Learn the Pros and Cons of Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

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Compound exercises are at the heart of today's fitness programs, as compared with isolation exercises performed with commercial weight machines. The focus is on functional fitness developed by exercises that simulate real-life activities and use a variety of movements through a wide range of motion. But isolation exercises still have benefits and a place in a well-rounded exercise program. Learn about these two types of exercise and when and how to use them.

What Is a Compound Exercise?

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, the hamstrings, the calves, the glutes, the lower back and the core.

What Are Isolation Exercises?

Isolation exercises differ from compound exercises in that they 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 certain diseases.

Benefits of Compound Exercises

For healthy athletes who are trying to get the most out of a training program, compound exercises are generally preferred and recommended because they translate to more types of common movement patterns. There are many reasons to use compound exercises during your workout, including the following:

Compound exercise benefits include:

  • Generally burns more calories during exercise
  • Simulates real-world exercises and activities
  • Allows you to get a full body workout faster
  • Improves coordination, reaction time and balance
  • Improves joint stability and improves muscle balance across a joint
  • Decreases the risk of injury during sports
  • Keeps your heart rate up and provides cardiovascular benefits
  • Allows you to exercise longer with less muscle fatigue
  • Allows you to lift heavier loads and build more strength

Common Compound Exercises

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.

Common Isolation Exercises

  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep kickbacks
  • Lateral raises
  • Front raises
  • Rope pull-downs
  • Leg extensions
  • Hamstring curls
  • Calf raises

Compound Exercise vs. Isolation Exercise

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. 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.

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