woman doing dumbbell rows, a compound exercise

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: Differences and Benefits

by Evelyn Valdez

An effective strength training routine is comprised of a few things... Lifting heavy weights, consistency, proper form, and an array of different exercises. There is more to it, but those are the most important when it comes to building muscle and strength effectively. One that people, mostly beginners, don't really pay much attention to is putting together effective exercises for their workouts. The two main types of exercise lifters practice are compound and isolation exercises. For those strength training, a bulk of your workout routine should be comprised of these exercises, but some argue that you should be focusing on one more than the other.

So what are compound exercises and isolation exercises? What are their benefits? And what sets them apart to make one better than the other? Knowing and understanding the answers to these questions is what's going to help you determine what type of exercise you should focus on so you can build a better, more effective workout routine! So let's get started answering those questions!

The differences

It all comes down to how the movements work...

  • Compound movements are exercises that target multiple major muscle groups and joints at the same time.
  • Isolation movements target a specific muscle group and utilize only one joint. 

It's as simple as that, and you probably do a bit of both already! Compound exercises are key lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench press. Isolation exercises are moves that isolate a muscle like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and leg curls. In the fitness world, many argue that compound movements should be the main component of your workouts. Although compound exercises should be the bread and butter of your workout, isolation exercises shouldn't be neglected. In fact, both types of exercises are essential for muscle building.

Benefits of compound exercises

Think of compound exercises as your superhero, the main attraction, they are the foundation of your power. The reason they are so adored by lifters is because they work your whole body by requiring different muscles and joints to help lift or push weights. This allows for some pretty great benefits... 

  • They're effective at burning calories and building muscle

Compound exercises engage multiple muscles at once, for example, a barbell squat... This move engages your core, shoulders, legs, glutes, and stabilizer muscles. All that work your muscles are doing will lead to more calories being burned because you're expending more energy while building up overall power and strength. These movements are effective at building muscle because they signal a large hormonal response to testosterone. When the body releases testosterone the more you're capable of muscle growth because testosterone helps repair structural damage. Another reason they are so effective at muscle building is because they make it easier for you to lift heavier weights. You're using multiple muscles at once which allows you to lift or push heavier weights than if you were isolating a certain muscle group. Although these exercises are miracle-workers, they do require good technique to really help build up muscle. So practice good form and going through the full range of motion to get the most out of these exercises!

  • They help improve mobility and coordination 

These exercises are multi-joint movements that are complex and take time to master because they require good technique and form. To do them correctly you must have a good amount of joint mobility - Hips, shoulders, knees, ankles, and wrists. So not only will you be improving your strength, but you'll also improve your mobility and your coordination along the way since one of your focus points will be on your technique. 

  • They'll save you time

Instead of spending hours at the gym isolating every muscle, you can simply do a few compound moves like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, with an adequate number of reps and sets and you'll have a full-body workout done in less than an hour! These exercises can be a great time saver for those who have a busy schedule.

Best compound exercises for muscle growth

Whether you're resistance training to build muscle or shed fat, these are the compound exercises you want to make sure to include in your routine:

  • Squats - Primarily lower body
  • Lunges - Primarily lower body
  • Bulgarian split squats - Primarily lower body
  • Deadlifts - Primarily back
  • Pull-ups - Primarily back
  • Barbell rows - Primarily back
  • Military press - Primarily shoulder
  • Arnold press - Primarily shoulder
  • Bench press - Primarily chest
  • Push-ups - Primarily chest

Benefits of isolation exercises

Compound exercises are the superhero which means isolation exercises are your sidekick! They may not be the main attraction or component of your workout, but their assistance is required to help target specific areas in order to have a well-balanced muscle-building training program. Here are more reasons why to include these exercises in your routine:

  • Great for fixing muscle imbalances

It's not uncommon to have one area weaker than the other. Whether your left arm is stronger than your right, or your biceps aren't growing to their fullest potential, isolation exercises can help strengthen the area you feel is weaker than the rest of your body. Compound moves require your attention on multiple things - Form, the weight, and whatever area is doing most of the work. On the other hand, Isolation exercises allow you to zero in on a muscle to build it up and bring it up to speed. 

  • Help target specific areas you might have missed

Although compound exercises work multiple muscle groups at once, some muscles get more attention than others in certain movements. For example, barbell rows and pull-ups are two key compound exercises that 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. This single-joint move helps target the bicep on its own to build it up and strengthen it. In turn, this will help you lift heavier when doing compound movements!

  • Help with 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.

Best isolation exercises for muscle growth

To help fix muscle imbalances, or just target areas that need some more work try these isolation exercises that will help strengthen specific areas:

  • Barbell curls - Biceps
  • Concentration curls - Biceps
  • Hamstring curls - Hamstrings
  • Leg extensions - Quadriceps 
  • Calf raises - Calves
  • Dumbbell lateral raises - Lateral deltoids
  • Front cable raises - Anterior deltoid
  • Cable pushdowns - Triceps
  • Triceps extensions - Triceps
  • Dumbbell fly - Pecs

How should you structure your training routine?

When it comes to the battle between compound vs isolation exercises, both are needed to have a well-rounded workout regimen. But if there had to be a winner or one to focus on most, many would agree it would be compound exercises. That's because they are more effective at burning calories, building muscle and strength, they also can save you time at the gym! Just don't neglect isolation exercises, they are your sidekick, the addition that enhances your workouts. 

So how do you structure a proper training routine? 

For maximum results, focus mainly on compound exercises, and do them first when doing your workout because they require the most energy and power. Use isolation exercises to isolate a specific muscle if needed for imbalances or just to finish off your workouts with a better pump. 

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