Sometimes patients come into my office stating that they can’t do a lunge or squat any more due to pain.

They mention that if they just do more of them it should get better, right?!
I find this to be false because there is something that is keeping them from doing it properly. This is where isolation exercises come in versus the compound exercise (lunge or squat).

Let’s talk about the importance between compound versus isolation exercises and which could be of benefit to you!

1. What are compound and isolation exercises?

Compound exercises are exercises that work several muscles or muscle groups at the same time.

Example: Squat requires the contraction of several muscle groups such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, and core.

Isolation exercises are exercises that only work one muscle or muscle group and one joint at a time.

Example: Bicep curl only contracts the bicep while bending at the elbow. The rest of the body stays stationary.

2. Four Reasons to Use Isolation Exercises

  1. Corrects a specific muscle weakness or imbalance that often occurs after injury, illness, surgery, or other conditions

Example: Person slips on the ice and falls on their right hip and now they have trouble with gluteal activation.

  1. Reduces compensation during functional movements

Example: If you are trying to perform a squat in front of a mirror to pick up an object from the ground, then you want your body to be in alignment from your head to your toes. Someone that has weakness in the buttock muscles may side bend and use their low back muscles which will lead to low back pain (compensation). This is when you focus on an exercise like a clam or glute squeezes to strengthen that individual muscle.

  1. Strengthens one muscle that might be weaker than the rest
  1. Makes it easier to compare muscle weaknesses from one side to the other

Example: You try to do a straight leg raise laying on your back and the right leg is really easy to lift, but the left leg feels really tired!

3. Three Reasons to Use Compound Exercises

    1. Related to more functional daily movements

    Example: Lunge with a reach exercise is similar to climbing/hiking and having to reach for a rock to pull yourself up. Another example is doing squats at the gym will help you stand up from a chair without using your hands.

    1. Engages more muscles at one time to maximize your time during the workout

    Example: Pushups are focusing on strengthening of the abdominals, glutes, and shoulder musculature at the same time.

    1. Typically used by individuals that are athletic or have physically taxing jobs as it keeps their entire body strong and healthy.

    Although compound exercises can be painful at first, you can see that with a little help from isolation exercises, you can reduce your pain and build up to them. Most people become frustrated because they feel like they are taking a few steps backwards, but I promise you that in the end you will be much happier with your gains and pain free!

    Kimberly Painter, PT, DPT  is a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy at Mettler Center. 

    Call 217-398-9800 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with a physical therapist.