To isolate or not to isolate; this is a debate that comes up frequently at the gym. All weightlifting movements are generally categorized into one of two different types of lifts: compound or isolation. Though there is much controversy over which lifts are better, both compound and isolation have their benefits and their weaknesses.
A compound exercise is a lift that works multiple muscle groups at once. Squats, for example, are a compound exercise as they focus primarily on quads but also work your glutes, hamstrings and core.
Gino Caccavale, a celebrity trainer and creator of the workout program “Rezist” utilizes compound exercises in his routine to optimize results in the quickest time possible.
“The more joints you move, the more muscles you move, the more calories you’re going to burn,” Caccavale explains. “We incorporate ‘mini plyometrics’ with weight training because of the calorie burning. We’ll do jumping bicep movements. We’ll squat, touch the weight to the floor, jump, then squat again and curl.”
Isolation exercises, on the other hand, target one muscle group while recruiting little or no help from peripheral muscles. For example, seated bicep curls eliminate the possibility of using muscles in your core and upper body so that you can solely target your bicep.
Frank Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia heavily prevalent in the weightlifting community, swears by the mantra of isolation.
“If you really want to focus on the muscle you need to isolate it and blast it,” Zane said. “I do not mean tear it down or use heavy weights. I mean really get the blood into the muscle experience the pump. Because when you look into the mirror you are seeing the future of your body.”
Compound exercises include many of your strength-building workouts like bench pressing and deadlifting. The reason for this is, as Caccavale said, working multiple muscles at a time is optimal for building strength and burning calories.
This optimization can ultimately save you time in the gym and target your entire body in an easier, more efficient matter.
As optimal as compound exercises may be for strength building, they might not be as prevalent in the routine of someone whose goals are more focused on aesthetic improvement. Compound exercises are nice because of the peripheral muscles they work and the strength they build, but once you’ve begun to see improvement and notice your biceps or calves are smaller than you might like, there comes a time when isolation exercises become the better option.
The tradeoff that exists between these two exercises is that isolation allows a lot of power to be focused on one muscle group, while compound exercises spread that power over multiple muscle groups. If your goal is to increase size in your quads for example, squatting would undoubtedly do the job, but leg extensions might accomplish your goal faster as it isolates all other muscle groups and focuses the work on your quads.
However, if your goal is more athletic, like increasing your vertical, compound exercises like squatting would be more beneficial to you than an isolation exercise.