Maybe you’re looking to build strength or muscle mass. Or maybe you’re trying to come back from an injury that sidelined you. Whatever the case, your approach to exercise will vary depending on your individual goals. No matter what you want to achieve, it helps to know the relative benefits of compound vs isolation exercises.
Keep reading to learn more about the differences between these two exercises. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to tailor your workout to your own personal needs.
What Makes Something A Compound Exercise?
Simply put, a compound exercise is one that engages the movement of multiple joints at once. That means you’re usually engaging at least one major muscle group.1,2
Some common — and popular — compound exercises include:
- Lateral pulldowns
- Bench press
- Hip thrusts
- Pull ups3,4,5
Squats, for example, primarily engage the quadriceps, gluteal, and core muscles; but they also employ the hamstrings, back, and shoulder muscles.6 The bench press (and the push up) work the chest but also engages the triceps and the shoulders.7 And while pull-ups mostly rely on the lateral muscles of the back, they also engage the entire upper body.8
You can perform many of these movements using only your own body weight as resistance. That means you can perform them almost anywhere. And bodyweight resistance can support muscle growth just as well as certain types of weight training.9,10
The Benefits Of Compound Exercises
When you use multiple muscle groups at once, you’re also reaping multiple benefits. Here are a few.
When practicing resistance training, you’re not just strengthening your muscles. You’re also forcing your body into something called neuromuscular adaptation. You’re essentially teaching the muscles how to coordinate with each other. The more you adapt, the stronger you may become.11
Compound exercises may offer a greater neural challenge than isolated exercises. This may lead to greater overall strength gains.12 It is possible, though, that it may take a bit longer to achieve those gains.13
If you’re working hard in the gym, you’re probably going to experience DOMS: delayed onset muscle soreness. You may not be able to avoid it, but you may be able to mitigate it with compound exercises.
At least one study suggests that multi-joint exercises may make you less sore than single-joint exercises. You may also recover more quickly from DOMS incurred from compound exercises.14
Compound exercises may do more than just build muscle. They may even improve your cardiorespiratory fitness.15 Exercises like squats and the bench press may help increase your body’s maximal oxygen consumption.16
Multi-joint exercises can be especially useful for a sport-specific workout routine. If you’re looking to increase your endurance as well as your strength, compound exercises may be just what you’re looking for.
What Are Isolation Exercises?
Unlike compound exercises, isolation movements work on one muscle group at a time.17,18
Some common isolation exercises include:
- Biceps curls
- Triceps extensions
- Abdominal crunches
- Leg extensions19,20
The Benefits Of Isolation Exercises
When you perform isolation exercises, you’re only focusing on one muscle group at a time. But one exercise can still reap many benefits.
Strengthening Weaker Muscles
Maybe you’re starting a new strength training program. Or maybe you’re recovering from injury, and you have to build your strength back up. Either way, you might not want to jump right into intense compound exercises. That’s where isolation movements come in.
Some of your muscles may be weaker than others. Everyone’s body is different. Isolation exercises may be a great way to help stimulate them. As you strengthen individual muscles, you’re also preparing them for more complex multi-joint movements.21
Strength Gain Speed
After a certain point, there may not be much difference between the strength gains from isolation and compound exercises.22 But at first, the nervous system may adapt more quickly to single-joint exercises. That means that initial strength gains may come faster with isolation movements.23
A Workout That Works For You
When it comes to strength training, technique is especially important to avoid injury.24 And it’s important to know what your body is capable of doing.
If you have certain knee issues, for example, deep squats may not be right for you, no matter how strong you feel.25 And people with shoulder issues might want to avoid overhead movements, like military presses.26
A personal trainer can be a big help in figuring out how to challenge yourself without putting yourself at risk for injury. Whatever your situation, consult with your doctor when beginning a new exercise routine.
No matter what your goals — and no matter where you’re starting from — both compound and isolation exercises can be useful tools. Even if you can execute 20 perfect pull-ups, you may still want to employ isolation exercises to keep your rotator cuff strong and healthy.
There’s no one workout that works for everyone. But there is one that will work for you. It may take some experimentation to discover what feels right. Thankfully, there are hundreds of exercises, compound and isolation, at your disposal. And as you grow in strength, your workout can grow along with you.