Train the Movement Not the Muscle – Isolation Vs Complex Exercise in Strength Training

As a strength training specialist, I get questions from friends and clients all of the time about the best way to train.  I find that most of the questions, though genuine in their motivation, miss the most important benefits of strength training – function.  One of the most popular questions goes something like this:  “Aaron, what is the best exercise to isolate my ___________ (any variety of body parts – biceps, triceps, abs, adductors, etc)?”

No matter what body part they insert into the question my response is usually – “Why is it you want to isolate?”  Most of the time the answer is ‘I don’t know.”

So the first thing that they need to understand is that our body wants to work with the greatest number of muscles possible.  It is more efficient and effective this way.  The complex movements that our muscles create are achieved through the contraction of multiple muscles at one time.  Some are more dominant than others with certain movements while others serve as joint stabilizers or accessory muscles.  This article is meant to show how utilizing complex (multi-joint) movements is more effective and functional for sports demands as well as every day life and activities.

Isolation exercises are meant to train the body to use only one specific muscle group.  While there is a time and a place for isolation exercises, building a training routine around isolation creates a body that works in a very non-functional way.   In other words, in a way that is not natural.  This can lead to both acute injury and overuse injuries because the muscles are not working together to create a movement.  Instead, you have a bunch of individual muscles that, instead of a powerful, functional movement, create a jerky motion that doesn’t work well.

I have seen many people over the years suffer an injury that was created because of an isolation exercise.  A significantly fewer number of injuries, if any, are caused by doing complex movements.  Complex movements also create a more lean, muscular, and functional body that is better able to generate power and strength by working together to produce force.

If you look at any sport that requires strength, speed, power and agility you will notice that it requires complex movement patterns.  Take a football or soccer player for example.  They don’t train with isolation exercises.  They are performing too many complex movements to waste their time doing bicep curls or leg extensions – neither of which will effectively make them more prepared for their sport.

Some examples of my least favorite isolation, non-functional exercises include:

    o    crunches,

    o    leg extensions,

    o     hamstring curls,

    o    bicep curls,

    o    tricep extensions, and

    o    the worst of all the abduction / adduction machine.  

None of these exercises truly prepare the body for daily movements or much less athletic demands.

Some complex exercises that I like include:

    o    Squats and their variations

    o    Lunges (multidirectional)

    o    Deadlifts

    o    Step-Ups

    o    Push Ups

    o    Woodchoppers

A variety of different exercise routines can be created around these basic exercises.  Upper extremity movements can be added to create a total body workout.  Just 3-5 of these exercises in a circuit routine can be a real butt kicker.  Basically any exercise that trains more than one muscle group at a time is a great complex exercise.  Complex movements like these also train your abdominal muscles the way they were meant to be trained.

When you are considering what exercises are going to be best for you, remember to train movements with complex, multi-joint exercises and leave the isolation to the bodybuilders.  You will create a more functional and healthy body.  For more ideas about how to create a functional body that not only works well but looks even better, go to the Interval Training Guide website.