What is the difference between Compound and Isolation exercises and does it really matter?

It may all sound like jargon but it does matter. Here we explain why and how you might need to consider both in your training plan. It can make the difference i how successful you are in attaining your goals. The difference can save you time slogging on a tedious CV (Cardiovascular machine) and can help maximise the return you get for the time, effort and money you expend going to the gym and doing your workouts. So grab a few minutes in a coffee-break or whilst between appointments and find out how knowing about this important difference can help you achieve your goals faster. More outcome for less time, sound good, then read-on.

checkout your key muscle knowledge with this quick diagram

What is a Compound Exercise?

Compound movements are exercises that work multiple muscle groups in one exercise. For example a Bench press or a Dead Lift.

  • When performing a Compound movement, you will have one muscle group that is the primary mover and one or several muscles that are the secondary movers.
  • If you use a Bench Press when pushing the bar, the primary muscle that we use to lift the bar from A to B is the Pectorals (Chest) however the secondary muscles we use to support this Lift are the Deltoids (Shoulder’s) and your Triceps.

 What is an Isolation Exercise?

Isolation Exercises however are single joint movements that only engage one muscle group . For example a bicep curl is an isolation exercise because to get your arm from extension to flexing, you only use one muscle group (your bicep)

What is the best Compression or Isolation?

Compound movements are by far the best type of exercises. You will gain so much more for your time by performing compound exercises and we need to make sure you make the best use of these precious minutes of your time.

To lose weight requires big movements in the gym (such as Squats) subject to your level of fitness, you can seriously increase your HR (Heart Rate) which in turn means your calorie expenditure will be high and burning more energy ultimately leads to burning more fat by turning it initially into muscle. And then making sure that muscle is as toned and lean as reasonably possible. Whilst not everyone will immediately progress to high intensity Squats, a Compound Movement can help you save some time in achieving the energy burn not only whilst you exercise but for a period of time, post exercise as well. If you are exercising more than 1 muscle group, then you are also working on toning more than 1 part of your body as well. So the rate at which you burn the energy to lose weight goes up and at the same time you are toning multiple muscle groups.

Compound Movements Save you Time

If you are like most of our clients, someone with a busy lifestyle, you might want to lose some weight, its all relative, and possibly tone-up or increase your muscle definition?  Then slogging for hours on a Cross Trainer and doing a few weights might not be the most effective way for you to exercise. Inevitably you have to train at a Heart rates (HR) that is safe right for you ( see my Heart Rate Article) so if you are not certain take some professional and qualified advice before you start and whilst you progress.

Structure 4-5 Compound Movements that will encourage Muscle Gain but also work as a Cardiovascular Workout

If you get a programme that is designed for you and your fitness levels then with a structured approach to say 4-5 Compound Movements you can actually achieve more in the same amount of time than just straight slog on a CV Machine Cross Trainer, runner etc and maybe achieve more in less time, so surely that makes sense. Yes you will need some endurance training possibly as well, depending on your goals but if you want to do that you just achieve even more. But it is all about designing the programme for you individually tog et the best out of your time available, relative to the goals you decide with some advice from your trainer to set.

A little bit of biochemistry goes a long way

Now, whilst not everyone wants to be a Mr Universe, it is again all relative and if you have a goal that say you are looking to increase muscle mass, not everybody does of course then again Compound Exercises are absolutely right for the bulk (pardon the pun) of your programme.

When you perform a Compound Movement you are making a ;large movement’ and that process with a step and repeat pattern, stimulate your muscle fibres, lots of them and that in turn (Chaps listen-up) releases natural Anabolic Hormones, such as Testosterone and Growth hormones. The more strenuous the exercise, the greater the release etc. Combine this exercise with a healthy good diet and rest/sleep patterns and you will see results, quite quickly. Assuming your programme is of course designed to suit not only your starting point re your Health but also points of progression and is regularly reviewed and updated.

BUT Ladies don’t be too alarmed,  if you simply want to tone-up and re-shape or firm-up your programme can be balanced to optimise the outcomes you are seeking to achieve, these vary not only by gender, age and relative fitness but by your individual lifestyle and preferences. That is why working ‘One-to-One’ for Personal Training is so much more effective. It is all about YOU!

But What about Isolation Exercises, Are they Just a Waste of your precious Time?

Compound exercises have there place then but so do Isolation exercises and whilst some might think they are redundant, I do not agree with that argument . A good reason for inclusion is that they can also help improve your performance of the Compound exercises.

Using our compound movement example of a Bench Press:

  • we know that the primary muscle is the Pectorals and the secondary muscle is the triceps.
  • If you are looking to improve the weight or the volume of repetition on a bench press it would be a good idea to strengthen your triceps through some isolation exercises such as Tricep pull-downs.

Isolation exercises can also be very useful for people coming back from injury as it allows you to target a specific area. In some cases the only option can be to do an isolation exercise because of the restrictions from a particular injury or weakness.

Finally for those of us, and let’s be honest, that is most of us, to some degree there is a healthy bit of vanity as part of our motivation to workout. Isolation exercises can help you sculpt your body shape for specific muscles. An example your going to find it very hard to develop, just through compound movements is your calf muscles. At some point you will need to do an isolation exercise such as calf raises to improve in this area. Yes you can pretty much work every muscle group through compound exercises however to see clear muscle definition and separation you will need to isolate a muscle at some point.

This isn’t just for bodybuilders, if you want to look and feel comfortable on the beach or feel great in a sleeveless dress then shaping a muscle in isolation as well as compound movements for 5-10% of your programme is something you should consider

Points to Ponder and Act Upon