Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

By Haylie Grayson

A lot of people want to know what the best workout plan is. What are the best exercises? How long should I rest? How much cardio should I do? These are normal questions we have when we’re new to fitness or confused by all of the different options and opinions out there. Today, we’re going to cover the difference between compound and isolation movements and discuss which are most effective for adding muscle and losing body fat.

Compound movements are big-body movements that work multiple muscle group at a time. Think bench press, squats, deadlift, dips, pull ups and pretty much all body weight exercises (like our Fighter FITs). Compound movements are hands down the best exercises you can do to increase strength, mass, and shed body fat- depending on whether you’re in a caloric surplus (gaining weight/mass) or a caloric deficit (losing fat/weight).

Some people even argue that these compound exercises are all you need to do, because they’re so effective and cover all your bases. Let’s go over why they’re such effective exercises:

  1. More muscle fibers stimulated– Compound exercises require more muscle fiber to be stimulated. Take for example a squat vs. leg extensions- in a squat, a compound movement, you’re working your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back/core, and calves simultaneously. Leg extensions, an isolation exercise, only work your quads. The more muscle fibers being stimulated, the better.
  2. More time efficient– Because compound movements work many different muscle groups at once and stimulate more muscle fibers, you end up spending less time in the gym. With compound exercises, you can perform just 3-5 total exercises and cause enough stress to stimulate hypertrophy, aka muscle growth, which is good for both males and females.
  3. More HGH & Testosterone– When your workouts consist mostly of compound exercises, you’re training with intensity, and you’re getting proper rest, your body will begin producing more HGH (human growth hormone) and testosterone. The more taxing your workouts, the more these hormones will be released, the more muscle growth will occur.
  4. Higher calorie burn– This one is for the ladies and those who want to get lean. I know all of this talk about HGH, testosterone, and muscle fibers probably has you worried. Fear not, if you’re a women you simply do not
    naturally have potential to get huge due to genetics and hormones. Compound exercises are still the best option for you, though. Because you’re working multiple muscle groups at once, your body is naturally going to burn more energy (expend more calories). The more calories you burn, the easier it is to get into a caloric deficit and therefor lose fat.

So now that we know compound exercises are most effective, where do isolation movements come into play?

An isolation exercise works just one major muscle group at a time. Think bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, side lateral raises, front raises, leg extensions, hamstring curls, etc. Isolation exercises are great for adding definition and toning. While compound exercises are best for adding muscle mass, and are generally better, isolation exercises can really help you target certain muscle groups and sculpt them to your satisfaction. This is why you see bodybuilders doing a lot of isolation exercises.

When should I use compound and isolation exercises?

Think about it like this: If you’re building a house, you want to get the overall structure completed before you start adding windows, doors, paint, etc. In this analogy, your body is the house, compound exercises are what you use to build the overall structure and dimensions of the house. Isolation exercises come into play once you’ve got your foundation and you want to add on to it and make it look better.


Haylie Grayson in a banana peel: Certified fitness professional, motivating health coach, meatless athlete, animal/human rights activist, & lover/fighter. She specializes in My Fight Gym’s Strength & Conditioning and Nutrition classes & is the author of My Fight Gym’s series of nutrition guides.

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