Compound vs. Isolation


When people first come to our gym we do a full consultation and really dig deep into exercise history. One of the most common mistakes that I've noticed is that people tend to do too much isolation work, and too little (if ANY) compound movements.

If your general goal is to lose fat, build muscle, or improve athletic performance, the vast majority of your training should be compound movements!

I guess we should quickly explain WHAT a compound exercise is and what an isolation exercise is. So here we go:

Compound Exercises

These are movements that engage two or more different joints which means that multiple muscles/muscle groups are working at once.

An example of a compound exercise is the squat. It works muscles that act on the ankles, knees and hips. Some main muscle groups include: quads, hamstrings, glutes

Isolation Exercises

These are movements that engage only one joint. This usually means a single muscle is targeted in the exercise.

An example of an isolation exercise is the leg extension machine. This exercise only acts on the knee joint and specifically targets the quads.

So why is no good to do too much isolation work and less compound movements?

Let's break it down into goal dependent scenarios shall we?

Fat Loss

Compound movements simply work more muscles at the same time. Working more muscles, means you're burning more energy and increases your metabolism post-workout compared to just doing isolation movements.

If your goal is to "tone up" but all you do is cardio, some light bicep curls and planks, it's time to switch it up. Come see us for a custom program that will most likely contain LOTS of good ol compound movements.

Muscle Building

Compound movements allow you to lift more weight. Simple as that.

Real talk, Isolation work is actually a key part to bodybuilding. It allows you to really focus on a muscle/exercise and get a mind-muscle connection which has been a proven method to build muscle even in evidence based research. Isolation work ALSO allows you to get a skin splitting Arnold PUUUUUMP with high reps, which has also been proven to assist in building muscle. HOWEVER, that's only one side of the story. On the other hand, Mechanical Tension (aka. how much fuckin weight your muscles can handle and contract against) has just as big of a role in muscle building.

Let me ask you, can you hamstring curl more than you can deadlift? I'm going to assume you answered "0% chance".

Compound movements allow your muscles and joints to handle heavier weights because there are multiple joints being worked and supported.

So if you want to build muscle but you've only been doing chest flys, curls, triceps extensions and god knows what else, it's time to fire things up a bit and add your main strength lifts: Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, Pull Ups or Downs.

Athletic Performance

This is a fun one. Can you name one sport where they only use one joint???

"That's a HAAARRRDDDDD no". Most sports require you to move in different directions, different positions, produce force against an object that could be moving or stationary or against gravity or another person who's moving dynamically.

Isolation work for athletes is almost pointless unless you fall under the category we're about to cover below. Basically, you're not going to get significantly faster, stronger or better at your sport by doing isolation work. Athletic development has a lot to do with getting strong and powerful in movements that closely mimic the movements of the sport. If you're a basketball player and you want to increase your vertical what do you think will help you more:

Squats? Or Leg Extensions?

The squat mimics the movement of a jump (obviously extremely important in basketball). The leg extension mimics a kid at the dinner table who isn't tall enough for their feet to touch the ground.

Taking this one step further, we're going back to the Strength aspect we touched on in the muscle building section. Another huge aspect to athletic development is learning how to produce higher amounts of force against an object or gravity. Strength training with big compound exercises will help improve force production. Doing a bicep curl will only help you curl your arm in a fixed position (unlike most sports), and lift that burger from the plate to your mouth. Wait, that's actually pretty key... Okay maybe we'll keep the curls, now I want a burger. #detroiteatery #squareboy #offthehook

What did Isolation Exercises Ever Do To YOU???

Okay, I'll stop shitting on them because there's actually a time and place for them in most programs. But, never as a primary exercise.

Here are a few examples of when isolation exercises can help:

- Like we discussed earlier, they can help build muscle. Just make sure they're done after the compound movements in your workout. Think of it as a specialization tool. If you cover the muscles you want to work with compound movements, you can add some isolation work to get an extra pump. Pick a muscle that you want to be bigger and do extra iso work at the end of the workout.

- You can use them to target a muscle that may be specifically weak in a movement. If your bench press is weak in the top half of the movement, your triceps might be weak or too small proportionately. If that's the case, do some triceps work at the end of your workout.

 If you're an athlete, the hamstrings are generally very important and injury prevention is crucial. Doing some isolated hamstring work (Nordic Ham Curls) has proven to be beneficial in decreasing hamstring injuries.

- If you currently have an injury there may be certain compound exercises that you can't do without pain yet. This is where you'll probably be able to target specific muscles that aren't injured and work them separately.

Take away points:

Compound movements should always take up the majority of the workout. Use isolation work at the end if you want to specifically target a weak muscle. If you want to lose fat, you should probably just stick with pure compound movements, unless you have a specific injury. In which case, training anything is better than nothing.