Why focus on compound exercises instead of isolated exercises with machines?
Let’s first be clear as to what exactly compound and isolated exercises are. Simply put, compound exercises are those that utilise two or more muscle groups and joints to perform - as apposed to isolation exercises that only recruits one group of muscles or a single joint.
Some of my favorite exercises and great examples of compound exercises are the squat, the push-up, the burpee and the pull-up (not yet mastering this one, but working hard on it!).
They all use a number of muscle groups and joints to carry out the main movements and others to assist and stabilize. In contrast, an isolation exercise like the machine bicep curl predominantly recruits only one muscle group and joint with a minimum amount of stabilisation from other muscles required.
Quite often, gym weight machines are designed to carry out isolation exercises (another example could be a seated leg extension), whereas bodyweight or kettlebell exercises tend to be more compound in nature.
So why should we remember compound exercises (and why am I so overly obsessed about them)?
First and foremost, compound exercises are like the catalysts of your workout – they make it efficient! By using multiple muscles during each exercise we can cut down on the overall time for a workout. Why waste your precious time on individual machine exercises when compound exercises can target all the same muscles in a fraction of the time? If you didn’t know this, it’s got to be good news for any man or woman who simply doesn't have the time or doesn’t want to spend hours in the sweaty gym.
2. Compound exercises are more functional
Your workout might be aimed at improving sports performance, so you need exercises that will mirror or simulate certain movement patterns. Compound exercises are a great way to achieve this. For those of us training purely towards health and fitness goals, compound moves will give you a more functional body. And why exactly do we like a “functional body”? Like, what does it even mean? A functional body is more efficient in carrying out normal, day-to-day real life physical activities. For girls, that include squatting over a public toilet! So much easier if you do squats once a week.
3. A more balanced body
Compound exercises work our muscles in a way that promotes an all-round balanced body and overall strength.
Muscle groups will work together to stabilize and assist each other, and this in turn prevents over developing one area and neglecting another. Everybody’s speaking about balance, these days – and exercises like these will totally get you the balance kick you need.
The vast majority of women want to train for overall tone rather than isolated muscle growth – so not only for men, but especially for women performing compound exercises throughout a workout will help reaching the goal of a lean, yet well balanced body.
4. Increased Hormone Production
Alright, you may or may not want to increase muscle size, but growth hormones are still essential to promote muscle repair, tone and strength. Compound exercises are proven to stimulate increased growth hormone production more effectively than simply carrying out isolation moves during your workout. Yeaahh, let’s get lean (now imagine that said with a voice similar to Alan Rickman (RIP)).
5. Increased use of core muscles
Isolation exercises, especially those that use machines, tend to support the body in a seated or laying position. This extra support minimizes the amount of work that the core has to do to perform an exercise. Compound moves, on the other hand, tend to require the core area to work to stabilize the body. As an example, a bodyweight leg lunge not only uses all the major leg muscles, but also makes the core work hard to maintain an upright and balanced position. With this in mind, it’s possible to give your butt, sides and back a really good workout while performing exercises for other body parts.
6. Increased Calorie Burn
Last but not least, compound exercises burn more calories than their isolation counterparts. Calorie calculations are not exactly my favorite class, but who doesn’t want a beaming metabolism? More muscle activity equals more calorie expenditure, which in turn can lead to more fat burning throughout the workout. It doesn't just stop there though. Exercising large and multiple muscle groups increases the metabolism not only during the workout but also for some time afterwards. An increase in metabolism will also increase the quantity of calories burned. Score!
So should we completely disregard Isolation exercises?
The simple answer to this is “no”. There is still a place for these exercises, especially in targeting specific areas or during recovery from injury. The fact remains though, that if you want to develop strength, maintain a functional lean body with maximum time efficiency then Compound Exercises throughout your workout should be your go-to exercises.