The Difference Between Compound and Isolation Exercises

compound vs isolation exercises

Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

In the 90’s I trained to compete in body building competitions. In those days, we trained mostly with isolated exercises. The textbook definition of an isolated exercise is any exercise in which only one major muscle group is trained. Examples of these can include bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg extensions, leg curls, and calf raises. At the time, we thought that we could only build larger muscles if we trained this way.

Today, we mix it up and include more, if not mostly compound exercises. A compound exercise is any exercise that involves the use of MORE than one major muscle group at a time. These exercises usually involve movements such as pushing, pulling, squatting and deadlifting. Examples of exercises in this category are lunges, squats, push-ups, rows and deadlifts.

Now, trainers like to suggest that our clients perform more compound movements as they mimic how we move in everyday life. The trend in training for the past several years has been leaning towards what we call Functional Training, which lends itself to performing compound movements that lead to more mobility and strength in our everyday activities.

Mix Up Compound and Iso Exercises For The Best Results

In my opinion, it is always a good idea to mix in compound and iso exercises whenever possible. If you are trying to add some lean muscle while burning calories and keeping your heart rate up at the same time, the best thing to do is mix up the exercises. Include some isolated exercises in your circuit using as much of a variety of equipment as possible, with very little rest between each exercise.

If You’re New to Exercising, Start With Machines

I find that beginners are easier to teach if they are seated in a machine or working with a cable system like the Total Gym, instead of using free weights. Home or gym machines provide more stability and control of the body, while free weights are much harder to control if you are new to exercise. The proper form is key to getting results and staying injury free.

For this reason, I feel that the Total Gym is an excellent choice for anyone, from beginner to advanced athlete. You can safely and easily move from one exercise to the next without even having to get off the machine! The moving platform is challenging but at the same time can offer some stability, with the option to work the upper body and lower body simultaneously, providing challenging and functional training with compound exercises. One can also choose to not use the cables and stay with isolated movements such as a leg press or curl. It is fun and easy to alternate a lower and upper body exercise, as well.

Watch the video by Melissa Muniz to see the difference between compound and isolation exercises.

Frances Michaelson

A pioneer in the fitness industry, Frances opened the first personal training center in the West Island of Montreal in 2001. In 2008 , Frances had the “gut feeling“ that there was more to learn about health and how our bodies function, which led to further her education in the field of Naturopathy and holistic nutrition. She has since authored two books. Her latest book, "Do you Have the Guts to be Healthy" was published in March 2021. As a trainer and naturopath, she truly loves seeing people transform themselves by trusting their bodies instead of getting caught up in the medical system. Practicing health is the only way to live the gift of life well!

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