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Understanding Compound vs Isolation Exercises

Understanding Compound vs Isolation Exercises

A pretty simple premise most would think, however I often see many people making the same typical mistakes when utilising compound and isolation movements. There are significant differences between the two that can either detriment or optimize muscular output, both have their place in training however it can sometimes be hard to see where the line is between overuse of one and underuse of the other.

What are compound movements?

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time, primary examples of compound movements can include squats, deadlifts and lunges etc. One of the main things to understand with compound movements is that they have a much higher energy demand when compared to isolation exercise, this means that it may be more beneficial to programme them at the start of the workout when you will have sufficient energy stores. They can be programmed at any point in the workout for varying reasons, however for the average individual it may be more efficient to perform these first.

It should also be noted that for those with little experience, using set intensifiers for these movements (e.g. supersets) is not going to be the most efficient method of use, as a beginner time should be spent understanding these movement patterns and how to execute them safely before any sufficient load is incorporated, as they tend to have high risk of injury if not performed correctly. Some benefits of the safe use of compound movements include:

  • Increased strength
  • Increase coordination
  • Improvements in core stability
  • Increased muscular hypertrophy.

Compound Exercise

What are isolation movements?

Isolation exercises are those used to tackle one specific muscle group or joint, while in reality no exercise will only use one muscle group, isolation exercises specifically target one area e.g. biceps. These are an exceptional type of exercise, although one that is often misused as many people tend to overuse isolation movements and overlook the efficient use of compound movements.

As stated above these are movements meant to target one specific muscle or area, although if performed incorrectly they can be useless, I personally tend to take my isolation movements to mechanical failure, ensuring that they are performed in a fixed position/movement pattern as this is what “isolates” a muscle. For example, the bicep curl can be performed standing, which allows most individuals to typically lift heavier, due to slight swinging etc, however if you take a seated machine preacher curl as an alternative, you will have significantly less load, but more stimulus achieved.

These are excellent movements in which to utilize set intensifiers such as supersets, drop sets etc as when performed in a fixed position there is a significant reduction in injury risk and thus it allows one to reach a failure point safely.

Due to reduced energy demand per rep, these movements can be programmed in between or typically after primary compound movements as the focus at the beginning of the workout should be the safe and efficient execution of compound lifts (typically speaking as this may vary from person to person due to individual needs).

Isolation Exercises


By Tireoghain O’Neill



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