Compound Vs. Isolation Exercise: Why You Need Them Both

Are compound exercises better than isolation exercises? Not really.

They both serve different purposes.

In this article we will explain why using both compound and isolation exercises can help get better results.

Compound and isolation exercises are easy to differentiate.

Compounds exercises: Compound movements involve multiple muscle groups and several joints when you're performing them. Therefore, you target more muscles in a short period of time.

Isolation exercises: Isolation movements target a single muscle group at the time. It allows you to be very specific with the muscles you want to focus on.

There are so many compound and isolation exercises you can use in your workouts.

Here are some examples of compound and isolation exercises.

Best compound exercises per muscle groups:

  • Chest: bench press, chest dip, push up
  • Back: barbell row, pull up, deadlift
  • Leg: squat, hip thrust, sumo deadlift
  • Shoulders: overhead press, standing Arnold press, bent over rear rows
  • Biceps: chin up, neutral grip pull up
  • Triceps: French press, close grip bench press, bench dip

Best isolation exercises per muscle groups:

  • Chest: cable fly, dumbbell chest press neutral grip, low cable fly
  • Back: kneeling cable pulldown, superman, incline bench dumbbell row
  • Leg: cable pull through, leg extension, leg curl
  • Shoulders: dumbbell shoulder press neutral grip, dumbbell front raise, cable rear delt fly
  • Biceps: hammer curl, dumbbell concentration curl, incline bench dumbbell curl
  • Triceps: bench dumbbell tricep kickback, cable tricep pushdown

You can find thousands of exercises here.

Compound and isolation movements have benefits and downsides that you need to be aware of.

Compounds exercises props:

  • Help you to get stronger since you're able to lift heavier loads
  • Allow you to get proportional muscular development because they target several muscle groups at once
  • Useful for day to day movements: proper posture, lifting objects...
  • Help you work on stabilizer muscles
  • Burn more calories

Compounds exercises cons:

  • Can hide weak links. You can be overcompensating with the wrong muscle groups. For example, you could be getting stronger on your bench press, but you're probably excessively using your shoulders instead of your chest
  • They tend not to be specific enough. You're as strong as your weakest link. For example, if you have weak triceps, your strength will be limited for movements like bench press or overhead press
  • Can be more "risky". If you try to load too much weight on a compound exercise, you risk of injury can be higher by overcompensating or having weak secondary muscles
  • Often have a limited in range of motion

Isolation exercises props:

  • Help you target a specific muscle group, e.g. a weak link
  • Useful for rehab or to fix imbalances
  • Often have a better range of motion

Isolation exercises cons:

  • Doesn't often allow you to lift heavy loads
  • Not useful in day to day movements
  • Can create imbalances because mobilizer muscles are not being worked enough
  • Burn fewer calories

It all depends on your goal for this workout.

Compound exercises are great if you want to build a strong and well-balanced body.

Isolation exercises on the other hand, can help you focus on your weak muscle groups.

Here's a plan for women that includes compound and isolation exercises:

And for men:

It would be recommended to mainly focus compound exercises if you're trying to build muscle or even lose weight.

Then you can finish off with isolation exercises toward the end of your workout.

Something like this:

  • Exercise 1: Compound exercise
  • Exercise 2: Compound exercise
  • Exercise 3: Compound exercise
  • Exercise 4: Isolation exercise
  • Exercise 5: Isolation exercise

This is not set in stone. You can change it according to the muscle being worked on that day.

  • Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and help you get stronger
  • Isolation exercises target one specific muscle and help you focus on weak links
  • Try to have as many compound exercises as possible in your workouts
  • Use isolation movements toward the end of your workouts
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Creating @gymaholic - Athlete and fitness coach. I help people move, feel and live better.

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