So… which kind of exercises should you choose to achieve your goal?
Compound or isolation?
On a lot of sites, the workouts you will see are mainly splits with lots of isolation exercises. But is it right for you? If you’re a drug-free beginner or intermediate lifter, you should avoid them. They mostly work for juicers who already have an important muscle mass.
I see this very often at the gym… an average guy or girl on “leg day”, doing a few sets of leg presses, then leg curls, followed by leg extensions, calf-raise, and finally a few lunges. Hoping one day his/her legs will start to grow or “tone up”. Week after week, doing the same routine… still looking the same.
Wouldn’t it be simpler to work all those muscles at the same time, with heavier weights? What about 3 times a week instead of one? Shouldn’t he/she be squatting or deadlifting instead? Working all the legs and core, glutes, back muscles at the same time? Yes, simpler, time-saving and much more effective.
Isolation vs compound
Isolation exercises focus on only one muscle group and involve only one joint. Biceps curls, leg curls, triceps extension are isolation movements. They are usually used in rehab and physical therapy to strengthen a weak muscle after an injury or disease. Or to fix some imbalances. It can also be useful for top athletes who need to work on a specific muscle group. (Shoulders for a baseball pitcher by example).
Compound exercises involve many muscles and multiple joints. Deadlift, squat, bench press, press, bent-over row. They usually are natural movements that simulate real-world situations. They should be the foundation of any serious training program. For numerous reasons:
- more calories burned during the exercise (and after).
- done correctly they won’t lead to muscle imbalances.
- time-saving: more muscles trained in less time.
- improves general coordination, reaction time and balance.
- improves joint stability and improves muscle balance across a joint.
- keeps your heart rate high and provides cardiovascular benefits.
- allows you to lift heavier weights to build more strength.
- makes your joints, bones, tendons and ligaments stronger.
- stimulates massive production of anabolic hormones in your body.
- diminishes chances of injury and boost your recovery ability.
For all these reasons, compound exercises should really be the main focus of your program. They help build a strong foundation on which to build your physique.
Once you have an important muscle mass, you can add isolation exercises if you want work on specific muscles. But for strength, size or fat burning, nothing beats heavy compound exercises.