Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

August 21st, 2020

For those who do not know, compound exercises target multiple major muscle groups and require movement at multiple joints at the same time. Take the squat for example. This movement involves the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps as prime movers in addition to the work of the core for stabilization. Movement occurs at the ankle, knee, and hips to coordinate this single movement. Isolation exercises are essentially the exact opposite. These activities target a single muscle group and typically require movement at a single joint. You’d recognize the more common exercises because they typically have the term curl, flexion, or extension attached to it (bicep curl, triceps extension, leg curl, leg extension, etc.), but there are many others.

Each have their own merits. Before I can lay out how to coordinate them in a complete exercise routine, let’s establish the potential pro’s and con’s of each.

PROs of Compound Exercises

  • More bang for your buck- 3 for the price of 1 applies to more than a clothing sale. The benefits of hitting multiple muscle groups in a single exercise helps you get a good workout with relative speed
  • Best way to build a training base- All beginners should live here. Compound movements are essential to learning proper lifting mechanics and develop a broad range of strength. Setting a good foundation to train is just as important as the foundation of a house.
  • More functional way to train- Few things performed in sport or life involve isolation movements. Meaning to get better at these tasks, there is a need to strengthen and coordinate multiple muscle groups working in harmony

CONs of Compound Exercises

  • Muscles can be left behind- Take the squat for example. There are many ways to perform a squat and each might emphasize a different muscle group a bit more. The way I squat heavily activates the glutes which accounted for my subpar results on the isolated quad strength test.
  • Easier to cheat- Any exercise can be performed incorrectly. To do a compound exercise properly requires you to do many things correctly rather than just one. As a result, sometimes it’s a lot more difficult to identify where you might be going wrong.

PROs of Isolation Exercises

  • Best for body sculpting- As a physique athlete, I perform many isolation movements. These exercises are ideal for “sculpting” by ways of specifically targeting areas for additional development. For example, instead of global core training, I’ll specifically train the oblique muscles to improve the visual appeal of my midsection.
  • Great for working on weak points- Directly countering the cons associated with compound movements, isolation exercises are optimal for strengthening areas that may be left behind. This especially comes in handy when trying to rehab from a muscle injury.
  • Excellent muscle primer- Say you have a hard time feeling your chest during a bench press. Use an isolation exercise, like a chest fly, to pre-exhaust your muscle. Doing so will allow you to focus on the muscle contraction and produce heightened muscle stimulation in later compound lifts. This can be applied to any other muscle group like a glute bridge before a squat, leg extension before you lunge, calf raises before you jump, etc. These subtle nuances can totally change the quality of your workout.

CONs of Isolation Exercises

  • Time intensive- With over 600 individual muscles in the human body, it’s going to be pretty hard to have an efficient workout trying to activate one at a time. Even though you probably aren’t going to set aside time to isolate most of these, the time it takes to even isolate a few is far greater than lumping them together in a single movement.
  • Low carryover to performance- You won’t see Usain Bolt (the fastest man in the world) spending much of his training time working on a knee extension machine to improve his 100m time. Just like you won’t see Carson Wentz doing bicep curls to increase his throwing velocity. Most performance activities cannot be replicated well with isolation movements given the synchronization of muscle activation involved.

Okay, so how do you apply this information to create a cohesive workout plan that maximizes your gains?

Remember that these two training styles complement each other. Where one is lacking, the other shines. Some combination of the two is always necessary, but the style that takes priority ultimately depends on your training goals. If getting strong, being time efficient, and/or performance are the main priorities of your workouts, then compound movements should make up the bulk of your training activities. However, if trying to optimize your physique, rehab from injury, or focus on proportionally weaker muscle groups, then isolation movements should take priority. For the beginner to intermediate weight lifter, I typically recommend starting your workouts with compound movements to continue building that strong foundation and supplementing with a minimum to moderate amount of isolation movements based on your long-term goals and weak points. It’s better to develop overall muscle strength and coordination through compound exercises and then focus on sculpting and specializing after you’ve become more seasoned. Occasionally mix in some pre-exhaust movements to see how it changes your ability to feel your muscle groups, and then adopt your own style along the way.  There is not one “right way” to program an exercise routine. Understand your goals, program specifically to achieve those goals, and you’ll be on the path to training success.

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