Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What You Should be Doing

All exercises can be categorized into 2 groups: compound exercises and isolation exercises. A well-rounded workout routine should include both of these in order to maximize the benefits of your training.

Each type of exercise has its own advantages and benefits, so approaching your training with a balance between both compound and isolation exercises will give you the best results.

In this article, I’ll explain and compare compound versus isolation exercises in-depth so you could carefully choose the ones that work best for you and implement them in your workout routine.

What is a compound exercise?

Anatomic image of a man doing squats with a heavy barbell from 2 different angles

Compound exercises are movements that include motion at more than one joint. For example, the squat is a multi-joint exercise because you’re moving at your ankles, hips, and thoracic spine or the middle of your back.

Although your back isn’t moving quite as much as your hips and ankles, your joints are still contributing to the movement by creating tension and stability in order to help your torso maintain an upright position and keep your spine safe.

Your shoulders and upper back also play a role in keeping the bar stable.

As you may be able to tell, multi-joint exercises generally require a lot of effort so they tend to deliver a ton of benefits for your overall health. These types of movements often have a significantly positive impact on your central nervous system, strength, and metabolism.

Benefits of compound exercises

Compound exercises have a bunch of benefits when it comes to your health and your performance.

Burn more calories

Compound exercises are great when it comes to burning tons of calories.

Yes, when you’re doing a compound exercise there are multiple joints being moved simultaneously, but it takes muscles to move those joints. So, when you’re executing a compound exercise, you’re working multiple muscle groups as well.

When your body uses a lot of muscles at once, this increases your calorie burn which is also known as your energy output. This process also signals your body to produce more of the hormones that contribute to muscle building, fat burning, and strength gains.

Spend less time working out

Working out more than one muscle group at a time is also a great time-saving technique. Full-body workouts tend to involve compound movements because you can get a lot more done in a shorter period of time while working a lot of muscles.

For instance, squat thrusters are a common exercise that often shows up in full-body workouts because it’s a total body movement that targets your legs, shoulders, core, back, arms, and glutes.

While there are many variations, one of the basic techniques for executing this movement is to hold a dumbbell in each hand while squatting, and then press them up into the air as you come out of the squat to do a dumbbell shoulder press.

If you’ve never tried one of these, then I’m happy to tell you from my own personal experience that they’re pretty grueling. They require you to use all of your joints and work your major muscle groups simultaneously.

You can actually get a full-body workout in just from doing this one exercise!

Increase your strength

Powerlifter woman doing a heavy squat while being spotted by a man behind her

Another significant benefit of compound exercises is that they are fantastic tools for increasing your strength.

There are different types of compound exercises and various ways to utilize them for specific adaptations. So, if you want to build a lot of strength with these this type of exercise then you’ll generally want to aim for the common heavier lifts that use multiple joints.

Heavier lifts such as deadlifts, squats, and bench presses, to name a few, are phenomenal for increasing your overall strength.

Since you’re using more than one joint and targeting multiple muscle groups at the same time you’re able to lift more weight than you would with just one muscle group or one joint.

To paint a clearer picture, imagine doing a biceps curl with a dumbbell using just one arm. If you’re using good form then you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you would using a barbell and lifting it with both biceps at the same time.

While this is an example of an isolation exercise (which I’ll get to later), because you’re only using one joint, your elbow, the example illustrates that your body is capable of lifting more weight and exerting more force when there is more than one muscle working.

In short – two biceps working together are stronger than one 🙂

This is why when you do a compound movement like a squat, deadlift, pull-up, or bench press, and you’re using your large muscle groups which are made up of more muscles, you’re able to lift a lot heavier.

Improve your performance

Compound exercises are an effective way to increase your performance in addition to your strength.

Not only do they train your body to use oxygen more efficiently which helps to make you fitter, but they also train your central nervous system, improving your coordination and movement efficiency.

It’s important to train your central nervous system because it’s basically like a giant telephone that allows the different systems and parts of your body to communicate with each other.

As your central nervous system becomes more trained, you may find that you’ll use more oxygen which will enhance your athletic performance, your muscular coordination will improve, and you’ll probably find that your movements become smoother.

All of these adaptations over time will allow you to push harder, which will ultimately contribute to your overall fitness level.

Examples of compound exercises

Whenever you’re using one of the fundamental movement patterns of pushing, pulling, squatting, or hip-hinging you’ll use more than one muscle group.

There will be one main muscle group being targeted, which is the primary muscle group, and then you’ll have secondary or assisting muscles that kick in to help the primary muscles.

Most of these exercises can be done using dumbbells, barbells, or a specific machine for that movement pattern.

Here’s a list of some common compound exercises and the muscles they work primarily and secondarily:

  • Squats (differs based on variations)
    Primary muscles: quads, glutes, core
    Secondary muscles: hamstrings, calves, back
  • Deadlifts (differs based on variations)
    Primary muscles: hamstrings, glutes, back
    Secondary muscles: quads, shoulders, core
  • Hip thrust
    Primary muscles: glutes
    Secondary muscles: quads, hamstrings
  • Overhead shoulder press/military press
    Primary muscles: shoulders
    Secondary muscles: triceps, core, upper back
  • Bench press
    Primary muscles: chest
    Secondary muscles: triceps, front of shoulders
  • Row
    Primary muscles: back
    Secondary muscles: biceps, core
  • Pull-ups/lat pull-downs
    Primary muscles: back
    Secondary muscles: biceps, core

What is an isolation exercise?

Anatomic image of a man doing preacher curls with an EZ-curl barbell from 2 different angles

Isolation exercises are movements that only use one joint and typically target one muscle group. They’re often used to isolate or work your smaller muscle groups by themselves.

There are many reasons for doing this, such as rehabbing an injury, correcting imbalances between the left and right sides of your body, and various other advantages.

These types of exercises are commonly part of bodybuilding style programs because they’re great for being able to shape your body in a specific way.

This is mainly due to the fact that you’re able to manipulate the specific muscle and elicit a training adaptation just in that muscle instead of incorporating multiple muscles into the movement.

When you use multiple muscles at one time, it’s often harder to focus on feeling just one muscle and targeting the adaptation you’re aiming for.

It’s a lot easier to create a mind-muscle connection in a specific muscle when you’re only focused on moving that one muscle around one single joint.

It’s important to point out that isolation exercises should not be the focus of your workout if you’re trying to build muscle mass. Your focus should still be on the multi-joint exercises.

Benefits of isolation exercises

Isolation exercises have tons of advantages. While they may not train your central nervous system in the same way that a compound exercise does, isolation exercises certainly have their place in a sound fitness program and still deliver lots of benefits.

Increase your muscle mass

As I mentioned earlier, using isolation exercises can help you increase the size of specific muscles. Compound exercises are great for overall strength and development, but it can be difficult to be able to connect to and feel certain muscles being worked.

Isolation exercises are superior in this respect because when you focus on one muscle you can really feel it working at its full potential and effectively exhaust it.

Studies have shown that this is especially true for your arms. According to this 2018 study in the European Journal of Translational Myology, using single-joint exercises can increase the circumference of your arms.

Basically, if you want bigger arms then adding biceps curls and triceps extensions to your workout will do the trick.

Lessen your chance of injury

Isolating specific muscle groups can also lessen your chances of injury. Often when you isolate a muscle you have to lower the weight you’re using.

Lifting heavy weights tends to lead to injuries because there’s a lot more to focus on between coordinating your muscles and joints to work simultaneously and in a smooth manner.

When you target one muscle group there’s a lot less going on, which means there’s less room for error. While it’s possible to incur injuries working just one muscle at a time, it’s a lot less likely.

Bring up lagging body parts

Focusing on one muscle at a time is a great way to work on muscles that may not get used as often, or might be weaker than your other primarily targeted muscles.

If you’re constantly doing larger, compound movements and targeting your large muscle groups, they can often take over and leave other smaller muscles behind.

This can also contribute to injury, which is why it’s important to make sure you’re balancing your training with some isolation movements as well.

These are sometimes called accessory movements, and can also enhance your performance by helping you to be more efficient when executing more complex movement patterns.

Some people also have a genetic predisposition to building certain muscles more easily than others, so this is a good way to catch up on any muscles that may be lagging.

Have you ever noticed that some people have giant calves and others seemingly have no calf muscles at all? In this case, the person with smaller calves may benefit from isolated calf training in order to create a more balanced aesthetic.

Reduce your recovery time

Close up view of a muscular man holding a dumbbell with both hands

Isolation movements are generally less intense than compound movements because they aren’t recruiting as many muscles. This can be great when it comes to recovery since less intensity means less time needed to rest between sets and recover between workouts.

When you’re lifting heavy and using multiple big muscle groups it can lead to more fatigue and take a bigger toll on your central nervous system which can stress your body.

A certain amount of stress is great as it allows your body to adapt and get better at the activity, but without adequate rest, this can lead to overtraining and injuries.

Examples of isolation exercises

Movements that isolate one joint and one muscle at a time tend to be more hypertrophic in nature, meaning they build more muscle.

This might be due to being able to really focus and exhaust that specific muscle instead of dividing your energy between coordinating movement between different muscles and joints at the same time.

Having a great mind-muscle connection has been shown to increase muscle fiber activation. So, it makes sense that you may experience greater muscle growth when you’re concentrating on moving and squeezing just one muscle at a time.

Here’s a list of some common isolation exercises, accompanied by the specific muscle targeted.

  • Biceps curls
    Muscle target: biceps, front of arms
  • Triceps pushdowns
    Muscle targeted: triceps, back of arms
  • Leg extensions
    Muscle targeted: quads, front of the thigh
  • Leg curls
    Muscle targeted: hamstrings, back of the thigh
  • Calf raises
    Muscle targeted: calves, back of the lower leg
  • Lateral/front shoulder raise
    Muscle targeted: shoulders
  • Flyes (chest)
    Muscle targeted: chest
  • Flyes (rear delt)
    Muscle targeted: backs of shoulders

The verdict

Compound and isolation exercises both have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to specific training adaptations, recovery, and performance benefits.

While compound exercises are great for overall development and strength, burning calories and encouraging better movement patterns, they can take a lot out of you and lead to injury more quickly than isolation movements.

However, isolation movements have their place in a well-rounded workout plan in that they are great for preventing injuries and muscle imbalances, building muscle, and decreasing the load you’re lifting.

Isolation exercises require less recovery and encourage a strong mind-muscle connection, so they’re helpful for beginners who will definitely benefit from learning where they should be feeling an exercise.

One last thing that’s important to note is that since isolation exercises are less taxing, they’re better left for the end of your workout, while compound movements should be tackled first thing while you have the most energy and focus.

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Vlad is a dad, entrepreneur, traveler, and die-hard fitness fanatic. With over 15 years of experience, he enjoys helping others live healthier lifestyles through his writing and education.

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