Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises: Which is best?

A common way of classifying weight training exercises is in terms of how the exercise trains your body and what/how many muscle groups are being used significantly when it’s performed.

In this case, there’s 2 groups an exercise can fall into:

  • Compound Exercises
  • Isolation Exercises

Now, a lot of silly (or stupid) people like to make general definitive statements such as “compound exercises rule!” and “isolation exercises suck!”

Unfortunately for them (and the people who listen to them), it’s not quite that simple.

The truth is, both compound and isolation exercises can serve a ton of different purposes in a ton of different workout routines based on your goal and your body, and that means the only way to know for sure which type of exercise is best for you is by getting down to the specifics of each.

So, let’s do that.

Compound Exercises

A compound exercise is any exercise that involves the use of more than one major muscle group at a time. Typically, there is one larger muscle group that ends up doing the majority of the work, and then one or more smaller muscle groups that are recruited secondarily.

Here’s a list of the most common compound exercises along with the primary and secondary muscle groups each one targets:

  • Flat, Incline or Decline Bench Press (barbell, dumbbell or machine)
    Primary Muscle Group: Chest
    Secondary Muscle Groups: Shoulders, Triceps
  • Overhead Shoulder Press (barbell, dumbbell or machine)
    Primary Muscle Group: Shoulders
    Secondary Muscle Group: Triceps
  • Dips (on parallel bars with slight forward lean)
    Primary Muscle Group: Chest
    Secondary Muscle Groups: Triceps, Shoulders
  • Dips (on parallel bars with no forward lean)
    Primary Muscle Group: Triceps
    Secondary Muscle Groups: Shoulders, Chest
  • Rows (barbell, dumbbell, or machine)
    Primary Muscle Group: Back
    Secondary Muscle Group: Biceps
  • Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, Lat Pull-Downs (any type of grip)
    Primary Muscle Group: Back
    Secondary Muscle Group: Biceps
  • Deadlifts (many variations)
    Primary Muscle Group: Posterior Chain (Hamstrings, Glutes, Back, etc.)
    Secondary Muscle Groups: Much Of Lower Body, Much Of Upper Body
  • Squats (many variations)
    Primary Muscle Group: Quads
    Secondary Muscle Groups: Most Of Lower Body (Glutes/Hamstrings), Lower Back

Basically, if an exercise involves pushing, pulling, squatting or deadlifting, it’s usually training more than one major muscle group, and that makes it a compound exercise.

And, as you can see from the list above:

  • All chest pushing/pressing exercises also use the shoulders and triceps.
  • All shoulder pushing/pressing exercises also use the triceps.
  • All back pulling/rowing exercises also use the biceps.
  • Deadlifts and squats (and split squats, lunges, step ups, leg presses) also use a variety of lower body muscles and, in some cases, the lower and/or upper back.

How Compound Exercises Can Affect Your Planned Frequency, Recovery & Volume

Now, you may be wondering why you should care about what secondary muscle groups get trained during compound exercises. Here’s why.

You’re using a workout schedule that will allow you to train each muscle group with an optimal frequency, right?

Well, based on the information I just told you, can you see how easy it would be to unknowingly train certain muscle groups more often than you’re aiming to as a result of their secondary use during exercises that primarily target other muscles?

Plus, there’s also the issue of recovery. For example, you might train chest one day and triceps the next. In reality, you’ve trained triceps 2 days in a row (because of their secondary usage during chest exercises).

A similar issue can easily arise with pretty much every muscle group there is if you don’t plan carefully enough. This is another reason why I consider these the best workout schedules. Each one pairs muscle groups up in a way that avoids any potential problems with frequency/recovery as a result of secondary usage during compound exercises.

The same potential problem can exist for your planned volume per muscle group too. This goes back to what I’ve mentioned before about smaller muscle groups (like biceps and triceps) needing less direct volume due to how much indirect volume they get during compound exercises.

This is all stuff that needs to be taken into account when creating your workout routine. Luckily, if you’ve been following along from the beginning, it’s all stuff that has already been taken into account.

Isolation Exercises

An isolation exercise is any exercise in which only one major muscle group is trained by itself. Typically, the movement is done in such a way where usage of all other muscle groups is avoided, which leaves one muscle group isolated and able to do all of the work.

Here’s a list of the most common isolation exercises along with the muscle it isolates/trains:

  • Flat, Incline or Decline Flyes (dumbbell, cable or machine)
    Muscle Group Trained: Chest
  • Lateral Raises or Front Raises (dumbbell, cable or machine)
    Muscle Group Trained: Shoulders
  • Biceps Curls (barbell, dumbbell, cable or machine)
    Muscle Group Trained: Biceps
  • Triceps Extensions (barbell, dumbbell, cable or machine)
    Muscle Group Trained: Triceps
  • Leg Extensions
    Muscle Group Trained: Quads
  • Leg Curls
    Muscle Group Trained
    : Hamstrings
  • Calf Raises
    Muscle Group Trained: Calves

Basically, if an exercise involves raising, curling or extending, it’s usually training just one major muscle group, and that makes it an isolation exercise.

Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises

Now that you have a damn good understanding of both types of exercises, it’s time to compare them and figure out which is best for you. Here we go…

Round 1: Generally

Compound exercises allow you to engage more muscle groups, which in turn allows you to lift more weight, which in turn allows for faster and more consistent progression, which in turns causes a lot of good stuff to happen that all leads to the results you want to get.

Isolation exercises isolate muscle groups so they are trained by themselves. This means you’ll typically be using MUCH lower amounts of weight, which in turn means there won’t be anywhere near as much consistent progression, which in turn means the potential for results won’t be nearly as high as with compound exercises.

Let me explain that another way. Which do you think has more potential to improve the way your body looks or performs… adding 100lbs to your bench press, or adding 10lbs to your dumbbell flyes??

Obvious, isn’t it?

In general, compound exercises allow you to create MUCH more of the right type of training stimulus than isolation exercises can. And for this reason (and many other less important ones), compound exercises beat isolation exercises by a fairly large margin for most people, most of the time.

Round 2: Specifically

But wait, this battle isn’t over just yet.

You see, there are plenty of specific situations when isolation exercises can definitely be of use and serve an important purpose in your workout routine.

For example, let’s say you’ve already done some bench pressing but still need to get some additional chest volume in. However, at the same time, you don’t want (or need) any additional volume for your shoulders and triceps.

Since every compound chest exercise uses the shoulders and triceps secondarily, your best option in this scenario is to do a chest isolation exercise like dumbbell flyes (rather than another type of press).

In this case the isolation exercise allows you do a second exercise for a muscle group to reach the optimal amount of volume, and it does it in a way that isolates that muscle so that no other secondary muscles are being trained with unwanted volume.

Another similar example is in the case of people who are training primarily for building muscle and have a hard time actually using their chest when bench pressing. This is somewhat common, and it means your triceps and shoulders are taking over and doing most of the work.

Aside from trying to correct this issue as much as they can, how else is this person supposed to properly train their chest? That’s right… with an isolation exercise like flyes.

And here’s yet another example. Let’s say you are doing chest and shoulders in the same workout. You’ve already done some flat bench pressing and some incline bench pressing, and your triceps (which are used secondarily in both) are pretty much dead at this point.

Does it make sense to do some kind of overhead press for shoulders and therefore use your already very fatigued triceps? In this case, a shoulder isolation exercise like lateral raises might be a better choice for some people.

And let’s not forget that isolation exercises are really the only way we can directly train smaller muscle groups like the biceps, triceps and calves without adding additional unnecessary volume to the larger muscle groups.

So really, while compound exercises are the winner of this battle in terms of what tends to be best in general, isolation exercises definitely have a time and place in the workout routines of many people.

Silly Myths

Before ending this with my recommendations, I figured I should probably mention the silly myth that “isolation exercises are for getting toned, lean and defined” and “compound exercises are for building lots of muscle and bulk.” Um, no. That’s 100% bullshit.

This is explained in detail in my muscle tone post, but the big point is that compound and isolation exercises are complete equals in terms of being for “tone” or “bulk” or whatever dumb words are associated with this idiotic myth. It’s all nonsense. Ignore it.

My Recommendations

So, what’s best for you? Here’s what I recommend…

  • If your primary goal is performance related (increasing strength, improving performance, etc.), then compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be greatly limited or possibly avoided completely.
  • If your primary goal is looks related (building muscle, losing fat, getting “toned,” etc.), then compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine and get your primary focus. However, a secondary focus on isolation exercises is fine and in some cases, maybe even ideal.
  • If you are a beginner with ANY goal, then compound exercises should comprise the majority of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be kept to a minimum or possibly avoided completely.

What’s Next?

The next part of the exercise selection process is learning the major weight training movement patterns, the exercises that go along with each, and how to properly implement them. Let’s go…

Movement Patterns: Exercises For Horizontal & Vertical Push & Pull, Quad & Hip Dominant, And More

(This article is part of a completely free and awesome guide to creating the absolute best workout routine possible for your exact goal. Check it out: The Ultimate Weight Training Workout Routine)

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