Hey Coach, What is the Difference Between Compound and Isolation Exercises?

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There is no single, magical, exercise that will turn into a muscle-bound god of abs and biceps (not even the mighty squat). Any solid work out plan should incorporate a variety of exercises, to work different groups and generally make your gym time less tedious and a bit more exciting.


While the exact exercises that make up your plan will depend on your own goals, access to equipment and experience, you really need a mix of isolation and compound exercises. These terms are thrown about by the fitness industry, and blogs such as this, but what do they actually mean?


Isolation Exercises


man curl dumbbell Isolation exercises are what many people think of as classic weight lifting movements, think bicep curls, leg extensions and the like. It is essentially a move that focuses on a single muscle, with a single movement.


Using the correct form and weight is very important with isolation exercises. To be fair, these are important with any exercise but particularly so with isolation moves. This is because you are likely to be putting more strain on a single muscle and joint, and if you do this incorrectly you can seriously injure yourself.


There is a time and place for these exercises, they’re great for working on ‘problem areas’ that require specific targeting and strengthening. Maybe one of your muscle group is lagging behing too. If you’re looking to build certain muscle groups (who doesn’t want bigger biceps?) then isolation movements are your friend.


Compound Lifts


barbell clean manCompound lifts have had a lot of press in recent years, sports like Crossfit have brought these to the forefront of social media and sports news. Many people seem to think these are the be all and end all of exercises that will solve all their problems, but again it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.


A compound movement is a lift that works multiple muscle groups at once, in one fluid movement. You’re likely familiar with squats, deadlifts or bench press – all of which are great compound movements.


This type of exercise is great for losing weight and gaining strength, particularly when paired with a low rep high weight workout plan. This is because multiple muscle groups are engaged, meaning they all get stronger, and this takes more energy, meaning you burn more calories and therefor lose more weight.


So, these make you stronger and leaner, perfect right? Well, as I mentioned earlier, this really depends on your goals. If you’re looking to add mass or strengthen particular areas, then isolation movements can often be more effective.


One issue with compound movements is they generally take a bit more effort to correctly execute than an isolation movement, as there are multiple muscles groups working together, and if they go wrong it can be a lot more troublesome. Poor form can damage your whole upper or lower body, rather than a single limb as in the case of a poorly executed isolation lift. This means more time away from the gym recovering and you don’t progress as fast as you’d like.


So, which do I focus on?


Knowing your goals and knowing how to achieve them should help you pick which style of exercise is going to be more effective. Endless bicep curls will make your arms grow, but they won’t necessarily make you very strong and being able to squat double your body weight won’t give you a t-shirt busting set of shoulders, so know what you want to achieve first of all.


Also, remember that variety is important in all aspects of life. Mix it up. I’d recommend starting your workout with a few big compound lifts, for example bench press first thing on chest day, before targeting specific groups with isolation exercises. This helps you warm up and gets all your muscles firing before you get stuck into the nitty gritty. Plus, you get the benefits of both, without getting bored of doing the same exercises over and over again at the gym. Classic hypertrophy programs always include both compound and isolation movements, making them a great choice for aesthetics or overall fitness.



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