The two most common reasons cited for exercising are to lose weight and build muscle. When seeking to build muscle, you’ll need to choose the right type of exercise. Most muscle-building exercises fall under the category of isolation exercises and compound exercises. Examining each type of exercise reveals their differences and can show which are most effective at building muscle mass.
It’s no secret that exercising is essential for health and wellness. Studies show that people who are physically active have lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer than their sedentary counterparts.
If you plan on exercising though, it’s essential to choose the right type of exercise. Most muscle-building exercises can be broken down into one of two categories—isolation and compound. So, what’s the difference between these two exercises and which one should you choose?
As the name suggests, isolation exercises are characterized by their ability to “isolate” a particular joint while training a single muscle group. A typical example of an isolation exercise is a leg extension. When performing leg extensions, only your knee joint bends, thus targeting the quadriceps muscle group (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius).
In addition to leg presses, other isolation exercises include:
- Bicep curls
- Leg curls
- Chest fly
- Dumbbell side raises
- Lateral raises
- Calf raises
- Triceps pushdowns
- Triceps extensions
- Triceps kickbacks
- Back extensions
Unlike compound exercises, isolation exercises only target a single joint and muscle group. This makes them particularly effective at working out specific muscles and muscle groups. They “isolate” the respective joint and muscle group, allowing for a more intense workout session.
Compound exercises, on the other hand, are intended to work out two or more muscle groups and joints simultaneously. While a leg extension is considered an isolation exercise, a leg press is considered a compound exercise. It targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and abdominal muscles. Compound exercises are designed to target multiple muscle groups, whereas isolation exercises target only a single joint and muscle group. This is the fundamental difference between isolation and compound exercises.
Examples of compound exercises include:
- Shoulder presses
- Bench presses
Now for the million-dollar question: should I perform isolation exercises or compound exercises? There’s really no easy answer to this question, as it varies depending on your goals. Compound exercises are designed to build body-wide strength, while isolation exercises are best performed for building a specific muscle group.
With that said, you’ll typically lift lower amounts when performing isolation exercises as opposed to compound exercises. Without a second group of muscles for support, the primary muscle group targeted by isolation exercises is under heavy stress. This is why most bodybuilders focus on compound exercises like bench presses and squats.
Rather than trying to choose one or the other, why not add both to your fitness routine? Incorporating compound and isolation exercises into your fitness regimen encourages a full-body workout. Additionally, it allows you to target secondary muscle groups that you’d otherwise miss by performing only isolation exercises.
Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of the nuances between isolation exercises and compound exercises. The key thing to remember is that isolation exercises target a single joint and muscle group, whereas compound exercises target two or more joints and muscle groups.