Which type of exercise is better? Basic or Isolation?

That all depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to build strength or size, or are you trying to refine the musculature that you already have?

Basic exercises, also referred to as compound movements, are the exercises that work several groups of muscle together with a single movement. The best example of a basic movement is the squat.

Each time you squat down and then press your body back up, you are working muscles in your quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks, lower back, and other back muscles. Many muscles throughout the body are also actively involved in stabilization during this lift.

Isolation exercises are the movements that stress only one muscle group at a time. An example of an isolation exercise is cable chest flyes. With each repetition you do, the weight is moved almost completely by your chest muscles.

Building the Right Foundation

If you are trying to build a base of strength or muscle size, basic exercises are key to your success, and for most people out there, basic exercises should compose a majority of their workouts.

This is because basic movements will give you the best gains for the amount of effort you put in. It’s true that working more muscles with a single workout is clearly more time efficient than working each muscle separately, but there’s more to it than that.

For many people, basic exercises are the only way that size and strength can be added. In order to grow, your muscles need to be worked with high intensity. Working more than one muscle group together creates a synergistic effect.

Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Working your chest muscles and triceps together on the bench press creates a much larger effect than if you were to work each muscle group separately.

For this reason, basic exercises should be the mainstay of the majority of your workouts. Think of them as your bread and butter, or if you’re Chinese, think of them as your rice. These exercises are where you should focus your time and energy.

Once you have obtained the size and strength you need, then you can move on to the isolation exercises that will cut and tone your physique. Just getting to this point will require a long period of building up with basic exercises.

After all, what is the point of trying to tone your body if you have nothing to tone?

Ladies, This Goes For You Too

I recognize that not everybody out there wants to become a hulking monster. Most ladies don’t want to become huge, and probably a lot of guys don’t want to either.

Regardless of what your goal is, you will need to build up a base of strength first. Once you reach a level of size and strength that you are happy with, move on to maintaining that size while you refine the muscles you have built.

Depending on what your goals are, this stage may come earlier or later. It may come earlier for women than it will for many men.


Allow me to illustrate my point by telling you a brief story about the Great Northern Railway. The railway was built in 1935 and required a tunnel to connect Seattle on the Pacific coast with other cities in the Western and Central USA.

For three years, construction crews worked tirelessly to blast through the mountainous rocks and make the tunnel. Working with only the drills available at that time would have shown little progress, so the work crews continuously brought loads of dynamite into the shaft and blasted the rocks away.

After most of the rocks had been removed, the crews then came in with their picks, drills, and chisels to shape the blasted walls into the proper form. Cement was then placed on the inner walls to further refine the shape of the tunnel walls.

After a long process of blasting followed by smoothing, the 8 mile tunnel was finally complete.

Chisels or Dynamite?

Imagine that you were one of the tunnel workers at the time. How would you prefer to make your tunnel? Would you start at the mountain with your little chisels and picks, or would you prefer to have some dynamite to get the job done?

Unfortunately, so many people come to the gym with a little chisel or a pick in their hands and start scratching away. Doing isolation movements such as cable flyes without doing the bench press is similar to trying to smooth out the walls of the tunnel before you even have a tunnel!

Instead of letting you pick away at the edge of a mountain, I would rather show you where the dynamite is at. With the dynamite in your hands, you will be empowered to build something greater than would otherwise be possible.

The following basic exercises will be your dynamite:

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a way of showing you some of the best basic exercises you can be doing. Of course, numerous variations of the each of these exercises are available.

Incorporate these into your workouts with a few isolation exercises from time to time, and you will be well on your way to building an enduring foundation.

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