Compound Athletic Exercises VS Conventional Bodybuilding Isolation Work
Doing Isolation Work is a Waste of Time: Isolation exercises like leg extensions are a waste of time for many of us. Isolation exercises came after bodybuilding became popular. In my view Bodybuilding is not a sport. Bodybuilders are not “athletes”. It’s just working out to look good at all costs. Be it using drugs, sacrificing family time, using Steroids, any other thing one can get his/her hands on or just simply giving up the fun of life and playing around and falling prey to the dream of a “perfect” body. At least this is what Bodybuilding is right now. Even the bodybuilders don’t look that ripped a few days before or after their competition. I am not saying striving for a healthy body is something you shouldn’t be looking for. It’s doing everything even “if it harms you” to achieve something that I am against. I should add that you can look much better than a bodybuilder by training smart and keeping a healthy diet and lifestyle with no side effects. I am not going to get into the psychological aspects of Body-building, its narcissism element, and the food issues body-builders develop later on. I absolutely respect the fathers of Bodybuilding like Eugen Sandow (Father of modern bodybuilding – he was clean, there were no steroids back then, and just had good food and was basically a strongman) and alike but today there are better ways of training. Isolation exercises came into popular use after Steroids were introduced in the 1940s. You would feel huge pumps and the drugs would make your muscles grow gigantically by their use and abuse. But the practice of isolation work has little or “no carryover” to real life. In fact, you would lose your “muscle memory”. I am yet to see a “bodybuilder” who can run fast, jump high, or do normal ordinary physical things extraordinary. On the other hand, athletes have bodies that work as good as they look!
The Kinetic Chain and the Human Anatomy: Let’s draw you an example: What is working when you do a “Chin up”? Actively (contributing to the movement) your Lats, Biceps, Romboids, Posterior deltoids, Teres Minor and Major, Forearms, Subscapularis etc, and isometrically OR passively (holding body parts in a such a way so that you can produce the movement) Pecs, Anterior Delts, Triceps, Trapezius, Abdominals and pretty much every other body part that’s not moving. Now When you do a chin up all of these muscles contribute to the movement isometrically or isotonically (of/or involving muscular contraction in which the muscle remains under relatively constant tension while its length changes) and your nervous system and brain memorize the path of the movement and will help you reproduce the movement every time you try to do a chin up (by the way, that’s why you should train with good form from the beginning. If you learn it wrong in the beginning it’s harder to train with good form later). Now, do you think doing seated biceps curls on bench will do any good for you? Of course it will make your biceps stronger (Chin up will still beat biceps curls in strengthening the biceps though) but will it contribute to your chin up? Yes, if your biceps were the weak link but essentially ‘NO’ because the rest of the muscles that contribute to the chin up are not working here at all. Your chin up will still be what it was before. In other words, you won’t increase your “functional strength” or “useful strength” by doing biceps curls. You are only as strong as your weakest link!
The Central Nervous System – the bridge between the brain and the body – and Muscle Memory: Another reason I am not a big fan of isolation exercises is that it does not involve a great degree of the nervous system and won’t teach you awareness of your own body. When you do a leg extension for example, only your quadriceps is working. Hardly any other muscle is involved. But when you do a Squat instead every single muscle in the body is working just to get you do that simple movement of sitting and standing up. You not only hit your Quads effectively but also are working your Hamstrings, Adductors, Abductors, Gluteus Maximus and Medius, the low back and the entire upper body is also working to control the weight as you go down. Even if you had the time, knowledge of the human body and the patience to train each muscle selectively one by one you would still not train your nervous system and work your muscles altogether so you can actually produce functional strength. In other words, there wouldn’t be any carryover to real life situations. The body parts are all connected together. The body is one unit and it should be trained like one.
Form Dictates Function. Function Dictates Dysfunction. Training with machines is as close as you can get to dysfunction. The other problem arising from isolation exercises (for which machines were made and marketed to get as many people possible to use them) is that they are mostly done on machines. Now machines work only in one direction – up, down, forward, and backward. But this is not how our joints have evolved! They are evolved to
produce movements in all three planes of motion simultaneously. Let’s compare a Barbell Squat to a Squat done on a Smith machine. A Smith Machine is just like the barbell Squat with the only difference that the bar is fixed and you can only move it up and down. Now when you do a barbell Squat your movement pattern and joint angles at various points in motion will be different from mine. The anthropometry (limb lengths) of your body is different from mine and so is your flexibility. Your ankle, Thoracic and Lumbar Spine mobility, Hip Flexors length and tightness, Gluteus firing and activeness as well as your hamstrings strength are all different from mine. Now all of those will decide how you would go down with the barbell as you squat and how you would react to gravity as you come up from the bottom position. If I deviated you from “YOUR” natural path of movement I would put excessive pressure on a few joints and muscles and would have reduced necessary stabilizing pressure on other joints and muscles. This will result on a joint being forced out of its “range of motion” or “path of motion”. Why do you think will happen in the long run? You are right! The joints will give up and you will win and you would have contributed some money to the hospital. In the case of the Barbell Squat and Smith Machine, you would have forced your knees forward by putting all the pressure forward (if you draw a line from the bar downwards, the line will not pass through the mid foot) and taking the hamstrings out of the way. In a conventional Barbell Squat the hamstrings take a substantial portion of the load and so the knees stay balanced in the forward and backward pressure (if you draw a straight line from the bar downwards the line will pass exactly through the mid foot or else you would tip over) and will function effectively. So not only you become extremely inefficient in producing forceful and safe movements in directions specific to your movements if you train with machine, you will also have caused your joints to wear out. You must have seen plenty of your fellows having joint problems in the conventional gyms. If not until now, the injury is just round the corner. It will happen sooner or later. And most probably outside the gym!
The Superiority of the Whole-body Exercises – Higher Metabolism: The next point for compound exercises (multiple joint exercises) and against isolation exercises is that compound exercises burn much more calories than isolation exercises. Reason is simple – there are just more muscles involved in compound exercises. That’s why we like to call compound exercises “best bang for your buck” exercises. You do one set of an exercise instead of one for each and every body part, recruit more muscles, involve the central nervous system to a much greater extent hence leading to better body awareness and causing a greater adaptation response, burn more calories, will have stronger and durable joints and will be able to produce stronger and more effective functional strength.
Athleticism: We are designed to lift, throw, jump, run, pull, push and move in complex three dimensional planes of motion and rarely need to work body parts (except in case of recovering from an injury). If you want the body of an athlete, you should train like one.
Developing Different Qualities of Athleticism: The human musculoskeletal body has many qualities which are lost over time with the sedentary lifestyle people have. The rate of production of force; absorption of force; muscle elasticity; bone, ligament and tendon density; general flexibility; joint mobility; maximal oxygen consumption or Aerobic Capacity (VO2 Max) and Cardiovascular fitness; muscular strength; muscular endurance; Spinal and joint stability; Speed production and the list continues. You can look around and see where everyone around you stands as far as each of these points is concerned. How many of each of these qualities do you think body part isolation improves for you? Hardly a few! Whereas all ‘sports’ provide most of the qualities mentioned. Some of them are at the core of some sports and some will enhance performance and prevent one from being injured if trained. Our programs are designed keeping almost every aspect in mind. The approach is very holistic.
Author Moez Aryan from Omni Farious Personal Training Studio