Compound movements vs. Isolation movements

Which is actually better for you? Hopefully this article will be able to point you in the right direction. My goal is to help you understand the pros and cons of both compound and isolation exercises. I also want to show how you should use them in your workouts to accomplish your goals.

What is a compound movement or exercise?

A compound movement or exercise is an exercise that engages multiple muscle groups. The squat for example involves moving the knees, ankles, and hip joint and needs effort from the entire body. Your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes using a majority of the load. Then there’s an exercise like Leg Curls that only involve the knees and focuses mainly on developing your hamstrings and glutes.

This why the Leg Curl would not be considered a compound exercise but an isolation exercise.

Here are a few examples of compound exercises:

Bench Press

There are different types or variations of this exercise. The barbell, dumbbell,flat, incline, and decline. These different variations are all placed in the category of compound movements.

The main muscle group that is targeted is the chest, but the bench press also triggers the shoulders and triceps.

Overhead Press

This movement is also called the military press, and is hands down the best exercise when it comes to developing your delts. This movement trains the triceps and, when sone standing, it develops the back and core.

Deadlift

This movement is my favorite and by far the ultimate compound movement because it involves just about every muscle group in your body.

The primary muscle groups that the deadlift trains are known as the posterior chain (the muscles on the backside of your body, such as your hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles). Even though those are main targeted muscles, every other muscle in your body assists in the movement.

Squat

Just like the deadlift, it activates every muscle in the body. There are different variations such as the front squat, back squat, split squat. Over 200 muscles are activated in this movement, but the primary muscle group trained is the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

More examples of compound movements:

dumbbell and barbell rows

Pull ups

lat pull downs

leg press

What is an isolation movement?

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An isolation movement is one that involves just one muscle group.

For example the bicep curl is an isolation movement because the only joint involved is the elbow and the only muscle involved is the bicep muscle

Here are the most common isolation exercises you’ll find people using:

Dumbbell Fly

This exercise isolates the chest but it allows you to use moderate to heavy weight without exposing your shoulders to injury.

Even though you can use heavy weight it is not a it’s not a replacement for heavy pressing.

Dumbbell Pullover

This is a great exercise for someone looking to build a massive chest.

Like the dumbbell fly, this exercise is more effective when done in the high rep range and better done after your main compound chest movements.

Lateral Raise

This is an exercises that I feel belongs in every bodybuilding program.

It’s the safest and best exercise for training your side deltoids, which will be located behind your front delts.

Front Raise

This is a simple exercise that isolates the front deltoid.

It won’t get the same results as a barbell and dumbbell pressing, but it has it’s place and is basically icing on the cake.

More examples of isolation movements:

Leg extensions, Calve raises, cable arm pull downs

The biggest training mistakes people make is not recognizing the importance of using compound movements. Playing sports in school, I never had this problem because isolation movements never transferred over to field or court. All of the lifts that we did were functional lifts which would consist of compound movements.

Normally bodybuilding magazines will put more emphasis on isolation movements, this is why most beginners quit without making any progress. To sum it all up isolation movements have its place. But you build your foundation with compound movements. You utilize your isolation movements around your compound movements.

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