Compound vs. Isolation

Discussion in 'Other Martial Arts Articles' started by aml01_ph, Feb 19, 2004.

  1. aml01_ph

    aml01_ph Urrgggh...

    It seems everybody is jumping into the compund exercise bandwagon.

    I don't understand why people do not like isolation exercises. Sure, compund exercises are better at developing overall strength, but are isolation exercises really worthless?

    The answer is no.

    There seems to be a misunderstanding that isolation exercises work only one body part. This is not true. The concept of isolation comes from restricting the motion of other body parts so that the considered prime mover for the exercise gets more attention. But do the other muscles under the said restriction do not work? No they still work to stabilize your posture while doing the exercise. Take for example doing chest flyes on a pec-deck machine. The chest are the prime isolated as the prime movers while the other muscles of your body keep you from moving to achieve the manouver. The human body acts as a unit and rarely does a body part exhibit an action without the involvement of another.

    As to the benefits of isolation exercises, they are very good way to keep you from reaching a plateau or breaking from it. Using the same exercises every time will soon get you on plateau even if you increase the poundage. Seem to be stuck on your barbell squats? Go for to the leg press and hack squat (heck even those leg curl ad extension) machines for a few weeks and you'll find your squat improved. The body part is subjected to a new kind of stress (change in leverage) so it is kept confused. Meaning it will pile on whatever is necessary to adapt.

    I'm not trying to discount the benefits of multi-joint exercises. I believe that these exercises help you achieve the fastest possible development. To dismiss the isolation concept, however, would seriously hamper your strength training as far as breaking past plateaus.
  2. Colucci

    Colucci My buddies call me Chris.

    Okay, so when we say "isolation", we don't really mean "to isolate, or single out". Gotcha. :confused:

    I think I understand what you were trying to get at with this article, but to be honest, you contradicted yourself more times than I could count. I'll start by saying that there is no "compound exercise bandwagon". It's not a bandwagon at all, it's actually a freight train of time-tested methods, with a crew of exercise physiologists at the controls. Isolation exercises are certainly not "worthless", but they do not top my list of choices when trying to overcome plateaus. They may occassionally address specific weaknesses, but they should not neccesarily be considered an integral part of an athlete's training routine.

    The true definition of an isolation exercise is one in which the body's movement is limited to one joint. For example, in barbell curls, at the elbow joint; in pec-deck flyes, at the shoulder joint; and in leg extensions, at the knee. By limiting the involved joints, you are directly limiting the involved muscles, which is why you will be weaker in isolation lifts than in compounds. To take your example of the pec-deck machine, let's compare it to a barbell flat bench press. With the flat bench press, the pectoralis (chest) is the prime mover, with shoulders and triceps serving as secondary movers, and abs, lats (back), erectors (lower back), quads, hamstrings, and calves, all serving a role as stabilizers. With the pec-deck machine, the pectoralis is the prime mover, the shoulders may serve as secondary movers (the poorer the form, the more they are involved), and that's it. Since the machine has an upright back support, there is minimal work for the postural muscles.

    You are correct however, the body wants to work as a unit, which means that an isolation lift is an innately unnatural way of movement. If you're putting a heavy box onto a high shelf, do you consciously lift with the biceps, then front raise it overhead, no. That would be just silly. The body knows what it needs to do in order to perform any given movement pattern. If you put someone in front of a barbell on the ground and said 'Pick it up', I'd bet 9 times out of 10, they unknowingly deadlift it off the ground, and they do not stiff leg it.

    As far as plateau-busting, sometimes isolations may be called for, if it is one certain muscle holding back progress. For example, if bench press improvement is limited by tricep strength, pressdowns may be called for. Even in these cases, however, modified compound exercises may be used (close grip, or reverse grip benching, in this case). And for the record, leg presses and hack squats are compound exercises as well, and even then, it has been recorded that there is little carryover from the leg press to the squat. That means that a strong leg presser will not automatically be a strong squatter, due to the numerous other muscles involved in the squat. This is another example where a modification of the squat would be more appropriate (front squats, barbell hack squats, overhead squats, even lunges).

    It has been shown, in innumerable studies (which I really am too tired to research right now, so please don't push the issue), that compound lifts produce better performing athletes in all sports (martial arts included). If you want to build a winning athlete, no matter the sport, you would do well to focus your training around variations of the Olympic lifts, the 3 powerlifts, and only a handful of other exercises. Athletes who follow these guidelines will outrun, outfight, and outlast any athlete whose training program revolves around pec-decks, lateral raises, concentration curls, and leg extensions.

    I hope I didn't come off as condescending, but an issue this controversial is bound to ruffle some feathers. But it's well worth the disagreements, if it improves just one martial artist's performance. :rolleyes:
  3. YODA

    YODA The Woofing Admin Supporter

    Ok - step AWAY from the Cable Crossover machine and put down those pink plastic dumbells mister!

    Ahem.... but seriously...

    Isolation exercises MAY be usefull to SOME people at SOME times. The problem I have is with gym "instructors" prescribing whole routines containing little else just because machines are perceived as "high tech" and you don't need to show people correct & safe exercise technique to the same degree.

    BeWaterMyFriend> Good post.
  4. dredleviathan

    dredleviathan New Member

    I have to say that I don't remember any of the more knowledgeable members of this or any other forum saying that isolation exercises are a complete waste of time.

    However the main point for most martial artists is that their weights routine is a tool used to increase performance in their martial practice (as with other athletes). Their main goal is therefore not to increase the poundage lifted or the size of a particular muscle... (as with say Olympic/power lifting or body building) although these are of course outcomes of regular training with weights.

    In a similar fashion a martial artist will perhaps run regularly to increase their cardiovascular fitness for martial arts rather than to increase there running performance per se.

    These are supplementary to their martial training and will also have various weightings (as in importance) depending on the physical make-up of the individual or level at which they practice (i.e. there is an immense difference between the training regime of a fighter and someone involved at a more recreational level).

    A very good reason to use a weights routine made up of compound lifts (apart from those already nicely explained) is that you get the greatest increases for time spent. For instance, the routine that Yoda has pretty much given out in every "need help with my lifting" post on this forum takes somewhere between 30-45 mins to complete and therefore doesn't eat too greatly into valuable MA training time that those of us with families, jobs and all that crap have to balance too.

    There are many references that have been mentioned on the health & fitness forum that support the compound bandwagon as you call it aml01_ph. This kind of training has been in existence for about as long as it is possible to trace atheletic training. If anything the machine-based nautilus approach is the bandwagon. What you are seeing now is a return to more traditional approach which leads to functional gains in strength for a martial artist (or other athlete).

    As anecdotal evidence of the lack of cross-over between certain exercises I have been humbled by the squat and pullup since regularly training this way. I leg-press around 200kgs without too much problem but my squat is not anywhere near this - a problem exacerbated recently by the disappearance of our squat rack from the gym (to make space). In addition with a cable pull-down I happily pull about 90kgs but cannot for the life of me pull my fat ass up over a bar (current weight 90.5kgs)...

    Question for Yoda & BeWater: in the vein of isolation exercises to get you through plateaus - is there any worth in using isolation exercises to pre-exhaust the main movers before doing the compound lift i.e. flyes before bench?
  5. Mika

    Mika New Member

    Good Posts, Y'all


    Good notes from all.

    I would say that isolation - or bodybuilding type of training, if you'd prefer - has its place under certain circumstances.

    When the young grasshopper sees the gym for the first time, it might be better if he started out with some machines. Maybe on the side he could try to learn some of the more involved exercises.
    When any grasshopper is returning from an injury, then naturally he would want to follow a specific routine prescribed by an exercise physiologist or a physical therapist.
    Those two instances are self-evident.
    However, there is one more situation that calls for isolation exercises. I have seen more or less experienced martial artists (and other athletes) returning to isolation exercises - temporarily, of course - due to muscle imbalances. This is a very common phenomenon.
    For example, the leg extension - leg curl ratio should be at 1:0.6 (60%) with an untrained person but at 1:0.8 (80%) with an athlete.
    This addresses two question: plateauing and injuries. If a person's hams are not nearly as strong as his quads, he will face a wall in squats much sooner than a person with stronger hams. Of course squatting will strengthen the hams, but muscle imbalances will always hinder the progress.
    If a person's agonists are much stronger than his antagonists, the risk of injury is higher, naturally.

    And as dreadleviathan already mentioned, one has to look at one's goals. Everything depends on the goals. Always. For example, is the person at the gym because he wants to at least do something for health benefits or is he there to optimize his efforts and training to achieve a certain competetive goal?

    But these two principles are the most important ones related to resistance training despite the sport: the principle of specificity and the principle of overload.
    Train as you fight. Mimicking some of the martial arts moves with weights (usually small weights) is good way to improve one's power or hitting, kicking or other related speed (here comes another question: is it more about actual power than just speed? And the answer is not only subjective, it depends on the art, too: certainly Judokas are stronger than TKD players, on the average, but TKD players do not need to use force to bring down the opponent, but they do need to be very, very fast; all martial arts require speed as the fastest many times emerges as the winner, but some arts require more strength than others; depends on the goals, again). Using ankle and wrist weights is another good tool. Having said this, I mean these are good add-ins.
    The principle of overload is fairly self-evident.

    I noticed in my own training that doing 6-8 sets of 20-30 reps of isolation exercises with about 15-20 exercices at a time brought me very little advantage. Three hours at the gym is too much in most cases. Needless to say, this was before I knew too much about resistance training and exercise physiology (just followed my Sifus at the gym and did what they did and what they told me to do; this was how they did their resistance training at the time...).

    Varying the routine frequently is of immeasurable value.

    Cheers :)

    Last edited: Feb 23, 2004
  6. aml01_ph

    aml01_ph Urrgggh...

    The reason I said band wagon is that there are some posts here who sound much against isolation exercises. These isolation exercises are but training tools, they have their uses and there are occasions that they are better choice.

    You also mentioned the muscles involved in the pec-deck exercise. Most people do not know that people who have strength problems with the back, stomach and legs have difficulty in doing this exercise (or any exercise for that matter). Some natural gifts really get taken for granted.

    I don't feel I'm contradicting myself. What I was trying to say was that isolation exercise have a place in a fighter's weight training program. I do not discount the benefits of the big lifts and in fact I'm all for them. I just do not like the way some people here scoff at isolation exercises.

    Thank you BeWaterMyFriend. You did not come off as condesecending. Your post was in fact one of the better criticisms I've had here. You actually got my point. :D

    It is also funny that these gym instructors often do not do the "hard" exercises. It gets even more humorous when you learn that hese instructors do not ven know how to use the exercise machine properly. It is really irritating when you hear iron clang loudly on a cable machine when a person is not educated in the value of negatives.

    I also learned some time ago that you can be certified as a fitness professional by paying some company about US$500 (I could be wrong about the price) and they mail you an exam and then afterwards you get your license! No practical examination!

    I have a friend who has a pair of plastic dumbells weighing 20 kilos each :D

    You've never come across this statement? "Stay away from chest flyes." :rolleyes:

    I won't presume on other forums. Besides how do you know that a member is knowledgeable or not? This is the internet after all.

    Thank you for the replies.
  7. donger

    donger New Member

  8. Ad McG

    Ad McG Troll-killer Supporter

    Donger - Try searching!

    Yoda - lol at the pink dumbells comment

    Bewatermyfriend - Thank you for saving me the time.
  9. Cain

    Cain New Member

    Hint - powerlifters don't ever use any isolation exercises. ;)

  10. aml01_ph

    aml01_ph Urrgggh...

    Sometimes they do in their off-season.
  11. Colucci

    Colucci My buddies call me Chris.

    In a word...nope. If you're training for strength, not fluffy muscle size, and have reached a plateau, pre-exhaustion methods would not be the most effective way to spur new results. Many times, a review of your exercise technique will do the trick. It's the simplest, fastest, usually least painful way. Take the flat bench press for example. Check your grip width, be sure to keep your head, shoulder blades, tailbone, and feet planted and not wiggling, examine your tempo and range of motion, etc. It's easy for us to get into subtle bad habits, which sneak up and push our training sideways into a ditch.

    If, after this check-up, you're still stalled out, then we can look for the weak link, muscularly-speaking. With the flat bench, it's usually tricep strength. If this is the case, then you could try, for a FEW weeks, including some tricep isolation lifts (pressdown, french press, etc.). Even here, however, it may be preferable to focus on variations of the flat bench, which emphasize the tris more (close-grip press, board press, floor press, etc.) since they are more movement-specific. When in doubt, check the articles at the crew there know how to build strength...and they mean STRENGTH. Happy lifting!! :D
  12. jeff29053

    jeff29053 New Member

    Isolations rock!

    I personally prefer isolation exercises...

    When i grab a bar and start pounding away at the bench, then next week do dumbbell bench i feel alot more work going into my chest then i do in the bench press...

    Bench press is supposed to work the chest, but the supporting muscles seem to take alot of the chest work out of it. So you can pre-exhaust or isolate. I prefer to isolate.

    This of course is assuming your just generally lifting and not trying to get huge. Then compounds "might" be better, but im still unsure of that. I think isolations with heavy weights might push the muscles to grow faster than compounds, but im no expert on that at all.........

    But isolations i still prefer:)
  13. Nrv4evr

    Nrv4evr New Member

    this is a very general idea, and probably not universally accepted:

    bodybuilders tend to use isolation, to increase the look of one muscle. this helps in strength and isolation activities, like arm-wrestling.

    strongmen use compound exercises more, to increase their bodily and overall strength. this helps them apply more force for things like deadlift or lifting heavy objects in general.
  14. cxw

    cxw Valued Member

    The dumbbell press is not an isolation excercise. The shoulder and elbow joints move.

    I agree with you that the weight of 2 dumbbells exceeds the equivalent bar bell weight in lifting difficulty.

    When doing the dumbbell press, one option is to use a swiss ball rather than a bench. It involves more use of stablisers.
  15. Cain

    Cain New Member

    From what I am aware many bodybuilders use compounds as 'base' for their programs, they usually do the deads/benches/pull ups/dips etc etc and throw in a few isolation for biceps calves etc, most will actually advise you to stick only to the compounds when your's just what I've experienced and aware of.

  16. pgm316

    pgm316 lifting metal

    I'm still using a combination of compound/isolation. I feel like I get the best of both worlds that way :) I know one of you experts will tell me I'm wrong but thats how it feels! ;) I seems logical to me to do the important compound exercises and once you get that strength up to boost individual muscles with isolation training?
  17. Stuart H

    Stuart H On the Mandarin bandwagon

    Compound exercises are better than lots of isolation exercises for overall strength, but you may be unable to use them becuse you have unbalanced development.

    Examples - pullups are great for arms, shoulders and back, but you won't get any benefit doing them if you can only do one because your grip strength is poor.

    Hindu pushups - great overall body exercise, but what use are they if you get puffed out after eight because your chest and arm strength is poor?
  18. Stuart H

    Stuart H On the Mandarin bandwagon

    I started doing calisthenics such as the examples in my previous posts, but because of my unbalanced muscular development I have to strengthen myself first with isolation exercises (Dynamic Tension in my case).
  19. hwardo

    hwardo Drunken Monkey

    Isolation exercises are good for building cosmetic muscles, but they are not terrific if your goal is functional strength. I think that it is much better to do, say, clean and jerks than it is do to leg extensions, biceps curls, and straight arm raises, because you are using all the muscles in coordination as opposed to working each one at the limit of the joint. As a martial artist, total body strength is more important to me than popping bi's.

    In response to Welsh Warrior-- it is true that it is very difficult for some people to do multi-joint compound exercises. If they are training for strength, however, and not size, then it really doesn't matter if they are only able to squeeze out one rep. If that person did three-five sets of one pull up three days a week, they would quickly up their numbers, and build that crazy functional strength.

    Anyway, just my opinion. And if just building mass is your goal, than the rules change, y'know?
  20. DAT

    DAT Valued Member

    "For instance, the routine that Yoda has pretty much given out in every "need help with my lifting" post on this forum takes somewhere between 30-45 mins to complete and therefore doesn't eat too greatly into valuable MA training time that those of us with families, jobs and all that crap have to balance too."

    I apologize in advance for asking but could I get a link to this info please?

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