Both compound and isolation exercises can serve a ton of different purposes in a ton of different workout routines based on your goal and your body and that means the only way to know for sure which type of exercise is best for you is by getting down to the specifics of each.
They are any exercise that involves the use of more than one major muscle group at a time. Typically, there is one larger muscle group that ends up doing the majority of the work, and then one or more smaller muscle groups that are recruited secondarily. Here’s a lift of the most common compound exercises along with the primary and secondary muscle groups each one targets:
- Chest press Primary muscle group: Chest. Secondary muscle groups: Shoulders and triceps
- Dips Primary muscle group: Triceps. Secondary muscle groups: Shoulders and chest
- Rows Primary muscle groups: Back. Secondary muscle groups: Biceps
- Pull ups/ Chin ups Primary muscle group: Back. Secondary muscle groups: Biceps
- Deadlifts Primary muscle group: Posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, back etc.) Secondary muscle groups: Much of lower body and upper body
- Squats (most variations) Primary muscle group: Quads. Secondary muscle groups: Most lower body (glutes, hamstrings, lower back)
If an exercise involves pushing, pulling, squatting or deadlifting, it’ usually training more than one major muscle group, and that makes it a compound exercise.
Isolation exercise is any exercise in which only one major muscle group is trained by itself. Typically, the movement is done in such a way where usage of all other muscle groups is avoided, which leaves one muscle group isolated and able to do all the work. Here’s a list of all the most common isolation exercises along with the muscle it isolates/ trains:
- Bicep Curl Muscle group trained: Biceps
- Tricep Extensions Muscle group trained: Triceps
- Calf Raises Muscle group trained: Calves
- Lateral Raises or Front Raises Muscle group trained: Shoulders
- Leg Extensions
If an exercise involves raising, curling or extending, it’s usually training just one major muscle group and that makes it an isolation exercise.
So…. Compound or Isolation????
Now we know the differences, time to compare and figure which is best for you. COMPOUND EXERCISES allow you to engage more muscle groups, which in turn allows you to lift more weight, which in turn allows for faster and more consistent progression, which in turns causes a lot of good stuff to happen that all leads to the results you want to get. ISOLATION EXERCISES isolate muscle groups so they are trained by themselves. This means you’ll typically be using MUCH lower amounts of weight, which in turn means there won’t be anywhere near as much consistent progression, which in turn means the potential for results won’t be nearly as high as with compound exercises. In general, compound exercises allow you to create much more of the right type of training stimulus than isolation exercises can. For this reason, compound exercises beat isolation exercises by a fairly large margin for most people, most of the time.
This Is What We Recommend
- If your primary goal is performance related (increasing strength, improving performance etc) then compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be greatly limited or possibly avoided completely.
- If your primary goal is looks related (building muscle, losing fat, getting “toned” etc) then compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine and get your primary focus. However a secondary focus on isolation exercises is fine and in some cases, maybe even ideal.
- If you are a beginner with ANY goal, then compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be kept to a minimum or possibly avoided completely.