bicep curl

Let’s be honest.  If you’re like most people, you probably think that the key to gaining muscle and building a great body is to do more.

And in most areas of your life, this principle makes sense.  Looking to make more money at work?  Put in more overtime.  

Trying to get your business off the ground?  Grind out more hours.

So naturally, if you’re serious about fitness, you probably apply this mindset to your training.  More sets, more exercises, and more days spent in the gym.  

More, more, more.

Well, the fact of the matter is that doing more work does help to build muscle…up to a certain point.  

But if you’ve been working out hard and pushing yourself to do more, and you’re STILL not seeing the results you want, the problem might not be your work ethic.

It might be the way that you’re training.  

You see, there are (broadly speaking) two different types of weightlifting exercises.  These are called “isolation exercises” and “compound exercises”.  

And there’s a good chance that if you’re struggling, it’s because you’re doing way too much of the former, and not enough of the latter.

In reality, you don’t need a million different exercises to achieve your goals.  You just need a few good ones.

isolation vs compound workout

Isolation Exercises VS Compound Exercises

Let’s start with the difference between an isolation exercise and a compound exercise.

An isolation exercise is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s a movement that isolates a particular muscle while excluding others.  

These include classic gym staples such as the pec deck, the thigh abductor, and the hamstring extension.  They also include free weight variations (usually dumbbells) like the bicep curl, the triceps extension, and the calf raise.

Compound exercises, on the other hand, are movements that work multiple muscle groups at the same time.  

Take the bench press as an example.  Most people consider this to be a “chest” exercise.  And while it certainly does hit your pecs, it’s not only a chest exercise.  It will also engage your triceps, your shoulders, and your lats.  

Hell, it’ll even work your quads if you do it right (remember, your legs help stabilize you during the lift).

Compare that to the pec deck, which only works…well, your pecs.

Common compound exercises include the bench press, the overhead press, the squat, the deadlift, the pull-up (or chin-up) and the dip.

The Benefits Of Compound Movements Over Isolation Movements

If your current workout routine is heavy on isolation exercises and light on compound exercises, you’re leaving a lot of benefits (and muscle gains) on the table.  

Compound lifting has three main advantages:

1. You Spend Less Time In The Gym

Let’s say it’s leg day (rough times, we know).  In order to get a complete lower body workout in, you need to hit the following major muscles groups:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves
  • Hips

A typical isolation workout, in which one exercise is used for each muscle, might look something like this:

  • Leg Extensions (Quadriceps)
  • Hamstring Curls (Hamstrings)
  • Dumbbell Lunges (Glutes)
  • Weighted Calf Raises (Calves)
  • Side Leg Raises (Hips)

Now, compare that to a solid compound routine.  You start off with the barbell back squat.  Guess which lower body muscle that works?  

The answer is…ALL OF THEM.  

A good, heavy set of squats will not only torch your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and hips, but it will also strengthen your entire core, including your abs, obliques and lower back.

Add in one (maybe two) more lower body lifts, and you’re done for the day.

2. You Build More Muscle

This is where the real science comes in. While you can achieve the same results with isolation exercises as with compound lifts, you’ll probably have a much easier time gaining muscle by doing the latter.

The reasoning behind this is a little something called “progressive overload” (a fancy way of implying that you’re making progress over time with your workouts).  

Progressive overload is one of the most important factors in gaining muscle.  This means that each time you hit the gym, you should either be trying to lift more weight or perform more reps than you did last time.

Again, you can achieve progressive overload with isolation exercises.  But the big benefit of compound lifting is that it’s far easier to make regular increases in both the number of reps and the amount of weight you’re doing. 

Trying to go too heavy on isolation movements (especially those involving the arms) is not only more difficult, but a recipe for injury.

Which brings us to our last point…

3. You Save Your Joints In The Long Run

Trying to load 200 pounds onto a hamstring curl or a pec deck is playing with fire, and is a fantastic way to rip your joints apart.  But that’s not the only drawback.

An isolation-based workout means that you’ll be performing a lot more sets and reps per week.  Over time, all of this excessive volume will also start to wear down your joints.  

Remember, fitness is a lifelong commitment.  Staying healthy and free of injury as you age should be your top priority.

The Truth About Compound Lifting And Aesthetics

One of big reasons people are put off by this style of weightlifting is the misguided belief that it will “make them bulky”. 

The reality is that most hardcore powerlifters look bulky and husky because of their diet. These guys carry around a ton of extra fat because, frankly, they don’t really care how they look as long as they get strong.  

The difference between husky and bulky verses muscular and shredded comes down to low body fat.  And the best way achieve low body fat is through diet.  Heavy, compound weightlifting combined with proper nutrition is a fantastic combination for achieving the look you want.

compound exercise

How To Use Isolation Movements Effectively

With all this said, isolation movements do have a place in your workout routine.  But rather than make them the focal point, you might want to consider using them as a supplement

A great way to approach this is to have a look at your physique, identify your “weak spots”, and use those weaknesses as a guide.

For example, some guys find that their chest grows quite easily, but they constantly struggle with their biceps and triceps.  In this case, adding in a few sets of curls and triceps extensions on top of heavy compound work is a great strategy.

How To Build A Routine Based On Compound Exercises

So, if you’re interested in compound lifting, the following is a solid, beginner-friendly routine for you to work with.  

This program is a three-day split, featuring a “push” day, a “pull” day, and a leg day (allow at least one day of rest between workouts.  

Each workout begins with two compound movements, which will require the most effort.  At the end of the workout, you’ll perform a few isolation exercises to finish off with.  Feel free to modify or change these moves depending on your particular strengths and weakness.

If you’ve been doing mostly isolation workouts up until now, this might not look like much work on paper.  But if you’re using sufficient weight, you will feel it…and it will be hard work.

With that said, if you’re not used to this style of training, try to ease into it for the first few weeks and focus on your form.

DAY 1: PUSH WORKOUT

DAY 2: PULL WORKOUT

  • Deadlift– 5 sets of 5 reps (3 minutes rest)
  • Chin-ups– 5 sets of 5 reps (*Note- If chin-ups are too easy for you, you can always add weight to them) (3 minutes rest)
  • Bicep Curls– 3 sets of 8-10 reps (1 minute rest)

DAY 3: LEG WORKOUT

Make no mistake, compound weightlifting is hard work.  It requires a lot of dedication and discipline, especially in the beginning.  But if you can commit to it and get over the initial hurdle, your progress will take off and you’ll start seeing the gains you’ve worked so hard for.