Compound vs Isolation Exercises: Which Should You Be Doing?

Compound vs Isolation exercises you know what they are and what you should be doing? I'm going to clear it up and the answer may not be what you think...

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Have you come across the terms ‘compound exercises’ or ‘isolation exercises’? Or maybe both?

Do you know what they are?

Which you should be doing?

If they’ve left you confused and worried that you’re going to have massive muscles, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s take a closer look at both of them and then you can decide which one is right for you.


Let’s do this...

Compound vs isolation exercises: Which one should you be doing? The answer might not be what you think...

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What Are Isolation Exercises?

Isolation movements are kind of what they sound like, they isolate specific muscle groups. Usually, not always, a single muscle group.

I say not always because it’s really hard for any exercise to use just one muscle group. If you take the biceps curl as an example, it has to be the most well recognised example of an isolation exercise. It’s all in the name, but even this exercise actually uses more than just your biceps.

Because just holding a weight is going to recruit quite a few of your arm muscles. And then if you’re standing up doing it, you’re going to recruit your core muscles as stabilizer muscles.

It is really hard to use just one group of muscles.

So, it might be easier to think of isolation exercises, not for the muscles that they work, but the muscles you’re trying to work with that exercise and how many joints they’re using.

Isolation exercises are single-joint movements.

Again, think of the bicep curl...the only joint moving is your elbow joint. You might be recruiting other muscles while you’re doing it, but you’re only using one joint. And you’re doing it to work your biceps.

If you want to work your core, there are so many other, really good exercises you could do, bice[s curl is not really that efficient at working your core.

They are very good at working your biceps though.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What are Isolation Exercises Good For?

What are the benefits of doing isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises are most well-known in the body building world.

That’s because they are amazing at increasing the size of the muscle that you’re working. All of that attention on just one muscle. You bet they’re going to grow. They’re going to get bigger. They’re going to get stronger.

It’s the getting stronger part that might be of interest to you.

If you’ve had an injury, or you’ve got any muscle imbalances, isolation exercises are great for sorting them out.

Or, if you’ve got specific areas that you’re not particularly happy with.

Your arms for example.

If you’ve got wobbly arms, and you don’t want them to wobble, spending time focusing on bicep curls and triceps extensions would do you the world of good.

Keep in mind that you’re not going to be able to lift much weight with isolation exercises. Smaller muscle groups are generally weaker. So, keep to the lighter weights. Especially if you have injured muscles or you’re trying to correct imbalances.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What Are Some Examples of Isolation Exercises?

What are some examples of isolation exercises?

If isolation exercises are single joint movements, anything that moves just one joint is an isolation exercise.

Think curls, raises, extensions, they’re all thought of as isolation exercises.

Bicep curls. Triceps extensions. Calf raises. Leg extension. Hamstring curls. Lateral raises.

All, great examples of isolation exercises.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What Are Compound Movements?

If isolation exercises are single joint movements that focus on a specific area of the body, compound movements are the exact opposite.

They are multi-joint movements that tend to work multiple, large muscle groups in one single movement.

Quite often, you could have a full-body workout with just one compound exercise.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What are Compound Movements Good For?

What are the benefits of compound movements?

Single exercises that have the potential to utilise the entire body? They are a great way to get in a quick workout if you’ve not got a lot of time.

But, there’s more to them than just a quick workout.

Compound movements train your body in a very functional way.

If you think about it, there’s very little that we do in our daily lives that uses only one muscle group. Most of our daily tasks use lots of muscles.

Walking up the stairs. Your calves, your quads, your hamstrings, your glutes, your core. They are all being used in that simple movement.

Even just walking, uses pretty much the same amount of muscle.

Add in any kind of speed to either of those and you start to recruit your upper body as well.

Lifting shopping bags. Your forearms, your biceps, your triceps, your trapezius, your deltoids, your lower back muscles, your glutes. All getting a work out in just lifting your shopping off the floor.

Have to carry it to the car, or into your house?

You start to use your lower body as well.

It’s very, very unusual for you to use just one muscle group in your daily life. So the major benefit of compound movements is that they train your body to be strong in ways that spill over to your daily life.

It’s called functional strength.

And the result of functional fitness? Your daily life becomes that bit easier.

Carrying your kids from the park to the car, now becomes a breeze. Carrying the shopping, a little bit easier. Running after your kids when they just won’t listen, or maybe a game of tag, that becomes lots of fun.

And when things get a bit easier, life becomes a bit less stressful. And I’m all about finding the stress free in life.

You might be sold on compound movements with just that, but there is one more thing they’re good at...heavy weights.

Because you’re using more, and larger muscle groups, with compound lifts you can lift more. Heavier weights come into play. And lifting heavy weights is lots of fun.

Don’t believe me?

Trust me on this one.

When you start to lift heavy you start to realise just what you’re capable of.

The heavy weight sat in front of you. Doubts start to creep in. I’m not going to lift this. What if I stumble and fall? What if I drop it?

You take a deep breath, push those doubts to the back of your mind. Step up. Prepare yourself. And lift.

You’ve done it.


It’s a great feeling.

And that sense of accomplishment, the sense that you can do anything, starts to trickle down through the rest of your life.

And all of a sudden, the kids tantrums don’t bother you quite as much. Pressure from your boss, doesn’t take so much of a toll. Arguments with your hubby don’t fester quite as long.

You’re stronger. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.

And yes, that is fun.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: What Are Some Examples of Compound Exercises?

What are some examples of compound movements?

I bet, without too much thought, you could give me an example of a compound exercise. In fact I think you could name at least five.

Go on, give it a go.

Multi-joint exercises that use more than one major muscle group. Have a go.

I’ve talked about quite a few on other pages, so if you’ve read any of my other pages you’ve got a head start.

The squat exercise has to be one of the most well known. It uses the majority of your lower body, calves, quads, glutes, hamstrings, knee joint, hip joint and your ankles.

When you add in weight, with say a barbell squat you’re also using your upper body. Your deltoids, your trapezius, your biceps, your triceps, your lower back and your core.

A complete whole body workout in one movement.

Another example that I’ve talked about, overhead presses. More of an upper body exercise, but when you add in the weight, and having to get that weight into position, it quickly becomes a full body exercise.

Some other examples would be bench presses, dumbbell chest press, military press, lunge, glute bridge, planks. Etc. Etc. Etc.

There are so many, it would kind of be a waste of time me listing them all.

But, I may do that one day. Just out of interest.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: Which One Should You Do?

This is not as straight forward as you might think.

With all of the benefits of compound exercises it might be tempting to stick to them. And you’d certainly have good workouts and get fitter and stronger if you did that.

But, don’t write off isolation movements.

They have their place in any strength training program.

And depending on what your goals are, your current physical ability, any pains, imbalances or weaknesses you may have, focusing on individual muscles might make up the bulk of your workout routine.

But, assuming you’re in good physical health, with no significant injuries, and your goal is to improve your overall strength, a typical training session would probably focus on compound movements at the beginning and a few accessory exercises at the end of your workout. Followed by a cardio finisher.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises: There’s Room For Both

The vast majority of us actually need different types of exercises to have a well-rounded and balanced workout plan.

And there is room for all of them.

If you’re struggling for time, and can only fit a 15 minute workout into your day, focus most of your workouts on compound movements, with differing rep ranges. Have 1-2 days working on those accessory exercises and 1 day on mobility.

There really is room for all of it.

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Are Compound Exercises Better than Isolation Exercises?

This really depends on your goals and your fitness history. Because they both have their benefits and a place in a balanced workout plan.

Compound exercises are great for fat loss as they use more energy and keep your heart rate elevated more. Where as isolation exercises are great for working on weaknesses and imbalances you may have.

Should I do Compound or Isolation Exercises First?

Compound movements should always go first in your workout.


Because they will be heavier, more taxing, so you’ll need to be fresh for those. If you tire out your small muscles with isolation exercises, you won’t be able to go as heavy with your compound lifts and you won’t reap their benefits.

Do You Really Need Isolation Exercises?


Isolation exercises are just as important as the compound movements.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so strengthening those weaknesses is an important part of any good workout plan.

It’s also not a good idea to start lifting heavy if you have imbalances in your body. You will only make them worse and end up being injured.

That’s why I often spend a few weeks with my clients concentrating on isolation exercises and getting their bodies balanced and ready to lift those heavy weights.

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