Compound Vs Isolation Exercises – Which is better?

(Last Updated On: August 11, 2011)

3407108904_9858efddb1Hi Everyone! I hope you enjoyed my last article on “Weightlifting Myths“. This week I would like to focus my attention on the advantages and disadvantages of Compound (multi-joint) and isolation (single-joint) exercises and which is better for you. I know there has been some heated debate about this topic on our forums and on other websites through the years and many of you have strong and different opinions concerning this subject. In one camp there are people who feel that isolation exercises are more or less a waste of time and that you should only use compound exercises when you workout as this type of training best simulates real-life activities and helps to promote muscular balance in your body. In the other camp, there are those who believe that a training program should always include and take full advantage of all the benefits of both compound and isolation exercises. Before I give you my take let me first explain exactly what compound and isolation exercises are and the differences between them.

What is a Compound Exercise?

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that also work two or more muscles or muscle groups at the same time. A good example of a familiar upper body compound exercise that just about everyone knows is the Bench Press. While the chest (pectoral muscles) is the primary muscle targeted while performing the Bench Press you’ll also be working your front deltoids and triceps at the same time during the movement. Although an exercise like a Chest Fly certainly works multiple muscle groups, it only involves one joint (your shoulders) when done properly and therefore is accordingly classified as an isolation exercise.

A great example of a lower body compound exercise is the squat. When doing a squat, the king of all compound exercises, you’ll not only be training the quadriceps muscle, but also your hamstrings, glutes, core, traps and lower back.

Advantages of Compound Exercises:
Compound exercises have many advantages when compared to isolation exercises. Using more than one muscle with each exercise allows you to burn more calories in less time as well as many other great benefits. Here is a list of just some of the advantages of compound exercises:

* Uses multiple muscle groups at the same time
* Burns more calories than isolation exercises
* Helps to improve athletic performance
* Simulates real-world movements and activities
* Saves you time and shortens your workout
* Perform fewer exercises and sets in your routine
* Improves coordination and balance
* Improves joint stability
* Improves muscle balance across a joint
* Helps to prevent Sports Injury
* Provides some cardiovascular benefits
* Allows you to exercise longer with less muscle fatigue
* Allows you to lift heavier weights and build more strength
* Reduces the risk of overtraining
* Strengthens connective tissue
* Stimulates many of the smaller, stabilizer muscles

Examples of Compound Exercises:

Bench Press
Push Ups
Barbell Rows
Pull Ups
One Arm Rows
Military Press
What is an Isolation Exercise?

Isolation exercises are single-joint movements that only work one muscle at a time without any or very little help from other muscles. This type of exercise let’s you focus your energy in that one muscle you are working, allowing you to build strength, endurance, and definition. A good example of an upper body isolation exercise is a bicep curl or a dumbbell kickback. Isolation exercises for the lower body usually require a machine like a leg extension or leg curl that are nearly always found in every health club.
You will need to use a lighter weight than compound movements for your isolation exercises since assisting supporting muscles are not used at all or very little. Usually, (and notice I say usually, since there are sometimes training techniques used, especially amongst seasoned athletes, to shock muscles in various ways that may be the reverse of this approach) you should do compound exercises at the beginning of your workout and end with isolation exercises. Isolation exercises are commonly used towards the end of a workout to completely fatigue the muscles being worked. Here are just some of the main advantages of isolation exercises:

Advantages of Isolation Exercises:

* Correct a muscle imbalance or weakness
* Used for rehabilitating an injury
* Improve muscular symmetry
* Target a muscle at the exclusion of secondary muscles
*Ideal for body sculpting
*Less stress on connective tissue when compared to compound movements

Examples of Isolation Exercises:

Dumbbell Kickbacks
Tricep Extensions
Barbell Curls
Lateral Raise
Chest Flys
Leg Extension machine
Hamstring Curl machine
Triceps Pressdown (cable machine)

So which is better – Compound or Isolation exercises? Compound and isolation exercises each have their unique advantages – so why not use both!!
Though many people have claimed to have invented or discovered “the perfect” workout method, I’ve always found that there are many ways of working out and I encourage you to use them all and to find the methods you enjoy and those that work the best for you. For me personally, when time allows, I usually gravitate toward a workout that combines both. I just feel more complete when I finish a workout in this manner!

I hope you found this article valuable in understanding the differences between Compound and Isolation based workouts. My next article will discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of High Intensity Interval Training workouts and Steady State Cardio workouts.

by Cathe Friedrich

13 thoughts on “Compound Vs Isolation Exercises – Which is better?

  1. Thanks for providing a concise yet intelligent response of this topic. I appreciate the fact that this article encourages independent and critical thinking when it comes to fitness choices.

  2. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write these articles! I have learned something new from each and every one of them, and totally appreciate the information.

  3. Thank you Cathe!
    Great article!…..always good to know that one should never “limit” themselves with either or of anything!
    Best of health to everyone!

  4. Cathe, thank you so very much. It is so nice to get straightforward information, in a no nonsense way. Keep the articles coming!

  5. Cathe, I have always wanted to hear your take on this topic. Great point of view. I hope you will make a total body compound move only workout someday. Not because it is better than using isolation exercises, and not because I want to stop doing isolations, but just so We can experience your take on the philosophy behind this kind of workout, which as i see it is to achieve as much as possible (calorie burn, strength, hypertrophy, functional fitness) when workout time is limited.

  6. Thanks Cathe. Your explanation helps me to better understand why the “isolation” exercises seem so much harder…like the bicep curls. I have such a hard time advancing to heavier weights. At least I understand now why because they don’t have any assistance (insert evil witch laugh).

    I will focus more on this “defining” the muscles and strength symmetry.

  7. Actually, STS Total Body will have two options, so I think you will be pleased: Option #1. Compound exercises and a few isolation exercises. Option #2. is compound only exercises

  8. “kick backs” are a compound exercise, targeting many different muscle groups. I do understand that only one joint is being flexed.

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