Resistance Training: The Benefits of Compound Exercises Over Isolation Movements

Resistance Training: The Benefits of Compound Exercises Over Isolation MovementsWhen you resistance train to build strength and lean body mass you want the most “bang for your buck.” After all, you want to maximize the returns you get from your workout. That’s why compound exercises are so invaluable and should be a major part of your resistance training program.

What Are Compound Exercises?

Compound exercises are movements that move more than one joint and muscle group at a time as opposed to isolation exercises that work only a single joint or group of muscles. There are a number of compound exercises you can choose from: deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, military presses, and dumbbell rows are some examples of exercises that work more than one muscle group simultaneously. Biceps curls, lateral raises, triceps kickbacks, leg curls, calf raises are isolation movements that work only a single muscle group.

The Benefits of Compound Exercises

There’s room for both compound and isolation exercises in your work, but there are some compelling reasons to spend more time on compound exercises rather than focusing on isolation ones. Unfortunately, some people shy away from doing the more challenging compound exercises and miss out on some of the benefits they offer.

For one, compound exercises are a timesaver because you’re working multiple muscle groups at once. Think of all the muscles you’re targeting when you do a squat – your thigh muscles, buttocks, hips, hamstrings and quads all get a workout. It would take a number of isolation movements to get the benefits that a few sets of squats will give you. If you have a limited time to exercise, stick with compound movements and save the isolation exercises for a day when you have more time to devote to a workout.

Compound Exercises Have a Greater Metabolic Effect

Compound exercises, especially movements like squats and deadlifts that target large muscle groups, elicit more of a hormonal response than isolation exercises. The greater release of testosterone creates an anabolic effect to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, while growth hormone boosts fat oxidation for greater fat loss. You don’t get the same metabolic benefits from isolation exercises. You can maximize the metabolic response even more by limiting rest time between sets.

Compound Movements Are More Natural and Relevant to Everyday Life

When you do compound muscle exercises, you improve functional strength. Rarely do you move a single joint or muscle group in isolation in everyday life. When you lift a heavy object correctly like a box or a piece of furniture, you not only use your biceps, you use your shoulder and leg muscles too. By doing a greater proportion of compound movements when you resistance train, you improve functional strength and the ability to do the activities you do every day with a lower risk for injury. With compound exercises, you’re also tightening your core muscles.

The Bottom Line?

Isolation exercises work well for targeting specific muscle groups that need more development and for creating a more symmetrical physique but you’ll ultimately get more benefits, especially in terms of functional strength, by focusing on compound exercises. These multi-joint exercises work more than one muscle group simultaneously and trigger a greater metabolic response. This metabolic response activates key fat-burning hormones like growth hormone and anabolic hormones like testosterone to help you develop greater lean body mass and burn additional calories.

Isolation exercises are a good way to train smaller muscle groups and “fine tune” your workout without overtraining larger muscle groups, but they won’t give you the same benefits as compound exercises. Know their strengths and limitations.



J.Appl.Physiol. 87:982-992, 1999.


Related Articles By Cathe:

Do You Need to Do Isolation Exercises?

5 Reasons You Should Do More Compound Exercises

Strength Training: Are You Focusing Too Much on Isolation Exercises?


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