Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
What is a Compound Exercise?
A compound exercise is an exercise that requires multiple joints and muscle groups to produce movement. For example, the hip and knee joints, and the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings work together to produce a squatting movement, thus a squat is a compound exercise.
Examples of Compound Movements
Lower body: Squats, deadlifts, reverse lunges
Upper body: Bench press, overhead press, pull ups, chin-ups, bent over rows.
What is an Isolation Exercise?
An isolation exercise is an exercise that primarily relies on one muscle, or muscle group, to produce movement. In other words, an isolation exercise will isolate one specific muscle or muscle group. For example, a biceps curl isolates the biceps.
Examples of Isolation Exercises
Lower body: Leg extension, leg curl, calf raises
Upper body: Biceps curl, triceps extension, lateral raises, shrugs
Should You Use Compound or Isolation Exercises?
Most training programs will include both, but will often feature a higher number of one or the other.
A bodybuilder might focus their training on isolation exercises and an Olympic lifter might focus their training on compound movements; neither are better, the exercise selections just reflect their different training goals.
All types of training and exercises have their place and can be effective, the most effective exercises for you will depend on your personal goal…
Let’s take a look at three different people and determine whether compound or isolation exercises are best suited to their aims…
"I want to exercise to lose weight and become generally healthier…"
Compound movements stimulate the whole body, burn lots of calories, build lean muscle and increase strength; compound movements are therefore a good choice for people who are seeking to lose weight and become generally healthier.
Isolation exercises can be used if there is a specific muscle group or area of the body someone particularly wants to work on, but the focus of the program should be compound movements.
"I want to have massive biceps…"
If your goal is to stimulate growth in a particular muscle or muscle group then exercises that recruit that muscle should be the prominent feature of your training program. A combination of compound movements and isolation exercises that recruit and target the specific muscle will ensure maximal stimulation.
For example, someone who wants to have massive biceps might use a combination of compound movements that recruit the biceps, such as chin-ups and heavy rows, and lots of isolation exercises that target the biceps such as dumbbell curls, barbell curls, cable curls, preacher curls etc.
"I want to improve my sports performance…"
People with athletic performance goals should spend the majority of their gym time performing compound movements. Why? Two main reasons:
Very rarely in sport is one muscle group required to work in isolation.
The appearance and size of a muscle is generally not important in sports; what’s important is being strong and powerful in the relevant movement patterns and being able to move your body as one coordinated system, not as separate parts.
Compound movements train the body to move as one system, as is done in sport, and can make the whole body stronger and more powerful.
Isolation exercises are often used as assistance exercises in athletic performance programs but spending lots of time on isolation exercises is generally not an effective use of time for athletes, unless there is a specific reason for doing so.
Compound movements use multiple joints and muscle groups to produce movement.
Isolation exercises target specific muscles.
Most training programs use a combination of compound and isolation exercises.
The best type of exercise for you is dependent on your goal.
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