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isolated vs compound workouts

Isolated Versus Compound Exercises

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you’ve been hitting the gym and faithfully doing your bicep curls, triceps dips and leg extensions but not seeing any results (or, worse, you’re heavier than when you started), it’s possible you’re focusing on the wrong type of exercises. Learning the difference between Isolated versus Compound exercises could help you develop a better workout.

There’s some debate these days over whether isolation exercises are better than compound exercises and vice versa. Ask any personal trainer and you’ll hear, “It depends.”

Let’s start off with a quick definition of each.

An isolation exercise works for one muscle group and uses the movement of just one joint. A familiar example of this is the bicep curl. Though other parts of your body are being worked, including your hand and back muscles, the main target is the bicep.

A compound exercise works for multiple muscle groups and uses more than one joint movement. A familiar example is a squat. With a squat, you’re working not just your quads and hamstrings but also your core, buttocks, hips, ankles and feet.

Who wins? Isolated Versus Compound Exercises

This is actually the wrong question to ask. What you need to ask yourself is, What are my goals? Are you looking for fat loss or do you want to build muscle and increase strength?

If your aim is fat loss, an isolation exercise like the trusty bicep curl isn’t enough to burn fat. So, while you’re developing a stronger and bigger bicep, it’s hidden under a layer of fat.

You’re better off choosing compound exercises if you want to lose weight. Since exercises like squats, deadlifts and lunges target multiple muscle groups, you get more bang for your buck, burning more calories per movement than with an isolated exercise. Compound exercises will get you to your fat loss goal faster while building the muscle at the same time

Many compound movements also mimic everyday motions, such as getting up from a chair (squat), which improves your functional fitness and balance.

Then Why Do Isolation Exercises?

Don’t assume you should ditch isolation exercises altogether. They have their place, too.

If you’re looking just to increase strength and build muscle, isolation exercises are the way to go. But they’re also a solid complement to your workout program, especially if you have an imbalance, which can occur from using your dominant side too much or because of an injury.

So if your right arm is stronger than your left, you might want to add extra curls at the end of your routine to strengthen your weaker side.

It’s also a good idea to add isolation exercises to your weekly routines for a well-rounded program. When you add these, you’re building muscle while increasing your overall calorie burn. As you lose weight, the muscle will get stronger and more defined.

You’ll also start to strengthen weaker muscles that you use in your compound exercises. Maybe your lats are weak, making rows one of your more challenging exercises. By adding lat pulldowns to the end of your workout, you build strength in your lats, making rows easier to perform.

Ready. Set. Wait…

Now you’re ready to pull, lift and grunt your way to your fitness goals. But before you do, make sure you know the proper form for your preferred exercises. You could watch some YouTube videos but scheduling an appointment with a certified personal trainer is the safest bet.

You don’t have to sign up for months of personal training, but you do need to make sure you’re doing everything right. Otherwise, you risk injury and will have to put all your workouts on hold. And don’t forget the importance of good nutrition while you’re at it. The right exercise plan can only take you so far.