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

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

When you train for strength, you want to see results. You also want to maximize the benefits you get for the time you put in. Who wants to waste time? Yet, it’s easy to do. One way people squander time at the gym is standing around too long between sets or socializing. Fortunately, if you work out at home, you don’t have that distraction! However, you won’t get the greatest return on the time you spend training if you choose the wrong exercise mix. One way to build more strength in less time is to choose the right ratio of isolation to compound exercises – but what IS the right ratio?

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

Compound exercises are those that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Examples of compound exercises are:

·       Deadlifts

·       Squats

·       Lunges

·       Bench Press

·       Arnold Press

·       Overhead Presses

·       Pull-ups

·       Chin-ups

·       T-Bar rows

·       Dips

·       Push-ups


Isolation exercises are those that work a single muscle group and involve movement around one joint. Examples include:

·       Biceps curls

·       Triceps kickbacks

·       Leg presses

·       Lateral raises

·       Leg extensions

·       Hamstring curls

·       Chest Flies

·       Calf raises


Isolation exercises have a definite place in a balanced workout. Yet, many people make the mistake of doing too many of them and not enough compound exercises. It’s all too easy to spend more time doing exercises that you enjoy or that feel easier. Compound exercises, especially deadlifts, squats, and pull-ups, are physically demanding. So, it’s easy to devote more attention to less taxing exercises like curls. In fact, most trainers recommend that you do compound and isolation exercises in a two to one or three to one ratio. In other words, for every isolation exercise you do, do two or three compound exercises.

One reason to focus more on compound exercises is they work more muscle fibers at one time. The more, the better when you’re trying to build strength. Plus, stressing lots of muscle fibers and muscle groups at once boosts the anabolic benefits of your workout. You also get enhanced release of anabolic hormones, like growth hormone, if you work multiple muscle groups as opposed to one muscle group at a time. The fact that you’re working more muscle groups increases the calorie burn as well. That’s what you want if you’re trying to shed body fat. Because compound exercises are more taxing, your heart has to pump faster and this may give you some cardiovascular benefits.

Compound Exercises Improve Functionality

Another reason to focus on compound exercises is that multi-joint movements imitate the majority of movements you do every day, bending over to pick something up, reaching up on a high shelf, etc. Defined biceps might look pretty but muscles that are highly functional help you perform in every aspect of your life. If you play any type of sports, compound movements can help your performance.

Focusing more on compound movements is a timesaver too. If you have limited time to work out on a given day, deadlifts, squats, and push-ups will give you a total body workout in a short period of time. Think how long it would take to work each muscle individually. Get more done in less time by scaling back on the isolation moves.

Yes, You Still Need Isolation Exercises

Don’t give up isolation exercises entirely. These single joint exercises are ideal for correcting muscle imbalances and for “catching up” a lagging muscle. For example, if you do bench presses, your chest muscles may be strong enough to handle a lot of weight, yet your triceps are weak. In this case, your weak triceps will limit your bench press performance and that, in turn, will restrict your gains. To improve your performance on a bench press, a compound exercise, you need isolation triceps exercises to bring up the lagging muscle. When a muscle like the triceps is weak, bench pressing more won’t correct the imbalance. Rather you need exercises, like kickbacks and triceps push-downs, that really isolate that weak muscle.

Here’s another example. Suppose you have weak, undeveloped calf muscles. Doing squats will do little to build strength and definition in your calves. Your time is better spent doing calf raises, an isolation exercise. The same for grip strength. If you have a weak grip, you’ll have problems holding heavy weights in your hands. Isolation forearm exercises will help improve this weak link in your upper body.

Prioritize Your Workout

Now that you know that most of the exercises you do should be compound exercises, does it matter in what order you do them? Since compound exercises are the most demanding, do them first. In addition, work large muscle groups early as well. When you begin your workout, you’re mentally and physically your freshest and strongest. Early on, you’re more likely to use good form on deadlifts and squats than if you wait until the end when you’re fatigued. Compound exercises take more energy and there’s less room for error. If you do these exercises toward the end when you’re fatigued, the risk of injury is higher. Plus, you won’t have the energy or focus to push yourself as hard. In addition, you need the smaller muscles to help when you do compound exercises. If you fatigue these muscles with isolation movements, they won’t provide the support you need when you do the moves that count the most.

The Bottom Line

Isolation movements still have a place in your workout but you’ll build strength faster if you do a higher ratio of compound movements – 2 to 1 or 3 to 1. You’ll also get the other benefits compound movements offer – greater functionality, improved athletic performance, superior fat loss, and faster workouts. In general, begin your workouts with compound moves and save the isolation movements for the end. There are situations where you might want to switch the order intentionally. One such technique that uses the reverse sequence is a pre-exhaustion approach and it’s a more advanced strategy. Save this for later when you’ve reached a plateau and need to shock your body.



J Phys Ther Sci. 2013 Aug; 25(8): 1039–1041.
Rep Science. “Compound vs Isolation Exercises: Which Exercises Are Better?”


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