Isolation Vs Multijoint Exercises: The Good and the Bad

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Let’s talk about why you should be doing MORE multijoint exercises and minimal isolations.

As I progress through this graduate degree, working towards an M.S. in Exercise Science and Human Performance, I’m finding out two things. First, I know a lot more than I thought I did about exercise (conceptually). Secondly, I know a lot less than I thought I did about exercise (in detail). That’s why I love it all!

Today’s lesson in stressing your muscles revolves around the multijoint or compound exercises versus isolation exercises debate. There are “advantages” and “disadvantages” to both. I’m quoting those for a reason. In my somewhat professional opinion, there is only one advantage to isolation exercises such as preacher curls, overhead triceps extensions or the chest fly – range of motion.

Here we go!

First, let’s talk about multijoint exercises.

They are more natural and more effective at any of the three goals (muscular strength, size, or endurance). Our muscles are made to work together, in combination, to best perform strenuous tasks like deadlifting. Multijoint exercises allow you to stimulate the maximum number of muscle groups in a minimum amount of time. They allow you to manipulate heavy weights. The also allow you to work within a range of motion where your muscles can best express their full power.

Because muscle mass comes into play, they are the hardest exercises physically. This is why many people avoid these exercises. Because of the number of muscles these exercises stress, it’s not always possible and rarely easy to target the specific muscles you wish to develop.

For example, push-ups use the elbow and shoulder joints. Therefore, this is a multijoint exercise. The movement works the chest, triceps, and shoulders, primarily. Nearly impossible to determine is how much work each of those muscle groups is performing. For some people, the chest muscles will perform the majority of the work. For others, the triceps will be mostly stressed. Some yet will feel it all in their shoulders. Based on this, calling push-ups a chest exercise could be spot on or completely incorrect, depending on who you are talking to.

In multijoint exercises, the range of motion is often less than that of isolation exercises. This range may not be what is needed based on the particular sport you may be focusing on.

Now let’s talk about isolation exercises.

By using fewer muscle groups at one time, isolation exercises use less strength and energy. They are therefore much easier than multijoint exercises. Isolation exercises target muscles better than multijoint exercises. In general, it is difficult not to feel a muscle targeted by an isolation exercise. Isolation exercises are also better for developing individual muscular control. If a muscle is not developed by a multijoint exercise, a few weeks of training with isolation exercises can wake it up. When you begin conducting multijoint exercises again, you will likely feel that muscle taking on more of the work. The muscle will then be more likely to respond to the work required by exercises that involve multiple joints.

Generally, isolation exercises are less effective than multijoint exercises for increasing strength and size. Muscle isolation is an artificial phenomenon. As stated before, when performing work requiring strength, your muscles are made to work together, not in an isolated fashion.

If you attempted to reproduce the work performed by multijoint exercises with only isolation exercises, you would waste a lot of time. In the example of the push-ups, you would have to conduct a chest exercise, plus a shoulder exercise, and a triceps exercise.