Compound vs Isolation Exercises (What’s the Difference?)


Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises

Are you trying to decide between compound and isolation exercises for your next workout? Or, have you heard these terms used and you’re not quite sure what they mean?

In this article, I’m going to define compound and isolation exercises and discuss the benefits of each.

I will also explain the importance of including both types of exercises in a well-rounded training program and offer tips for incorporating both into your plan. Understanding the difference between the two types of exercises is crucial in designing an effective and efficient workout plan.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned lifter, hopefully, this post will provide you with the information you need to help you make informed exercise choices for your training goals.

What are Compound and Isolation Exercises?

Compound exercises are exercises that involve movement at multiple joints and typically involve multiple muscle groups. Examples of compound exercises include Bench Press, Squats, and Deadlifts.

Isolation exercises, on the other hand, are exercises that involve movement at only one joint and typically target a single muscle group. Examples of isolation exercises include Barbell Curls, Leg Extensions, and Tricep Pushdowns.

It is important to understand the difference between compound and isolation exercises because each type of exercise serves a specific purpose in a training program. Compound exercises are generally more efficient at building strength and muscle mass, while isolation exercises are better for targeted muscle development and injury rehabilitation.

Now, let’s dive a little deeper into both types of exercises.

Compound Exercises

Back Squat with Empty Bar

Compound exercises are exercises that involve movement at multiple joints and typically involve multiple muscle groups.

Popular Compound Exercises

Some examples of compound exercises and the muscle groups they work include:

  • Bench Press: Chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  • Back Squat: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
  • Deadlifts: Back, glutes, and hamstrings.
  • Pull-ups: Back and biceps.
  • Push-ups: Chest, triceps, and shoulders.

Benefits

There are many benefits to including compound exercises in your workout routine.

The main reason most lifters include compound exercises in their workouts is that compound exercises are great for increasing strength and muscle mass. Because they involve multiple joints and muscle groups, more weight is able to be moved which causes the body to have to strain more to move it. Ultimately, this leads to greater strength and size.

This is why compound lifts, like Bench Press and Back Squat for example, are the main emphasis of strength training programs.

Another benefit is the efficient use of time. Because compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups, you can work several muscle groups at once, which can save time compared to isolation exercises that only target one muscle group.

Most high-intensity circuits are predominantly made up of compound movements.

Finally, compound exercises can improve functional movement and enhance sports performance. Many everyday activities and sports movements require the use of multiple joints and muscle groups, so training with compound exercises can improve your ability to perform these movements.

Isolation Exercises

Triceps Pushdown

Isolation exercises are exercises that involve movement at only one joint and typically target a single muscle group.

Popular Isolation Exercises

Some examples of isolation exercises and the muscles they target include:

  • Barbell Curls: Biceps.
  • Leg Extensions: Quadriceps.
  • Tricep Pushdowns: Triceps.
  • Leg Curls: Hamstrings.
  • Shoulder Lateral Raises: Shoulders.

Benefits

One of the main benefits is targeted muscle development. Because isolation exercises only target a single muscle group, they allow you to focus on specific muscles. This can be helpful for bodybuilders wanting to focus on specific areas or any lifter trying to target a weak area of strength.

Isolation exercises can also be helpful for injury rehabilitation. If you have an injury or weakness in a specific muscle group, isolation exercises can help you strengthen that muscle without putting additional strain on other muscles or joints.

Which is Better: Compound or Isolation Exercises?

Neither compound nor isolation exercises are necessarily “better” than the other. Both types of exercises have their own unique benefits and can be beneficial in a well-rounded workout routine.

Having said that, I believe compound exercises should be the focus of almost any strength training program. Substantial gains in both size and strength are going to come mostly from compound movements.

Isolation exercises are like the icing on the cake. They’re an important part of the cake for sure, but the icing only makes up a very small amount of the overall cake.

Luckily, there is no need to have to choose between one or the other. Both types of exercises complement each other very well and both can easily be incorporated into your workouts.

Programming Tips

If you’re looking to incorporate both compound and isolation exercises into your workout plan, here are a few tips:

  • Start with compound exercises: Because compound exercises involve multiple joints and muscle groups, they are more challenging and should be performed first in a workout when you are at your freshest.
  • Be mindful of your rep ranges: Compound exercise rep ranges can range from 1 or 2 reps per set all the way to 10 to 15 reps depending on your training goals. Isolation exercises though, are almost always hypertrophy focused and will be done in rep ranges of 8 to 12.
  • Don’t neglect recovery: It’s important to allow adequate recovery time between workouts, especially if you are including lots of big compound movements in your routine. This will allow your muscles to repair and grow, and will also reduce the risk of injury.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the difference between compound and isolation exercises is essential for designing an effective and well-rounded training program.

Compound exercises are exercises that involve movement at multiple joints and typically involve multiple muscle groups. They are efficient at building strength and muscle mass, and can also improve functional movement and sports performance.

Isolation exercises, on the other hand, are exercises that involve movement at only one joint and typically target a single muscle group. They are beneficial for targeted muscle development and injury rehabilitation.

At the end of the day, it’s important to include both compound and isolation exercises in a workout routine. Just remember which one is the cake and which one is the icing.

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Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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