Compound vs. Isolation Exercises

Blog Content:

  1. Introduction

  2. Compound vs. Isolation

  3. Which is “better”?

  4. Compound Lift Specifics

  5. Compound Lift Health Benefits

  6. Takeaways


In the previous training blog we posted (“Track your Training!”, 05 September 2021) we talked about the structure of our programming method at Telos. We format our Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday classes to have a strength component followed by a conditioning piece. In the strength component, we always have a big lift: bench, squat, shoulder press, or deadlift. After the big lift, we have an accessory exercise that usually includes light dumbbells, kettlebells, or bands. The “big” lift usually includes heavy weights, and it’s pretty fatiguing to the whole body. Personally when I deadlift heavy, I am a zombie for the rest of the day. The accessory work is lighter work, but it tends to “burn”…have you ever done high repetitions with the banded tricep extensions? Those burn. 

Compound vs. Isolation

The “big” lifts are compound exercises and the accessory work that follows are usually isolation exercises. So now the question is: what are compound exercises? What are isolation exercises? 

As mentioned above, compound exercises are the heavy lifts. These lifts involve multiple muscle groups and joints. You target more muscles per repetition. Let’s look at the squat as an example. In a squat movement, there are multiple joint movements (hip and knees) and you engage the following muscles: quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, and core. These lifts are very powerful, and tend to translate to movement patterns we encounter in everyday life.

Isolation exercises focus on one muscle group and one joint at a time. Isolation exercises are essential for correcting imbalances and/or weaknesses. For example, if someone has a weak lower back, it can be evident through their deadlift when they round their lower back. In order to correct this, they will need to strengthen that muscle group, which can be done through isolation exercises such as supermans, back raises, and bridges. 


Which is “better”? 

Neither of them are “better”. For optimal results in strength and muscle building, you will want to perform a compound movement (or two) followed by accessory work, specific to your imbalances and weaknesses to compliment the main compound movement performed. 

It is imperative for personal trainers/coaches to be aware of their clients/athlete’s capabilities. If one of my clients can squat well but has knees that cave in (known as knee valgus), then they may have overpowering hip adductor muscles (inner thigh) and weak hip abductors (gluteus minimus and gluteus medius). This will allow me to add in appropriate accessory work to compliment their squat compound lifts. 

Isolation exercises help a lot with building mind-muscle connection. When I perform isolation exercises using machines or bands, I tend to move slowly so that I can focus on the muscle being worked. I used this technique on my journey to pull-ups. Before ever doing a pull up, I knew I had the strength but I had a mental block on how to activate the required muscles to pull myself up…my body just couldn’t grasp the idea. I did a lot of bicep curls (which are key players in the initial pull of the pull up) and performed heavy lat pulldowns/slow lat pulldowns to focus on the lats (latissimus dorsi), which are the primary muscles when we bring our elbows towards our sides in a pull up. This helped build my mind-muscle connection and allowed me to understand what it felt like to engage those muscles, which translated well in my pull-ups. 

Compound Lift Specifics

In the figure above, you’ll see a list of compound lifts. These lifts are ones that you can go heavy on and will fatigue the whole body. They are known to burn more calories compared to isolation exercises. Typically, when you go heavy on these lifts, it is recommended to take a longer rest period (2-4 minutes) in between sets. This will allow your muscles and central nervous system to recover before performing the next set. 

Compound lifts tend to be very technical. This is why proper technique is vital. Before every class at Telos, we aim to explain the movement patterns and try to focus on technique cues for the compound lifts because they are more intricate. It takes a while to learn, especially with lifts like the deadlift. When learning proper technique, one must take on lighter loads and focus on the movement patterns. Once the technique is good (which may take days, weeks, or months), then heavier loads can be added. Don’t be afraid to lower the weight on the bar to focus on technique…that’s the smart thing to do. 

Compound lifts require core stability. This is why bracing and proper breathing techniques are important when you squat, bench, deadlift, and press. If you have a weak core and don’t brace properly, the lift will look and feel very unstable, often resulting in an injury. Think of your squat; when you take a deep breath in before the descent, you want to bring that air to your diaphragm. This creates a pressure in your torso that will help  your spine stabilize and keep your chest up. Isolation exercises typically do not need this level of technicality. 

Have you noticed how fatigued you get when you go for a heavy compound lift? Think of when you do a 3-rep max for deadlift…that’s a lot of energy expended (I usually nap after my heavy deadlifts.) On the max effort days, one is expected to feel more fatigued because of the level of exertion. This is why longer rest periods are important and recommended. In the sport of Powerlifting, the athletes typically perform one or two of the main powerlifting compound lifts (squat, bench, a deadlift) per training session. If you watch their training session, it’s very slow paced and they rest 3 to 5 minutes before sets. This is because they are exerting a lot of energy on heavy lifts. If you do some lateral raises (isolation exercise), you won’t feel the same level of fatigue…but you will feel the “burn”.

Compound Lift Health Benefits

Not too long ago, resistance training with compound lifts was not highly regarded, especially for women and older folks. Instead, people focused on cardio and getting a good sweat. However, it has been proven that strength training with compound lifts is key to longevity and there are a ton of health benefits. One of the main things that should be focused on, no matter age, is strength and muscle mass. This is accomplished through compound lifts. Another benefit of resistance training is increasing bone density! There is decreased risk for osteoporosis and fractures. 


  1. Compound lifts are multi-joint movements that require the use of multiple muscle groups; isolation exercises are single joint and focus on just one muscle group

  2. Use isolation exercises to work on imbalances. This will help improve your compound lifts.

  3. Compound lifts are vital for strength building, muscle synthesis, and bone density.

  4. Compound lifts translate well to everyday movements.

  5. When programming an effective resistance training program, start with a compound lift (after your warm up), and follow up with isolation exercises. 

  6. Technique! Technique! Technique!