Isolation exercises, on the other hand, are those movements that many of us are familiar with and have likely been incorporating into our strength routines for years: bicep curls, quadricep extensions, hamstring curls, etc.). These movement patterns use just one muscle or muscle group and joint at a time. These exercises are traditionally performed with a weight machine found at the gym and are often used in rehabilitation settings (i.e., physical therapy) when working to correct an imbalance or increase strength in a particular muscle group due to injury, etc.
If you're healthy and looking to be efficient then there are numerous reasons as to why you should be incorporating compound exercises into your strength routine:
- You're using more muscle groups, which means a greater calorie burn
- It stimulates real-life activities and movement patterns
- Allows you to get a total-body workout much quicker than using isolation exercises alone
- Enables you to workout longer with less muscle fatigue
- Keeps your heart rate elevated and provides greater cardiovascular benefits
- Decreases the risk of injury in normal every day life and thus, sporting events
- Improves joint stability and balance
- Improves coordination and reaction time
- Allows you to lift heavier loads (in real life scenarios too)
Now this doesn't mean that isolation exercises have no value. They do play an important role in a regular strength routine. One of the main reasons to include isolation moves in your workout is to correct any muscular imbalances. When you're performing compound exercises it can often be difficult to assess if one side of the body is weaker or if a particular muscle group is compensating for a weaker muscle group because the movement pattern is so complex. While these imbalances are usually seen after an injury (ACL reconstruction, for example) it is something that is likely affecting each of us to some extent. In many of my clients I tend to see quadriceps overpowering hamstrings, biceps overpowering triceps, and weak gluteal muscles that are effecting gait.
For the purpose of keeping things fair, here are some reasons why you should consider keeping a few isolation exercises in your strength routine:
- Retrain injured muscle(s) so that it fires properly
- Strengthen a weaker muscle group to create symmetry
- Correct any biomechanical issues that may have resulted from imbalance
- Build strength and size of a particular muscle (biceps, etc.)
To sum things up, I encourage you to include both types of exercises in your strength routine. Use your goals as a road map for which exercise should dominate your training. If you're looking to focus on your arms (biceps or triceps) with summer around the corner and all of those inevitable tank tops you'll be wearing then add some additional isolation moves targeting those particular muscle groups. If you're looking to tone and strengthen all over or preparing for an athletic event then use mostly compound exercises.
The video below shows some of my favorite compound exercises. Try adding a few (or all) of them into your routine the next time you head to the gym. Be sure to let me know how it goes!