Compound Vs Isolation Exercises: Which Is Better?
The war between compound and isolation exercises is one that has raged on for years. Some people swear by compound exercises, while others prefer isolation exercises.
So, which is better? The answer to that question depends on a number of factors. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each type of exercise.
If you're like most people, you probably think of compound exercises as the best way to work your muscles. And often, this isn't far off from the truth.
But are you able to identify a compound exercise from an isolation exercise?
The easy way to do this is to first identify if more than one muscle group is involved in the movement.
So, for instance, the squat is a compound movement. Yes, it does technically work the "legs", but this represents the largest group of muscles in the body, consisting of several smaller units.
The quadriceps and hamstrings, while both located on the leg have significantly different functions. The squat requires recruitment from both of these large muscles to successfully execute.
This is why the squat is referred to as a compound movement - because multiple muscle groups are being used.
The other way to identify a compound exercise is to determine if it requires movement through more than one joint plane.
Using the squat again as an example, we can see that the knees, but also the hips, are critical to the success of the movement.
It is evident that the knee moves, but the angle where your thigh meets your torso also changes; indicating that the hips are involved.
This is why you might notice compound exercises being referred to as multi-joint exercises.
The Benefits Of Performing Compound Exercises
owing to the fact that multiple muscle groups are recruited during compound exercises, there are a few attractive benefits to performing them.
Here are a few noteworthy benefits:
Great For Beginners
When you start working out for the first time, you need to be less concerned with how many sets and weight you are able to lift, and more focused on just learning the movement.
Because compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups, they help you to understand how your body needs to move in order for a successful lift.
You might not be able to squat with a heavy weight right away, but by understanding the movement and perfecting your technique, you can ensure that when you are ready to increase the load, your form is on point.
The "big 3" exercises, namely the bench press, squat, and deadlift, are all compound movements that form the base of workouts. This builds a strong foundation and can help to prevent injuries down the road.
Another great benefit of compound exercises is that they are time efficient. When you are working multiple muscle groups at the same time, you can save time by not having to perform a slew of additional exercises for each individual muscle group.
So, if your goal is to work your legs, you can do a compound movement like the squat, which will also work your hamstrings and calves to an extent, as well as your core muscles.
This doesn’t mean that you should never perform isolation exercises, but it does show that compound exercises have notable advantages, especially if you are short on time.
Greater Muscle Growth and Strength
One of the main goals people have when they hit the gym is to build muscle. And while isolation exercises contribute to a muscle-building routine, compound exercises are often more effective.
This is because, when you recruit multiple muscle groups during a compound exercise, you are also releasing more growth hormone and testosterone.
You will never see an advanced workout consisting mainly of isolation-type movements, as they just don't contribute to strength and muscle building nearly as much.
Combined with a well-timed supplement such as Foundation; a synergistic combo of creatine and Peak ATP, you can experience superior strength and lean muscle gains.
This leads to greater muscle growth overall, which is why compound exercises are often the cornerstone of many people’s strength workout routines.
Improved Functional Fitness
While looking good is great, it’s not the only reason people exercise. Oftentimes, people also want to improve their functional fitness.
This refers to being able to perform activities of day-to-day living with ease, and compound exercises are very effective for this.
Think about it – in real life, do you ever find yourself performing a bicep curl? Probably not. But, you might find yourself carrying groceries or picking up a heavy object.
This is where exercises like the deadlift come in handy, as they better prepare your body for these types of activities.
Additionally, because compound exercises use multiple joints, they also help to increase your range of motion and improve your mobility.
Can you guess what this contributes to as we age? A reduced risk of injuries and morbidity due to falls and fractures- which leads to a rapid decline in quality of life.
Higher Calorie Burn
Calories are"burnt" within our muscle mitochondria to produce ATP, the energy unit of the body. The larger the number of muscle cells we can recruit and activate in a workout session, the larger will be the calorie burn.
So, not only do compound exercises help you to build muscle and improve your functional fitness, but they also help you to burn more calories.
This makes them a great choice if you are looking to lose weight or get in better shape.
Such exercises also elevate EPOC; which is exercise post oxygen consumption. This reflects the heightened activity of the mitochondria, and usually correlates to enhances fat burning at the same time. This value may remain elevated for several hours after the workout finishes, which makes compound lifts so good for bringing about a radical change in body composition.
You've also probably done many isolation exercises before, without ever realizing it. As opposed to compound exercises, isolation movements usually involve a singular muscle group or one particular joint.
Hence, the name- isolation. It is believed that isolation exercises also bring some unique advantages to the table, including:
Superior Muscle Trauma
When training, you want muscle trauma to occur. This involves the breakdown of muscle tissue, which is then rebuilt stronger during the recovery process.
Isolation exercises are often more effective at causing this muscle trauma, leading to greater strength and muscle gains in the long run when combined with compound exercises.
Make a note of the fact that done by themselves they are unlikely to yield better strength and muscle gains.
Better Muscle Activation
Most people tend to utilize isolation movements as "finishers" towards the end of their training session. However, they can also be effectively used as pre-exhaustion exercises.
This means that you perform an isolation movement before a compound one in order to "activate" or "stimulate" the muscle group you are targeting.
This can be beneficial if you find that you are not able to effectively activate a muscle group during compound movements.
For example, if you have trouble activating your chest because you feel your triceps do too much of the work, pre-fatiguing the chest might be better (do not pre-fatigue your triceps, or you could be injured when training the chest).
Likewise, if you can't seem to hit your lower lats when doing pulldowns, doing some isolated lat work first could be helpful.
Developing Target Muscles
Most people have muscular imbalances, for one reason or another. isolation exercises can be very helpful in bringing lagging muscle groups up to par or working out around a pre-existing injury.
If you have weak glutes, for example, doing some isolated glute work might help. If you have an old shoulder injury that prevents you from doing overhead pressing movements, working the shoulders with one-sided lateral raises might be a better option.
Best Compound Exercises
Whether you're new to working out or a seasoned warrior, you should make compound lifts the base of your workout. Not surprisingly, over the course of many years, the best ones remain the same. If you're not familiar with what these are, read on below.
The deadlift utilizes so many muscle groups it isn't even funny. Consider it the swiss army knife of your workout; hitting so many muscles at once that strength and muscle gains are inevitable.
While traditionally considered a back exercise, in reality, it's a total body compound lift. It works the back, quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, shoulders, and even arms to some degree.
There are many variations of the deadlift that you can do as well; including the conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, and more.
Pick one or two that you like and rotate them every 4-6 weeks or so to keep things fresh and prevent boredom.
The squat is another one of those foundational, must-do exercises that have withstood the test of time. It is a compound movement that primarily works the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but also hits the lower back, core, and calves to some extent.
As with the deadlift, there are many variations of the squat that you can do as well; including the front squat, back squat, overhead squat, and Zercher squat, to name a few.
Most people tend to stick with one variation or the other (front or back), but alternating between the two can help to keep things fresh and target the muscles from slightly different angles.
The bench press is the go-to exercise for many when it comes to chest training. It is a compound movement that primarily works the pecs, but also engages the shoulders and triceps to some extent.
There are many variations of the bench press that you can do as well; including the flat bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, and close-grip bench press.
If you can only choose one, the flat bench press is probably the best all-around option, but mix things up from time to time to keep your muscles guessing.
The overhead, or military press, is a compound movement that works the shoulders, triceps, and upper back. It is a great exercise for overall upper body development and strength gains.
You can vary the width of your grip to target the muscles slightly differently; a narrower grip will work the triceps more, while a wider grip will work the shoulders more.
You can also do the exercise seated or standing; both are effective, but most people tend to prefer the standing version.
Pull-ups are a great compound exercise for working the back, biceps, and core. They are a bit more challenging than some of the other exercises on this list but can be scaled down or up to make them more manageable.
If you can't do a full pull-up, start with negative reps or use an assisted pull-up machine. If regular pull-ups are too easy, try adding weight with a weighted vest or belt.
Rowing exercises are a great way to work the back, biceps, and core all at once. They are similar to pull-ups in that they can be scaled up or down to make them more challenging or manageable.
There are many variations of rows that you can do as well; including the bent-over row, seated row, one-arm row, and more.
There are far more isolation movements than compound exercises, but some aren't worth your time. Focus on these:
- Leg Extensions
- Dumbbell Curls
- Lying Hamstring Curls
- Shoulder Lateral Raises
- Machine Pec Flyes
- Tricep Pressdowns
Which Should You Choose?
Depending on your particular needs, the exercises you choose to make up your workout will differ significantly.
For instance, if you're on a time crunch, new to working out, or looking to recomp your body in a rush, a compound heavy workout is the way to go.
This might mean reducing the volume a bit but achieving more in a jiffy. This is because a high-volume workout consisting of compound-only movements is hard on the joints and can lead to inflammation.
We recommend using a high-quality collagen protein such as Radiance to deal with this.
Isolation exercises, on the other hand, are useful when it comes to training volume. For instance, to achieve sufficient training volume of the legs, utilizing isolation movements can help provide enough stimulus to enhance muscular definition.
In the end, it's not a matter of one being better than the other. They both lend themselves to the goal of building muscle and strength and bring their own advantages to the table.
Utilize a mix of both compound and isolation movements in your workout routine to achieve the best results.