Compound vs Isolation Movements for Muscle Growth

It’s important that you tailor your training to your fitness goal, and if you want to build muscle mass you should choose the optimal combination of compound and isolation exercises.

In this guide, we will look at compound vs isolation movements in the context of building and maintaining muscle mass and give recommendations for your own workouts.

What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises – also called multi-joint exercises – are those movements that use more than one joint. They are usually but not always “big” exercises like squats, deadlifts, and rows.

Compound exercises have traditionally been used as a go-to for building muscle because they are time-efficient and stimulate several muscle groups in one exercise. But researchers have been debating the topic of compound vs isolation exercises for hypertrophy (which means muscle cell growth) for decades, and the literature is still changing.

Examples of compound exercises

Any exercise that uses more than one joint and multiple muscle groups is a compound exercise. Compound exercises can be done with barbells, dumbbells, cables, functional equipment, machines, or body weight.

Some examples include:

  • Squats and leg press
  • Deadlifts and variations
  • Lunges and split squats
  • Bench press and press-ups
  • Overhead press
  • Pull-ups and lat pull downs
  • Bent over rows

What are isolation exercises?

In contrast to compound exercises, isolation movements target one muscle group and work through one joint. They tend to be “smaller” exercises that use lighter weights. For this reason, many people believe isolation exercises are inferior to compound movements for building muscle.

But as we have said, the scientific community is still divided on this topic. Most people agree that the smartest way to build muscle is a combination of both compound and isolation exercises.

Examples of isolation exercises

  • Lateral raises
  • Cable crossovers
  • Biceps curls
  • Triceps kickbacks
  • Machine hamstring curl
  • Calf raises
  • Sit-ups

The science of compound vs isolation exercises

In 2019, a paper published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that single-joint exercises resulted in higher hypertrophy of elbow flexors than multijoint exercises. Although this was a very specific finding for the elbow, the paper had implications for this field of study.

Until this point, the debate had switched back and forth between compound and isolation for muscle growth. In 2015, a study in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine was inconclusive, stating:

“The results of the present study suggest that MJ and SJ exercises are equally effective for promoting increases in upper body muscle strength and size in untrained men. Therefore, the selection between SJ and MJ exercises should be based on individual and practical aspects, such as equipment availability, movement specificity, individual preferences, and time commitment.”

The best training to build muscle

The most important factors in building muscle are load (weight), volume (total sets x reps), training frequency, and of course consistency.

These are far more important than your precise combination of compound vs isolation movements. But we know you want to figure out the best way to train to gain muscle.

In 2017, an interesting study was published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology which compared compound and isolation movements at equal total load volume. It aimed to find out which type of movement was better for muscle growth when total workout volume was the same. It concluded that both types of movement were equally efficient in improving body composition (muscle gain and fat loss), but compound movements are superior for physical performance.

This study is useful if you are an athlete or want to improve training performance in terms of explosive power or speed.

How to design the best hypertrophy workout

Current research, combined with anecdotal feedback from bodybuilders and physique athletes, tells us that the best muscle-building workouts use a combination of compound and isolation exercises.

You should start your workouts with a warm-up and some mobilisation work to prime the muscles for the work ahead.

Then move on to compound exercises for the main part of your training session. If you use a body-part split plan, these should be selected according to the muscle groups you are working with. If you use a push/pull or upper/low plan, you should select 2-3 compound movements that stimulate the required body parts. Aim for 3-4 working sets of 8-10 or 10-12 reps for optimal hypertrophy.

Incorporate isolation work into your training session in one of two ways. Either mix it in with the compound movements as supersets (pull-ups and biceps curls, or bench press and cable crossovers for example). Or finish your session with 3-4 isolation exercises for the target muscle groups.