If you’ve been following this Vs series then you know that I’ve been putting exercises against one another to see if the most beneficial exercise for any given body part can be determined. I have every intention of getting back to that and ultimately I will attempt to discover if there is a single upper, lower and full body exercise that can be declared the best of all of the options available. Before I carry on with that I thought I would take a minor detour for the next couple of weeks and look at a few general training methodologies. Today specifically I will look at which is more effective at building muscle mass: Compound Vs Isolation Movements.
I know what many of you are thinking. Compound movements build more muscle and guess what? You’re right. I guess what I mean to determine today is which exercise method is more valuable to you and your current training goals.
As mentioned above and in any magazine, gym or conversation involving muscle-building, compound exercises will be the foundation of any training program and for good reason too. Compound exercises are the more functional of the two options as they are multi-joint exercises that work several muscle groups at once and through a wider range of motion than do isolation exercises. The squat, considered by many to be the king of all mass builders, effectively works the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the calves, the glutes, the low back, the spinal erectors, and the core. Even many of the upper body muscles are involved to support the bar. Further examples of compound movements include pull ups, the overhead press, the bench press, deadlifts and of course movements like the clean and press.
Isolation exercises on the other hand work only one muscle group and joint at a time. The advantages that these exercises offer are especially valuable to the beginner as risk of injury is minimal. The risk of injury learning to squat is relatively high by comparison, even with proper instruction. Isolation work also has a functional application as these are the exercises that are performed during physical therapy to correct muscle imbalances that almost always result in injury.
This last point should be of interest to everyone reading this and this is because you, me and likely everyone you know has one or more muscle imbalances that should be addressed. This is most likely because anyone lifting for any period of time at all has experienced an injury of some type. The muscle then of course becomes weak as it heals and it becomes necessary in many cases to isolate the muscle in order to activate it and rebuild the lost strength. If you were to go back to training as if nothing has happened as many do then you are setting up a biomechanical imbalance that will be more difficult to correct as time goes on as other muscles will overcompensate for the weakened muscle and the injured muscle will then have no need to grow stronger as it will be receiving ‘help’ from its friends.
Muscle imbalances are often not noticeable and can in fact be worked around with relatively no consequence, depending on the severity of course, but if all of your muscles are firing as they should be then your potential for growth is exponentially higher.
Furthermore, isolation exercises are the ideal way to add more muscle to specific muscle groups. I rarely if ever hear the ‘gotta squat to build quads’ crowd use the same logic when it comes to building arms. If they did then they would be focusing their efforts on doing pull up variations and not isolation exercises like barbell curls to build biceps. If doing curl variations is what builds the huge arms that you see in muscle magazines today, and they are what almost every bodybuilder uses to bulk up their arms, then the same reasoning can be applied to building quads. It can be argued that leg extensions can build as much quadriceps muscle as can a set of squats. There comes a point in every bodybuilder’s ‘career’ where compound movements will have reached the point of diminishing returns and looking at other options to stimulate growth will need to be investigated in order to progress further.
The reality is that if you want to build a well-balanced physique, both from the aesthetic and functional perspective, then you need to do plenty of both of these types of training. The major building of muscle will take place doing the heavy compound work and even after the foundation is completed it is a great idea to continue to do these exercises to keep your body functioning as it is meant to as compound movements are all built around what it is our body does naturally. Getting back the squat, all you need to do is follow a toddler around for a day to see just how integral squatting is to natural human movement. We all do it several times a day without even thinking, and that’s because we have kept our functional strength up with movements like the squat and deadlift.
Isolating our muscles to repair or even prevent muscle imbalances will be of great benefit in order for us to continue to make gains going forward. They also do build just as much muscle to any specific muscle group than any compound exercise. It’s true that a set of triceps push downs will build as much triceps muscle as a set of weighted dips, provided the intensity is equal. It is just that it defies logic to think that something as relatively simple as a set of push downs can have equal value to that of the brute strength needed to perform that set of weighted dips. Keep using a good mix of both of these types of training to reap the greatest rewards in the weight room. Until next time my friends,
This article was researched and written by Matt Taylor