Dear Dr. Bell, what are the difference between compound vs isolation exercises? What are the benefits of each?

Compound Exercises are multi-joint exercises while Isolation Exercises only utilize one joint. Therefore, Compound Exercises utilize many muscle groups and Isolation Exercises utilize one muscle group. Examples of Compound vs Isolation Exercises are as follows:

Compound Exercises

Squat (Quadriceps, Gluteals, Calves & more)

Push-Up (Pectorals, Deltoids, Triceps & more)

Bench-Press (Pectorals, Deltoids, Triceps & more)

Overhead Press (Triceps, Deltoids, Trapezius & more)

Lat Pull Downs (Lats, Upper Back, Biceps and more)

Isolation Exercises

Leg Extension (Quadriceps)

Chest Fly (Pectorals)

Triceps Extension (Triceps)

Biceps Curl (Biceps)

You can easily see from just the few examples above, one administrative benefit of Compound Exercises is, they save you time! You can target far more muscles with Compound Exercises than you ever could with Isolation Exercises.

Other benefits of Compound Exercises:

  • More Functional – strength gains transfer to real life performance
  • Athletic Improvement – strength, agility, balance and coordination gains transfer to real life performance
  • Greater Fat Burning – more calories burned
  • Improved Flexibility – increased range of motion
  • Improved Strength – you gain far more strength from Compound Exercises
  • More Muscular Mass – you gain more muscular and skeletal hypertrophy
  • Improved Endocrine System – compound exercises stimulate all anabolic & “anti-aging” hormones.

So right now, you are probably asking, “what are the benefits of Isolation Exercises?” In truth…not much! The only exception will be if you are a Body Builder, but probably not for the reasons a Bodybuilder typically believes. If you ask Bodybuilders, most them will tell you, “I do Compound Exercises to increase mass and Isolation Exercises to increase “cuts,” which by “cuts” they mean definition.

I would obviously agree with the first part and smile diplomatically at the second part. It should be obvious to any IFPA Certified Personal Trainer that the only way to “see” definition or “cut” of any muscle is to remove the fat that surrounds it. Therefore, definition and cutting are achieved only through Fat Loss Programs and that includes diet and nutrition. The Bodybuilders must consume fewer calories than they expend to achieve the definition they need to win in competition. As previously mentioned, Compound Exercises burn more fat than Isolation Exercises.

The real reason Bodybuilders need Isolation Exercises is to shape their muscles. Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, used numerous Isolation Exercises to shape his legendary Biceps. Larry designed the “Scott Bench,” the predecessor of the “Preacher Bench” or “Curling Bench” you see in gyms today.

You learned in your IFPA Personal Trainer Certification Course, every time you change a stance, angle, vector, grip, machine, exercise, position, etc., that you affect the muscle in a different way. In effect, moving the stress within the targeted muscle to a different part of the muscle, or different fibers within the muscle.

For Example: 

Consider the standard Dumbbell Curl, where you stand with the Dumbbell in front of your thigh and curl it upward to end at your shoulders. Now, lower the Dumbbell back down to your Thigh. Now, to demonstrate a different position: In the down position, laterally rotate your arm, so your hand is in front of the outside lateral portion of your Thigh. Be sensitive to how your Biceps feels. As you move laterally, you will begin to feel a “stretch” within the medial fibers of your Biceps. This stretch is your indicator that when you perform your Curls in this position, more of the stress of the exercise has moved medially. The adaptation that occurs, results in more development of these medial fibers.

This adaption is critical for the Bodybuilder who is required to perform the “Double Front Biceps” pose in competition. The Bodybuilder is using this exercise to shape the Biceps so it “shows” at it’s best in this pose. Bodybuilders will also use other isolation exercises like the Hammer Curl or Reverse Curl to shape their arms.

Every body part can be shaped and Bodybuilders use a series of Isolation Exercises to shape their muscle to win. Every subtle change in grip, angle, stance, etc., can be used to shape the muscle to achieve the Bodybuilders goals. The next chance you get, look closely at the difference in shape between a Gymnast and a Bodybuilder. Both athletes build strength and achieve muscular hypertrophy, but the activities of each athlete are significantly different and those activities shape the muscles of each athlete differently.

If you are a Personal Trainer who specializes in training Bodybuilders, these techniques become a significant portion of your Program Design. If your Personal Training Business has little to do with Bodybuilding, then most of your Program Designs will be based around Compound Exercises that will be far better suited to achieve your clients’ goals.

It is your responsibility as an IFPA Certified Trainer to develop the safest and most effective training programs & exercises, to achieve your clients’ goals. You also need to have the knowledge and ability to explain to your clients, how and why your personal training protocols will achieve their goals.

Good Luck,

Dr. Jim Bell

CEO of the IFPA

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