Compound vs Isolation Exercises

Updated: Jan 3

It is important to understand the difference between these two categories of exercises to ensure that you are getting the most out of your workout.

bench press

What is a compound exercise?

A compound exercise uses more than one joint or muscle group at the same time. A good training programme should mainly consist of these type of exercises. For example the bench press is a compound chest exercise because although it's primary muscle is the chest it also requires the use of the majority of your upper body muscles. With a good leg drive the bench press also requires use of your lower body.

Other examples of compound exercises include:

  • Squat

  • Deadlift

  • Lunges

  • Shoulder Press

  • Row

Benefits of compound exercises:

  • Stronger - By using several muscles at the same time you are able to lift more weight and therefore increase your strength.

  • Time Efficient - To put it simple you get 'more bang for your buck'. You are able to work more muscles at once, allowing you to save time.

  • Increased Energy Expenditure - As a result of using more muscles at once, you increase the demand of energy required by your body and as a result burn more calories.

  • Movement Quality - Compound exercises simulate more natural movements of the body and this helps improve sport performance, mobility and balance. It also helps prevent injury.

Negatives of compound exercises:

  • More Technical - They can often be more intimidating for someone who is new to weight training because of their complexity. Often people feel a lot more comfortable picking up a couple of dumbbells and doing some bicep curls, then the would grabbing a barbell and doing a deadlift.

  • Hard Work - Due to the fact you are able to use more muscles at once, lift more weight, increase heart rate and burn more calories, it shouldn't come to any surprise that they are a lot tougher.

What is a isolation exercise?

It is not possible to only use one muscle at a time, however a isolation exercise is used to focus on one particular area of the body. For example an isolation exercise for the chest is a dumbbell chest fly. This exercise requires little use of the other upper body muscles and primary focuses on the chest.

Other example of isolation exercises include:

  • Leg Extensions

  • Hamstring Curls

  • Lateral Raises

  • Bicep Curls

  • Triceps Press

Benefits of isolation exercises:

  • Target Muscular Imbalances - It is common for individuals to have certain imbalances and these type of exercises can be used to address specific muscles. This can be used to improve performance or rehab a certain injury.

  • Define specific area - However this is only applicable to experienced body builders because the majority of lifters can gain significant muscle growth and definition from compound exercises alone.

Negatives of isolation exercises:

  • Risk of Muscular Imbalances - If you do not work the opposing muscle to the training muscle you will create muscular imbalances and in time will result in injuries.

  • Less benefits - The most negative factor about isolation exercises is that the benefits of compound exercises completely outweigh the benefits of isolation exercises.


Both types of exercises can have a place in the majority of training programmes. However it is always important to understand why you have included a certain exercise. A good general training programme should always start and mainly consist of compound exercises to achieve optimal results.

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