Compound vs Isolation Exercise

30 April 2019
Andy Tait

On the menu today, I will discuss the difference between compound and isolation exercises, where you should focus your training and why.

Diving straight in; compound exercises use more than one joint and muscle whereas the isolated exercises do exactly what they state, they isolate a specific muscle and joint. Sometimes compound exercises might be categorized under the title of “functional” which means they mimic the movement patterns we do in everyday life. Think about how we get in and out of a chair, it’s a squat. Or how we get up off of the floor when we’re face down, it mimics a push-up or a bench press.

A lunge is an example of a compound exercise. In a lunge, you’re moving through your knee and hip joint primarily and you’re working most of the musculature that surrounds those joints. This is considered to be a leg exercise working the quads and the glutes. The actions within this movement pattern we would call knee and hip extension.

Keeping with the knee extension theme let’s take a look at a standard leg extension cable machine that most gyms have. You sit down and contract your quads and that extends your knee.

No denying that this is a great exercise and you’re going to get a savage burn in your quads. However, you can understand that a weighted lunge is going to be working more muscles than the leg extension machine. In this case, you would have to do 2 separate isolation exercises to get the same result as the compound lunge. You could do leg extensions and glute bridges to target the same muscles, but why do those things when you can just do lunges? If you have time to do both compound and isolation then great, start with the lunges and then finish with the isolation.

Here are some examples of compound and isolation exercises.

CompoundIsolation
– Squat
– Split Squat
– Deadlift
– Lunge
– Bench Press
– Barbell Row
– Pull up
– Dumbbell Press
– Bicep Curl
– Tricep Skull Crusher
– Leg Extension
– Hamstring Curl
– Glute Bridge
– Calf Raise
– Pec Deck
– Dumbbells Shoulder Raise

 

And here are some pros and cons of both types of movement:

 

TypeCompoundIsolation
Pros– Working more muscles at once

– Raises heart rate

– Time effective

– Great strength benefit

– Working in movement patterns which mimic everyday activity to help you suck less at life.

– The ability to lift heavy weight

– The ability to see significant improvement in muscular size

– Vastly improves the body’s metabolism

– Great for injury rehab

– Can help overcome muscular imbalances

– Improves symmetry

– Can train to exhaustion easily

– Fun

– Bangin’ pump

Cons– Requires good movement and technique practice

– Requires more of a warm-up

– Going to exhaustion can only be done in certain gyms.

– Limited strength benefits

– Generally won’t aid you in everyday life

– Lighter weights

– Not time efficient

 

You can see that compound trumps isolation. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do isolation exercises. However, I suggest that you prioritize your training around compound exercises and program isolation as an accessory for your routine. Going back to the example I used in last week’s “Reps, Sets and All the Rest” blog post. You can see that the priority is with the compound movements (Back Squat, Leg Press and DB RDL) and then finish with the isolation/accessory exercises (Leg Extension).

 

MovementRepsSetsRest
Back Squat1032min
Leg Press1232min
Barbell Romanian Deadlift1232min
Cable Leg Extension1232min
Row250m31min

 

Compound exercises are very time efficient as you can do more work in less time by working more muscles by doing fewer exercises. They have a massive benefit on your strength and metabolism. Isolation exercises are great for competitive bodybuilders who wish to prioritize symmetry as this is one of their main goals.

Another great way in which you can use isolation exercises is to use them when you find imbalances in your training. I have a client that I’m currently working with who struggles to extend the elbow during the last few reps of a bench press. So we have added some tricep extensions into his training and it has improved his bench press as now his chest and triceps are working better as a couple.

To conclude; focus your training on where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. Why do a bicep curl when you can do a pull-up or a lat pulldown? Not only are you going to work your biceps but you’re going to work your back (lats) at the same time! With that said, I know you guys want to get a pump in your biceps and fill out your t-shirt and I know you girls are all about those booty gains. Bicep curls, glute bridges and other accessory movements can be a great addition to your workout routine just use them as an accessory to your compound lifts.

Over and Out,

Coach Taiters

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