Resistance training: Compound v Isolation exercises

20th August 2014

When putting together a resistance/weights programme to include in any fitness training regime, exercise selection is a crucial consideration – especially for a sport with the rigorous movement requirements and unique physiological demands of squash.

Depending on the particular focuses and goals of your conditioning work however, the most appropriate exercises to include can vary greatly.

There are some general rules worth being aware of though – one of the most prominent being that discussed in this article of how the different resistance training exercises can be fundamentally classified, and what that means for their inclusion in your programme.

Put simply, there are two basic types of resistance exercises – compound and isolation.

Compound exercises are those which incorporate multiple muscles/joints, whereas Isolation exercises are those which focus on one area specifically.

A good example to illustrate the difference for a basic lower body exercise, would be the squat (compound) as compared to the leg extension machine (isolation) – the squat is a multi-joint exercise involving a triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle, while in contrast the ‘leg extension’ involves movement solely in the knee joint.

Most novice exercisers tend to pack their weights routines with isolation movements – picking popular exercises like bicep curls, lateral shoulder raises, calf raises, leg curls/extensions, and the pec deck, for example, to hit all of their ‘target areas’ individually. The problems with this approach however, are multiple.

Firstly, there is the time aspect – For most people, free time available to attend the gym comes very much at a premium. Working every single muscle individually in isolation is obviously going to be a lot more time consuming than combining work on body parts with compound exercises – e.g. a dumbbell bench press, for example, can work the chest, shoulders, and triceps all in one movement.

Secondly, there is the ‘Intensity’ consideration – Whether your goals are for strength/power performance enhancements specifically for your squash, for focused lean muscle gain, or for more general definition/’tone’ based targets, you need to be working at a high intensity to trigger relevant muscle hormonal activity, and to optimise calorie expenditure. Multiple joint exercises recruit more muscle motor units and thus encourage you to work harder, across more muscles, with greater resistance. This is a fundamental key to achieving any of your fitness goals.

This also ties into the third consideration, perhaps less important to the more well-conditioned squash player, but very specific to those using their resistance training with the additional goal in mind of attempting to improve their body composition – that of the popular misconception of ‘spot-reduction’.

Many gym-goers will focus intently on their ‘problem areas’ when trying to ‘firm-up’ and reduce excess body-fat by doing lots of exercises/reps on isolation exercises like tricep bench dips, gluteal raises, and calf raises, in the mistaken belief that this targeted isolation will help ‘tone’ these body-parts.

The truth is, however, that you can do all the reps you like in these areas, but this will do little or nothing to burn the fat covering them. You may help develop the muscle underneath somewhat, but as already mentioned in point two above, you’re better off doing this with larger compound movements anyway. The (extreme) exception to the rule here would be for a heavily muscled physique-focused individual such as a bodybuilder for example, where bringing out the focus on every individual small striation of muscle is of prime importance.

The fourth major consideration and perhaps the most important one for the squash player (or any sportsperson) is that of specificity of movement.

The muscles in our bodies are evolved to work synergistically, in unison with one another – think about how many of our daily tasks/movements involve just one muscle working in isolation? The fact there are so very few tells you something about how the body prefers to work most naturally, and how it should be trained most effectively to improve sporting performance and movement efficiency.

A straightforward linear movement such as the leg extension, for example, bears little resemblance to the three dimensional co-ordination, weight transference, and multi-planar action of a movement into the front corner in a game of squash – replicating these specific movements with added resistance such as in the weighted lunge exercise, or with similar multi-joint movements such as the squat or step-up, will go much further to help develop power and stability than simply extending the leg against a flat resistance in a single plane of motion. Indeed, certain isolation exercises can actually lead to muscular imbalances and potentially to eventual injury, due to the nature of focusing on just one specific area separate from a usual synergistic movement pattern.

In summary then, training muscles individually just isn’t the most efficient, natural, or productive way of improving athleticism.

There is nothing dreadfully wrong with adding the occasional isolation movement set at the end of your programme if there are any exercises you particularly enjoy or you feel you get particular benefit from, but the bulk of any programme for the vast majority of those of you who are targeting your resistance training primarily for improving squash-specific conditioning and performance, however, should ideally be made up of predominantly Compound exercises and movements.


Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

Sign up to the SquashSkills newsletter

Get world class coaching tips, straight to your inbox!