What's the difference between isolation and compound exercises?
Isolation exercises are those used to tackle one specific muscle group or joint ‘in isolation’. While in reality no exercise will only use one muscle group, isolation exercises specifically target one area. Although isolation exercises can be very simple, they are best used once you have built good over-all strength, so are typically used in more advanced training routines.
Compound exercises use more than one joint or muscle group at the same time. They are suitable for beginners right up to elite level athletes and give the most ‘bang for your buck’ when weight training.
When should isolation exercises be used?
Isolation exercises will mostly benefit those with a good solid base of fitness, but some people who are new to the gym may find isolation exercises easier to do than compound exercises. It's better to use compound exercises to build good overall strength before attempting isolation exercises, but if you perform isolation exercises make sure that you balance it by training the opposing muscle group as well. For example: if you're going to do a leg extension, balance it by training your hamstrings with a leg curl to retain balance in the body.
When should compound exercises be used?
Compound exercise can be used at any stage of training and are suitable for all age groups and abilities. They should make up the majority of the training you do although you may benefit from some tuition on how to perform compound movements such as deadlifts and lunges correctly due to the more complex nature of them. Whether looking to improve athletic performance, increase your strength, lose weight or simply be able to stand and sit unaided compound exercises can help you.
Are isolation or compound exercises better?
Benefits of isolation exercises
Isolation exercises are mostly used in bodybuilding or for people rehabilitating from an injury or muscular imbalance. If you’re at an advanced stage of body training, then isolation exercises can provide more definition to a specific area. It can also help to target areas of the body that are overlooked in compound exercises (those that build strength in more than one group of muscles).
Best isolation exercises
- Dumbbell lateral raises
- Sit ups (crunches)
- Tricep kickbacks
- Bicep curls
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
To perform a dumbbell lateral raise, stand with your feet hip width apart. Raise the dumbbells to your sides, level with shoulder height and reverse the movement under control. Keep your chest up and your shoulders back and squeeze your abs.
Sit Ups (Crunches)
We're going to perform a sit up. So to start with the technique we need to make sure we bend the knees so the feet are flat on the floor, then the fingertips are going to come onto the temples, the elbows nice and wide and then we're just going to lift the chest up bringing the elbows in just so they come off and hover the thighs. So lift up and then we just lower down.
To perform a tricep kickback place your left knee and left hand on the bench under your shoulder. Keeping your back flat, lift the dumbbell so your elbow is level with your shoulder and extend your arm, and return to the start position. For this exercise it's really important that you keep that elbow level with your shoulder. And repeat for the same number of reps on the other side.
To perform a barbell curl start with your feet hip-width apart with an underhand grip on the bar and your hands outside your thighs. Keep your shoulders back and your chest up, curl the bar up towards your chest and lower under control keeping your body still, your elbows tucked in and squeeze your abs.
Benefits of compound exercises
Compound exercises have a very long list of benefits, especially when compared to isolation exercises. By using several muscles together you are able to lift more weight which will lead to better increases in strength. Compound exercises can simulate real world activities such as standing, lifting, pushing, pulling and rotating and will help to improve your coordination and balance. They keep your heart rate up higher than isolation exercises due to using large groups of muscles together which will lead to improved fitness levels and the burning of more calories during the same time period. This makes compound exercises ideal for fat loss. Last but not least compound exercises are a fantastic way of improving sports performance and decreasing injury risk. When applied correctly they can improve speed, power and strength meaning you can run faster, jump higher and lift more weight with less chance of injuring yourself.
Best compound exercises
- Military press
- Dumbbell chest press
To do the high bar barbell back squat the bar will start on the shoulder blades with the hands just outside of them, the feet start under the hips, the chest is up and the shoulders are rolled back. The hips go back and down so the thighs come parallel to the floor and then on the upward phase drive the hips up and squeeze the glutes. Keep the knees tracked in line with the toes and the heel stuck down and as you drive up squeeze your abs nice and tight.
To do the deadlift start with your toes underneath the bar and your feet hip-width apart. Keeping the shoulders back and the chest up in order to keep the spine flat, which is really important during the deadlift, bend the knees and adopt an overhand grip with your hands just outside of the thighs. Lift the bar up to the hips squeezing the glutes and reverse that movement, keeping the barbell nice and close to your thighs.
To do the military press start with the barbell in line with the collar bone, with the hands just outside the shoulders. Adopt a split stance with one foot in front of the other. Keeping the knees soft, drive the barbell up above the head, with the elbows soft, drive the barbell back down just below the chin and the barbell comes back up again. For a more challenging option, have the feet under the hips and it's the same movement so the barbell comes up above the head and returns to the start position.
Dumbbell Chest Press
To perform the dumbbell chest press pick the dumbbells up, sit them onto your lap and keep them close to you. Lie back and twist the palms out, so that they are inline with the chest. Press the dumbbells up so that the hands are above the chest and lower on the way back down. Squeeze the abs nice and tight so that the lower back stays in contact with the bench and control on the way up as well as the way down.
Last updated Thursday 21 November 2019
First published on Tuesday 25 June 2019