Compound Vs. Isolation Exercises For Muscle: Which Is Best?

You want to get strong and build muscle, and you want to do it as quickly and effectively as possible. Which kinds of exercises should you do and why?

Signup & Get Early Bird Access To Our Personal Training App

Ask different people and you’ll get many different, sometimes contradictory answers. Some will tell you that compound exercises are the way to go, building up every muscle in your body and providing functional training to boot. Others will insist that isolation moves are the only way to really target those muscles and get buff.

Who’s right? Here, we explain the difference between isolation exercises vs. compound exercises for muscle mass and explain how to choose which moves are right for your fitness routine, depending on your goals.

Isolation Exercises vs. Compound Exercises

First, let’s determine the difference between these two types of movements. Isolation exercises involve moving only one joint and one muscle group, whereas compound exercises involve multiple joints. In general, if you’re raising, extending or curling by using only one joint, you’re probably isolating a muscle group to make it stronger, without much help from supporting muscles.

For example: isolation vs. compound is the difference between a bicep curl, which isolates the bicep, veruss doing push-ups, the latter of which is a compound move that uses your wrists, elbows and shoulders and recruits arm and back muscles.

As you design your fitness program, you want to ensure you’re selecting types of exercises that will produce the best results. But first, you need to outline your goals.

If, for example, the summer season is upon us, and you want to look ravishing in that strapless dress, an isolation exercise, like bicep curls, may be your best bet. That’s because it tends to put the greatest tension or strain on a specific muscle group, as the muscle goes through its full range of motion.

However, if you’re looking for overall, functional fitness, compound is usually the way to go.

That said, both isolation and compound exercises should be blended into your fitness routine, although focusing on compound exercises can save you time during your day. Some experts even argue that compound exercises are the only way to go to save time, though many still acknowledge the importance of isolation exercises as “complementary” exercises to build specific muscle groups.

Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises like preacher curls for biceps, lifting your heels (standing up onto your toes to engage the calves), leg lifts (with knee straight), tricep extensions and chest flys (for pectorals) target specific muscle groups in ways most other exercises do not.

In addition to getting those biceps buffed for show, isolation exercises come in handy when one muscle group is weaker, relatively speaking, than others throughout the body; it would be important to strengthen a weaker muscle group, because weak areas can lead to injury or overuse of predominant muscle groups.

Working specific muscles also strengthens the connection, and therefore communication, between neurons and muscle fibers; it’s a way of training yourself, for instance, better posture by recruiting possibly weakened muscles between the shoulder blades to “hold” your chest and head up well.

Compound Exercises

Since compound exercises target multiple joints and muscle groups, it’s usually most effective to build your routine around compound exercises. Research shows compound movements are the most effective way to gain widespread muscle mass, since they utilize more muscles — both primary and secondary — at the same time, which ultimately allows the muscles to take on a heavier load.

As you challenge your muscles more and more, they’ll build in mass and strength, as well as stimulate testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) production.

In fact, studies have shown that compound exercises result in greater production of these muscle-mass-aiding hormones; a greater number of muscles involved in exertion seems to correlate with higher hormone levels, isolation exercises don’t seem to produce as much testosterone and HGH as compound exercises.

Pumping more of these hormones through your system can result in increased whole-body strength. Then, when you add isolation exercises, they often have more bang for your buck, because the testosterone is more readily available to build muscle.

Examples of compound exercises include: deadlifts, squats, bench presses, dips, pull ups, rows and overhead shoulder presses. A squat, for instance, works not only the quads, but also the core, glutes, hamstrings and calves.

Compound exercises often recruit the use of abdominal, back and other key core muscles, used for stabilization purposes. In other words, compound movements use more of the whole body. If you only performed isolation exercises, you wouldn’t experience the same positive effect on overall body strength.

Most people begin their fitness routines with compound exercises, partially because they tend to have more energy in the beginning of the session to put their all into the workout. This also primes the pump of muscle-building hormonal release, which can be used by the body for toning through isolation exercises.

Isolation exercises are also useful for days where you want a light workout, to recover from a more strenuous one.


The best way to effectively gain muscle mass and definition in an even and balanced way requires a combination of isolation and compound exercises, though the bulk of exercise should involve compound movements for more people.

Review your exercise routine, and make sure you’re getting enough of both to make a difference in tone and strength. If you’re not sure where to begin, consult a personal trainer, who can review your goals and come up with a personalized fitness routine comprised of the right compound and isolation exercises for your body.



  • International Journal of Sports Medicine
  • Marika Page, personal trainer, Colorado