Compound Exercises or Isolation Exercises: Which One Works and What’s the Difference?!

by Batlle Born Supplements on September 02, 2021
All strength training exercises can be categorized as either compound or isolation movement exercises

Let’s talk about compound exercises vs isolation exercises. As we know, it is never a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to fitness. As with any type of workout routine, setting fitness goals will vary from person to person. 

All strength training exercises can be categorized as either compound or isolation movement exercises. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, so let’s begin with understanding what both are and how they are beneficial for achieving your fitness and strength goals.

Let’s begin by breaking down what a compound exercise is vs an isolation exercise. 

compound exercise is any strength-training movement that works multiple muscle groups at a time. People often refer to compound exercises as functional exercises because they train your muscles to work together and prepare them for daily activities by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work, or in sports. Lifting a heavy storage box in your garage, for instance, is a real-life example of a compound exercise. You’re engaging arm, shoulder, glute, and core muscle groups, rather than isolating one specific muscle group. 

Examples of Compound Exercises would be:

Squat                                           Dips

Deadlift                                         Lying pullover

Lunge                                           Pushups

Bench press                                 Pullups

When should compound exercises be used?

The good thing about compound exercises is they can be used and are recommended to do at any stage of training. What’s most important about compound movements is learning to do them correctly as some movement can be taxing on the body and if not performed correctly, can cause serious injury. Whether you are looking to improve athletic performance, increase your strength, lose weight or simply be able to stand and sit unaided compound exercises can help you. Often, people will combine the two to optimize their results. There is no right or wrong time to do isolation exercises- it all depends on your personal fitness goals.

Benefits of compound exercises: 


  • Burning calories and building muscle

Compound exercises have many benefits but burning more calories is at the top of the list due to engaging multiple muscles at once. Take a barbell squat for instance, this move engages your core, shoulders, legs, glutes, and stabilizer muscles. All that work your muscles are doing will lead to more calories because as we know the more energy you expend, the more calories you will burn. This is effective in building up overall power and strength. These movements are effective at building muscle because they signal a large hormonal response to testosterone. The more testosterone your body releases the muscle growth capability grows as well. This is mainly due to fact that muscles tear down during exercise and testosterone helps repair structural damage. Compound movements are more effective at building muscle because it makes it easier to lift much heavier weight, simply put. 


  • Improve Agility 

Compound exercises are complex multi-joint movements and to do them correctly you must have a good amount of joint mobility in such things as, the hips, shoulders, knees, ankles, and wrists. So not only will you be improving your strength, but you'll also improve your mobility and athletic ability. 


  • Efficient 

Instead of spending hours at the gym isolating every muscle, you can simply do a few compound moves such as deadlifts, pullups, pushups, and squats. An adequate number of reps and sets will help you get in and out of the gym in no time. These exercises can be a great time saver for those who have a busy schedule.

On the other hand, an isolation exercise singularly targets one muscle group at a time. Realistically, no exercise will only use one muscle group, isolation exercises are aimed to specifically target one muscle group at a time. The purpose of isolation exercises is to eliminate the influence of using any other muscle or body part. Although there are some real-life applications related to isolated movements such as lifting a cup to drink water, they are best used once you have built good overall strength to sculpt specific muscle groups and gain more control over aesthetics. 

Examples of Isolation Exercises would be:

Dumbbell lateral raises

Sit-ups (crunches)

Tricep kickbacks

Bicep curls

When should isolation exercises be used? 

Isolation exercises are very effective once you have gained a solid base of fitness, often some people who are new to the gym may find isolation exercises easier to do than compound exercises. Isolation exercises tend to be easier to focus on when first beginning your fitness journey. It's better to use compound exercises to build a good fitness base and good overall strength before attempting isolation exercises, but if you perform isolation exercises make sure that you balance it by training the opposing muscle group as well. For example, if you're going to do a bicep curl, balance it out by training your tricep with a tricep extension. 

Benefits of isolation exercises: 


  • Correcting muscle imbalances

It's not uncommon to have one area weaker than the other. No matter the imbalance, isolation exercises can help strengthen the area you feel is weaker than the rest of your body. 


  • Bodybuilding

Naturally, during compound exercises, some muscles are going to get more attention than others in certain movements. For example, pull-ups focus mainly on the back muscles and use the biceps as a supporting muscle. Neglecting to isolate the biceps will lead to minimal results, but there are plenty of isolated exercises to choose from that can help, like biceps curls. In turn, this will help you lift heavier when doing compound movements.


  • Injury recovery

Injuries happen, and sometimes they're minor enough that you're still able to work out, but with precaution. You want to give that injured or overworked muscle enough time to recover from intense training, but still want to train other muscles. That's when you can do isolation exercises to work on an individual muscle and avoid the overworked or injured one. This doesn't mean for all injuries, so if you’re seriously injured then follow medical advice for recovery instructions.

Overall, whether to do compound exercises or isolation exercises and the frequency of either will always vary depending on your personal fitness goal. Remember, you can always make adjustments so don't let the idea of which one comes first, or which is better for you deter you away from your goals. Stay active, continue to learn, and adjust along the way.  

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