Compound vs Isolation Exercises

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Written by Master Coach, Jade Mckee

When it comes to getting the most out of an exercise program, which type of exercise is going to get you the most ‘bang for your buck’?
Will it be a compound movement? Or an Isolation exercise?

Let’s have a look at the difference between compound & isolation exercises.

Compound exercises
Compound movements are multi-joint movements, working a number of muscle groups at the same time. These movements tend to be more functional and are time efficient. Because they are training multiple muscle groups simultaneously, you are able to accumulate more volume in a much shorter period of time. Your compound lifts will also allow you to move a heavier load, recruiting an increased number of motor units, leading to faster strength and hypertrophy gains.

Some examples of compound movements include:

  • Squat
  • Dead lift
  • Bench press
  • Shoulder press
  • Lunge
  • Bent Over Row
  • Push up
  • Leg press

Isolation exercises
In contrast, isolation exercises move a single joint, focusing on a specific muscle or muscle group. So isolation exercises can be more effective than compound exercises when it comes to TARGETING a SPECIFIC muscle. Isolation exercises are particularly effective if your client has a muscular imbalance or weakness, which they need to improve. When it comes to these imbalances, you can complete these isolation exercises unilaterally to make sure the “stronger” side is not helping to move the load. Isolation exercises can also be helpful when it comes to improving the mind-muscle connection with a particular muscle.

Some examples of Isolation exercises include:

  • Leg extension
  • Hamstring curl
  • Lateral raise
  • Calf raise
  • Bicep curl

Generally, you want to work your large muscle groups first in a training session, completing your compound exercises BEFORE your isolation exercises. However, there are a couple of situations in which you might choose to do your isolation exercises first.

If you are wanting to make sure you are activating a particular muscle before beginning your compound exercises, you might complete light sets of a particular isolation exercise first.

With this method, a particular muscle is fatigued by performing a set of an isolation exercise before the compound exercise. This can result in less weight having to be lifted in the compound movement, while still fatiguing the particular muscle group.

This can be an effective technique to use if your client, for example, experiences knee pain and has difficulty squatting heavy. Your client will still be able to get results by pre-exhausting their quadriceps- completing leg extensions first, without having to a squat such a heavy load.

Therefore, we need to be including BOTH types of exercises in our client’s program, in order for them to get the best results from their training sessions. The order in which we choose to use them though, will need to be decided on a case by case basis- as it will depend on your client and their individual goals.

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Marchese, Rosemary. 2016. Essential Guide to Fitness for the Fitness Instructor. 3ed Edition. Cengage Learning Australia Pty Ltd
Morgan, A., & Valdez, A. 2018. The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid. Second Edition.
Performance PT Coaching Certification Level 1. 2020 Clean Health Fitness Institute.

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