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The case for compound exercise

By Sally Anderson, Times Correspondent
Photos by SCOTT KEELER | Times

Compound exercise versus isolation exercise? You may wonder which is a better option for gaining strength. They both have a place in building strength, but in different ways, depending on your goals. The trend today tends to lean toward functional fitness, which simply means movements that simulate what you would be doing in everyday life. You will perform a wide range of movements that involve more than one joint and muscle group at a time, as our daily body movements do not work in isolation. Think of picking something up off the floor and reaching up to put it on a high shelf. That movement involves the whole body. Or think of a squat, where you bend at the hips and knees, engaging many muscles in the lower body. This is where compound exercise enters the picture. Compound exercises are multijoint movements that target more than one muscle group at a time.

There are two styles of compound exercises. In one, you perform a single movement, such as a squat, that targets numerous muscle groups, including the quadriceps (front of thighs), hamstrings (back of thighs), calves, gluteals, lower back and core. The second type would be when two exercise moves are put together, such as a squat with a shoulder press.

Compound exercises have more to offer than isolation exercises. They:

Give you the option of using heavier weights.

Enable you to have a full body workout in less time.

Increase calorie burn.

Improve flexibility due to the active range of motion involved.

Improve coordination and balance.

Bring cardio benefits by keeping your heart rate up.

That said, isolation exercises are not to be neglected, as they have benefits as well.

They differ from the compound exercises in that they focus on isolated strength, working only one muscle or muscle group and joint at a time. A leg extension would be an example of an isolation exercise. There are times when you might want to add them to your workout. You may become aware while performing a compound exercise, for instance, that one of your muscle groups, perhaps your arms or shoulders, is too weak to perform the desired movement correctly. That would be the time to strengthen those muscles with an isolation exercise. They are often used to strengthen a specific muscle weakness after injuries or surgery. In a gym setting, weight machines provide a good opportunity for working isolated muscle groups. When sitting, just remember to adjust the seat height so that the exercise can target the muscles you are working.

Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but can't respond to individual inquiries. Contact her at [email protected]