Compound exercises are those that involve multiple joints and muscle groups. The most common compound movements are the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, bent over rows, pull-ups, and dips.
Isolation exercises are those that involve a single joint and muscle group. The most common isolation movements are the bicep curl, tricep pulldown, dumbbell lateral raise, sit ups, and many gym machine exercises.
Examples of compound exercises
Barbell Squat. Muscles worked: hamstrings, quads, glutes, adductors, lower back
Barbell Bench Press. Muscles worked: chest, triceps, shoulders
Dumbbell Curl. Muscles worked: biceps
Machine Chest Fly. Muscles worked: chest
Short answer: both. Compound and isolation exercises are equally important in a well-rounded workout routine. If your goal is to build muscle (hypertrophy), the latest research recommends choosing 1-2 compound exercises and 1-3 isolation exercises for each muscle group during a workout.
Both compound exercises and isolation exercises are important for muscular hypertrophy.
Compound exercises are better for developing overall body musculature as it is the most efficient for building a ton of volume, a critical factor for muscle growth. There is a reason why powerlifters who can squat 500 lbs all have incredibly developed leg muscles. There is a reason why the most popular and proven gym programs over the past decade, like PHAT, PHUL, and Starting Strength, all feature compound lifts in every training session.
Isolation exercises are important for developing specific muscle parts such as weak points. They are excellent choices for adding training volume for a muscle, without causing whole body systemic stress like compound movements. Isolation exercises are also excellent for developing “mind-muscle connection”. For example, I often barely feel my chest on the classic barbell bench press, even though I know I’m using the muscle. But if I hit a set of machine pec flies, I feel incredible contraction in my chest.
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Pros of compound exercises
More efficient. Since compound exercises let you train multiple muscles at the same time, you can accumulate training volume for multiple muscle groups simultaneously. For example, bench press will hit your chest, shoulders, and triceps at the same time. Whereas you would have to do 3 isolation exercises to hit those muscle parts separately.
More weight. Since compound exercises allow for greater loading, it allows you more room to progress weight on the bar incrementally. This is called progressive overload and is critical for making long-term progress. For example, as a beginner lifter you can keep increasing weight for squats by 5 lbs for many months before you get stuck (e.g., you start at 95 lbs, you can add 5 lbs every week for over half a year to get to 225 lbs). But if you are doing curls, your room to increase weight is very small.
More transferable. Since compound exercises train multiple muscles at once, it teaches your body to work as a unit to produce force. There is a reason why you see athletes in almost every sport perform compound movements like barbell squats, which will transfer over much better to general sports performance than a dumbbell curl.
Harder to learn. Since compound exercises require you to coordinate multiple muscle groups at once, it can be harder to learn the proper form as compared to isolation exercises. When done incorrectly, compound exercises can result in greater chances of injury.
Less targeted. Compound exercises hit multiple muscle groups at once, which means you are not specifically targeting one specific muscle group. For example, if your goal is to just get bigger shoulders, doing bench press will also train your chest and triceps, not just your shoulders. Or if you have a specific muscular weak point you want to address, then you should do isolation exercises that will hit that better.
(Potentially) more injury risk. Since compound movements require much more coordination, the chance of something going wrong is also higher. For example, if you had already done hard abs training, doing deadlifts after with an already tired core can potentially result in form breakdown, which can cause injury. That said, no one should be doing exercises in that order, and isolation exercises can also lead to injury. As long as you follow a properly designed training routine and avoid ego-lifting, you should be OK.
Pros of isolation exercises
Easier to learn. Since isolation exercises only require you to use one muscle at a time, it can be much easier to learn proper form as compared to compound exercises. This is why in the Greg Nuckols Beginner Program, a free newbie gym program on Boostcamp, all the exercises default to machines, because they are much easier to learn for people than compound exercises.
More targeted. If you want to target a specific muscle group to bring up a weak point (or you just love it), then choose an isolation exercise. If you want to feel the mind-muscle connection, using an isolation movement will allow you to focus your entire mind on the contraction of the muscle. Since compound exercises work so many muscles at once, it can be harder for beginners to develop a feel for the muscle.
(Potentially) less injury risk. Since isolation movements generally use one muscle group at a time, or are done using gym machines, the chance of injury can be lower than compound exercises.
Cons of isolation exercises
Less efficient. Since isolation exercises only let you hit one muscle at once, you’ll need to spend a lot more time in the gym to accumulate the same training volume as compared to compound movements. For example, bench press will hit your chest, shoulders, and triceps at the same time. Whereas you would have to do 3 isolation exercises to hit those muscle parts separately.
Less weight. Since isolation exercises allow for less loading vs a compound exercise (think a 30 lb dumbbell curl vs a 200 lb squat), there is less room for you to progress weight on the bar incrementally. This might mean you can induce less progressive overload, which means slower progress in the gym.
Less transferable. Since isolation exercises only target one muscle, it doesn’t teach your body to move in unison. This is why compound exercises will always be in the arsenal of athletes, whereas isolation exercises may not. That said, isolation exercises do have their place in an athlete’s training, such as for bringing up weaknesses or working around injuries.