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Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises – What You Need to Know

Here’s the deal. You’ve been lied to.

You’re wasting your time in the gym. All of your energy, sweat, and hard work is mostly lost. You’re spending all of your effort on maybe 20% of your results. 

The hours you’ve spent doing triceps pushdowns? Wasted. Endless bicep curls? Down the drain.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s really not your fault. You’re just doing the type of workouts you see everywhere. From magazines, to online blogs to other people in the gym.

The reality is, endless drop sets are not going to get you the body you’re looking for. They aren’t even going to add inches to your arms. There are much more efficient ways to gain muscle.

Compound vs Isolation Exercises

Do You Even Lift, Bro?

I was there too. 90 minutes for lunch, standing in the middle of a busy gym, looking around for what I should do next.

There’s an empty pull-up bar over there. But last time I tried pull-ups, they took up a lot of time. Plus, they’re more for the back and today is arm day!

Oh look, a spot opened up in front of the mirror, by the dumbbell rack. That’ll be a lot better. Plus, without doing those pull-ups, I’ll be able to go way heavier on my curls. I’ll even super-set them with some triceps work. BOOM, great start to the arm day.

I proceed to knock out 4 sets of alternating dumbbell curls, same as you do almost every arm day.

A little over an hour later, I’ve got a great sweat, an even better pump and I feel great. Until I measured my arms the next morning. They haven’t grown at all. In fact, my body has barely changed in the past year…

All Of The Work, None Of The Gains

The real reason I didn’t do pull-ups wasn’t because they took “too much time”. It was because they’re hard. Brutally so.

But it’s those hard, borderline scary lifts that are going to take your body to the next level.

Do me a favor, when you’re at the gym, look around. How many dudes and dudettes actually look bigger, leaner, and better than they did 6 months or a year ago? I bet the answer is very few.

Now look in the mirror. Can you honestly tell me that those 2 hours you spend in the gym, 4-5 times a week are paying off? Or do you look about the same as you did last year and the year before that?

Often the problem is not with your commitment. It’s also not your workout split or the number of sets and reps you do during your workouts. It all boils down to one thing:

You’re NOT doing the right exercises. And you know EXACTLY which ones they are.

The hard ones. The exercises that hurt, that you need a spotter for, that make you contemplate life as you creep under that bar. The ones that put you out of commission for the rest of the day after you drag your butt home.

Compound Exercises FTW

80% of your results are going to come from compound exercises. And no, that’s not an exaggeration. A hugely disproportionate amount of your progress will come from a very small group of exercises.

Compound exercises are big, multi-joint movements, that force you to use a lot of muscles, all at the same time. Think pull-ups, rows, bench press, overhead press, and the kings and queens of them all – squats and deadlifts.

Arnold Demonstrating Compound Lift

Like most people, when I first started lifting, I was an isolation guy. Sometimes I would bench press, but that was because everyone else was doing it. Other than that, it was a lot of curls, triceps pull-downs, and some leg extensions when I was feeling especially motivated (which was not often).

I rarely did pull-ups or rows. I mean, no one sees your back right? So why work on it? And I definitely didn’t do squats or deadlifts. I’ve seen powerlifters puke during those lifts, and I wasn’t going to be that guy, puking in the middle of the gym.

So I made excuses not to do them. And that showed in my physique. I gained a little muscle here and there. But really, my progress was non-existent.

I got to a point where I was sick of looking the same year after year. There is no reason to be in the gym for hours and see nothing for it.

I started reading. I stumbled across guys like Eric Cressey, John Romaniello, and Mike Mathews. Compound exercises became the main part of my workouts and my world was turned upside down.

Nowadays I focus on big, multi-joint compound lifts for most of my program. Here is why compound lifts are so great:

  • You’ll gain way more muscle. Each time you do one of these, your body has to produce a large amount of force to move the weight. And with more muscles involved, you’ll be able to lift a lot more weight. Sure, the bench press is great for building that chest. But it’s also killer for those baby triceps and skinny shoulders.
  • They’re the best for fat loss. Not only are compound exercises phenomenal at helping you gain muscle and strength, but they are the best for your fat loss program. The more muscles you use, the more calories your burn. The more weight you move around, the more calories you burn. The more force your body produces, the more… well you get the point.
  • They work great with progressive overload. Compound lifts allow you to progressively overload your muscles. Week by week, you will be able to add more weight to your lifts (you will stall out at some point, but that won’t happen for a while). This forces your muscles to grow faster and handle even more weight, increasing overall strength and muscle gain.

Not to mention that people who can squat 300+ pounds are more resistant to Zika and Ebola. That’s just basic science.

So why aren’t more people doing compound lifts? Simple – they’re hard. Doing leg extensions is a hell of a lot easier than doing squats, but that’s not how you’re going to get those wheels that will impress everybody at the beach.

Compound exercises are the reason I was able to gain 30lb of muscle in just 6 months, and I wasn’t a beginner when I started that program.

Are Isolation Exercises Completely Worthless?

Isolation Exercises Have Their Place in Your ProgramWhile the bulk of your workouts should consist of compound movements, isolation lifts have their place in your routine.

Sure, you can get away with not doing them at all, but curls are life!

Jokes aside, there are plenty of good reasons to throw in some isolation work into your program:

  • To correct imbalances. When you perform compound lifts, your stronger muscles will compensate for your weaker ones to allow you to do the exercise. Over time, this will create imbalances. For example, say your biceps are very strong, but you have weak lats. Your biceps will do more work during pull-ups, and your lats won’t grow as fast. Perfect reason to do some lat pull-down work.
  • To build a symmetrical physique. You want that nice, rounded look to your shoulders, that sculpted upper chest, and that peach butt (this goes for you too dudes). This can be hard to accomplish with compound lifts alone, so throw in some isolation work that targets those specific muscle groups.
  • To control volume for each muscle group. If you need to work on your back or legs a bit more, but you need to give your joints and nervous system a rest, isolation exercises can help you do that. For example, you can’t just do endless amounts of heavy rows to stimulate your back, but throwing in some machine and isolation exercises will allow you to work those muscles while giving your joints a break.

Compound vs. Isolation Lifts – The Bottom Line

Compound exercises kick ass. If you want to maximize your muscle and strength gains, shred that stubborn fat and see real results, you need these exercises in your program.

They are also extremely efficient and will help you get the most out of your workouts, even if you’re in the gym for just 30 min.

I start all of my workouts with big compound lifts. At the end of each workout, I throw in some isolation work to emphasize specific muscle groups (usually curls) and increase training volume in my lagging areas.

Compounds lifts are my “bread and butter”, but I’ll always do some isolation work to top things off.

So next time you’re trying to decide between a pull-up bar and dumbbells for curls, which will you pick?

Chris Coulson

I'm a fitness nerd, US Navy vet, NYC celebrity trainer, and samurai. My passion is helping people lose fat, build muscle and become awesome. I'm here to help YOU get the body you've always wanted.