What is the difference between isolation exercises and compound movements at the gym? And how should we incorporate one or both of these methods in our own routine? Isolation exercises are exercises that only focus on one muscle. For example, bicep curls are an isolation exercise because we are isolating just the bicep muscle. On the flip side of that, pull ups are a compound movement because they work a variety of muscles at the same time. For example, pull ups work the biceps and back muscles. Having multiple muscles being used to complete the movement makes that exercise a compound movement.
Now that the obvious is out of the way, how do we know which is better for us? How do we know which method to focus on? If you’ve read my fitness blogs in the past, then you know I strongly encourage a hybrid type of workout. Why? Because a hybrid done right will use the best of all worlds in the gym. You get isolation, compound movements, Olympic lifts, cardio, HIIT and so on. My job is to find the right mix for clients depending on what their goals are. But if we are looking at the distinction between isolation exercises and compound movements, then finding the right mix isn’t as difficult.
Let’s start backwards. Let’s look at the goals first then work from there to determine the best mix of exercises for a certain goal. If our goal is strictly hypertrophy, which is looking to grow muscle size, then isolation would be more of the focus. Isolation is better suited for a hypertrophy focused goal due to being able to put a lot of stress on one muscle group at a time. This is for someone going for a bulkier look. On the flip side of that, if your goals are more centered on overall fitness and mobility, then compound movements are no doubt the better play. Compound movements are better suited for a more athletic performer or someone that wants to be fluid with their movements. Most sport athletes need to use compound movements because that best simulates how they will perform. Most athletes don’t only use one muscle at a time. They use a multitude of muscles which is why compound movements is best for this goal.
Now most of us aren’t high level athletes. However, we still want the mobility and strength of an athlete. And many of us want to simply look good in a bathing suit. That’s why I am an advocate for hybrid workouts. In this case, looking at just isolation and compound movements, we want to utilize both strategies. The bulk of the workout will be compound movements, then we will sprinkle in some isolation workouts at the end to really deplete our muscles. So for any workout I do, I will start off with a compound movement. After a proper warm up, I will go heavy while going with low sets. As the workout progresses, I shift my focus more and more towards isolation exercises with higher reps to fully deplete the muscles. This mix is ideal for staying athletic while putting on lots of muscle. So each workout should look like this:
No matter what type of day it is (besides cardio) I will use this as my guide. This has been the best process for me and my clients. Feel free to reach out with any questions or comments below in the comment section.