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Isolation vs compound workout: what works best?

A compound exercise works on several muscles at the same time while an isolation exercise targets a single, specific muscle group. Compound workout is more popular because it focuses on functional fitness growth. There has been a lot of debate on which exercise style is the best for muscle building. The truth is that both compound and isolation exercises can serve a ton of purposes in different workout sessions to meet specified targets. The common way to know and classify weight training exercises is to understand how the exercise impacts your body together with how and what muscles are being targeted when performed.

Compound workout: The foundation of your power

The movements in a compound workout involves two or more joints which means multiple muscle groups are working at the same time. If you are a beginner, a compound workout helps you to build your overall strength and lift heavier over time. It engages one large muscle group in performing the majority of work while recruiting one small muscle secondarily.

Here’s the list of common compound exercises along with secondary and primary muscle groups each one targets:

Squats (many variations)

A squat is a compound exercise that involves quads as a primary muscle group and most of the lower back and glutes as a secondary muscle group.

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The deadlift is a type of weight training where the loaded barbell is lifted from the ground to the level of your hip, and torso perpendicular to the ground before bringing back to the floor. It is one of the three powerlifting workouts along with bench press and squat. The primary muscle group includes the posterior chain (back, glutes, hamstring, etc.) while the secondary muscle group involves much of the upper body.

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Flat, decline, or incline bench press (barbell dumbbell, or machine)

The difference between the three is the angle chosen for the bench. The decline/incline bench press uses a 30-degree decline/incline. For flat bench press, the bench is parallel to the floor. The primary muscle group is the chest while the secondary muscle group involves the triceps and shoulders.

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Overhead press

It involves pushing your arms over the head until arms are extended over your body keeping your core straight and activated. It can be done by use of a barbell, dumbbell, or a machine. The primary muscle group is the shoulder while the secondary muscle group is the triceps.

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Any workout involving pulling, pushing, or deadlifting works in more than one muscle group making it a compound exercise.

From the list above:

  • All chest pressing/pushing workouts also use the triceps and shoulders

  • All pushing/pressing exercises depends on triceps

  • All back rowing and pulling also include biceps

  • Squats and deadlifts including step-ups, lunges, leg presses and split squats use a variety of lower body muscles and in some cases the upper or lower back.

Isolation: Your building muscle accomplice

Isolation exercise has an important role in a well-balanced muscle-building regimen. It involves any exercise where only one major muscle group is trained. The movement is done by avoiding all other muscles leaving one group isolated and able to do the workout.

Here are common isolation exercises along with the muscles it trains/isolates:

Leg extension

The leg extension is an isolation exercise that exclusively focuses on your quads. Your quadriceps include four blend muscles which are (vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris). The four are responsible for strengthening the knee and the leg extension.

Calf raises

Calf raise involves targets on your calf and builds up strength, explosiveness, and endurance. It is an excellent workout to stretch the plantar muscles of the foot and make them more supple.

Front raises or lateral raises

The lateral raises are strengthening shoulder exercises performed by lifting a dumbbell away from your body in an external rotation. In your shoulder, it has an impact on the trapezium muscles on your upper back, and deltoid muscles especially on lateral deltoids and the anterior.

Flat, decline, or incline fly (dumbbell, cable, or machine)

This is an isolation exercise because it works on one joint which is your shoulder while your chest muscles depend on help from the front of your shoulders and biceps during the lift. It only targets the chest. It focuses on different actions of the chest and this is why it is valuable when comes to overall shoulder function and chest training.

Biceps curls

The term biceps curl refers to any number of weight training that primarily focuses on the biceps. It involves biceps brachii muscle and the workout can be done by use of a dumbbell, barbell, and resistance band or cable.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels


Any exercise involving extending, curling, or raising usually trains a single major muscle group which makes it an isolation workout. The best isolation workouts are:

  • Dumbbell lateral raises

  • Triceps kickbacks

  • Biceps curls

Compound exercise has numerous benefits and is efficient over time. You will build more strength and work more muscle by engaging yourself in compound workouts. Other significant benefits of compound workout are:

  • Improvement in intramuscular coordination

  • Elevation of your heart

  • Improves your stability, strength, and flexibility

  • Calories burn

  • Gaining muscle mass

Isolation workouts are mostly used by body building and people who have a muscular imbalance or rehabilitating from injuries. Isolation can work out and provide many definitions to a specified area. It also helps in targeting the areas where the body has been overlooked by the compound workouts.

Compound workout vs isolation workout

A compound workout helps you to engage various muscle groups which allows you to have consistent progression. Lifting more weight builds strength and stability in your body which results in a good outcome after some time on a compound training routine. Isolation workout separates muscle groups. This means you will be using lower amounts of weights since muscles are trained singly. In isolation, there will be much lower consistent progression. Therefore, the potential for the results will not be as high as with a compound workout.

As a form of practice, add about 150lbs to your bench press and add about 15lbs to your dumbbell fly. Generally, a compound workout creates a much higher training stimulus than an isolation workout (and many other less important ones). There are many specific situations when isolation workouts can be of significance and be of use in your workout plans. For instance, after bench pressing, you may want to get an additional chest volume and at the same time, you don’t need additional volume in either the triceps or shoulder. Since a compound chest workout involves the triceps and the shoulder, your best option would be to do a chest isolation workout such as dumbbell fly.

So, what’s the best for you, here is what I recommend:

  • If you are looking to get toned, build muscles, or lose fat, a compound workout should entail the majority of your exercise routine and be your primary focus.

  • If your primary goal is on performance, such as increasing your strength, a compound exercise is an excellent workout. You should greatly limit isolation or avoid it completely.

  • For a beginner, compound workouts should comprise the majority of your exercise routine. Isolation workouts should be minimized.

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