Compound Vs Isolation: What's the difference, and which is better?

Compound Vs Isolation: What's the difference, and which is better?

clock-circular-outlinePosted 31 Mar 2023

From beginner to the seasoned weightlifter, it’s important to understand the difference between compound exercises and isolation exercises, when to use them, and the role they play in developing strength and size.

Knowing the difference between compound and isolation exercises will provide you with the fundamental knowledge required to help you plan effective workouts that align with your training goals.

Compound and isolation exercises are probably words you’ve heard thrown around in the gym, but if you’re looking to build strength and muscle mass, now’s the time to pay attention.

We’re here to give you the low-down on everything you need to know about compound and isolation exercises and how to utilize these different methods to boost your training and results.

What Is The Difference Between Compound And Isolation Exercises?

The key difference between a compound and isolation exercise is the number of joints involved in the movement, and therefore the volume of muscle groups involved too.

An exercise that includes multiple joint movements would be considered a compound exercise, whilst an exercise with a single joint movement would be classed as an isolation exercise.

So, let’s discuss each of these two exercise types in a little more detail, and provide examples.

Compound Exercises: Everything You Need To Know

What Are Compound Exercises?

A compound exercise engages multiple muscle groups across more than one joint, building strength across functional movements that translate directly to real-life activities.

  • An example of a compound exercise would be a back squat, where movement in the ankles, knees and hips, along with engaging numerous muscle groups are all required to execute the lift.

Why Are Compound Exercises Important In Your Exercise Routine?

Compound exercises help build strength, mobility, and stability across a wide range of real-life movements. Developing these factors can help improve the quality of life and reduce the risk of injury.

For example;

  • Learning how to deadlift will give you the form, and strength to safely lift heavy objects up off the floor, such as heavy boxes.

  • Developing strong overhead strength through a pressing movement could translate into reaching for heavy objects off a shelf, or lifting your child above your head.

Building strength across functional movements, through the use of compound exercises, should be a priority within your training routine.

What Are The Benefits Of Compound Exercises?

Compound exercises are a great way of building strength through functional movement, with multiple muscle groups and joints involved during the lift.

Benefits of compound exercises include:

  • Improve strength through functional, real-life movements

  • Time efficient training

  • Improved coordination, flexibility, and mobility

  • Promotes muscle growth

  • Burns more calories

How Many Compound Exercises Per Workout?

With compound exercises engaging more muscle groups, they require more energy and therefore are typically placed toward the start of your workout - where you feel the strongest.

Aiming for one to two compound lifts in your workout as a beginner is a great place to start, moving towards two or three compound lifts as your body adapts and is able to recover between sessions efficiently.

What Are the Best Compound Exercises?

The best compound exercise can vary based on your goals, however, the below compound exercises would generally be considered fundamental exercises in the gym, replicating real-life functional movements to build strength and resilience within everyday movements.

Some of the best compound exercises include;

  • Deadlift

  • Back Squat

  • Front Squat

  • Bench Press

  • Push Press

Negatives Of Compound Exercises

While training more muscles might seem like it comes without any negatives, if you are looking at targeting and growing a specific muscle or muscle group, then compound exercises may not be enough.

As mentioned before, during compound exercises, secondary muscles can help take the load, which can mean that the muscle you’re actually targeting gets a little lazy.

Our bodies are smart, and when one muscle group begins to fatigue thnn other secondary muscles will try to compensate. Reducing the ability to train a muscle group to its max through compound exercises. And that's when utilizing isolation exercises has its benefits.

Isolation Exercises: Everything You Need To Know

What Is An Isolation Exercise?

Isolation exercises are designed to ‘isolate’ a particular muscle, and can be used for several benefits, such as improving muscular imbalances or accelerating hypertrophy within a particular muscle group.

An example of an isolation exercise would be;

  • The hamstring curl, where the only moving joint is the knee, and the isolated muscle group is the hamstrings. This allows a more targeted approach to training, placing a key focus on the hamstrings.

Benefits Of Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises are great for targeting specific muscle groups, and some of the benefits of isolation exercises include;

  • Hypertrophy Specific Training

  • Target Individual Muscle Groups Effectively

  • Working On Muscular Imbalances

  • Recovering From Injury

Isolating one muscle group can help achieve hypertrophy within that target muscle, potentially leading to an increase in muscle strength and size.

By focusing all of the load on one muscle group, no secondary muscles are taking over and making that target muscle group's life any easier – meaning total training volume can be increased and measured.

If you’re looking at building bigger quads, you might find that whilst squatting, your hamstrings and glutes are helping lift the weight, eliminating the possibility of focusing purely on volume through your quadriceps.

By including isolation exercises, such as the leg extension, you'll be able to place more emphasis on your quadriceps.

But remember, you're best hitting some compound exercises first, before moving on to isolation exercises.

What Are the Best Isolation Exercises?

The best isolation exercises can vary dependent on your goals, and the muscles you want to target. If building bigger arms is your goal, then barbell bicep curls may be your isolation exercise of choice.

We've highlighted a few popular examples of isolation exercises, and the areas/muscles they target below;

  • Prone Hamstring Curl (hamstrings)

  • Seated Leg Extension (quadriceps)

  • Lateral Shoulder Raise (shoulders)

  • Cable Chest Fly (chest)

  • Barbell Bicep Curl (biceps)

Negatives Of Isolation Exercises

Due to the fact you’re only working one muscle group, you’re likely to be using much lower weights than if multiple muscle groups were being recruited, therefore building less overall strength.

And then we have the functional movement aspect. How often in day-to-day life does a movement only require one muscle group? Not very often. Therefore the transferability of strength developed as the result of isolation exercises will transfer less efficiently to compound and functional movements.

Final Words

When it comes to compound vs isolation exercises, the truth is, they both have a time and a place, dependent on your goals and training preferences.

Generally, there's a place for both compound and isolation exercises in many people's training, from bodybuilders to Olympic lifters.

Each and every person is different, so with these pros and cons in mind, consider your goals and decide where your key focuses lie, and which is going to be most effective for you.

. . .

Chris Beck is Senior Editor at Gymshark, with a passion for curating informative conditioning and health content. Chris is an experienced Personal Trainer, with qualifications in Nutrition, Sports Performance, and is a certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer.

Chris BeckBy Chris Beck

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