Strength & Conditioning

Discover The 5 Differences Between Compound vs Isolation Exercises

compound vs isolation exercises

Compound vs Isolation Exercises – What’s The Difference?

A compound exercise is a multi-joint exercise that activates more than one muscle group at a time. On the other hand, an isolation exercise is a single-joint movement that works just one muscle.

An example of a compound exercise is the barbell squat where you bend at the hips, knees, and ankles working the glutes, hamstrings, quads and adductors.

An isolation exercise is something like a bicep curl where you bend at the elbows working the biceps brachii.

If you’re looking to increase your strength and work on building muscle mass, there are several ways to help you do this and the methods you choose will depend on your goals and preferences.

A strength training program will often involve using a combination of gym machines and free weights to perform exercises that work muscle groups either collectively or independently.

In this article we’ll look in more detail at compound exercises vs isolation exercises.

We’ll also consider the benefits and drawbacks of each, as well as a short list of certain compound vs isolation exercises for your workout.

What Is A Compound Exercise?

A compound exercise involves using multiple joints at once which provides training stimulus to several large muscle groups.

An example is a barbell back squat. Performing a back squat involves bending at both the knee and hip joints working the quadriceps, adductors and glutes with secondary muscles being the hamstrings, spinal erectors, and abdominals.

Other compound lifts include the bench press, deadlift, and pull ups and all are a great way of triggering an anabolic response. This is when the body repairs muscles to become stronger and bigger.

As compound lifts tend to involve heavier weights and more power, the sets and repetitions performed are usually lower, leading to greater protein synthesis.

Compound Exercises Benefits

Below we touch upon some benefits of compound exercises.

Increased Muscle Hypertrophy

Compound exercises are highly effective for building muscle mass and overall strength across the entire body.

Because multi-joint exercises work so many muscle groups at once, they create a powerful stimulus for muscle growth and development.

Better To Improve Functional Fitness

Compound movements are better functional exercises. In other words, they can replicate the way your body moves in day-to-day situations.

This is beneficial as with regular compound training you’ll find you have improved mobility, coordination, and movement patterns.

Saves Time In The Gym

If you’re pressed for time but still want to squeeze in a full-body workout, the best exercises will be compound movements.

As we mentioned above, you’ll train with heavier loads and perform less sets and reps meaning you can spend less time in the gym than if you were to stick to isolation movements alone.

Improves Cardiovascular Strength

When lifting heavy weights, you’re going to increase cardiovascular output which raises your heart rate during training.

An increased heart rate will also burn more calories leading to better results for fat loss.

You Can Lift Heavier Weights

Lifting heavier weights not only saves you time in the gym, it will also be better for overloading the muscles across your whole body helping to make you stronger.

When you compare this to isolation lifts, such as the leg extension, maybe you can perform many reps at 100lbs, but you’ll only be working a single muscle group.

Conversely, you’re likely able to perform something such as a deadlift at lower reps but much higher weight such as 400lbs and work many more muscles.

Compound Exercises Drawbacks

Exercises Are More Technical To Perform

Compound exercises typically take longer to learn until you can perform them with good form. Technical exercises can put more stress on joints, not least because you’re lifting more weight, so form is critical to prevent injury.

If you have any pre-existing issues with certain joints such as the shoulders or hips, compound exercises should probably be avoided.

You’ll Need More Recovery Time

Lifting heavier weights and working several muscle groups at once will fatigue the body and central nervous system.

This means you’ll need to factor in adequate time to allow the body to rest and recover to you get strong and build more muscle.

They Can Lead To Muscle Imbalances

When working multiple muscles at any one time it’s not uncommon for stronger, more dominant, muscles to take over.

This is especially true when the body starts to get tired. This can create muscle imbalances in terms of strength and muscle size.

What Is An Isolation Exercise

An isolation exercise is a single-joint movement that stimulates one muscle group at a time.

An example of an isolation exercise is the bicep curl which involves bending at the elbow joint and activating the biceps brachii.

Isolation movements work individual muscles and are typically performed at high volume and done slowly and with control for a better mind-muscle connection.

While only one joint extends or flexes during an isolation movement to move the weight, often a second joint comes into play isometrically which helps to provide stability.

Other examples of isolation exercises include the cable reverse fly, lateral raises and skull crushers.

Isolation Exercises Benefits

Below we consider some of the benefits of isolation exercises.

Increased Muscle Volume

If you perform only compound lifts you may find that some muscles seem to be lacking, whether it’s size, strength and even definition.

The best way to exhaust specific muscle fibers is to focus on isolation lifts. By adding in high reps to smaller muscle groups can help to address these flaws.

Can Help To Address Muscle Imbalances

Isolation movements are great to address any muscle strength or size imbalances. During heavy set compound lifts, your stronger muscles will automatically come into play leading to certain muscles taking a back seat.

To counter this, incorporate single joint lifts into your workout routine.

Better Mind-Muscle Connection

When activating multiple muscles at once, it’s unlikely you can focus on that mind to muscle connection.

You may think this doesn’t matter. However, numerous studies have shown that bringing your attention to stimulated muscles and focusing on the contraction can help improve strength and muscle size.

Isolation Exercises Drawbacks

Here are some of the cons of isolation exercises.

They Can Be Time Consuming

If you only perform isolation exercises, you’ll find you need to spend significantly more time in the gym in order to achieve an all over workout.

This is because to properly stimulate the muscle fibers of each muscle, you’ll need to perform many sets and repetitions.

More Equipment Needed

When performing compound lifts you can away with a few staple items such as a workout bench, a barbell and some weight plates.

However, if you want to focus on a specific muscle group such as the quads only, you’ll need access to a machine that allows you to do so, something such as the leg extension machine.

Best Compound Exercises

Below we’ve provided a list of some of the best compound exercises for muscle hypertrophy.

  • Barbell Back Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Stationary or Walking Lunges
  • Pull Ups
  • Barbell Glute Bridge
  • Farmers Walk
  • Trap Shrugs
  • Push Ups

Best Isolation Exercises

Here you can find some suggestions for best isolation exercises:

  • Calf Raise
  • Leg Curl
  • Leg Extension
  • Preacher Curls
  • Skull Crushers
  • Lateral Raises
  • Upright Rows
  • Concentration Curls


While compound exercises are fat-burning, muscle-building, and strength-training powerhouses, isolation exercises are like the precision tools helping to increase volume and improve muscle definition.

By combining both compound and isolation exercises in your routine, you can create a well-rounded and effective workout plan that will help you achieve your goals and hit your targets.

If your primary focus is on building as much size and strength as possible then start off with compound exercises.

You can then begin to incorporate certain isolation exercises to improve volume and definition and address any imbalances.

Plus, by mixing things up every now and then, you can push your body past any plateaus whilst keeping your workouts fresh and exciting. So, don’t limit yourself to one type of exercise or the other; embrace both and take your fitness to the next level!

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