Isolation Exercises vs. Compound Exercises

Isolation Exercises vs. Compound Exercises

An introduction to the different exercise techniques

Isolation versus compound exercises are part of a debate that has gone on in the world of fitness, muscles, body building and gym since the dawn of the dumbbell. Some say that compound exercise is the way to go and isolation is a waste of time. Some believe that a combination of the two is the best way to build muscle and tone up.

Many of the strongest athletes are known to swear by compound exercise such as dumbbell lunges as well as squats. On the other hand, some of the most famous bodybuilders spend most of their training time using isolation exercises such as dumbbell flies and standing barbell curls (something we will explore a little later). Personal trainers will often recommend combinations of the two for functional and rehabilitation training programs. But what it all comes down to is the fact that the exercises you choose are dependent on your goals.

The main difference between the two types of exercises is the amount of muscle being used.

Isolation exercises focus on a specific muscle group with little input from other muscles. A compound exercise focuses on a variety of muscle groups being used through one movement. For example, a seated bicep curl is an example of an isolation exercise as it only uses the biceps to lift the weight and one joint for movement, being the elbow joint, on the other hand, a bench press uses both the elbow and shoulder joints for movements and targets the pectorals, shoulders and triceps, making it a compound exercise.

In order to put an end to this debate, we decided to write this article wherein we will explore all you need to know about isolation and compound exercises, what they mean, what they are, what benefits they have and more.

Isolation exercises explored

We will first explore what you need to know about isolation exercises, what they are, what they do and the different exercises for them.

What are isolation exercises?

The name itself gives an indication as to what this group of exercises entail. This form of exercise, ‘isolates’ a specific muscle group and occurs at one joint only, this limits the participation of any other muscles. It is a very focused exercise.

What are some examples of isolation exercises?

Dumbbell fly

Dumbbell fly

The target muscle group: Pectorals

In isolating the chest muscles, this exercise limits the use of heavy weights so as to avoid injuring your shoulders. This can be performed on a straight or inclined bench.

How it’s done: Lie back, with a dumbbell in each hand (rather start lighter to determine your strength and to ensure that you do not damage your shoulder muscles).

Extend your arms in front of you, the dumbbells should be in line with the top of your chest, then extend your arms out to the sides, whilst keeping a slight bend in your elbows, being cautious to not overstretch your shoulder joint as you lower the weights, feel the stretch in your pecs (that’s your chest muscles 😉) and then bring your arms back up. Repeat.

Standing barbell curl

The target muscle group: Biceps

These target your biceps and focus on building your predominant arm muscles, being one of the best bicep exercises, these should be completed as the first exercise in your workout to work the muscle group effectively.

How it’s done: Stand up with your back straight, hold the barbell with a wide grip, and curl the weights upwards, keeping your elbows in the same position (if they move while pivoting, this is classified as cheating and does not work the muscle group as well as it should), if this is the case, get a lighter weight until you have the correct form. Breathe out as you contract your biceps, lifting the bar to shoulder level. Hold for a second and squeeze the biceps. Slowly lower the bar down to the starting position and repeat.

**Tip: Always exhale when you are exerting your strength and inhale as you return to the starting position and relax. By monitoring your breathing, you are ensuring that your body is getting the oxygen it needs to ensure that it is working at full capacity. Therefore, you are exhaling as you are exerting energy, and then inhaling at rest to allow for your body to get a good breath of oxygen needed for the next rep.

Leg extension

 Leg Extensions

The target muscle group: Quadriceps

In a lot of compound leg exercises, through working large muscle groups at once, you may often feel tired in the middle of your workout, this makes balancing and strength difficult. With this workout, you are seated and allow your legs to focus on one muscle group – your quads. This exercise, which should actually be called a knee extension because the knee is the joint that moves, this is often the final leg exercise in your workout and is joint-friendly when done right.

How it’s done: This exercise is done on a machine which pretty much guides you along. Sit on the machine, facing forward, place your legs under the padded round bar, you can also adjust everything to your own dimensions. Then, using your quads, push your legs to their full extent (straight leg) whilst exhaling. Hold for a second. Then return to the resting position and repeat.

Standing dumbbell lateral raise

Standing dumbbell lateral raise

The target muscle group: Middle deltoids (triangular shaped muscles found in the top area of the shoulder)

This is an exercise that works unbelievably well. Many bodybuilders and gym-goers alike swear by this exercise, and the results are noticeable in a short period of time. The trick is to not put pressure on your lower back (you can sit or stand while doing it, although sitting helps relieve pressure) and lead with your elbows for the movement.

How it’s done: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, resting them on your upper legs, with the dumbbells facing forward and your elbows slightly bent. Lean forward just a bit, having your knees and hips at a slight angle and a curve in your back – stick your bum out a bit too.

Lift your upper arms, using the shoulder as the joint that is moving, raising your arms until they reach shoulder height, hold for a second and then return. You should feel a good burn in your upper shoulders.

Don’t lift your arms above your shoulders as this will not work the area correctly and can result in injury.  

Lying hamstring curl machine

Lying hamstring curl

The target muscle group: Hamstrings (upper muscle at the back of your leg)

These exercises are great because they are really easy to do and have fantastic results. They are normally done after a heavy leg workout and use the knee as the joint of movement. They have minimal risks and can be done with minimal effort with the correct form.

How it’s done: Start by adjusting the machine accordingly to your dimensions, then lie with your stomach on the machine, having the back of your legs pushing against the padded bar/lever, just a few centimetres or inches above your ankles. You can also lift your head and rest your elbows on the bench. Then slowly begin lifting the bar with your legs, breathing out on exertion and breathing in as you lower the bar back to starting position.

What are the pros and cons of isolation exercises?

Pros

Isolation exercises are great for targeting a specific muscle group. This is often helpful when you have a muscle group that needs work or is weaker than others. Many say that they get a great muscle ‘pump’ after their workout when they have focused on only a few muscle groups. This refers to the ‘pump’ your muscles have as they have increased in size after your workout, the muscles have expanded as they break and tear to grow in size.

Isolation exercises are a terrific way to pack on size and muscle.

Cons

Isolation exercises are not always recommended when you want to lose weight. They take more time to complete and in focusing on one muscle group at a time, tend to burn fewer calories. Isolation exercises do not release as many anabolic hormones during your workout, these are released when a workout is more taxing. This is not to say that isolation exercises do not get the job done, they are just more focused on working a particular muscle group, as opposed to many.

Compound exercises explored

Now that we have explored isolation exercises, we will go into what compound exercises are, what they do and how they can benefit you.  

What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises are multipoint exercises, meaning that they use more than one joint movement in order to be performed as well as focusing on multiple muscle groups. This form of exercise targets more muscles in a shorter period of time and results in a more exhausting yet often effective workout.

What are some examples of compound exercises?

Squat

Squat

The target muscle groups: Quads, hips, buttocks, calves and hamstrings

The squat is known as the king of lower body exercises. It is one of the best compound exercises to ever hit the gym, targeting the majority of your leg muscles in just one movement. As well as your legs, it will also strengthen you back muscles and stomach as you use these areas for balance.

How it’s done:

You can do a squat with or without a weight, an air squat is a squat without a weight. If you want to use a weight, normally a straight bar (loaded barbell) is used. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, having your toes pointed outward slightly, as your arms will either be loose by your sides or holding the weight resting on your shoulders.

You will then engage your core while pushing your shoulder blades towards each other, resulting in your chest pushing out slightly.

Then, bend your knees as you push your bum (buttocks) as well as your hips out behind you, imagine you are about to sit on a chair, make sure your weight is on your heels and your knees do not go beyond your toes.

Carry on pushing your bum down and out, going as low as you can, ensuring your back has a nice inwards curve to it, and that your knees do not fall inward. Lift your arms up in front of you if you are doing an air squat.

Then squeeze your glutes and begin to straighten your legs as you come back up.

Repeat.

Lunge (with or without weights)

Forward lunge

The target muscle groups: Quads, hips, buttocks, calves and hamstrings

Like the squat, lunges are the holy grail of workouts. Activating your entire lower body in one big step, they are great for shaping the glutes and also working the lower back and abs for balance.

How it’s done: Start by standing with your torso in an upright position as you hold two dumbbells – one in each hand (you can also do this with a loaded barbell resting on your shoulders). Keeping your hands at your sides (or on the loaded barbell if you’re using one), feet shoulder-width apart, take a big step forward with your right leg, leaving your left leg behind you. Bringing your left knee as close to the ground as you can get it, both your knees should be at a 90-degree angle, as you then bring your left leg forward to be in line with your right. That is one lunge.

You can either follow suit in a continuous stepping movement or if you have heavier weights or need a break, bring your feet together before each lunge. You can also vary the workout in stepping out with each leg at a wider angle, this engages your inner-thigh more.

Dumbbell shoulder press

Dumbbell shoulder press

The target muscle groups: Triceps, deltoids (upper shoulder muscles), biceps and pectorals (chest)

How it’s done: The exercise begins seated or standing. It is advised that if you are lifting heavier weights, you do this exercise seated as you will need the back support. Start by holding a dumbbell in each of your hands, placing them upright as they rest on your thighs.

Then, begin to raise the dumbbells, one at a time, to shoulder height, if they are lighter you may be able to raise them at the same time. Rotate your hands so that their palms are forward facing – this is now your starting position.

Exhale as you move from your starting position to pushing the weights upwards, until your arms are extended and the weights touch above your head.

Pause for a second and then inhale as you lower them back to the starting position.

Repeat.

Deadlift

Deadlift

The target muscle groups: Lower back, glutes, quads, calves and upper neck muscles

Named a ‘deadlift’ as you are picking up a dead weight (even though all free weights are dead weights), it is known as a technical lift compound exercise and is often used in bodybuilding competitions. If you can get the technique right, it is a great way of strengthening your lower back and legs.

How it’s done: This can be done with either a straight bar (loaded barbell) or with a dumbbell in each hand, with the top of your hand facing forward as you grip the weight/s. The most important thing to ensure in this exercise is that you do not allow your back to round – this can cause serious damage to your lower back. For the sake of this explanation, we will explain the exercise using a bar, however, it is performed in the same way using two dumbbells.

Start by holding the bar with your hands, legs bent, it will be raised off the ground due to the weights on either side. Standing with your feet halfway under the bar or dumbbells, not letting the bar touch your shins. Grab the bar, bending your knees over it, gripping it shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms vertical as you look ahead.

Begin to straighten your back as you raise/lift your chest. Keep your position. You can also keep your legs straight for this exercise and bend until you feel a slight pull on your hamstrings and return to standing straight. 

Now, take a deep breath and breathe out as your stand up, pulling the weight with you. Keeping the bar in close contact with your legs as you pull. When you are in an upright position, do not lean back or shrug, lock your knees and hips. Then return the weight slowly by unlocking them as you inhale. As you move your hips back, lower the bar, lowering it passed your knees. At this point, bend your legs more. Lower the bar to the floor. This was one rep.

Romanian single-leg deadlift with row

Romanian single-leg deadlift with row

The target muscle groups: Same as deadlift, as well as abdominals, arms upper back

There are a number of ways in which you can vary a deadlift, such as the single-leg Romanian deadlift.

How it’s done: Here, you will have one dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand at a time. Start with feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight in your right hand. Lift your right foot off the ground as you hinge at the waist and begin to lean forward with a straight back. Your right arm should fall naturally forward, when you are low enough, pull the weight towards your chest, keeping a straight line with the movement. Return to standing position.

Plank with leg lift

 Plank with leg lift

The target muscle groups: Glutes, abdominals, lower back and shoulders

This compound exercise is great because you can do it with no weights or equipment and therefore it can be done in the comfort of your home. The infamous ‘plank’ is a workout that is simple yet effective, and when combining this with a leg lift, it makes the exercise all the more rewarding.

How it’s done: Begin in the position of a side of a plank. Using a mat, rest in your elbows and forearms which are on the mat, then extend your legs outwards as you position yourself onto your toes. Keep your back straight and do not let your stomach fall to the ground. Then, when you are comfortable with this, lift your right leg off the mat and engage your core. Hold this for as long as you can, preferably a minute, then bring your leg down and repeat on the other side.

What are the pros and cons of compound exercises?

Pros

Compound exercises are great for when you want to burn a lot of calories and get in an effective workout! They are able to work and engage a number of muscles in a short period of time and result in significant toning and strength, they also enable the body to develop proportionally.

Cons

Compound exercises can, however, result in injury when the proper form is not followed or when you try to lift a weight that is too heavy for your size and strength. Compound exercises can also be tricky when you have a specifically weak muscle group or a damaged muscle.

The verdict

As isolated and compound exercises, both have their benefits and setbacks, and also come with a wide variety of exercise options, this makes it difficult to determine which one is best.

What it comes down to is this, if you are looking to build a specific muscle group and have the time to do so, then isolated exercises are the way to go for you. These are also great for physio on muscle groups after an injury.

If on the other hand, you have limited time, but want to burn calories and tone up, then we suggest you go with compound exercises. The best thing to do is consult with a personal trainer so that they can work out an exercise plan for you according to your goal.

However, as the verdict for an overall exercise routine (if you do have the time), we suggest a combination of both. Emphasis should be placed on the compound exercises whilst incorporating isolated exercises in order to help strengthen your weaker muscle groups. Think about isolation exercises as icing on the compound cake. Unless you’re on a diet. Then rather look at it as the blender to your juice cleanse.

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