For the longest time it's been argued between bodybuilders which technique is best to achieve a particular result. For overall strength some say compound, and for muscle hypertrophy others say isolation is the way to go, but who is right?
First off, let me explain exactly what compound and isolation exercise is.
Compound exercise is a technique where specific exercises use multiple muscle groups. Because of this, compound movements are considered by many to promote more muscle mass.The more you use, the more you build...it's as simple as that.
Isolation exercises target one specific muscle group at a time and is good for strengthening an area or making it bigger. For example, you could perform a barbell squat (see pic below) and then move on to a barbell hip thrust to target the glutes. The compound squat has already worked the quads, hamstrings, glutes and core but if you're looking to improve your deadlift, or you just want a bootaaaaay like Kim K, then focusing on the glutes will work them that little bit harder.
Compound exercises include bench press, barbell squats, deadlift, dumbbell snatches etc...anything that uses more than one muscle group. Practising compound movements is beneficial to functional movement as it often requires multiple joints to perform, therefore keeping the body supple. Motor unit recruitment is also utilised and improved. When starting out it is advised to seek out an experienced trainer/coach.
All compound exercises have their benefits but you should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking you MUST do a particular movement because your favourite Insta guy has said that it's the only thing you should be doing (yes, those guys are out there!) Some people are just not built for particular movements.
For example, somebody who is tall and has long femur length is usually not comfortable, both physically and mechanically, with a standard deadlift. The movement can be tricky and somewhat dangerous to the lower back. To combat this i would recommend trying the sumo deadlift as this compensates for the long femur and helps the body mechanically. As with all training, especially when the weight starts to go up, i recommend seeking guidance and coaching of some sort, even a PT at your local gym or check out some reputable you tubers and watch a couple of their videos.
I personally spent a long time learning the correct ways to do my compounds because i wanted to teach them to others myself and be known as a good coach. The biggest piece of advice i can give when it comes to moves like deadlift and squat is to have a lot of patience and lose the ego. Start off with a low weight and don't progress until you've earned it! Only when you are completely confident, and strong at that weight, should you take it up...trust me on that one!
Compound movements are great, i love them. There's no better feeling than adding weight to your moves and getting stronger. But all too often i see people struggling with weight that they're lifting, and with bad form.
It's a tough thing to watch because i think we've all been there haven't we? We have, at one time or another, wanted to stand out or be accepted by our peers by doing what others can do.
Please don't fall victim to this way of thinking. You have genetic markers that dictate your ceiling strength and size, nothing will change that (well, nothing legal and not out of a bottle anyway) so check your ego at the door, do your time learning and mastering the basics and be patient. Bench press, lat pull down, squats, overhead press, cable rows...they are the foundation of any serious bodybuilder.
Isolation movements target one specific muscle group or area. The most well known isolation movement has to be the bicep curl. Bicep curls are a must for anybody wanting definition and size in their arms. Bigger biceps for a guy is a visual sign of strength and is commonly considered attractive to women.
Other isolation exercises include leg extensions, hamstring curls, tricep pushdowns with bar and calf raises. There are other exercises that are considered isolation but incorporate other muscles as secondary drivers.
In my opinion, if the target muscle is taking 75% or more of the load then it's an isolation movement.
A massive trend at the moment amongst women is the glute isolation method where the aim is to grow a fuller, rounder bum or 'peach'. With companies like Gymshark and Myprotein offering glute enhancing leggings, it's now a fashion statement as well as a trend. Popular exercises include cable kickbacks, barbell hip thrusts, split squats and banded glute bridges and you can find many videos and posts about different methods on the internet.
The thing to remember about the glutes is that it's a very dense muscle, just like the calves, and needs to be trained hard and aggressively to grow. If there's no trauma to the glutes they simply won't respond. In order to get the best out of your training then i would always advise a mixture of compound AND isolation. With this in mind let's go back to the original question...compound or isolation?
Many clients who come to me wanting to lose body fat expect me to put them on a strict regime of cardio, cardio and lots more cardio.What i actually do is put them through their paces with lots of compound exercise, followed by a mix of isolation and then i hit them with a little cardio. So for an hours session it could be a 5x5 deadlift set, followed by dumbbell walking lunges, lat pulldown, cable row and then finish with some bicep curls. After that it may be 30 mins of LISS cardio.
We have put all our energy into the deadlifts, caused trauma to the whole posterior chain and made sure that we have worked hard. We then give everything else we have into the remaining exercises, trying to deplete the glycogen stores, ready for the cardio which should draw on fat stores for energy as it's low intensity. There are methods to be used and a flow to your workouts if you know how to utilise them properly. With time and consistency you will learn how.
Clients who come to me wanting to bulk up and gain lots of muscle are all started the same way...with the basics. Remember we must master these before going on to specialist workouts and exercises.The compounds such as bench press, deadlifts and barbell squats will all pile on muscle as well as increase strength, you just have to know how much is enough before moving on to the isolation exercises to maximise muscle growth potential.A good PT or online coach like myself considers this to be the 'bread and butter' of our profession, we can do this in our sleep.
Meeting many different people of all ages and backgrounds, you soon realise that yes, everybody is unique and everyone is to be treated as an individual when it comes to training, but every client i have ever had has responded to both types of exercise with little tweaks based on their end goals. The truth is that both techniques are great and are both effective. The fact that you are off your arse and in the gym doing something is what matters...there is no technique or method that can beat that willingness and self motivation to change.
From this blog post to youtube videos and magazine articles the world over, there is so much information out there that it can be hard to distinguish between truth and bullshit...my advice? try something, anything and just stick it out for 6 months, see what happens. Nobody ever walks straight into a routine and sticks to it for life, training is constantly changing because our bodies are constantly changing too! If you feel good then just keep doing what you enjoy. If you feel like shit and feel that you're getting nowhere then switch things up or go and seek out a professional. There's always a way to improve and progress.
As always, i hope this was a helpful read.
If you have any questions, pease feel free to email me via the contact form.
I endeavour to reply to everyone.
Till next time,
The blueprint PT