Compound vs. Isolation Exercises: Pros and Cons

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Compound exercises are at the heart of many fitness programs. Unlike isolation exercises that are performed with commercial weight machines, compound exercises focus on functional fitness developed by exercises that simulate real-life activities.

While compound exercises have the benefit of using a variety of movements to go through a wide range of motion, isolation exercises are also beneficial and belong in a well-rounded exercise program. Fitness experts recommend performing both compound and isolation exercises in your workout routines.

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

While isolation exercises use just one muscle or muscle group at a time, compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups. A great example of a compound exercise is the squat exercise, which engages many muscles in the lower body and core, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, and core.

Isolation exercises work only one muscle group and only one joint at a time. Examples of isolation exercises include the biceps curl or the quadriceps extension. These exercises are often performed with the commercial weight machines found in health clubs.

The idea is to isolate one muscle group and move from one machine to the next until you work your whole body. Isolation exercises are frequently used in physical therapy clinics and rehab centers in order to correct a specific muscle weakness or imbalance that often occurs after injury, illness, surgery, or other conditions.

Most athletes will use compound exercises for the majority of a training program and use isolation exercises to complement that program as needed.

Benefits of Compound Exercises

For healthy athletes who are trying to get the most out of a training program, compound exercises are generally recommended. Many people prefer compound exercises because they translate to common movement patterns and work more muscles at once.

Compound exercise allows you to get a full-body workout in less time, keeps your heart rate up to offer cardiovascular benefits, and generally burns more calories. Because it simulates real-world movements, it helps to build strength for everyday living.

Benefits of Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises are often recommended to correct muscle imbalance or weakness that can occur after an injury. Isolating a specific muscle is sometimes necessary to get it to activate and increase its strength. After an injury, a muscle often becomes weak and other muscles compensate for that weakness.

If you never retrain the injured muscles to fire properly again, it may set up a biomechanical imbalance that is difficult to correct. Even if your weakness isn't noticeable because other muscles are compensating, imagine how much stronger you would be if all the muscles were firing at maximum contraction. That alone is a good reason to occasionally do isolation exercises.

Another reason to do specific isolation exercises is to increase the size of a specific muscle group. If you want big biceps, you'll probably want to add some bicep isolation work to your regular exercise routine.

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises Comparison

Both compound and isolation exercises have their place in a well-rounded workout regimen. If you are interested in getting a complete, efficient and functional workout, doing predominantly compound exercises during your training is ideal. But there are times when isolating a specific muscle, muscle group or joint is necessary and recommended.

Compound Exercises
  • Allows you to get a full body workout faster and burns more calories

  • Allows you to lift heavier loads and build more strength

  • Decreases the risk of injury during sports

  • Keeps your heart rate up and provides cardiovascular benefits

  • Simulates real-world exercises and activities

Isolation Exercises
  • Allows you to add isolate areas you’d like to bulk up, such as pecs or biceps

  • Can help in rehabilitation following an injury

  • Improves strength in specific muscles 

  • Isolates individual muscles

Creating a Workout Plan

If you aren't sure what is best for you, a personal trainer or athletic trainer can help locate any muscle imbalance or weakness you may have and design a program to fit your needs. One strategy is to focus on compound exercises three to four times a week and isolation exercises twice a week.

Alternately, you can combine both, using isolation exercises as accessory movements to compound exercises. For example:

  • Barbell squats (3 x 10)
  • Calf raises (2 x 20)
  • Deadlifts (4 x 8)
  • Hamstring curls (2 x 12)

You can also split up the days, like squats and lunges one day, bench presses and dips the next workout, and deadlifts and military presses on another day.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gentil P, Soares S, Bottaro M. Single vs. multi-joint resistance exercises: Effects on muscle strength and hypertrophyAsian J Sports Med. 2015;6(2):e24057. doi:10.5812/asjsm.24057

  2. American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand: Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181915670

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.