Muscle growth: compound v. isolation movements

Muscle growth: compound v. isolation movements

 

The secret to building muscle is no simple answer. Our bodies respond differently to different movements and grow in their own unique way from person to person. When you walk into a gym, there are endless options and methods you can use to reach your physical goals. So how do you know which ones will work the best?

The main difference between each movement is the amount of stress it places on your muscles and the way your body has to adapt under the weight. While isolation movements rely on one muscle group at a time, compound movements can require much more. Though the workout itself can feel astronomically different, both methods have produced noticeable results for those willing to really work hard and make changes.

Isolation exercises are things like calf raises, tricep pull downs, leg extensions etc. that only involve one joint or muscle group, according to BodyBuilding.com. These movements are great for targeted muscle fatigue and making specific changes to different parts of your body. Isolation exercises come in handy when you’re trying to zero in on a problem area or a muscle that just doesn’t want to grow. Isolation is the secret weapon for body sculpting and aesthetics. If you have plenty of time in the gym, isolation movements allow you to check off each tiny bit of muscle you’re working on and make sure you’re not missing any underlying tissue. 

An example of an isolation movement is the classic bicep curl. As you lift the weight up, the only joint that should move is your elbow. With the correct form, all the stress should be in your bicep muscle.

There have been arguments in the fitness community that isolation exercises are the only way to fully activate the muscles, but according to Muscle and Fitness magazine, physiological studies and clinical trials have shown just as much activation in the body with compound exercises.

Compound movements like overhead press, bench press, squats etc. put multiple muscles and joints under stress all at the same time. Because these exercises stimulate all the major muscle groups with one movement, they produce the biggest, most proportional changes in body composition. 

Compound movements also support bigger jumps in strength than isolation movements because they require bigger doses of testosterone and growth hormone to pump through the body, according to BodyBuilding.com. These exercises can ensure that a shorter workout is still a successful one, requiring less gym time for less total movements. Instead of going from machine to machine to focus on each individual muscle, you can narrow your workout down to a few key compound movements and get everything firing at once. Not only are these exercises time efficient, but they also kick up your heart rate more than isolation because you’re having to work so much more of your body. The increased energy demand also means a higher rate of fat being burned as you exercise.

An example of a compound exercise is a deadlift. This movement engages almost every single muscle group, from your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats, traps, delts, as well as core muscles in one sweep.

If putting on tons of muscle isn’t your goal, compound movements are great just to keep the everyday person healthy and functional. Compound exercises most closely mimic daily life movements and can help keep your joints strong, according to LiveStrong.com. Working these exercises into your routine can improve coordination, endurance, and balance. No matter your body type, we all want to maintain full range of motion in our bodies for as long as we can and compound movements can help make that possible. 

It may sound like compound movements are the only way to go, but they do present certain challenges. Because these exercises have a higher level of strain on the body, correct form can literally make or break you. If your foundation isn’t strong enough, secondary muscles can try to take over and ultimately lead to injury. For example, if you are trying to squat, the focus should be on your leg muscles. But if you are weaker in your legs and you go too heavy, your lower back could try to take over in ways that it shouldn’t. Going with a lighter weight and perfect form is so much more important than throwing crazy weight around and getting hurt.

One workout method combines both isolation and compound movements in the same workout for maximum results. The pre-exhaust strategy ensures that the muscle you are trying to target is pushed to failure every single time. For example, pec flies are an isolation movement that uses only the chest muscles. Bench press on the other hand, is a compound movement, activating your chest muscles as well as your delts and triceps. If you do pec flies first, your chest muscles will already be fatigued. Then when you go to do bench press, those muscles will be forced to exert every bit of energy left in the tank to get through the exercise. When your delts and triceps start to take over, you’ll know your chest muscles have been effectively worn out. This level of fatigue is essential in building muscle and is definitely worth a try.

If you want to make big changes to your figure, pushing yourself in the gym should be a priority. Whether it’s through compound or isolation exercises, you should be testing your strength and making strides towards improvement. Both methods can help you build muscle overtime as long as you stay consistent. To have a proportional, symmetrical physique, you want to activate every little muscle that you can and that could mean throwing in some new movements every now, and then. Don’t let all the gym equipment intimidate you, an active lifestyle is a learning experience full of trial and error for all of us. So switch it up, try new things, and set those muscles on fire.

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Take it from me

Choosing exercises in the gym is all about intensity for me. Whether it’s compound or isolation, I want to make sure that I’m really feeling contraction and that deep burn in my muscles. On leg days, compound movements are my go-to because I can support a lot more weight in my lower body. Things like squats and weighted lunges just feel a lot more effective for me, and I have to really push myself to finish each set. But on bicep days for example, I usually lean toward isolation movements because my arms are weaker. Isolation exercises let me drop the weight down and really focus on fully activating my bicep with every rep. No matter what body part I’m trying to improve, it’s all about the feel of it for me.

Compound movements definitely make me feel more centered and help me build a stronger overall foundation, but isolation lets me chip away at those problem areas I’m trying to reshape. If I don’t feel sore the next fews days after a workout, I know I didn’t push myself hard enough and I try new exercises next time. Sometimes it takes getting a little uncomfortable to know that I’m really making positive changes.

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