Isolation Vs. Compound Exercises

isolation vs. compound exercises

Both are great, but which one can better benefit your overall gains?

When you work out, you may not even think about the topic of isolation vs. compound exercises, you just go through your workout in hopes of packing on some muscle mass or getting shredded. But looking at and knowing the difference between these two types of exercises is important for they can each affect your gains in a different way. Many of the workouts we do perform include a mix of either isolation or compound exercises, but it is important to know the difference as we seek more specific goals.

Whether you want to work your entire body, a group of muscles, or simply target one muscle group, that all affects your gains. And this isn’t just because of strength. Other factors to functional movements and sport specific ones make a difference depending on which exercise you choose to perform. By focusing fully on exactly what you want to accomplish you can better tailor your workouts to see those specific goals achieved.

Let’s dive into the topic of isolation vs. compound exercises and see what makes these exercises so important. Knowing the differences and how they affect various aspects of your training like strength, weight loss, and more can give you the right approach to better tackle all of these workout wants and needs.


Compound Exercises Breakdown

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements designed to work several muscles and muscle groups all at once. These are typically those more complex movements with things like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, which require many muscles to work together in one movement to see the best results. If you talk to trainers and other experts, they will typically guide you into performing more compound movements as these translate well into functional and sport specific movements (1). For those looking to get a full body workout, compound exercises are the way to go.

Isolation Exercises Breakdown

Isolation exercises are those exercises that specifically target one muscle or muscle group as you perform it. While you can use free weights for these exercises, typically you will find machines at the gym to be more suitable to isolation exercises. Exercises under this category include bicep curls, triceps kickbacks, lateral raises, and many more. Anything that focuses solely on one muscle or muscle group and can specifically build strength and size directly is an isolation exercise. These are great for those wanting to work out while rehabbing an injury, work to fix any muscle imbalances, and isolate one muscle to see effective gains.

Compound Vs. Isolation Exercises…

For Strength

Compound exercises. Looking to build more efficient strength, a compound exercise works many muscles and muscle groups so you start to build well-rounded and more functional strength. Plus, you can lift more weight with more muscle engagement thus increasing time under tension and provide optimal resistance for serious growth (2).

For Muscle Imbalances

Isolation exercises. Since isolation exercises allow you to focus on one muscle or muscle groups at a time, you can work to fix any of those dreaded imbalances that hurt your physique. Say your chest is slightly off, work with a single arm movement, like the single arm bench press or single arm fly, to fix that imbalance. Or your triceps just aren’t quite on point. Consider triceps kickbacks or one arm cable pushdowns to really target that spot and fix an imbalance (3).

For Weight Loss

Compound exercises. For those wanting to burn calories and shed more fat, look to using more compound exercises. You work more muscles, get that heart rate going, start sweating more, and thus burn calories and work towards a more shredded aesthetic. Lifting heavy is a great way to change fat to muscle and compound exercises allow you to lift exponentially more weight than isolation exercises (4).

For Specific Isolation

Isolation exercises. This may seem obvious, but yes, isolation exercises will work to target a specific spot so all the attention is on that muscle. This is perfect for those who may find their arms are lacking. Consider biceps curls and triceps kickbacks, two isolation exercises to increase strength and size and work for those bigger, more defined arms.

For Inter-Muscular Coordination

Compound exercises. Get your muscles working together and build better coordination all around. By needing many muscles to work together to complete the lift, you start to build a cohesive unit for other movements, whether they be functional or more sport specific. This will help with better body development on the whole.

For Injury Recovery

Isolation exercises. Say you are rehabbing a hamstring injury, but still want to work out. Compound exercises, at least those involving your lower half, are out of the question. Use isolation exercises to still build strength and size, as well as getting a good workout, without feeling like your gains are suffering.

Best Supplements For Post-Workout Gains

After a workout consisting of compound exercises, isolation exercises, or both, it is best to try and supplement with the right products so you see those gains you want most. Your post-workout routine needs to be absolutely on point as you seek the best for all of your gains. A protein powder is something to be used to increased growth and overall recovery, while a mass gainer is something to take to really increase mass. With a large balance of macronutrients, a mass gainer will be perfect for a clean bulk. Others to consider are creatine and casein protein, for creatine can increase strength and size and casein will provide for that vital overnight repair.

Isolation vs. Compound Exercises Wrap Up

When it comes to isolation vs. compound exercises, knowing what these can do for you can make or break your gains. The right approach to training and knowing what you want can be a game changer especially when you start to get more specific with your goals. Whether it be for strength and weight loss, or more isolation and injury rehab, both isolation and compound exercises can have a great effects on your gains.

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*Images courtesy of Envato


  1. Kak, H.; et al. (2013). “A Study of Effect of the Compound Physical Activity Therapy on Muscular Strength in Obese Women”. (source)
  2. Gentil, P.; et al. (2015). “Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy”. (source)
  3. Kim, T.; et al. (2015). “Effects of specific muscle imbalance improvement training on the balance ability in elite fencers”. (source)
  4. Willis, L.; et al. (2012). “Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and at mass in overweight or obese adults”. (source)
Austin Letorney
Austin Letorney is a writer, actor, and fitness enthusiast. As a former rower, he has shifted his focus to sharing his knowledge of the fitness world and strength sports with others.