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Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises

It’s often said that that performing compound exercises results in faster muscle growth, higher calorie burn and an overall more functionally challenging workout. But is this really true? 

This article will discuss and analyze whether or not compound exercises truly are superior to isolation exercises.

Before we get into the research and statistics, let’s talk a little bit about some common exercises from each group for those of you who might still be unclear. Some of the most common compound exercises are chest presses, pull downs, squats and deadlifts. 

Related: Best Power Rack under $1000 - if you're on a power rack hunt, do consider them.

Some common isolation exercises are bicep curls, triceps extensions and leg extensions. While all of these exercises can (and should) be made challenging, your body does respond differently to each of them.

Let’s take a deeper look into which type of exercise is boss!

What’s the More Efficient Exercise?

For many people, time plays a huge factor in their exercise program. We’re often looking for a quick, high calorie burning workout that will help us shed body fat and build some muscle definition. This makes efficiency a very important factor. It’s not hard to spend a lot of time in the gym and get very little done. I see tons of people stay at the gym for an hour or more, but spend most of the time sitting, standing and doing inefficient exercises in between.

In terms of efficiency, research shows that compound exercises are far more efficient than isolation exercises. They work multiple muscle groups at once, you can lift more weight, and they give your core a solid workout. By completing more compound exercises, you can do a lot more in a lot less time. In addition to that, compound exercises are typically more functional than isolation exercises.

Being able to squat your body weight or do solid push ups will help make life a lot easier, whereas being able to do 40 pound dumbbell curls isn’t going to do much for you. It’s very important to stimulate as many muscle fibers as possible, and compound exercises do that far better than isolation exercises.

What’s The Deal with Hormones?

As you may know, hormones play a huge role in muscle growth and fat loss ( if you weren’t aware, you need to read this). If your hormones are out of whack, your body will essentially be working against you when it comes to fat loss and muscle growth.

Luckily, there are ways to control the hormones our body releases. While diet is a very important part of this, exercise also plays a significant role. Studies show that compound exercises stimulate the release of anabolic hormones. Ladies, don’t be nervous about turning into Hulk Hogan.

When I say anabolic hormones, I don’t mean like anabolic steroids. You don’t have to worry about growing facial hair and developing enormous traps. However, these anabolic hormones are very important when it comes to fat loss and muscle growth.

When your body is in an anabolic state as opposed to a catabolic state (muscle breakdown), it’s much more likely that you’ll burn fat instead of store it, and build muscle instead of break it down. This is obviously very important for anyone, male or female.

Compound exercises cause enough stress on the body to trigger the release of these important hormones. While isolation exercises can feel challenging with enough weight, they just don’t stimulate the full body, hormonal response that compound exercises do.

Should You Include Isolation Exercises at All?

While it’s hard to argue the overall superiority of compound exercises to isolation exercises, you definitely shouldn’t eliminate isolation exercises from your program. Isolation exercises do serve a purpose and are an important part of developing your physique, however, they should be secondary to compound exercises. If you’re just getting started or you don’t have a lot of time to exercise each day, stick to compound exercises. Get good at doing push ups, squats, pull ups and deadlifts before you start devoting workouts to bicep curls and tricep extensions.

You might be asking, “Hey, what if i want killer arms?

That’s a great a question. Luckily, I have a great answer. Compound exercises will actually develop your arms just as much, if not more, than isolation exercises. Chest presses and pull ups will have your arms looking great in no time, especially if you’re a beginner. The same goes for your legs. If you want nice, defined legs, don’t skip your squats, lunges and deadlifts. Pilates-type exercises, leg extensions and leg curls can be a good addition to your program later, but you need to be STRONG with your compound exercises first.

All in all, I would be confident in saying that compound exercises are overall better than isolation exercises. However, the democratic answer would be that they all serve a purpose. With that said, compound exercises should make up all or most of your workout program, especially if you’re short on time or a beginner.

More advanced weight lifters can include the isolation exercises to really sculpt their body, but you can’t sculpt until you’ve built a good base. To get that base, stick to compound exercises.


1. Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Published on 22 December 2017.



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