Compound vs. Isolation Exercises: What Are They & How to do Them

You’ve probably heard of these 2 terms before;

  • Compound exercises

  • Isolation exercises

But do know what they mean and how they can affect your ability to build muscle and get strong?

You see, both of these types of exercises have their place in your training plan, but they serve very different roles.

One should make up the bulk of your training plan and will be the driving force behind gaining strength and building muscle.

The other should be used in support of the first to help round out your physique and bring up lagging body parts or muscle imbalances.

Get this right and you’ll be on your way to building muscle but focus on the wrong thing and you’ll struggle to see the progress you want.

To get you on the right track, today’s article will cover;

  • What are compound exercises?

  • Compound exercise examples

  • The benefits of using compound exercises

  • What are isolation exercises?

  • Isolation exercise examples

  • The benefits of using isolation exercises

  • An example workout plan using both compound and isolation exercises

Let’s jump right in.

 

What Are Compound Exercises?

Compound exercises are any exercise that works multiple muscle groups through multiple joint actions.

What this means is that any exercise that works 2 or more muscles with movement at 2 or more joints is a compound movement.

For example, the bench press works the chest, shoulders and triceps with movement at the elbow and the shoulder.

The squat works the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves with movement at the hips, knees and ankles.

Compound movements are known for allowing you to lift a much greater amount of weight due to the fact that multiple muscle groups are being recruited to provide the force needed.

 

A List Of Common Compound Exercises

There are a large number of compound exercise that work all parts of the body, but perhaps the most common are;


Bench Press

All bench press movements (incline, flat, decline, barbell & dumbbell) are compound exercises.

It works the chest, shoulders and triceps with movement at the shoulder and elbow.

Here’s how you do the flat bench press and incline dumbbell press:

Deadlift

Like the bench press, all deadlift variations (standard, Romanian, hex bar and sumo) are compound exercises.

Working the back, legs and a lot of the rest of the body also, the deadlift has movement at the knee and hip joints.

Here’s how you do it:

Shoulder Press

The shoulder press, like the bench press, is a pushing exercise that can be performed both seated or standing with either a barbell or dumbbells.

It works the shoulders and triceps with movement at the elbow and shoulder joints.

Here’s how you do the standing barbell press and the seated dumbbell press:

Row

Including but not limited to bent over, t-bar and one arm dumbbell variations the row works the back and biceps with movement at the shoulder and elbow.

Here’s how you do the bent over row and single arm row:

Chin Up

Similar to the row, the chin up (and pull up) work the back and biceps with movement at both the elbow and shoulder joints.

Making them both great back building exercises.

Here’s 2 videos;

  1. Great for those of you who are not 100% sure how to a pull up or chin up

  2. Goes into more detail on the differences and best form for both movements

Squat

The squat and all its variations; high bar, low bar, goblet, front and more work the entirety of the lower body, with some additional work coming from the core and back.

It is most definitely a compound exercise, working a large number of muscles with movement at the ankle, knee and hip joints.

Here’s how you do it:


Lunge

Like the squat, the lunge works a lot of muscles including the whole of the lower body. It can be performed either from the floor or with the rear foot elevated on a bench, using either dumbbells (easier) or barbells (more difficult).

It requires movement at the ankle, knee and hip to be performed making it a compound exercise that’s great for building up the legs.

Here’s how you do the standard lunge and the Bulgarian split squat (rear-foot elevated lunge):

Dip

The dip is another chest, shoulder and triceps exercise that works multiple muscle with movement at the elbow and shoulder.

When done weighted and with good form it can be a great additional to a chest or shoulder workout or even used as a bench press alternative.

Here’s how you do it:

 

The Advantages of Compound Exercises

There are several big benefits to prioritising compound movements in your workouts;


#1 – Compound exercises train a lot of muscles at once

The more muscles you can train the greater your potential for strength and muscle growth.

Not to mention, training multiple muscles in one exercise does the work of several isolation exercises in one go, saving time in your workouts.

Tip: if you’re ever short of time in the gym then you can ditch the isolation exercises and focus purely on the compound exercises.


#2 – Compound exercises allow you to lift a lot of weight

The more muscles an exercise uses, the more force you can generate, the more weight you can lift.

The more you can lift the better you can apply progressive overload and the more regularly you apply progressive overload the more strength and muscle you can build.

Win, win.

 

What Are Isolation Exercises?

Isolation exercises are any exercise that work a single muscle group through a single joint action.

For example, the bicep curl only trains the bicep with movement at the elbow joint.

The lateral raise only works the side head of the shoulder with movement at the shoulder joint.

Isolation exercises don’t allow you to lift as much weight as compound exercises but do allow you to target specific, smaller and more stubborn muscles.

 

A List of Common Isolation Exercises

There are a large number of isolation exercise that work all parts of the body, but perhaps the most common are;

Bicep Curl

The bicep curl, both barbell and dumbbell, trains the bicep with movement only at the elbow joint making it an isolation exercise.

It can be used to great effect to increase strength and size of the arms.

Here’s how to do both the barbell bicep curl and the dumbbell hammer curl (the second video is a bit old but still gives you everything you need):

Lateral Raise

Also known as lat raises for short this exercise focuses directly of the side head of the shoulders with movement at the shoulder joint.

When used in conjunction with other exercises that work the remaining 2 heads (front and back) of the shoulder muscle it can be used to build big, strong delts.

Here’s how to do it:

Front Raise

Similar to the lateral raises except it’s performed in front of the body and targets the front head of the shoulder.

It too only uses movement of the shoulder joint and can be performed with dumbbells, weight plate or cables.

Here’s how to do it:

Chest Fly

Used to isolate the chest muscle and work it with overloading the shoulders and triceps the chest fly trains the chest with movement at the shoulder joint.

This exercise can be used in a number of ways to help with chest development and lends itself to both flat and incline variations using either dumbbells, machines or cables.

Here’s how to do it:

Rear Delt Fly

As the name suggests this exercise works the rear of the shoulder with movement at the shoulder joint and is perfect for rounding out the shoulders with some direct work on the rear head.

Here’s how to do it:

Triceps Extension

The other half of the ‘big arms’ equation the triceps actually make up two thirds of your arms mass and with an exercise like tricep extensions you can target them directly.

With movement at the elbow only triceps extensions are a pure isolation exercise.

Here’s how to do the seated double hand and lying singe hand extensions:

Calf Raise

Working the calves with movement at the ankle joint this exercise (if you’re like me) is perfect as it can really help you target the small stubborn muscles of the calves and help balance out your overall leg aesthetics.

It can be performed standing or seated with either a barbell or set of dumbbells.

Here’s how to the stand barbell raise and the seated raise:

 

The Advantages of Isolation Exercises

There is one primary benefit to using isolation exercises that you cannot get when using compound exercises.

#1 – Isolation exercises allow you to closely control overall workout volume

What I mean by this is that, using isolation exercises allow you to target specific muscles without impacting the recovery of other muscles.

This cannot be done with compound movements.

For example, if you’re doing the bench press to work the chest you will also work the shoulders and the triceps. There’s no way to separate the work done by each much when using the bench press.

However, if you wanted to work just the chest without increasing the overall work done by the shoulders and triceps then you could do the chest fly.

This would allow you to specifically target the chest without requiring additional work from other body parts.

Another example could be if you wanted to work the biceps but didn’t want to do additional back work. Instead of doing rows or chin ups you could use bicep curls and leave the back out of it completely.

This is the primary benefit of isolation exercises.

Another benefit is;


#2 – Isolation exercises allow you specifically target stubborn muscles.

Linked to the first point, isolation exercises allow you to target a single muscle that might require extra work due to its slow rate of growth or perhaps a muscular imbalance.

This can allow you to do things like;

  • Target the lateral (side) head of the shoulder if you feel it’s lagging behind the rest of your shoulder development

  • Focus more on the triceps to build larger, thicker arms without doing additional shoulder or bench press work

  • Build up your calf muscles with adding in extra sets of squats or lunges

Sample Workout Routine Using Compound and Isolation Exercises

Workout One - Chest, Tris & Abs

Warm up and then

Incline bench press

Flat dumbbell bench press

Dips (weighted if possible)

Skull crushers

Tricep extensions

Abs of your choice

 

Workout Two - Back & Biceps

Warm up and then

Chin ups (weighted if possible)

Bent over rows

Shrugs

Barbell curls

Dumbbell hammer curls

 

Workout Three - Legs & Shoulders

Warm up and then

Squats

Romanian deadlifts

Calf raises

Barbell shoulder press

Lateral raises

Reverse flys

  

Takeaway Point

Compound and isolation exercises both play an important role in any training programme.

Remember compound exercises are any movement that works multiple muscle groups through multiple joint actions i.e. the bench press.

For this reason, compound exercises recruit more muscles, allow you to lift heavier weights and in turn build more muscle and strength.

Compound exercises should definitely make up the bulk of your workout.

Isolation exercises on the other hand work a single muscle through a single joint action i.e. the bicep curl.

For this reason, isolation exercises don’t allow you to lift as much weight but are still useful for helping to round out your physique, stimulate stubborn muscles and fix muscle imbalances.

A well-balanced workout plan will focus on compound movements but use a few isolation exercises to maximise its effectiveness.