Compound vs. Isolation Exercises and Why You Should Care

The long and short of it is, if you’re not doing compound lifts, you’re missing out on gains.

For decades, body builders have been doing bicep curls, tricep extensions, calf raises, and more. All of these single joint exercises allow you to focus on specific muscles and capture that sought after pump.

However, research shows that while you can increase strength and muscle size with single joint movements, it’s far superior to focus on compound lifts.

Before you go and scream at me, check out the rationale and where your accessory lifts have a place in your workouts.

Multi-Joint Exercises: Strength & Hypertrophy

There won’t be many people who say that benching, squats, and deadlifts are bad for increasing strength and hypertrophy. However, I think beginners are afraid to start tackling these heavier movements, and they’re missing out on gains.

This study from 2017 compared the strength and hypertrophy results from 36 young males when focusing only on single joint movements vs. compound exercises. Check out the study for the actual numbers, but the group focusing on compound movements tended to lose more fat mass, gain more lean mass, and had significantly larger increases in VO2max, squat, bench press, and knee extension.

The exception to this study is that volume load (total weight lifted) was equated, but can you do more volume load with isolation exercises vs. compound exercises? While it is true that isolation exercises induce less fatigue, the addition of isolation exercises may not add significant increases in strength or hypertrophy over time.

This study by Barbalho et al. compared two groups of women, one with only compound movements and the other with compound and isolation. The groups saw no difference in strength, while only a 3mm difference in muscle diameter with the group completing isolation lifts.

So we do know that compound lifts are better than isolation lifts when it comes to strength as well as hypertrophy, BUT this is only looking at the prime mover of that compound lift. These studies are not looking at a barbell row, and measuring it’s impact compared to a bicep curl.

Other Compound Lift Benefits

Maybe you’re not lifting for strength or hypertrophy, or maybe it isn’t your only goal. In that case it may not matter to you, and you’re still nervous to pick up the barbell. Let’s take a look at some other benefits.

Calories

If you’re trying to lose weight, compound lifts are going to be a way better bang for your buck. Moving your entire body through multiple joints burns more calories than trying to get that pump doing some curls. While there isn’t much information on comparisons between the two, common sense tells us that compound lifts will burn more calories.

Intramuscular Control

Completing a compound lift requires much more focus, coordination, and balance than an isolation lift. Consider doing a lateral raise compared to a bench press. There are more muscles, more joints, and just more movement occuring during the bench press. This complex movement improves how all your muscles move together in order to generate force.

Dynamic Flexibility

Walk up to any serious lifter and ask them if they feel a stretch in their legs when doing a squat. If they say no, they’re doing a squat wrong. Compound movements improve your flexibility through a large range of motion, improving overall flexibility.

So why would I want to do isolation work?

Back to the example of the row and bicep curl. If your a body builder, you’ll want to add in isolation work on the muscles that are lagging. Based on your individual genetics, you may have parts of your body that grow rapidly, and others that fall behind. Some muscle groups can be difficult to target using compound moments. Some body parts people tend to focus isolation work are forearms, biceps, calves, front and medial delts.

Summary

In general, compound movements should take up the majority of your lifts, with isolation work on lagging body parts. You should have compound lifts for the following movements. Examples in parentheses, but there are other options if some of these don’t work for you, or you don’t have the equipment. Most if not all of these can be done with dumbbells or barbells.

  • Horizontal push (Bench press)
  • Horizontal pull (Rows)
  • Vertical push (Overhead press)
  • Vertical pull (Pull up)
  • Leg press (Squat)
  • Hip Hinge (Deadlift)

Get out there and lift some heavier weight!

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