Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

True Protein Blog Avatar Fallback reviewed by our Nutrition Team 23 August 2017

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Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

What is the best way to build muscle? Are movements that combine multiple muscle groups at once the way to go, or should we be isolating specific muscles? There are pros and cons to both, so here is a breakdown of the factors to consider when planning your workout.

What is the difference between ‘compound’ and ‘isolation’ exercises?

Weights training exercises generally fall into two categories: compound and isolation. As its name suggests, a compound movement uses a combination of muscle groups and joints. A popular example is the squat, which works the core, hamstrings, calves, glutes and lower back all at the same time. In contrast, an isolation exercise is targeted and works one joint and one specific group of muscles. For example, bicep curls work only the biceps and use the elbow.

Benefits of compound movements

Compound movements are great for overall muscle development, strength and size, and form good foundations for training. As you’re engaging more muscles and joints, you put less strain on specific areas of the body. Also, choosing a workout that uses a compound exercise means you can work out more muscles but spend less time in the gym!

Engaging multiple muscle groups at once allows you to maximise the weight you’re lifting and results in faster progression. Also, using multiple muscle groups allows you to lift heavier weights in general. You also engage and strengthen your core muscles, which helps posture and prevents spinal injuries.

Cons of compound exercises

Compound movements are great and can be extremely beneficial when performed correctly. One con of compound exercises is that they are often more difficult to complete and require more focus and greater attention to form. There may be a greater risk of injury if not performed correctly and can be tricky if you have a specifically weak or damaged muscle. 

Tips for compound movements

There are a few things to remember when doing compound exercises. Firstly, technique is critical to both the success and safety of your training. Always ensure your neck and back are supported, and warm up fully before exercising. Secondly, it can be easy to forget that compound movements are working multiple muscle groups at once. Take note of which exercises work which muscles in order to avoid overworking your stabilising muscles – the ones assisting the movement. For example, the anterior deltoids and triceps assist the pectorals in a chest press, so be careful not to combine too many exercises in your workout that also work these muscles.

Benefits of isolation movements

Isolation exercises are fantastic for targeting and engaging specific muscle groups. If there is an area of the body which needs greater attention – whether due to injury or underuse – then isolation movements are ideal.

Depending on the muscle worked, a seated position when doing isolation movements is usually preferable and more effective, as even standing still uses a range of muscles that you may be unaware of.

Cons of isolation movements

Isolation movements can cause muscle imbalances if the antagonist muscle is not worked equally. If one muscle group is well-developed and the opposite is not, the body is out of alignment. For example, you need to consistently work both your bicep and tricep. 

Tips for isolation movements

Pin-loaded cables and free weights are ideal for isolation exercises, and help avoid injuries caused by ‘pattern overload’. As you’re only working one group at a time, variety is important to avoid only training certain muscles. Some muscles are often neglected and can cause unexpected issues later down the track. For example, underdeveloped gluteus medii (which sit above the gluteus maximus) can cause hip, knee and ankle pain. Targeting underused muscles such as these is an absolute must, and can be done effectively using isolation movements. Man doing bicep curls


Ultimately, it is important to establish what your goals are when planning a workout. Function or aesthetics? Do you want to increase strength and performance or are you looking for a great summer body?

If you want to work on a specific area of the body, say building muscle and toning your arms, isolation exercises are perfect. However, your main focus should be on compound movements that work a combination of upper body muscles. You don’t want to put on too much mass in just one area! Instead of a triceps press, try a triceps dip. This uses the pectorals, deltoids, and rhomboids, and will give you a better overall tone.

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It is important to focus most of your workout on compound movements. If you are just starting out or looking to get into weights training, it’s a great idea to build overall strength first and identify areas of improvement later. Isolation exercises can be beneficial in certain circumstances (including injury recovery and appearance) but are less effective and efficient than compound weights training.


IMPORTANT INFORMATION: all content provided here is of a general nature only and is not a substitute for individualised professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and reliance should not be placed on it. For personalised medical or nutrition advice, please make an appointment with your doctor, dietitian or qualified health careprofessional.