Isolated vs. Compound exercises – Which one is better?

Written by Tihomir Stefanov, M.S.(C), PT

| Published on

| Last updated on

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Some trainees swear by the effectiveness of isolated movements, supposedly because they “Feel the muscle working more”.

Others however, know where the secret sauce is – Intensity.

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Needless to say, when you want to reach high levels of intensity, you can’t rely on a single muscle, like in the case of isolated exercises.

Instead, you switch to compound movements, which involve more than 1 joint and muscle group at a time.

The more muscle groups are working in synergy together, the more weight you can lift, simple as that.

So…

Are compound exercises better than isolation?

compound vs isolated

Well, truth is – Both of them have application within our training.

However, if your main goal is getting stronger, bigger and better, then your main focus should be compound movements.

That however, doesn’t necessarily mean completely excluding isolated movements.

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Applications of compound movements

  • Build strength
  • Reach higher levels of intensity
  • Build muscle
  • Build good balance

Application of isolated movements

  • Emphasize on weak points
  • Emphasize on one single muscle group
  • Achieve better peak contraction
  • Local pump
  • Improved mind-muscle connection

It is fair to say that compound movements should mainly be used during the bulking period, when your main goal is gaining and improving upon what you already have.

Isolated movements on the other hand can be thrown at the end of your bulking workouts, but should be a bigger part of your workout when you are cutting down fat.

That is simply because the emphasis which isolation brings, helps the musculature shape up well.

Here’s a list of my personal favorite isolated exercises:

Chest

  • Cable crossovers
  • Pec deck
  • Simple chest contractions (flexing)

Back

  • Seal rows
  • One arm cable rows

Shoulders

  • One arm lateral dumbbell raises
  • Disc front raise

Biceps

  • One arm dumbbell preacher curls
  • Cable curls

Triceps

  • Overhead dumbbell triceps extension
  • One arm dumbbell kickback

Quadriceps

  • Leg extensions
  • Isometric leg flexing

Hamstrings

  • Lying leg curls
  • Seated leg curls

Calves

  • Standing machine calf raises
  • Seated machine calf raises

Lower back

  • Hyperextensions

As to the compound movements, we all know them – Squats, bench press, deadlifts, military presses!

Those are exactly what you should focus on if you really want to get massive.

Ultimately, after having loaded your musculature with compound movements, you can include a couple of isolation sets.

Those isolation sets will allow you to squeeze out the last energy out of your muscles, bring weaker points up and develop better mind-muscle connection.

As mentioned, isolated exercises should be your focus only during your fat loss phase, where your main goal is cutting down fat and shaping up the muscle while retaining it.

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