As you’ve no doubt heard, you can’t spot reduce any area of your body but you can focus on building strength in certain areas if needed. Strive for balance in your body – you’ll accomplish this with compound, multi-joint movements with a few isolation exercises thrown in.
You may have heard that compound movements are better when it comes to weight training. These are the exercises that use many muscle groups at once, including your abs, instead of just one muscle group.
Compound exercises are not lunges with shoulder presses, though this type of combination is a great way to get a quick, intense workout. Compound movements are those that use several joints and muscle groups at once, such as chest presses, squats, lunges, deadlifts, and shoulder presses. You’re using your core to stabilize and your body is working as a whole to complete the movement.
Isolation exercises, such as lateral raises, leg extensions, bicep curls, and the pec deck are not bad, but they should supplement your workout instead of being the bulk of it. I prefer working large muscle groups (legs, back, chest) with compound movements instead of isolation exercises, because I’m a little paranoid about muscle imbalances. Plus some isolation exercise machines, such as the leg extension, aggravate my knees. These machines force your joints along a fixed plane and can sometimes cause joint problems.
Even small muscle groups, like biceps, get trained with back exercises and may not need special attention, but I do isolation exercises for small muscles just to burn them up a little more. But I’ve found that compound exercises can make my workout faster because they hit many groups at once.
Here are some examples of when you may want to integrate isolation exercises into your routine.
Last year when I had physical therapy for knee pain, the therapist told me I needed to strengthen and loosen up my outer thigh and hip muscles. He gave me outer thigh and hip exercises as well as some foam roller therapy homework, and over time my knee pain went away.
Of course, many sports can overemphasize certain muscle groups and cause imbalances. For example, running develops the calves and hamstrings but not give the quads and hips a chance to be equally as strong. Any time you have muscle imbalances, one area of your body is taking more force than another and can result in injuries.
If you can visually see that one area of your body is not as developed as another area, you can try to bring it up to speed with isolation exercises. My current leg routine emphasizes my hamstrings and I’m doing plenty of hamstring curls to help develop them. Bodybuilders do this all the time to target certain muscles, but you shouldn’t rely on this technique forever or you’re going to see muscle imbalances forming.
Beginning weight lifters often use isolation exercises because they’re easy to learn. This may be fine in the early stages of weight training, but to see real gains you’ll eventually need to learn exercises such as leg presses, dips, push ups, and lat pull downs.
People with injuries use isolation exercises to avoid the injured area. For example, instead of shoulder presses, which can aggravate shoulder pain, you can do front raises and isolate the front shoulder muscle.