Isolation vs. Compound Workouts – What Type of Exercises Should I be Doing at the Gym?

When you hit the gym, you want to do the best workout possible, but what does that workout include? You may have heard fellow exercisers mention compound and isolation exercises. What’s the difference between these two types of exercises? More importantly, should you be performing isolation or compound workouts?

The answer will depend on your fitness goals and, more specifically, what you want to achieve during each workout session. Let’s take a look at compound vs. isolation exercises so you can get the most out of every workout.

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

What are compound movements? These are exercises that recruit multiple muscles, joints, and/or muscle groups. The big three weightlifting movements – squats, deadlifts, and bench press – are all examples of compound exercises. They also happen to be some of the best compound exercises to achieve a full-body workout. Compound exercises give you more bang for your buck. By performing a single movement, you can work lots of different muscles at the same time. For example, a back squat uses the glutes, quads, core, hamstrings, and lower back. 

Most weightlifting exercises are compound movements. Compound weightlifting movements and bodyweight movements are both often incorporated into functional fitness workouts, meaning workouts designed to mimic movements you perform in real life.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, isolation exercises only work a specific muscle, joint, or muscle group. The goal is to focus on strengthening or improving a single muscle at a time. One of the most popular isolation exercises is the good old bicep curl. You can perform a wide range of isolation exercises using free weights, and many resistance machines at the gym are also designed to focus on single muscles or muscle groups, like the ab crunch machine or the quad extension machine.

Common Compound Exercises

  • Squat (front squat and back squat)
  • Deadlift
  • Bench press
  • Lunge
  • Pull-up
  • Push-up
  • Thruster
  • Box jump
  • Dips
  • Shoulder press

Common Isolation Exercises

  • Bicep curl
  • Calf raises
  • Hamstring curls
  • Crunches
  • Abductor press
  • Adductor squeeze
  • Tricep kickbacks

Benefits of Compound Exercises

What are compound lifts, and should you be doing them as part of your workout? Here are all the reasons why compound workouts can help you supercharge your fitness progress.

They let you get the most out of your workout

Let’s start with the biggest benefit of compound workouts – they are your best option for overall muscle development and fitness improvement. Working more muscles at the same time means you’ll get a greater result for your effort. In other words, you’ll maximize each workout.

By performing exercises that recruit multiple muscles to work together, you’ll increase your overall strength. For example, if you only work your pectoral or chest muscles, you won’t get very far in improving your bench press. By also training your deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (back arms), you’ll put all three muscles to use during a bench press, which will give you much better overall strength results.

You’ll save time

Most people can’t stay at the gym for two or three hours working each individual muscle to exhaustion. Instead, compound movements allow you to work large sets of muscles together so you can get through your workouts more quickly. If you’re in a time crunch, compound workouts are an excellent solution.

Activates ancillary muscles

Your body contains many small ancillary muscles that help stabilize or support larger muscles in the body. It can be difficult to work these muscles through isolation exercises. Compound movements, on the other hand, are great for recruiting and working ancillary muscles. Strengthening these muscles, such as inner core muscles, can help boost your overall strength as well as improve your posture.

Lowers your risk of injury

Compound movements allow you to balance the strain of each exercise across multiple muscles and joints. The functional movement aspect of compound workouts also helps recreate actions you perform in everyday life. (For example, deadlifts can help train you to lift heavy boxes from the floor.) Compound exercises also strengthen stabilizer muscles. All these features help lower your overall risk of injury while playing sports, working out, or living your everyday life.

Benefits of Isolation Exercises

If compound exercises allow you to maximize your fitness, why would you want to include isolation workouts in your fitness programming? There are, in fact, several valuable benefits to isolation exercises as well as specific scenarios where isolation workouts are the best option.   

Increase muscle size

One of the most common reasons individuals focus on isolation exercises is to achieve muscular hypertrophy or the increase in the size of specific muscles. Bodybuilders spend a lot of time at the gym performing isolation exercises in order to create a very specific physique. 

Even if you aren’t a bodybuilder, you may decide to perform isolation exercises if you want to sculpt specific areas of your body, like your arms or chest. (Interested in adding muscle? Take a look at the EōS Fitness Complete Guide to Bulking Up.)

Rehabilitate injuries

Want to know where you’ll see lots of isolation exercises? Rehabilitation centers commonly use isolation workouts to help patients regain their strength and mobility after injuries and surgery. Isolation exercises are also great for strengthening stabilizer muscles that can help shore up injured joints.

Correct muscle imbalances

Muscle imbalances can limit your fitness progress or even increase your chance of injury. Your body will often try to compensate for weak muscles by overusing other muscles. For example, a weak core will limit your ability to squat. It could also lead to a breakdown of your form during a heavy squat, which could result in a lower back injury. Isolation exercises are ideal for correcting these muscular imbalances and improving your overall performance.

Beginner-friendly

If you are joining a gym for the first time, deadlifts and back squats with a barbell may seem intimidating. Additionally, if you don’t know the right technique for performing complex compound exercises, you’ll increase your chance of getting injured. Isolation exercises are usually simpler to perform than compound movements. Many resistance machines that focus on isolation exercises are easy to use and allow a beginning exerciser to immediately begin improving their fitness.

No Need to Choose Between Isolation and Compound Workouts

The beauty of fitness is that there is no singular right answer to reaching your goals. You don’t have to choose either compound workouts or isolation workouts. Instead, many exercisers choose to incorporate both isolation and compound exercises into their workout programming.  

For example, you may want to focus on compound movements for a majority of your workouts, since they save time, are highly effective, and recruit major muscle groups as well as stabilizer muscles. However, if you notice that your hamstrings are weak compared to your quads, you may decide to add some isolated hamstring exercises as part of your workout. Or, if you’ve always wanted to tone your chest and arms, isolation exercises can give you the sculpting you want.

Here’s a great example of an interval workout that uses both compound and isolation movements:

  • 3 x 10 Barbell Squats (compound)
  • 2 x 20 Calf Raises (isolation)
  • 4 x 8 Deadlifts (compound)
  • 2 x 12 Hamstring Curls (isolation)

 

Not sure how exactly to program compound and isolation movements into your workouts? Consider investing in a personal trainer. A trainer can teach you the proper form for more complex compound movements and program a workout regimen based on your fitness goals. Whether you want to get swole, shed pounds, or recover from an injury, a personal trainer can determine the right mix of compound and isolation exercises to help you reach your goals.

If you want to find a gym to perform isolation and compound workouts, sign up for a Complimentary 7-Day Pass at EōS Fitness. 

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