I have trained a wide variety of clients who come to me typically with either a background in compound exercises or isolation training.
Many of those clients had a strong opinion on which one was better, and why, however, they often overlooked the importance of masting both to optimize their results.
Compound exercises are great for increasing muscle mass, improving athletic potential, and building movement coordination. Isolation exercises can help you target weak or stubborn muscle groups, train around injuries, and even promote more muscle growth as you become advanced in your training career.
In this article, I will discuss the differences between compound vs isolation exercises, offer you some examples of what are the most common exercises in each category, and shed more light on when and how to program them in your workouts to maximize your results.
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5 Differences Between Compound and Isolation Exercises
1. Compound Exercises Trains Many Muscles at Once
Compound exercises train more muscles at one time than isolation exercises.
This is due to the multi-joint nature of compound movements, in which many joints and muscles work together to produce movement.
For example, a bench press trains the chest and triceps (elbows and shoulder joints are actively moving).
The chest fly is an isolation exercise that trains the chest primarily (the shoulder joint is the only one moving).
2. Isolation Exercises Help You to Target A Muscle More Directly
When doing isolation exercises, you are able to shift the loading directly to one main muscle group.
This is often due to the fact that you are moving one joint in the body at a time, and therefore not allowing other muscles to assist in the lift of the load by bending or straightening a joint.
For example, if you want to train the biceps directly, you could choose a chin-up or underhand row, however, you may be limited by your forearms and back strength.
Choosing a bicep curl is a great way to isolate the biceps without having other muscle groups compete for your energy or focus.
3. Compound Exercises Require More Coordination and Stability
Most compound exercises require the body to be more coordinated in its movement, as well as more stable to be able to support the many joints and muscles working at once.
This is also key to helping prevent injury or having broad application to athletics.
For example, when doing a lunge, your ankles, knees, and hips are going through a full range of motion, which requires more balance, coordination, and stability than doing isolation exercises like calf raises, leg extensions, and leg curls individually.
4. Isolation Exercises Allow Your to Typically Train Around Injury More Easily
Due to the ability to isolate a muscle and limit the involvement of other muscle groups (and joint actions), you are able to train around injuries more easily.
For example, if someone broke their toe (I had an athlete do this), they could do seated leg curls and extensions and train the muscles of the legs (since they can’t do anything standing, like squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc).
5. Compound Exercises Are Building Blocks for More Complex Movements
Compound exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and presses are great exercises to build muscle and strength but are also key movement patterns to learn and progress into more complex movements.
More dynamic exercises, such as the Olympic lifts, for example, require you to have good form and foundational strength on deadlifts and squats to have those movements translate over to the Olympic lifts.
Other movements, such as jumping or running, involve many of the same movements patterns and muscle groups used during squats and lunges.
These similarities are why compound exercises are the basis for most athletic training programs.
- Related Article: Best Compound Exercises to Build Strength (Do These 10!)
Compound Exercises: What They Are, Examples, Benefits, Drawbacks, How To Program
What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises are exercises that target a few key muscle groups at a time (primary movers).
These movements are done by multiple joints moving at once (multi-joint exercises).
Typically, these movements tend to also build great movement coordination and joint stability, as well as have a broad application to other dynamic, real word movements.
Examples of Compound Exercises
Below are some of the most common compound exercises, along with the top three muscle groups that are primarily targeted (listed in order of most targeted to least).
- Back Squats – Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings
- Front Squat – Quads, Glutes, Upper Back, Hamstrings
- Romanian Deadlift – Hamstrings Glutes, Lats
- Lunges – Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings
- Bench Press – Chest, Triceps, Shoulders
- Dips – Triceps, Chest, Shoulders
- Overhead Press – Shoulders, Triceps, Chest
- Pull Up – Back, Biceps, Forearms,
- Chin Up – Biceps, Lats, Forearms
- Bent Over Row – Lats, Erectors (lower back), Biceps
- Lat Pulldown – Lats, Biceps, Forearms
- Leg Press – Quads, Glutes
Benefits of Compound Exercises
1. Train Multiple Muscles at Once
Compound exercises are great because they have the ability to train many muscles in every rep, which is great for muscle growth and workout efficiency.
By doing squats, for example, you are able to train the quads, glutes, and inner thigh muscles (adductors) at the same time.
2. Develops Joint Stability and Coordination
Compound exercises require high amounts of movement coordination and joint stability (the body’s ability to support the joints to minimize injury) to properly perform the movements.
Smaller muscle groups are often needed to assist larger muscles, which can help to promote total body coordination.
3. Has Broad Application to Real World Movements
Compound exercises, such as squats, presses, and deadlifts all can translate over to the real world, as most athletic and real-life movements require many joints to move and muscles to work in unison.
Compound exercises are great for all levels of fitness and ages, and should be trained in some capacity to help bridge the gap between gym fitness and life.
Drawbacks of Compound Exercises
1. Requires More Coordination and Awareness
Compound exercises can be complex, and can be difficult for some individuals to master.
This of course should not be a deterrent, but rather something to take note of.
If for example, someone wants to train their triceps to get bigger and finds that the bench press doesn’t train the triceps enough, they can add triceps pushdowns to get added stimulus delivered to the triceps.
2. Injury Risks May Be More Severe When Using Bad Form (Due to Heavier Loading)
Injury risks are always present when working out, however, the seriousness of injuries from compound exercises may be more severe than isolation exercises simply due to the fact that more loading is often used in compound vs isolation exercises.
For example, if you have a rounded lower back on deadlifts you may seriously hurt yourself, whereas if your lower back is rounded doing seated hamstring curls (while still incorrect and can result in back injury), the odds and severity of getting injured may be less.
This is an important consideration if you are someone who has poor form and is worried about injury.
You should (1) practice better form, and (2) find movements that you can train a muscle hard and not have the form be a limiting factor.
3. May Not Target a Muscle As Best as Isolation Exercises
Compound exercises train a ton of muscle at once. While this is a benefit, it can also be a drawback, as you may find your body as a whole is getting fatigued before the target muscle group that you are training on that day is.
For example, let’s say after 5 sets of 8 back squats you are feeling your legs, but you are also tired, your back is sore (not hurt, just tired from having a heavy weight on it).
You have issues growing your quads, and you know you need to do more work to get them to grow.
You could just do 5 more sets of squats, but that may result in your lower back getting tired and not a very effective QUAD-focused workout.
Instead, you could do a leg press and then leg extensions (isolation exercise) to isolate the quads and stay focused on them for the rest of the session.
How To Program Compound Exercises
Compound exercises can be trained in all rep ranges, however, ideally, they would not be trained in the very high rep range (20+ reps).
Due to the nature of compound exercises, training them in high rep ranges, while effective and challenging, could produce significant amounts of muscle fatigue not only in the muscles you want to train but also in the other muscles of the body.
This may not be ideal if you are for example wanting to train lower back and back in the same session, and are looking to do sets of 4 sets of 20 on your back squat followed by bent-over rows.
Surely you can do this and will have results, but your lower back may already be exhausted by the time you get to the bent-over rows.
This is why some individuals may choose to do a few sets and reps of back squats (say 4 sets of 8-10 reps), followed by isolation exercises to finish the quads off, and then go into rows with a less tired lower back.
Lastly, while there is no wrong time to do compound exercises, if you are trying to lift heavier with them (5-10 reps) or want them to be the main movement for a muscle group, then you may want to put them earlier in a workout since they will require more energy.
Isolation Exercises: What They Are, Examples, Benefits, Drawbacks, How To Program
What Are Isolation Exercises?
Isolation exercises are exercises that target one muscle group at a time (or at least the vast majority of the movement is being performed by one main muscle group).
These typically consist of movements that have only one joint move throughout the range of motion (single-joint exercises).
Often, these are done to support compound movements within a training program and can help deliver a more focused muscle growth stimulus to a muscle group or be used to strengthen muscle groups that may need extra attention.
Examples of Isolation Exercises
Below are some of the most common isolation exercises along with the top muscles groups that are targeted.
- Seated Leg Extension – Quads
- Hamstring Curl (Seated or Lying) – Hamstrings
- Hip Thrust – Glutes
- Chest Flye – Chest
- Triceps Pushdown – Triceps
- Overhead Triceps Extension – Triceps
- Lateral Raise – Shoulders
- Reverse Fly – Shoulders
- Straight Arm Lat Pulldown – Lats
- Preacher Curl – Biceps
- Incline Dumbbell Curl – Biceps
Benefits of Isolation Exercises
1. Can Truly Isolate a Muscle Group
This is the main and biggest benefit of doing isolation exercises, as they are the most direct way to target and train a muscle group.
This is key if you have issues developing a specific muscle group or if you find one muscle group is holding you back in a compound lift (for example, weak triceps are holding your bench press back).
In this example, you could add an isolation exercise to target the triceps after bench press to address that issue.
2. Isolation Exercises Are Safer to Train to Muscle Failure
As discussed above, compound exercises tend to be done with more absolute weight on the bar or machine than isolated (since less muscle is being used to lift the weights).
This of course does not remove injury risks entirely, but isolation exercises may have less severe consequences if done slightly incorrectly.
That said, any exercise or movement, compound or isolated, can result in serious injury if you disregard proper form, do not control the loading throughout the entire range of motion, or use too much weight.
3. Can Be Useful to Train Around Injuries/Rehab Injuries
Due to the fact you can target to train a muscle group with an isolated exercise, you also have the ability to work around injuries or rehab one.
Because isolation exercises tend to have movements that are one joint only, you can create and work around a joint or muscle group that is injured and still train the other muscle groups around it.
For example, you break your ankle, and cannot perform standing exercises for the lower body (squats, lunges, deadlifts, or even leg presses).
While it may be boring, you can have very effective muscle-building workouts with leg extension, leg curls, and seated abduction isolation exercises until you are cleared to do compound exercises.
Drawbacks of Isolation Exercises
1. Not Ideal for Building Max Strength
Isolation exercises should not be trained for very low reps with very heavy loads (relative to your max), as this can increase injury risk. You are asking one muscle and joint to support all the weight and not get injured.
If you are training with isolation exercises, understand the purpose is to build muscle, not to build max strength.
For this reason, this is why I do not recommend doing anything less than 5 reps on any isolation exercises.
2. Does Not Develop Total Body Movement Coordination or Joint Stability
If your goal is to isolate a muscle, then the fact isolation exercises don’t build coordination or joint stability should not be a concern. If however, you want a movement that builds muscle and also can improve those attributes, then compound movements have more value.
That said, only doing compound movements has its limitations too, so just be sure to understand that the goal of isolating a muscle is often to revive muscle growth and attack weakness, not to improve coordination.
3. Movements May Not Prepare You for Real World Activities as Much as Compound Exercises
This isn’t to say that some isolation exercises are not “functional”, but generally speaking they have limited application to life or athletic endeavors.
That said, all isolation exercises serve a purpose and have a function, so understanding that when you include them the “function” may be to strengthen the bicep, which would mean a bicep curl is “functional”.
For example, someone who does Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu may want to strengthen their biceps and forearms to better grapple and resist joint injuries at the elbow.
While rows and front carries are great for this, they may need to strengthen the smaller muscles of the upper body to improve overall performance.
Understand that not doing an isolated exercise because it doesn’t inherently look like a real-world movement is a flawed mindset.
If you need to do an isolation exercise to train a muscle directly, then do so. Just understand that a combination of both compound and isolation exercises in the same program are most likely the best option.
Related Article: Strength vs. Power: 5 Main Differences You Should Know
How To Program Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises can be trained in all rep ranges, however, ideally they would not be trained in the very low rep range (less than 5 reps).
Isolation exercises really shine in the areas of muscle growth, as they allow you to fully target a muscle group and train it to failure, without having other muscle groups compete with energy needs or give out before your target muscle does.
A good example of this would be if your lower back gets tired before your hamstrings do in a Romanian deadlift.
You could add in some lying or seated leg curls to attack the hamstrings and save the lower back from getting fatigued or sore (or just add the isolation hamstrings exercises afterward to further drive muscle growth).
In a workout, most isolation exercises are done after compound exercises, however, this is not always the case and can vary based on the individual and the goal of the program.
Generally speaking, if you have a compound exercise in your workout and are lifting heavier, you will want to do that before any isolation exercises on that day (of course, this is not always the case, and can vary based on the program).
For example, if the goal is strength and muscle growth on a lower body day, it would make sense to do back squats before leg extensions.
However, you could justify doing some leg extensions if you wanted to pre-exhaust the quads to force them to work harder in the squats (however keep in mind you will be decreasing the amount of weight you can do in the squat, which may not be an issue if you are just training for bigger legs).
Are Compound or Isolation Exercises Better for Building Muscle?
When looking to build muscle, both compound and isolation exercises should be used to build muscle, as they each offer different benefits that the other cannot.
Compound exercises are great for building a ton of muscle at once, as they usually target a few key muscle groups every rep, and often with heavier loads.
Compound exercises however can limit the amount of direct training stimulus you provide to a muscle group, especially if you have muscles that seem to not grow as easily.
Isolation exercise can then be used to deliver more direct training stimulus to a muscle group, without being limited by other muscles failing or general body fatigue.
Are Compound or Isolation Exercises Better for Fat Loss?
Both can be great for fat loss, however, compound exercises train more muscle at once, which could increase workout efficiency and help you train more muscle and burn more calories in a workout.
You could potentially do this with isolation exercises as well, you would just need to be sure to stay moving and pay attention to keeping rest periods 45-60 seconds long. You would also need to deliver high amounts of reps and sets to the body each workout.
Ideally, you will have compound exercises be the basis of your workout program, and use isolation exercises to help fill in gaps you may have where you want to add a little more work to a muscle group or have to train around injury.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Are Compound or Isolation Exercises Better?
Both have their benefits and drawbacks.
Compound exercises are great for training many muscle groups at once, developing max strength, and having application to real-world movements. Isolation exercises provide a unique value to lifters where you can target to train weak muscles, train around injury, or add extra training volume to a stubborn muscle group.
Should I Do Compound or Isolation Exercises First?
Depending on your goal, you could do either first.
If you are training compound exercises for strength or are lifting heavier rep ranges with them, it would make more sense to train the before isolation exercises to allow for maximal loading and higher force outputs (helps build more muscle and strength).
If however, the workout you are doing is more moderate to high rep focused, you could also do isolation exercises before compound ones to pre-exhaust a muscle group so that when you do the compound exercise you better target those muscle groups.
Do Compound Exercises Build More Muscle Than Isolation Exercises?
To build the most amount of muscle, you should be training both compound and isolation exercises.
Compound exercises tend to allow for more muscle tissue to be trained at one time, so if you only train a few times a week, this may allow you to train more muscle more efficiently.
If you train more frequently, you may find that isolation exercises allow you to really target and train a muscle to promote more muscle growth.
For this reason, it is suggested that you use compound exercise to train strength and muscle mass, while also including isolation exercise to attack weaker, more stubborn areas and to allow you to train more frequently throughout the week to drive more growth (and not impede recovery of other muscle groups).
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.