Phoenix Ignition Fitness Company

Fitness by the Fire: Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

by Ron Kennedy • February 21, 2017
Traditional strength training is the core of any successful fitness program. Weight loss, lean muscle building, bulk muscle building, improved speed, fat loss, and of course… the aesthetic appeal of a fitness physique! You would be very hard pressed (gym humor) to try and achieve serious fitness goals without forcing your muscles to perform at peak levels. That isn’t to say that proper nutrition, cardiovascular condition, proper sleep and water intake don’t have their significance, but even without those other vital elements, strength training delivers the quickest bang for your buck in results. A very common debate amongst the fitness community is the effectiveness of compound exercises as opposed to isolation exercises. Both techniques have their place and benefits within strength training, both should be mixed into a regimented fitness training program, but how do you identify when and which technique to use and the expected benefit of the concertation is having on muscles?

Before we discus when to apply each pattern, let’s go over what defines each type of movement.

A compound exercise is any exercise that involves the use of more than one major muscle group at a time. Typically, there is one larger muscle group that ends up doing the majority of the work, and then one or more smaller muscle groups that are recruited secondarily for added support. As a fitness professional, I identify these groups as “prime movers” and “stabilizers”. Let’s use some example exercises broken down by muscle to better explain:

Flat Bench Press: Prime Mover= Pectorals(Chest). Stabilizers: Shoulders and Triceps. During the bench press, the chest muscles move the weight up and down with the shoulders stabilizing the force of weight and keeping it in alignment with the torso, and the triceps help the arms extend the weight away from the chest.

Pull up: Prime Mover: Latissimus Dorsi(Back muscle). Stabilizers: Shoulders (busy little guys) and Biceps. With a traditional wide grip pull-up, the back muscles pull the weight of the body upwards with the shoulders stabilizing the arms and torso. The biceps are used to help the arms trigger the back to more effectively propel the torso.

An isolation exercise is any exercise in which only one major muscle group is trained by itself. Typically, the movement is done in such a way where usage of all other muscle groups is avoided, which leaves one muscle group isolated and able to do all of the work. Target isolation.

Shoulder Front Raise: The deltoids (primary shoulder muscles) are isolated as a bar or dumbbells are raised to chin level. The forearms to tighten from the stability needed, but overall the deltoids are the only muscles with tension.

Quad Extensions: While seated, the quadriceps are isolated as the lower leg raise the weight upwards towards the hip line. All other leg muscles are taken out of the motion to allow the quads to fully dilate and grow.

Now that you fully understand how and why is technique of fitness training works, let’s go over some of the benefits of each.

Compound exercises allow you to engage more muscle groups, which in turn allows you to lift more weight, which in turn allows for faster and more consistent progression. This enables the muscles to function to their full designed potential, which leads to the results you want to get. Isolation exercises isolate muscle groups so they are trained singularly. This means you’ll typically be using MUCH lower amounts of weight, which in turn means there won’t be anywhere near as much consistent progression, which in turn means the potential for results won’t be nearly as high as with compound exercises. But faster DOES NOT always mean better!

Please allow me to share some experiences from my own training. I put a great deal of attention to developing expanded shoulder muscles. Not only does it give me the larger frame look that most males strive for, but highly developed shoulder muscles are circuital for using heavier weights for advanced upper body strength training. I train shoulders on their own separate day. Typically, I incorporate a shoulder or military press (weighted barbell being lowered to the self of the shoulder behind the head) into my routine. Lately the military press has been my selection for the density is gives the trapezius and deltoids alike. The military press is a compound movement from all the support muscles required to execute it properly, and the result is a maximum exertion of strength (currently I have been doing 6-8 reps of 235lbs!) I love the way the movement makes me feel, how quickly the prime movers dilate, and the feeling of power it gives me during exercise. Yet, I still incorporate isolation movements directly after I finish since the blood has already formed around the target area I am concentrating on. A plate front raise, DB side raise normally follows a heavy movement like the military press to get the benefit of the support muscles already being challenged from the compound movement.

If your primary goal is performance related (increasing strength, large muscle growth), then compound exercises should comprise most of your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be greatly limited or possibly avoided completely. If your primary goal is looks related (building muscle, losing fat, toning), then compound exercises should comprise most of your workout routine and get your primary focus. However, a secondary focus on isolation exercises is fine and in some cases, maybe even ideal. If you are a beginner with any goal, then compound exercises should comprise most your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be kept to a minimum or possibly avoided completely.