Using Weights: Composite vs Isolation Training – What works best?
This is a significant question for many trainers and fitness enthusiasts because it’s a question of credibility. Essentially, CrossFit raised and promoted the question, so let’s take a look at composite vs isolation training.
More than a fitness model, CrossFit’s key difference is it’s conscious motivation style: being part of the group rather than excelling as an individual. In a nutshell, yes it does work, but only for some people – it’s wonderful for the people who prefer the group approach. It’s based on some solid principles but it also has some solid problems which are central to the Crossfit business model. Here’s what Crossfit says about themselves:
“CrossFit begins with a belief in fitness. The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable. After looking at all sport and physical tasks collectively, we asked what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage. Capacity culled from the intersection of all sports demands would quite logically lend itself well to all sport. In sum, our specialty is not specializing.” Deciphering the marketing hype, this is what it sums up: sport focused (think high school athletic activities), not “true” fitness or health focused; and NO customization for the unique body, goals, and needs that each serious fitness client has.
This last point is serious because the deepest fallout from the CrossFit flaw are the high rates of injuries sustained by clients, as opposed to a one-on-one trainer/client approach. There’s no big surprise there for us as professionals: throw a bunch of newbie weekend warriors into a somewhat competitive group situation where they don’t really know the others so don’t want to look bad amongst others….then give them a standard one-size-does-NOT-fit all “workout of the day”, and you’re stirring a pot that’s steaming towards personal injuries. Vigilance of the trainer is key, but it’s tougher to watch a group than an individual.
Significantly, CrossFit is fundamentally a marketing approach, not a scientific fitness approach, directed towards those “kids” who loved gym class (or regret as a part of their lost youth that they never got into gym class)…and then had to graduate and grow up, and have never found anything that replaces the good feelings of gym class. Now in their 20′s-30′s, they want to recapture something lost in time. Does it work? Absolutely – within reason. Don’t get me wrong. CrossFit will work. I’m only saying that their claim to be the “best” approach to fitness is not only not scientifically supported; the CrossFit model at best selectively incorporates the actual limited science that supports their claims. It works well enough for many, and works best for those personalities that rely on the energy of a group setting. I admit that I’m biased towards self motivation and developing that rather than scavenging motivation from others. That’s why we set up a private training gym that focuses on one client at a time. We did our research, and the body of research backed us up.
Now most of you CrossFit fans are wondering where is the discussion of the endocrine stimulation of compound vs isolation training – the mantra and mother seed of the CrossFit marketing model. Well, it doesn’t hold water in the bigger picture. The closest study backing them up was a hatchet job done by a guy named Kraemer (probably not Jerry Seinfeld`s friend): Kraemer, W.J. “A Series of Studies: The physiological basis for strength training in American football: Fact over philosophy.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(3): 131-142, 1997.
The problem with Kraemer’s study is that the isolation exercise were intentionally MUTED: not surprisingly, he found that controlled slow movement and NO explosive lifting resulted in NO development of power capabilities essential for athletes. Gee-willakers! I think Homer Simpson would have an eloquent summary of this riveting discovery.
To those unaware of how their body works, any weight lifting exercise done in an optimal way WILL stimulate the endocrine system. And the more parts you’re moving and triggering, the BIGGER the stimulation to the endocrine system. So as CrossFit states, compound exercises will deliver a bigger endocrine response….but only in a one dimensional way. The problem is that once optimally stimulated, the muscles need to be left alone for several days (a week at least for major muscles after full stimulation) for FULL RECOVERY. What happens if you don’t allow full recovery? You over train and you begin losing muscle mass. This ultimately leads to loss of strength and injury as you try to hit the target you did last time and can’t quite seem to hit again. People who over train become frustrated with their loss of strength and in seeking to push it harder, hurt themselves. That’s partly why CrossFit stands out for the rate of injuries. Realistically, people should not be doing the CrossFit full body style more often than once weekly. But given the narrow focus of the exercises selected for the workouts, there’s really a slim chance that you’ll get an overall balanced development. It takes focus on a client’s history to do that, and that’s where personal trainers come in.
Isolation exercises allow people to work through body parts, going for full stimulation each time spread over a duration of many workouts. Instead of putting your limited energy supply into trying to overload every muscle in your body, you put that same energy into overloading selective muscles – which you blow out in an awesome, managed, and safe way. Then 2 days later, you do it again with other muscles. By the time you work through your body cycle of overloading and blasting your muscles into orbit, the first muscles of your cycle have recovered and are ready to go again. With CrossFit, sure, you get a good sweat when you workout, but you dilute your energy amongst so many muscles. Then you really shouldn’t hit them again for another week. That’s NOT a fast or efficient way to either transform your body (which is a big part of what most people want) nor even to truly add functional strength.
A friend of mine, a CrossFit trainer, invited me to a CrossFit workout for trainers last Sunday. I went, expecting to be intimidated. What I found instead was that I outmatched the performance of most of the others in most respects, except notably jumping rope: I found this ironic, because jumping rope is more an isolation exercise relying on feet and shin muscles than a true composite exercise – it’s comparable to doing bicep curls, which CrossFit die-hards like to ridicule. Damn! Three days later and my shins are still sore after that workout! Time to refocus on them in my leg cycle
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