Training to build muscle can be a confusing thing to try and approach – and with so many conflicting pieces of information and opinions floating around in gyms and on social media it’s no wonder.


There are tons of areas that you could dive into and debate for hours but the focus of today’s article is going to be isolation versus compound lifts – what the difference is, when each one is appropriate and how to use both lifts to get the most out of your training.



First of all, let’s take a step back and make something abundantly clear:


Neither type of exercise is ‘bad’!


We need both compound and isolation movements in order to build a really great physique. So don’t believe any clown that you see spouting absolute garbage on the internet claiming that ‘machines don’t work’ or that ‘squatting is bad for your knees’. Remember that EVERYTHING has it’s place. Our job is to find out where that place is and plan accordingly.


So having said that, both types of movements have their benefits and drawbacks, so let’s dive a little deeper and understand exactly what it means to have both compound and isolation work in your training program.


Isolation Exercises

By “Isolation Exercises”, I’m referring to any movement that isolates one particular muscle on it’s own. This could be a leg extension for the quads, a bicep curl for the biceps, or a cable fly for the pecs. It’s essentially what it says on the tin, the isolation of one muscle to be trained separate to any other.


Isolation Benefits

Given some thought, the benefits of this style of training become obvious. Isolating one muscle at a time massively helps you to prevent any stronger body parts from taking over and stealing tension away from the target muscle, as well as it being much easier to maintain a really great neuromuscular connection and ‘feel’ to the muscle while you’re training it – which we know is essential to muscular growth.


The biggest advantage I can think of to this type of lift from the standpoint of a beginner is that it’s much easier to pick up that complex compound movements. If we take a complete newbie to the gym who isn’t active and spends 8-10 hours per day sat at a desk, we are faced with an individual that likely has extremely tight hip flexors, internal rotation of the shoulders, external rotation of the hips and likely some kind of anterior pelvic tilt. These are all massive barriers to being able to effectively learn how to squat with a barbell. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve performed a movement screening on this type of client and their squat more closely resembles an elderly dog losing it’s balance while trying to take a shit than an athletic show of strength. It’s more common than you think.


Now, as you can imagine it’s going to take me some time to coach this individual how to properly squat and place tension where they need it (quads and glutes) whilst maintaining a strong position. It can be done, but we’re talking a number of weeks until we begin to drill the correct movement patterns and ability to disperse tension consciously into their brain.


That’s all fine, but while we’re learning the squat we’re not making any kind of progress in terms of actually building the tissue up on the legs. So, in the same time frame we’re learning the compound movement, we need to regress right back to the isolation work.


In a situation such as I described above, my preference would be to go right back to a leg extension and teach my client how to properly contract their quads in isolation to everything else. As long as execution is on point it’s a million times easier for someone like this to contract the quads properly and get on with the job of building muscle than it is for the same person to try and do so during a lift they can’t execute properly yet, such as a squat.


So that’s the beginner perspective, but what about if you’ve been training for a while and you can perform these lifts properly?


Isolation exercises are still very much your friend.


Although they normally aren’t well suited for pure strength style progressive overload training, the isolation work is still absolutely key to the other factors involved in muscular hypertrophy.


Cell swelling, blood volumisation the accumulation of metabolites and lactic acid within a muscle is vital if we’re going to develop a full, rounded and well developed physique. Isolation exercises are a perfect tool to make this happen. Whereas compound lifts might be better suited to ‘heavy’ portions of the workout (more on this later), isolation work is great for higher rep, lower rest time and intensifier style training. These are the movements we can really bury ourselves deep with dropsets, rest pause sets and anything we need to help us really fill the working muscle with blood and tear apart the fibres.


Isolation Drawbacks

So it’s clear isolation exercises need to be in our workouts. However, they do have some drawbacks that are worth noting, before you go doing seated leg curls for an hour straight.


The main drawback you’ll want to take note of on these types of movements are the massive limitation on the loading you can use. Loading is vital if you want to develop your physique beyond that of a pre-pubescent girl.


Because we’re only using the one muscle and one joint is moving during these exercises, we can only move so much weight. One of the main advantages of a squatting movement is that you can get take a huge amount of load on one muscle through eccentric loading (again, more on this later). This simply isn’t possible to anywhere near the same extent with an isolation exercise.


Don’t underestimate the value of loading and progressive overload when building a physique. It’s massively important and will make up the lion share of your progress when you’ve laid the foundations of quality movement. Speaking of which, this brings me on to the second part of the article: Compound lifts.


Compound Exercises

The mating dance of meatheads all around the world: it’s time to dive deep into compound lifts. By “compound lifts” I’m referring to a movement that has two or more joints involved. Using the squat as the example again, we can see that the hips and knees are both prime movers in this exercise, making it ‘compound’.


Compound Benefits

There’s a reason compound exercises have been used for generations – they WORK. I’m a massive believer that success leaves clues, and if you look at all the people with physiques you admire, you’ll see a great deal of compound work running through their training. That doesn’t mean the exact exercise or program they follow is right for you, far from it, but it does mean that you should pay attention to what they’re doing and see what you can bring in to your own training.


Following on from our conversation on isolation exercises, the main benefit of compound lifts is that you can add some load to the working muscle. Within our muscles we have different types of muscle fibres, and the biggest of which is known as ‘fast twitch’ muscle fibres. Fast twitch muscle fibres are responsible for our ability to handle heavy loading, so if we’re lifting big weights (relatively speaking) and actually activating the working muscle, our chances of growing go through the stratosphere.


Now, alongside the fact that we can load during compound lifts we also have the added benefit that we are getting some secondary work on another muscle group. Take a ‘push day’ for example. You’re hitting heavy presses for chest, overhead presses for shoulders and all this gives you secondary work on the triceps. Sure, this could be a benefit or a drawback depending on your standpoint, maybe you want the triceps to be fresh for some dips or close grip presses. But in my view, if you have weak triceps this is a bonus.


Compound Drawbacks

We’re pretty much covering old ground here so if you want the full version go and re-read the isolation exercises section where I go into more detail, but I’ll summarise things here too from a compound standpoint.


Compound exercises can be much more difficult to learn as a beginner and as such you can’t generate any level of intensity when training, until you’ve properly learned how to execute the movements (this could take weeks). Isolation exercises are perfect to add in during this period.


When performing high rep sets or more blood volumisation style work, compound lifts can be used but often aren’t brilliant for keeping tension on the working muscle. This is never more evident than when performing high rep-failure sets on barbell back squats. Chances are, something other than your quads will give in before your quads do. Whether that’s your lungs (20+ rep sets on squats is pretty physically demanding), or more likely your form will start to break down and the lower back starts to take the majority of the load.


General Recommendations

So, now you know a little bit about what compound and isolation lifts actually are and what they can be used for. Now, I want to bestow some general recommendations for how to structure a workout and where you can best use isolation and compound lifts in any given workout.


Now, the way we think about our workouts is to first plan the big compound lifts (as these will be the most energy demanding and progress stimulating) and build our workouts around these lifts. So everything before the lifts wants to be building up to them, and everything after the lifts wants to be filling in the gaps we haven’t hit during those lifts.


Generally speaking, my preference is to normally start any workout with an isolation movement. This helps to warm the joints up and push some blood around the working muscles, without using so much load that you take away from your main lifts. However, in certain instances you can just go straight into the main lift.


On a leg day, for example, I’d normally start with a leg curl. This warms the knee joints up and pushes lots of blood into the hamstrings to keep the legs warm, without taking any strength or energy away from the quads or glutes. This is important, because we want to be as fresh as possible for our heavy squatting and leg pressing movements.


However, if it’s a ‘pull’ or back day, I’d normally start with a heavy pulling movement (such as a rack pull or deadlift). As long as we’ve warmed up properly, we can be as strong as possible for this monstrous exercise and whatever we have left afterwards we go on to more ‘targeted’ exercises, such as rows, pulldowns and accessory work.


Wrapping Up

So I hope this article was useful for you in terms of deciphering the difference between compound and isolation work, and when it’s appropriate to use each one.


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