Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
When designing a fast muscle building program it is often helpful to breakdown exercises into categories. Of course, the most common way of doing this is to categorize them by the muscles they work. But an even broader classification is to organize them into two categories: compound and isolation movements.
Isolation movements are those exercises which only involve one joint moving at a time. A bicep curl is the classic example, since only the elbow joint should be moving. Triceps pushdowns, shoulder raises, and leg extensions are a few other exercises that fall into the isolation category.
Conversely, compound movements involve the use of two or more joints. Exercises like the bench press, squat, and pull-up are classic examples.
Each group has its own advantages and disadvantages. For beginning lifters it is suggested that nearly all of your exercises be compound in nature. As you progress you will begin to incorporate more and more isolation movements.
The reason for this is simple: compound exercises have the potential to pack on muscle and strength at a much faster rate then isolation exercises. Because compound exercises use multiple joints, they also use more muscles than isolation movements. With more muscles involved you can lift heavier weights. And hopefully you are aware that heavy weights lead to big muscles.
Isolation exercises do have their place however. Often times, due to technique or genetic differences, compound exercises favor one muscle group over another. For example, the bench press is typically thought of as a chest exercise. However, many people find that their triceps and shoulders grow much faster than their chest does from the bench press. In order to get balanced development they need to choose a different exercise. Since isolation exercises effectively concentrate on a small number of muscle groups, they can lead to targeted hypertrophy in a problem area.
I want to emphasize that this is really an advanced problem. For the first 5-10 years of lifting most people will do just fine with a steady diet of compound exercises with a few isolation movements thrown-in. There is no point in worrying about where you are adding mass when you weigh 150 pounds. Every part of you needs mass, so you shouldn’t worry that your triceps are getting more stimulation than your pecs.
Keep in mind that simply throwing a bunch of compound exercises together and calling it a fast muscle building program won’t bring you consistent results. There are a lot of variables to consider when designing a training program, and exercise selection is just one of them.
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