Integration vs Isolation

by Brett Jones, Sr. RKC, CSCS

"No person is an island" to paraphrase the famous saying. And the same should be said for how we train our bodies. No muscle or joint is an island unto itself. Muscles and joints are links in a chain. Together they form powerful tools for movement and stability. For our purposes the term isolation will mean the use of an exercise to target one joint or muscle at a time. Integration will mean the use of an exercise to target an entire movement and all of the muscles and joints associated with that movement. If the reason why this is important in your training seems a bit vague at the moment, please try to answer the following questions.

Name for me the one muscle at work when you reach in the trunk of your car. Name for me the one muscle at work when you swing a golf club.

Having trouble narrowing it down to just one muscle? Well you should be having trouble. Despite the popularity of bodybuilding routines and bicep curls, the body does not typically use one muscle at a time. The body is designed to perform movement using an efficiently pre-programmed firing of multiple muscle groups. This coordinated and integrated use of your body's muscles is where your focus should be in your training.

Isolation of specific muscles does have its place. However, it should not form the foundation of your training. Isolation is necessary during the early stages of rehabilitation from injury or surgery. It can also be helpful in specific athletic applications. Strongman competitors, for example, use curls and cheat curls because their sport places an extreme demand on the biceps and flexors of the elbow.

Integration is the essence of movement and athleticism. Runners understand that an "aggressive" arm swing can assist them in powerfully running up a hill. Boxers and martial artists know that footwork and hips are the keys to stronger punches. Core training is (or should be) the integration of bringing energy from the ground and transferring it through your core and being able to transfer it to a movement or target. When you place a piece of luggage from the ground into the overhead compartment of an airplane you are integrating multiple muscles to accomplish that goal.

Kettlebell training is integrated training. The swing is a rhythmic display of generating energy from the ground through the core and projecting it into the kettlebell. A combination of displaying power and control as the kettlebell is projected away and then caught only to be projected away again. The chain is complete for both producing force and controlling force. The chain of joints and muscles is also complete.

So take a look at your routine and see if you are integrating or isolating. Through integration there will be a transfer from what you do in your training to what you do in your daily life.

"I have over ten years experience as a strength and conditioning professional combined with seven years experience as both an Athletic Training student and formerly as a certified Athletic Trainer. I hold a B.S. in Sports Medicine and a Master's in Rehabilitation Science from Clarion University. My clients have included athletes of every level and I bring an in-depth knowledge of orthopedic evaluation and rehabilitation and expertise in behavior modification. A former director of a hospital based fitness program, I have extensive experience in evaluating and implementing exercise programs to suit the needs of each client."

~ Brett Jones