Split workouts train us to view all exercises by bodyparts. When we think of a specific movement, we immediately associate or visualize it with a single muscle group. For example:
- Bench press. When the bench press is mentioned, we know that it must be trained on chest day.
- Squats. When squats are mentioned, we know that they must be trained on leg day (or quad day).
While associating isolation lifts with a single bodypart makes sense, these associations aren’t always beneficial when viewing compound exercises. Compound lifts, by their nature, work multiple bodyparts.
Over the years a strange evolution has taken place. Many compound exercises are forced or morphed into becoming isolation exercises so that they better target a single bodypart.
Think of the bodybuilding principle called the mind muscle connection. As mentioned, it’s pretty easy to feel a single muscle group work when performing an isolation exercise. But when you are working with the bench press, for example, it becomes much more difficult.
So in order to “isolate” the chest during this compound movement, bodybuilders often place contraction and ‘feel” above progression. While this can be a useful technique in some cases, primarily for advanced lifters who can’t take the wear and tear of weekly heavy weight, this practice is very counterproductive for lifters like you and I.
A beginning trainee seeking to add muscle and strength as rapidly as possible needs to focus on two things:
- Progression. Adding weight to the bar.
- Exercise form. Performing a movement as it should be performed, not only to stave off injury, but also as a form of practice that will be beneficial for years to come. “Practice makes perfect.”
If we go out of our way to isolate a single muscle group when using a compound movement, we run into two possible pitfalls:
Slow progression. A single muscle will not function as strongly as a group of muscles working in concert with one another. Take the bench press as an example. The bench press involves not only the chest, but also the shoulders and triceps. These three muscle groups working in tandem can move a substantial amount of weight.
But when we try to remove shoulders and triceps from the equation, and focus only on the chest, we are making the bench press much more difficult. This added difficulty will make it harder for a trainee to progress in weight, and as a result, muscle gains will also slow.
Poor form. Most compound lifts are natural movements, meaning that the body was built to perform them and does so with ease. The body can efficiently push weight away from your chest (compound exercise), but struggles with movements like flyes (isolation exercise) because it was not built to move weight in this manner. Most isolation lifts sacrifice leverage and power.
When you take a compound exercise and attempt to turn it into an isolation exercise, you will change the form ever so slightly so that one muscle group can be better “targeted”. Combine this with the reality that compound exercises involve heavier weights, and you have a recipe for strains and injuries.
Compound exercises should always be performed in a natural manner. The best way to view compound movements is in totality, and not just by a single muscle group.
Focus on good form and progression of weight. Set aside the belief that you need to isolate muscle groups for them to grow. This is a misguided training philosophy which is not needed in the least.
One needs only to look at the training of powerlifters and pre-steroid era bodybuilders to realize that compound exercises work, and work well. They shouldn’t be altered or tweaked, even in the slightest.