Every so often there are debates about what exercises are better than others, and this is never more prevalent then when discussing compound movements versus isolation movements.

Some people will say you should only utilize compound movements because they work the bigger muscle groups and will expend more energy, while the opposing side will claim isolation exercises will bring out your muscles better.

Now while it is true that you will get more “bang for your buck” performing compound movements, isolation exercises do have their place. And depending on your goal, they can both help you in the long run.


Before we get too far, let’s dispel some misinformation that isolation exercises get you toned and defined, while compound exercises will build strength and size. Both have their place in your program. So just stop right there.

Compound Exercises

You may be asking yourself “What exactly is a compound exercise?” It’s an exercise in which you use more than one muscle group or joint at a time. Think movements like squats, thrusters, push-ups, lunges, etc. Compound exercises usually fall under the basic movement patterns of:

Hip Hinge

If you’re doing any of these, chances are you are doing a compound movement.  So why should you do them?

Among the benefits of compound exercises are a greater energy expenditure, which means more calories burned, you end up with a full body workout that hits multiple muscle groups, and allows for more strength gains.

In addition, there is also more muscle recruitment, which allows you to lift significantly more weight, which will increase the intensity of the exercise you are doing.

For example, squats utilize a number of muscle groups, and because of this, you are going to be able to move a lot more weight than doing, say, a leg extension.

Compound vs  Isolation_1

Isolation Exercises

Well if compound exercises use more than one muscle group or joint, then by contrast isolation exercises would involve singular muscles and joints. Think bicep curls, leg extensions, or triceps extensions.

Isolation exercises can be great for injury prevention or rehab, muscle activation, and/or increasing volume on a specific muscle. When coming back from injury, often times, specific muscles may be weakened or inactive.

Performing some isolated activation exercises can be useful in getting stronger so that compensation patterns don’t form.

Another example could be that you want to increase the strength and size of your triceps, but after benching (a compound exercise), you may not want to tax your chest any more than it has been.

So instead of doing say, pushups, you may do something like triceps extensions or Tate presses. This way you put more work into the triceps without increasing the volume on your pecs.

Should You Do Both?

The short answer is yes; both have their place in your workout routine. However it comes down to how you go about programming your workout routine.

Because of the high energy expenditure, muscle demands, and intensity, it is best to start with compound exercises (unless you are coming off an injury, in which case do your rehab/prehab isolation exercises first).

Once you have done all the sets for your compound movements, depending on what your goals are, you can add in isolation exercises to correct imbalances or posture, fix movement patterns, or to increase volume on specific muscles.

How can you use both types to get the most out of your workout?

Let’s look at two different compound exercises and see how we can improve them with isolation exercises

Starting with the deadlift, if your goal is to build strength for this exercise, it would be unwise to only do hamstring curls and then expect to hit a new personal record on your deadlift a few weeks later.

However, using hamstring curls in conjunction with deadlifting can support that goal of having a stronger deadlift.

However, if you are having an issue with certain aspects of your lift, you can certainly target areas that may be a weak spot in the system.

Squatting is another example where doing an isolation exercise like banded clamshells or banded lateral walks can help improve squatting mechanics.

Letting the knees track in on a squat is often a sign of poor mechanics and glute activation. If, however, you work on doing isolation exercises like the two examples above, you could enhance your mechanics and learn to push the knees out while squatting.

Think of the body as a machine. A machine, when well maintained, will move flawlessly and effortlessly. In order for our bodies to move as smoothly as a machine does, we have to become our own mechanics.

When we pick something up off the floor we may squat down to pick it up, thus using major muscle group together to accomplish this task. To get a closer look we may now use flexion at our elbow to bring said object closer to our face, using only our bicep muscles.

Thus, using both types of exercises in our workout will help us not only reach our goals, whether they be physique based, rehabilitation, or strength, using these together will help us in everyday life as well.


For the most part, you are going to want to use compound movements because they have the most energy expenditure and you are going to be able to load those movements at a higher intensity than isolation exercises.

You are also going to want to do isolation exercises to support the compound movements as well as they pay needed attention to muscles that may not be firing properly, or for pure aesthetics.

Isolation exercises may not necessarily help improve the strength of compound movements, but they may, and they can improve form, mechanics, and efficiency of the compound exercise. However, what makes up the bulk of your program is going to be goal dependent.

If your goal is to be more athletic, compound movements are going to be more important than doing isolation exercises.

If your goal is to have big arms in time to hit the beach, then maybe you add in some isolation exercises to make your arms grow a little. Or maybe you are coming off an injury and trying to rehab, or even just take a little injury prevention.

In that case, some simple isolation exercises will do wonders.

Take a look at what your goals are, and then try incorporating both compound and isolation exercises. Because there are times when compound exercises are ideal and times where isolating a muscle, muscle group or joint is necessary.

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Pollyanna Hale Health and Lifestyle coaches
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Mel, 32y Location: London, United Kingdom Working with Pollyanna changed everything. I lost 13kg, got toned and have more energy than ever! Get same results!


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