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 weekly workout routines.

What's the Difference?

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time. 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 or 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.

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 preferred 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 offering 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 often occurs 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 perform specific isolation exercises is to increase the size or bulk of a specific muscle group. If you want big biceps for your spring break beach vacation, you'll probably want to add some bicep isolation work to your regular exercise routine.

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

Compound vs. Isolation

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

  • Simulates real-world exercises and activities

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

  • Decreases the risk of injury during sports

  • Keeps your heart rate up and provides cardiovascular benefits

  • Allows you to lift heavier loads and build more strength

Isolation Exercises

  • Isolates individual muscles

  • Improves strength in specific muscles 

  • Can help in rehabilitation following an injury

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

Creating A 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 lifts 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)
  • Deadlift (4 x 8)
  • Hamstring Curls (2 x 12)

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

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