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  • Writer's pictureLouie De Belen

Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises: Which is Best for You?

Since their invention, compound exercises have been the mainstay of bodybuilding and strength training routines around the world. However, with the rise of isolation exercises in the modern fitness realm, compound exercises are being seen as obsolete by some people; but this couldn’t be further from the truth!

As with most things in life, there are benefits to both compound and isolation exercises; it’s just a matter of knowing which exercise best suits your needs based on your workout goals before you make any decisions.

Compound Exercises

Compound exercises are a type of exercise that involves multiple muscle groups working at once.

They require more energy and activate more muscles than isolation exercises, which means they burn more calories. This is because compound movements require your body to move through space more quickly than isolation movements do, which means you burn more calories in the process.

Compound exercises also allow you work more muscle groups in a shorter amount of time - more bang for your buck! This means that you can stimulate more muscle growth by hitting muscle groups more frequently.

In addition to burning fat and building muscle faster, compound exercises also help you lift heavier weights with the help of various muscle groups. A big plus for moving day!


  • Higher calorie burn

  • Better efficiency; more muscles worked in the same time

  • More focus on strength, stability & coordination


  • More technical; more likely to be performed incorrectly with the potential to aggravate pre-existing injuries

Examples of Compound Exercises


  • Primary muscles: quads, glutes

  • Secondary muscles: core (abs and lower back), upper back, calves


  • Primary muscles: hamstrings, glutes, lats (back)

  • Secondary muscles: quads, shoulders, core (abs and lower back)

Hip thrust

  • Primary muscles: glutes

  • Secondary muscles: quads, hamstrings, core (abs and lower back)

Overhead shoulder press/military press

  • Primary muscles: shoulders, triceps

  • Secondary muscles: core (abs and lower back), upper back

Bench press

  • Primary muscles: chest, triceps, front of the shoulder

  • Secondary muscles: core, mid-back

Bent-Over Row

  • Primary muscles: back, biceps, back of the shoulder

  • Secondary muscles: core (abs and lower back), glutes, hamstrings

Pull-ups/lat pull-downs

  • Primary muscles: lats (back), biceps,

  • Secondary muscles: core (abs and lower back), mid/upper back

Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises focus on developing one particular muscle group at a time without any assistance from surrounding muscles like compound movements do

- so instead of having everything working together at once like in compound movements we'll get more focused results by isolating on just one much smaller part called "the target" area."


  • Allows you to add more workout volume to certain muscle groups (to grow them more)

  • Rehabilitation work - working a single weakened muscle at a time can't be achieved easily with compound movements

  • Can be used to improve strength of compound lifts by targeting specific weaker (a.k.a. "lagging") muscles


  • Burn fewer calories (if you're after calorie expenditure)

  • Less efficient if you can't dedicate a lot of time in the gym

Examples of Isolation Exercises

  • Biceps curls. Muscle target: biceps (muscles on the front of arm)

  • Triceps pushdowns. Muscle targeted: triceps (muscles on the back of arm)

  • Leg extensions. Muscle targeted: quads (muscles on the front of thigh)

  • Leg curls. Muscle targeted: hamstrings (muscles on the back of the upper leg)

  • Calf raises. Muscle targeted: calves (muscles on the back of the lower leg)

  • Lateral/front shoulder raise. Muscle targeted: shoulders

  • Chest Flyes. Muscle targeted: chest

Here's a table of a sample upper body workout that includes both compound and isolation exercises.

In summary,

If you don't plan on spending more than 3hrs/week strength training, we recommend that your programme be almost exclusively compound exercises. For anyone spending longer than this, we recommend having a good mix of both. Generally speaking, the more time you spend exercising, the more isolation work you'll want to throw in on top of your compound movements.

Compound movements are exercises that require a lot of energy thus performing these at the start of the workout program is a good idea.

However, different goals require different training styles. Some like to begin with isolation exercises for pre-exhaustion purposes to feel that extra “pump”, but others don’t like the idea because they feel weaker with this type of training style.

Choosing the type of exercise and the sequence of exercises is crucial in creating a workout plan. Compound and isolation movements have both their pros and cons.

The answer really depends on the training objective and current fitness level. If you are an individual who wants to focus on building your foundation and overall strength then aim for compound exercises. If you are an individual who aims to target specific areas or to target muscle imbalances, then aim for isolation exercises.

Need help deciding which exercise you should try for your fitness goals?

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