Difference Between Isolation & Compound Exercises

Choose the right exercises for that lean, muscular body.

Choose the right exercises for that lean, muscular body.

Among the bewildering array of exercises performed in the gym, and conflicting advice of so-called exercise gurus, it is no easy matter choosing the right exercises to help you achieve your goals. The balance of compound and isolation exercises in your workout program will determine how swiftly you get in shape and attain that lean, strong, healthy body.


Compound exercises involve moving two or more joints and simultaneously engage multiple muscles. For example, the barbell squat involves movement of your ankles, knees and hips, while engaging your calves, hamstrings, butt and quadriceps. An isolation exercise such as lying leg curls involves movement of only your knees while solely working your hamstrings.


Compound exercises give you a more efficient workout and allow you to spend less time in the gym. Use a workout of compound exercises to target your whole body. For example, do lunges to work your legs and butt, deadlifts to target your middle and lower back and reverse-grip lat pulldowns for your upper back and biceps. Do the bench press to hit your chest, front deltoids and triceps and dumbbell shoulder press to work your shoulders and triceps. Your core and abs also kick in as stabilizers as you perform these exercises. Hours in the gym targeting these muscles with isolation exercises will leave you bored and in no awful hurry to return to the gym.

Lean Muscle Tissue

Compound exercises activate more muscle fibers and help you gain more lean muscle tissue. Lean muscle tissue helps elevate your metabolism and improves ability to burn the fat off. Compound exercises are also more challenging and expend more calories. For example, a set of 12 to 15 repetitions on the bench press is more challenging and burns more calories than a set of 12 to 15 reps of triceps pushdowns.

Troublesome Areas

Isolation exercises are useful and should form part of your workout program. Use them selectively to target specific body parts you wish to focus on. For example, use the cable standing hip extension to focus solely on your butt, or dumbbell triceps kickbacks to hit that notorious troublesome area on the backs of your upper arms.

About the Author

Ollie Odebunmi's involvement in fitness as a trainer and gym owner dates back to 1983. He published his first book on teenage fitness in December 2012. Odebunmi is a black belt in taekwondo and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Kingston University in the United Kingdom.

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