Isolation and Compound Exercises: What are they, what's the difference, and why are they important?

If you’re new to the gym and trying to build a workout plan, or if you’re working with a trainer, you may come across certain terms & training methodologies that seem confusing. We have tons of fitness buzzwords that get thrown around the web and the gym that can confuse new lifters.

Two of these “buzzwords” are the terms “compound exercises” and “isolation exercises.” They are important terms to understand when writing a balanced workout program but aren’t always understood at first.

Is one better than the other? Should we only do compound exercises? Or should we only do isolation exercises? Does it really matter?

If you’ve ever wondered these things, I hope to clarify any uncertainty in this article.

Now... I want to assure you that it’s OKAY to not understand what a term means, a machine does, or what the purpose of an exercise is when you first begin training. Beginning a training program is a learning experience just like any venture in life, and no fitness professional should ever make you feel like you should know everything we know. It’s our job to teach YOU!

So What Exactly Are These Exercises?

-A “compound exercise” is any movement that utilizes multiple joints and muscle groups to perform the movement. This could be a squat or a push up.

-An “isolation exercise” is any movement that isolates specific muscle groups to move one part of our body. This could be a leg curl or a tricep extension.

Now that we know what these exercises are, how are they different?

The short and simple answer: there is more happening in a compound exercise and less happening in an isolation exercise.

To better explain this, I am going to compare a couple different exercise pairings.

Let’s compare two different leg exercises: the squat and the leg curl.

In the squat, our hips, knees, and ankles are moving to lower our body down and stand back up. The muscles that are facilitating exercises this include our quadriceps, our glutes, and our hamstrings.

In the leg curl, the only joints moving are the knees (this is known as “knee flexion”). The primary muscle group used to perform this are the hamstrings.

So now that we have established what these exercises are and how they are different, what is the purpose of having them in our exercise program?

Let me begin this section by stating that no exercise is “bad” or “unnecessary.” It all depends on the needs, skill level, and goals of the clientele. One exercise could be extremely helpful for one person but unnecessary or inappropriate for another.

In short: both of these exercises have their place when needed.

Compound exercises are commonly found at the beginning of the workout when your energy levels are the highest. They are great because you can lift  more weight with these movements, thus build far more strength in your entire body than with isolation exercises alone. They also take much less time to complete. I like to tell my clients these movements basically give you “more bang for your buck.” You accomplish more work in less time and develop movement patterns that are vital to daily life (for example: a squat strengthens your ability to sit down properly and with less effort).

Isolation exercises are commonly found at the end of a workout after the main compound movements (if you have them in your program). These exercises are great as well because they can address any weaknesses that the lifter may have due to previous injury or habitual movement patterns.  For example, if a trainer assesses your squat and notices that you are not properly engaging your glutes, they may prescribe glute bridges to help strengthen that part of your body. Similarly, if a trainer notices that in your push up you are struggling with the last half of the movement (where your triceps are working the hardest), then they may prescribe a few sets of tricep extensions. These movements are also a great starting point for beginners that aren’t quite comfortable performing bigger compound movements on their own. They can also help teach lifters how to properly engage certain muscle groups. How would you understand the cue “squeeze your glutes” while in the squat if you don’t know what it feels like to engage your glutes at all?

To summarize, both of these types of exercises are important. Compound exercises will have you work a little harder to perform one movement, but isolation exercises will also challenge you if it is working a weak point of yours. A workout comprised primarily of compound exercises will probably take you less time to complete versus a workout comprised primarily of isolation exercises, but neither type of exercise is necessarily “better” than the other. It all depends on the individuals needs, goals, and skill level.

If you have any questions, are unsure of how to do this or have injuries that require you to modify your workouts, contact one of our coaches to better assist you in reaching your goals!