Compound vs Isolation Exercises: Here’s What You Need to Know

Compound vs isolation exercises: which one is which? Read on to find out what type of exercises is best to achieve your goals.

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When it comes to fitness, you’ll often come across the terms “compound exercises” and “isolation exercises.” While both types of exercises are effective, understanding the differences between them can help you make informed decisions about your workouts, and get closer to your goals. In this article, we’ll talk all things compound vs isolation exercises, including the benefits and drawbacks of both. Read on to find out more!

Compound vs Isolation exercises: which is which?

Before we explore the advantages and disadvantages, let’s clarify what compound and isolation exercises actually are.

Compound exercises are essentially any movement where you’re using multiple muscle groups (and joints) at a time. Take for example, squats. You use your hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, core, and calf muscles to move through one rep. Compound exercises are typically functional and mimic real-life activities.

Isolation exercises are the opposite. They target one specific muscle group and use only one joint to move through a rep. A good example of this are crunches, which only engage the core muscles.

Benefits of compound exercises:

Good if you’re short of time. Compound exercises are great because they engage multiple muscles simultaneously, allowing you to work out more muscle groups in less time. Perfect if you have a busy schedule.

Ideal if you want to ramp up calorie burn. Since compound exercises recruit more muscles, they tend to burn more calories compared to isolation exercises. This makes them great for those who want to lose or maintain their weight.

Improvement of day-to-day life. Because compound exercises work by mimicking real-life movements, they enhance your overall strength and coordination, making daily activities easier to perform. If you catch yourself groaning when you bend down to pick something up, compound exercises might do you the world of good.

Increased hormonal response. Compound exercises stimulate the release of anabolic (growth) hormones and testosterone, which can support muscle growth and strength gains. Most importantly, like all exercises, they’re guaranteed to get your endorphins pumping!

Drawbacks of compound exercises

Mastering the right technique can be complex. Compound exercises require proper form and technique to prevent injuries, and there are several different components to each compound exercise. Beginners might find it challenging to execute these movements correctly without professional guidance.

Getting fatigued faster. Since compound exercises engage multiple muscle groups, fatigue can set in more quickly, limiting the number of repetitions or sets you can perform, and meaning you need to take more time off between gym days.

Benefits of isolation exercises

Great for achieving focussed goals. Isolation exercises allow you to focus on specific muscles, helping you build definition and correct muscle imbalances quicker.

For rehabilitation and injury prevention. Isolation exercises are often prescribed to rehabilitate specific muscles or joints after an injury. They can also help strengthen weak muscles, reducing the risk of future injuries.

Enhanced muscle symmetry. Isolation exercises are valuable for those who want to sculpt and shape specific muscles to achieve a balanced and symmetrical physique.

Reduced downtime between exercises. The DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) you get from isolated muscle exercises are considerably less compared to when you’re working through compound exercises. Of course, you’ll still feel soreness in the muscle you exercised, but you can get back into the gym to exercise a different muscle without feeling as much discomfort.

Drawbacks of isolation exercises

Time-consuming. Due to their focus on specific muscles, isolation exercises generally target smaller muscle groups, requiring more exercises and time to cover all muscle areas. Isolation exercises are also going to burn fewer calories, not a problem if your focus is muscle gain, but something to consider if weight loss is your goal.

Limited functional application. Isolation exercises primarily strengthen individual muscles, which may not translate directly into improved overall functional ability. Things like flexibility usually need compound exercises to improve.

Can cause muscle imbalance. As a rule, always remember to exercise antagonist muscles whenever focussing on one isolated exercise. Every opposing muscle needs to be just as strong, ideally. So every time you work out those biceps, don’t forget your triceps.

Try these compound exercises first

Squat: Engages the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

Squats are one of the most popular compound exercises, but a lot goes into them. When squatting remember to maintain neutral spine alignment, feet shoulder-width apart with toes pointed slightly outward. Aim for a depth where your thighs are parallel to the ground, knees in line with your toes, core engaged, before progressing gradually.

Deadlift: Targets the posterior chain, working the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

There’s a hint in the name, but deadlifts are a pretty taxing compound workout. Like with squats, you’ll want to maintain a neutral spine alignment and position your feet shoulder-width apart and the barbell close to your body. Start with a hip hinge, driving through your legs to lift the weight while keeping your back straight. Fully extend your hips at the top and lower the weight with control. You should really feel it in your legs.

Bench Press: Focuses on the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

For bench press, position yourself on the bench with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Maintain a natural arch through your lower back and retract your shoulder blades. Grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and lower it to your mid-chest, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle. Press the barbell back up, driving through your chest and triceps while maintaining control. Avoid arching your back excessively or bouncing the weight off your chest.

Isolation exercises to get you started

Bicep Curl: Isolates the biceps, aiding in building arm strength and definition.

Best practice when performing bicep curls is to stand or sit with a straight back, core engaged, with weights shoulder-width apart. Keeping an underhand grip, allow your arms to fully extend. Keep your elbows close to your sides, and avoid swinging or using momentum to lift the weight. Slowly curl the weight upward, focusing on contracting your biceps. Pause briefly at the top of the movement and then lower the weight back down in a controlled manner.

Lateral Raise: Targets the side deltoids, enhancing shoulder width and strength.

Lateral raises work your deltoids, which help with shoulder mobility. First, stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, weights held at your sides, grip facing your body. Raise arms out to the sides until parallel to the ground, keeping a slight bend in elbows. Control the movement, move at a steady pace, and avoid swinging. Pause briefly at the top, then lower arms down.

Crunch: Targets the abdominal muscles, specifically your six-pack and obliques.

Crunches work your abdominal muscles, which, when weak, can affect your posture and cause pain. To strengthen them with this exercise, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. According to your preference, you can put your hands behind your head, cross your arms over your chest, or keep them by your sides. Engage your core by drawing your belly button towards your spine. Lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the ground, focussing on only using your abdominal muscles. Avoid pulling on your neck or using your arms to lift, as this can cause injury and won’t target your stomach.

We hope that this guide was useful in getting to grips with compound vs isolation exercises! If you suffer with any aches or pains, remember to always consult the advice of a professional such as a personal trainer or physiotherapist. And don’t forget – as you progress on your fitness journey, you can always self-record your workouts and see how far you’ve come with our Pivo. Happy training!