Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

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Gone are the days of old where gym rats would spend hours in the gym, using isolation exercise after isolation exercise to build the perfect physique. While isolation exercises definitely have a place in a workout program, they should not take up the bulk of your plan. Instead, you want to focus on compound movements for maximum results in less time.

What’s the difference between compound exercises and isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises work one muscle, while compound exercises work more than one muscle at a time. Some common isolation exercises are tricep kickbacks and bicep curls. These exercises are commonly found in gyms across the world. They are absolutely effective at building and strengthening the one muscle they are working, but they are not the most effective way to make big changes to your body.

More work = less time

Compound exercises like a bench press, deadlift or squat work multiple muscles along with the main muscle they are training. A bench press will work your triceps in the same way a tricep kickback will, but it will also work your shoulders and your chest. This means you are hitting more than one muscle group at a time, making your workouts shorter while still being highly effective.

Hormones and Metabolism

Because compound exercises use more than one muscle at a time, they will cause your body to release more human growth hormone with each rep. This is important for both metabolism and muscle growth. The more work your muscles are doing, the more energy they will require, which means if you eat the same way, but incorporate more compound movements into your workout, your body will burn more calories to recover and the leaner you will get.


Compound movement strengthens your body more effectively for the actual activity you do every day. Think about it. How often do you move each day using only one muscle? Consider the movement pattern of a bicep curl. Other than when you are doing a bicep curl, how often do you move that way? Now consider a shoulder press. Have you ever lifted something over your head in a similar movement pattern as a shoulder press? Maybe you’ve lifted a heavy box up onto a shelf or your little one up into the air. A shoulder press is a compound movement that is not unlike what your body does functionally every day. Strengthening your body in a functional way is done far more effectively with compound movements than with isolation exercises.

When should I use isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises are best used for those who really want to focus on shaping their body in a specific way. If you are trying to grow a specific muscle, you would use an isolation exercise to do that. Isolation exercises are also best used as a supplement to a weight training program that is based on compound movement. It isn’t terrible to do tricep kickbacks as long as that isn’t the only exercise you are using to shape your arms.

If you want maximum bang for your buck in terms of increasing metabolic rate, improving functionality and decreasing time in the gym, then be sure that your workouts consist primarily of compound movements that will hit multiple muscles with every rep.


Common compound moves include:




Bench Press

Cable Rows


MIlitary Press


As always, if you need help finding a program that incorporates this moves, I would love to help. Please check out my programs here and let's chat! 



Weight LiftingJenny Mire