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Compound vs Isolation Exercises

You may have heard of compound and isolation exercises. It's often assumed that compound exercises are for CrossFit or powerlifting athletes, and isolation exercises are for body builders. I understand where this assumption comes from, but CrossFitters, powerlifters, and body builders are only a small portion of all athletes.

Athletes who workout for weekend adventures or for general health are left a little puzzled on what the difference is and what is "better" for their programming.

For some background, compound exercises are your multi-joint movements that require multiple muscle groups to perform. These could include: squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, rows, and pull-ups. Think: squat, hip hinge, vertical press, horizontal press, vertical pull, and horizontal pull.

Isolation exercises are your single-joint movements that focus on one muscle group. These could include: hamstring curls, bicep curls, tricep extension, lateral raises, back fly, leg extension, and calf raises.

Multi-joint and single-joint exercises are not superior to one another. They are both necessary in your program.

In all of my programs, both KATHLETICS Trail and Personal Training, we generally start with compound exercises and end with isolation exercises. This, of course, depends on your goals. Although, it's likely we're starting with multi-joint movements before single-joint movements to set you up for success, regardless of if you want to gain strength, build muscle, or improve endurance.

A sample workout may look like:

1A. Deadlift

2A. Row

3A. SL hip thrust

3B. Pull-ups

4A. Back fly

4B. Calf raises

5A. Farmer carries

5B. Dead bugs

Note: your workouts don't need to have 16+ exercises. Choose 5-8 movements, get really stinkin' good at them, and use relatively heavy weights to get results. Generally speaking, my clients will have at most 12 exercises in a session. But, we'll come back to this topic another time...


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