The world, at least a fitness freak’s world, is divided into two schools of thoughts. Those who believe that compound workouts are the foundation and those who believe that isolation workouts are the keys to success. Even as each school vouches for the effectiveness of their form of workout, for a newbie, all this noise can be extremely confusing. So, today, I wanted to shed some light on what each form does and their corresponding advantages over the other.
What Are Compound and Isolation Workouts?
Before I wade deeper into the disputed territory of compound vs isolation workouts, let us first understand what each of these terms really means.
Compound Workout – Any workout that involves the use of multiple joints and muscle groups can be classified as compound workouts. One of the best examples of compound workouts is the Deadlift. In a single rep of Deadlift, you work your Gluteus Maximus, Quadriceps, Adductor Magnus, Hamstrings, Erector Spinae, and, Trapezius, a total of 6 muscle groups in one go.
Some of the other examples for compound workouts are:
Examples of Compound Workouts and Muscles Worked
Isolation Workout – As the name suggests, isolation workouts involve one joint and one muscle group being trained at that point of time. In isolation workouts, you are targeting a single muscle with minimal movement from the other supporting muscles. A fine example of isolation workout would be the Dumbbell curl, where the sole focus is on the bicep muscle group. Some of the other examples for isolation workouts are:
Compound Workout vs Isolation Workout: Which One Should You Choose?
While each camp fights the other, when it comes to which workout form is the best, below are advantages that each has over the other.
Examples of Isolation Workouts and Muscles Worked
Advantages of Compound Exercises:
Burn More Calories: Since compound exercises involve a large number of muscle fibres, all of which work out at once, your body consumes a lot of energy. This basically translates into more calories burnt compared to any other form of workout. Not just that, this also boosts the overall metabolism of your body as well. Compound exercises are also associated with the phenomena of EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), also known as “afterburn effect”. This basically means that your body continues burning calories even after you are done with your workout. Studies show that your body burns 10-15% extra calories post the workout. This is why compound exercises are highly recommended for those who seek fat loss.
The Functional Advantage: Compound workouts are functional in nature. By the word functional, what I mean is that compound exercises train those muscles which help you do day to day activities. Take the example of pull-ups, not only does it improve your posture, but because of the wide range of back and core muscles involved in this exercise, you greatly reduce the chances of contracting back pain and other injuries. Compound workouts also enhance the coordination between the nervous and muscular systems.
Avoid Hitting A Plateau: When you are training one muscle fibre at once, you are much more likely to hit ‘plateau’, which basically means that your body stops responding to your workouts. However, since you are working multiple joints and muscles at once during a compound workout, your chances of hitting a plateau becomes a lot less.
Generate Greater Growth Hormones: According to the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, compound workouts produce greater growth hormones and testosterone levels. In fact, multiple studies have found that the more an exercise taxes the body, the greater is the hormone release. Since compound workouts use such a large number of muscle fibres at any given point in time, they trigger the production of growth hormones more effectively. This, in turn, means, they are relatively more effective in building muscles.
Get Cardiovascular Exercise: A good cardiovascular activity is one which conditions the heart to function more effectively. The compound workouts, by the virtue of the fact that they involve multiple muscles and joints at any given point in time, challenges your body to pump more blood in order to keep the muscles going. This means you reap the dual benefits of strength training as well as cardio, with compound workout.
More Bang For Your Bucks: One of the major excuses cited by those who skip working out is the relative lack of time. Compound workouts are the perfect answer for them. Consider the deadlift, a compound movement. Three complete sets of deadlift lasting probably about 5 to 8 minutes, can workout your gluteus maximus, quadriceps, adductor magnus, hamstrings, erector spinae, and trapezius at once, thereby giving you more bang for your bucks.
Advantages of Isolation Exercises:
More Symmetrical Muscle Growth: Symmetry is all about balancing how the muscles in your body are shaped. This can be achieved only by focusing on all muscle groups equally. This is where isolation workout beats the compound movement. Since you are focusing on a single target muscle, it allows the ability to achieve much more symmetry than compound movements. A simple example would be the Preacher Curl- an isolation exercise that majorly focuses on your Bicep Brachialis can give your biceps a much more refined look with a better shape.
Have Better Control On The Number of Reps: Compared to compound movements, isolation exercises allow you to have a much better control on the number of reps you perform per set since you are focusing on only one muscle. The number of reps you perform is a very important aspect of muscle building. If the reps are too low, you won’t gain your desired size. If the number of reps are too high, you run the risk of injury. However, if you get the number of reps just right, you will add to your gains without the risk of injury.
Great For Those Undergoing Rehabilitation: Since isolation exercises allow you to work out with a single muscle group, they are often recommended by the physiotherapist as a part of the recovery program. For example, if your left arm became weak due to an injury, your physiotherapist might recommend a combination of isolation workouts like a bicep curl, tricep extension, lateral raises etc. so that the target muscles in your left arm can recover individually.
Which Is Better?
While isolation workout has it’s definite advantages, most personal trainers usually recommend compound workouts for beginners. Apart from the various benefits already stated above, the compound movements are a great way of developing the fundamentals of exercise, while also equipping you with the necessary muscle development to avoid injury and increase stability. Once you get the fundamentals right, you can augment your workout plan with isolation workouts in order to achieve the aesthetic appeal you always desired. Finally, most of the pros always keep both compound movements and isolation workouts in optimum balance so as to maximise their gains. So instead of asking “Which is better?”, perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is when should you employ each of these workout forms to maximise your benefits.