanism.

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Compound exercises also provide a cardiovascular benefit on the body. Blood movement is required in order to deliver energy into the muscles and tissues. During compound movements, large muscles are activated so high volume of blood is needed in the muscles. The heart, in turn, needs to work harder to pump blood through to the working muscles. Ultimately, the system as a whole must bring in oxygen in order to continue fuelling the muscles at work – causing a cardiovascular training effect. Multi-joint movements also allow improving movement efficiency. Training multiple joints at a time teaches multiple muscles to coordinate their contractions and firing rates so that it takes less effort to perform a certain task. If our goal is general fitness and overall healthy, compound movements are the way to go. Take a squat and shoulder press for an example. Stronger legs and shoulders will transfer over to “easier” daily tasks which will dig in less into our energy reserves.

Now, going back to our goals; if our goal is to rehabilitate our injury then we should be approaching our training from the other end of the spectrum – isolations first. Let’s take a knee injury for an example. Squats, a multi-joint movement, would be recommended against because the load and intensity would be too much for the knee joint. Instead, it is much more beneficial to begin loading the knee joint (single joint) with a low intensity movement such as hamstring curls. Once pain is managed and strength has increased, progressing to leg extensions and eventually low intensity squats is recommended. Being goal-oriented is critical to determine what type of exercise to perform and that can ultimately affect our progress towards our goal. A personal trainer in Richmond can prescribe the proper exercises for different injuries.

I’m not saying isolation exercises are bad for fitness goals but there are movements that get us the bigger bang for our buck. For general fitness goals, I would recommend 90% of our exercises be compound and the other 10% isolations. The isolation exercises can typically target mobility, rehab a past injury, or simply a hard to grow/tone area. Every individual is different and it is up to them to determine the best ratio between compound and isolation exercises.