Compound and isolation exercises are two types of exercises used in physical training, such as weightlifting and bodybuilding. Compound exercises involve the use of multiple muscle groups working together to perform a movement, such as a deadlift. Isolation exercises, involve the use of only one muscle group to perform a movement, for example, a bicep curl. While both isolation and compound exercises can be beneficial in a workout routine, compound exercises are generally considered to be superior to isolation exercises, especially if time and efficiency is an important factor.
The primary advantage of compound exercises over isolation exercises is their effectiveness and efficiency for building muscle. Because multiple muscle groups work together at the same time when performing a compound lift, this leads to an increase in mass of several muscles, as opposed to just one. When performing a squat, the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, core, and stabiliser muscles are all involved simultaneously, which leads to an increase in strength and size in all of these muscle groups, it also contributes to higher testosterone levels by working multiple muscles at once. Multiple muscles progressing at the same time also negates the risk of certain muscles being underdeveloped in comparison to others. Isolation exercises involve the use of only one muscle group, which does not lead to as much of an increase in overall muscle mass, or strength.
When it comes to burning calories and fat, compound exercises are also more effective than isolation exercises. Compound exercises involve more muscles working together to achieve each repetition, this leads to an increase in the number of calories the body burns. Ten minutes of squatting at a relatively high intensity can burn around 200 calories, whilst an isolation exercise like bicep curls may only burn up to 60 calories in the same amount of time.
For strength and power, again, it’s not even close, compound exercises are king. Lifts such as squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, and bench press are far more effective at increasing overall strength and power than any isolation exercises. Even at lower rep ranges and higher weight, compound exercises force several muscles to work under that load at once, the main muscles used within a lift will benefit greatly, but so do the muscles that assist the exercise, often along with the core muscles, so everything progresses together. If a person is regularly improving their deadlift, the back will get stronger, as will the legs, along with grip strength, and other muscles like those in the arms that assist with the lift. If a person is focusing too much on improving an isolation like the bicep curl for example, the only thing that will benefit from this is the bicep, and even then, the results likely won’t be as good as performing an effective compound exercise well.
One thing that should be obvious but is often overlooked, is that compound exercises are potentially far more time-efficient than isolation exercises. Recruiting many muscles, gaining strength, even gaining size, or simply getting a sufficient workout, is much more convenient when focusing on compound lifts. It would be easy to spend 10 minutes just targeting triceps specifically, but if you were to do a compound exercise such as weighted dips, you could train for the same time, and recruit many more muscles, for even better results.
Finally, injury prevention is also a factor when talking about compound lifting. Compound lifts strengthen multiple muscles throughout different points of a movement, and this can lead to an increase in stability and balance. Increased stability and balance help to reduce the risk of injury while performing a variety of exercises. Working on overall form and performing compound lifts properly over time will benefit anyone greatly. Once again, the deadlift is a great example of an exercise that can increase a person’s stability and balance, whilst growing and strengthening several muscles simultaneously, and therefore also gaining muscle mass, for an overall stronger frame.
Isolation exercises can also be very useful in a training programme, however, for the individuals wanting to achieve superior strength, size and straight forward results the fastest they can, in the most efficient way possible, incorporating several compound lifts into their routine could prove to be extremely useful.