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Compound Exercises And Isolation Exercises: When Should I Do What?

Hi Friends of Oompf, its Alvan here. Today I am going to talk about the difference between compound exercises and isolation exercises.

Exercises can be categorized as either single-joint (isolation) or multi-joint (compound) exercises. There has been a great deal of debate and controversy over which type of exercises (isolation or compound) lead to better muscle growth. But first let’s talk about what are Isolation and Compound exercises.

Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises are single joint movements in which only one muscle group is trained alone. These exercises are used to “isolate” single muscle groups with minimal involvement from other supporting muscles.

Examples are:
1. Bicep curls
2. Preacher curls
3. Leg extensions
4. Calf raises
5. Triceps extensions

All of the above exercises isolate single muscle groups through movement at one joint. Using the example of bicep curls, the weight is curled up with only the contraction of the biceps muscles and movement at only the elbow joint.


1. Resolving imbalances
This is beneficial in the case of a muscular imbalance (greater growth in some muscles than others). Targeting smaller, weaker muscles can improve symmetry, leading to not only growth of the target muscle but greater functional strength.

2. Full range of motion
You can train the muscle through its full range of motion to a maximum degree. For example, to really develop your biceps you would need to perform isolation exercise such as dumbbell curls, because there are no compound exercises that primarily target the biceps. Examples of compound exercise that recruit the biceps muscles would be underhand grip rows, pullups and pulldowns. The problem here is that the primary working muscles in these exercises are the back, with the biceps working secondarily. In this case, to maximally work the biceps, isolation exercises such as curls are required.

3. Building mind muscle connection
Isolation exercises also help to develop a better mind-muscle connection. The more efficiently you can call on a muscle group to work, the better you will be able to fire muscle fibres and develop that muscle. Your muscles are connected to your brain by nerves and a strong connection helps you mentally control the amount of force you can generate on a given exercise. As a result, you can really focus your attention on a single muscle at a time, leading to better target muscle development.

Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are multi joint movements that involve the use of more than one major muscle. These exercises target one major muscle group but recruit several other smaller muscles secondarily.

Examples are:
1. Bench press
2. Rows
3. Lat Pull-downs
4. Pull ups
5. Deadlifts
6. Squats
7. Overhead Shoulder Press
8. Dips

The above listed exercises are compound movements that work more than one muscle group through movement at more than one joint. The bench press is a good example of a popular compound exercise. The primary target muscle in this exercise is the chest but the shoulders and triceps muscles are also heavily involved. The bench press works both the elbow and shoulder joints, making it a compound exercise.


1. Time saving
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.

2. Effective in gaining muscle mass
Effectively training to gain muscle mass means your routine should largely consist of compound movements, which are widely considered and research proven to be more effective because they recruit greater amounts of muscle fibres which allows for more weight to be lifted.

3. Impact hormonal level for more muscle building
The larger muscle-recruitment positively impacts how anabolic hormones (muscle building hormones) respond to training. Post-exertion hormonal elevations correlate with how much muscle mass was involved in the exercise. In many research studies, compound exercises produce greater increases in growth hormone and testosterone levels than isolation exercises. Growth hormone and testosterone are potent muscle building hormones.

4. Stronger stabilizing muscles
Compound exercises tend to require significant stabilization of the entire body, thereby involving numerous muscles that otherwise might not be stimulated with isolation exercises.

So, the question is when do you compound and isolation exercises?

Answer is do both!

A training session always starts with compound exercises performed first, followed by isolation exercises. Compound exercises are more physically demanding and performing them first means you will have the energy to perform these exercise with maximum intensity, resulting in greater release of anabolic hormones and greater overall workout intensity. Isolation exercises should be done afterwards to target certain muscle groups you cannot target primarily in the compound exercises for symmetry in strength and size or anywhere you think is “lagging” in terms of development. For maximum overall muscle development, both isolation and compound exercises must be used.

Did you find this information useful? What compound and/or isolation exercises do you find most relevant to you? Send your responses to [email protected]


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