One of the biggest misunderstandings in the muscle building world is that of compound exercises vs. isolation exercises for strength & mass.
Despite all the literature on the superiority of multi-joint (compound) movements over body part training, many men and women continue to center their training sessions around single-joint (isolation) movements.
This isn’t just about getting as big as possible, piling on muscle and becoming roaring huge. It’s also about building fitness and strength in the musculoskeletal system, and developing an overall sculpted, defined or toned appearance.
Not every person, including men, wants to be bulging with muscle. However, even in this demographic, the issue of isolation vs. compound exercises still applies.
For instance, let’s take a woman who has no strength training background.
She’s a little bit chubby, not “fat,” and lacks muscle tone. She’s soft and not strong, not fit. One of her hot buttons is the flabbiness of her upper arms. She wants to look great in a sleeveless shirt.
Her trainer has her go through a litany of triceps-isolating exercises all throughout the session: one elbow extension move after another, and variations of triceps kickbacks.
When you think about it, the variety of elbow pressing motions is quite abundant.
This client believes she’s getting a thorough, effective workout that will change the shape of her arms and shoulders because of all the different body positions her trainer is having her take on, such as leaning her chest into an inclined bench, pulling dumbbells up to her chest, and then kicking the dumbbells behind herself.
Another exercise is facing her back to the cable machine stack, body lunging forward, and, hands above her head, doing elbow presses with both hands on the handle.
She believes this will work because it’s one rep after another, dozens and dozens of reps with just the triceps. What could work better, right?
Here’s the problem:
Because the routines involve only the elbow joint, only so much weight can be moved. The triceps by themselves are not major force producers.
However, add the chest and shoulder muscles to the mix, and the amount of weight that can be moved skyrockets.
Three muscle groups are now joining forces, and the sum of these three groups has a proportionately greater impact on the body than does just moving the triceps (or the shoulders).
Body part training is time consuming in order to generate results, especially that of building a lot of size. This isn’t to say that isolation work should be avoided. It’s actually a nice adjunct to a compound-centric program for refining muscle shape.
The woman in this case will get better, and faster, results by focusing the session on compound movements such as a seated chest press and an incline dumbbell press.
Using weights heavy enough for an 8-15 rep max, she will feel her triceps broiling, while at the same time, her chest and shoulders will get hit.
The result, over time, will be a proportionately sculpted or toned upper body, and a much stronger upper body, than if she did mostly single-joint routines.
So yes, compound and isolation exercises can coexist in the same program, even in the same session, but most of it should be multi-joint, with isolation work at the end of the session.
Compound training is done with heavier weights than is single-joint training, so thus, multi-joint moves should be done first. Snuffing out the triceps on a ton of isolation reps and then trying to execute one’s best sets of a bench press will be disastrous.
Another reason to focus on compound training is that these movements mirror everyday movements. For example, how often does one need to execute a leg extension in everyday life, or a hamstring curl, triceps kickback or inner thigh movement?
On the other hand, think of all the times you’ve had to squat to pick a heavy item off the floor, push against something heavy, or maintain a pulling resistance (holding a leash bent-arm on a large dog that wants to run when you want to walk is a perfect example of a rowing-type motion, involving multiple muscle groups including the core and legs!).
Great Compound Routines For Building Everyday, Functional Strength, That Will Also Build Sexy Lean Muscle
1. Clean & Press
A barbell or dumbbells can be used. Pick the weights from the floor as in doing a deadlift, bring them to shoulder height, then press overhead. Reverse the movements to the start position, then repeat for 8-15 reps.
2. Hang Clean & Press
Hold a barbell straight-armed in front of yourself, palms facing you and reverse curl it to shoulder level, then press overhead. Lower to start position and repeat for 8-15 reps.
3. Squat & Press
Holding dumbbells at your sides, squat deeply, stand, then press the weights overhead. Lower them, then squat deeply again; do 8-15 reps. A deep lunge position can be substituted for the squat.
4. Renegade Row
Do a pushup with both hands on dumbbells. While in the up position, row a dumbbell to your chest with the right arm, return to the floor, do another pushup, row with the other arm, do another pushup, and so on – pushups come after every single row, rather than after both arms have rowed.
Dumbbells should be heavy enough to make this feel difficult all the way through, for a total of 10-20 pushups.
Compound Exercises Vs. Isolation Exercises For Fat Loss
Once again, multi-joint movements reign supreme.
The more muscles that are exercised, the higher the energy expenditure during the movement and also in the hours following the movement.
How many calories can just the triceps burn doing kickbacks with 20 pounds?
Now, how many calories can the triceps burn, when they are assisting the chest muscles with a bench press of 170 pounds? A lot more.
Compound lifts with heavy weights, even moderate loads, spur elevated production of human growth hormone and testosterone, which are powerful fat burners, and these hormones circulate at elevated levels for hours after the training session.
Compound and isolation exercises can coexist nicely in a training regimen, but emphasis should be on the multi-joint movements, even if the goal is just to tone up.
To learn more about how to make compound routines work their best for burning fat, building muscle and getting as fit as possible, you’ll want to check out No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program by Vince DelMonte, a former marathon runner who built his physique up to rippling muscle with proven techniques.
He also provides in-depth information about what foods to eat and avoid for building lean mass and slashing fat.