What’s the Difference Between A Compound and Isolation Exercise?|How to Make Your Workouts the Most Efficient

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As I progressed in my health and fitness journey and started to learn more about fitness, I just started to have even more questions. How many times a week should I be working out? How much time do I need to spend on cardio? How should I set up my weight lifting schedule throughout the week? Which exercises target which muscles?

So one of the reasons I started Ask Abbey was to answer those types of questions for any of you who are looking for more clarity too!

PS: To learn more about how to set up your weekly workout split, listen to this podcast episode, and to learn which exercises target which muscles, check out my YouTube Series dedicated to answering that question! ⬇

I was especially confused when I started lifting weights. There are so many different things to consider once you start incorporating weight training into your weekly split- like doing push vs. pull exercises (I give you the quick low down on that in this blog post), and how to set up your workouts with compound vs. isolation exercises.

If you clicked on this post you’re probably wondering… what’s the difference between a compound and isolation exercise? And which types of exercises should you be including in your own workouts?

To sum it up quickly…

Compound Exercises are exercises that target multiple muscle groups at one time. Here are some examples:

  • Deadlifts
  • Squats
  • Rows
  • Presses

Isolation Exercises are exercises that primarily target one muscle group at a time. Here are some examples:

  • Bicep Curl
  • Hamstring Curl
  • Leg Extension
  • Tricep Extension

If you’re feeling confused on how to tell the difference, I got you! Something I used to reaaaally try to focus on as a weight lifting beginner was this thing called “mind muscle connection”. Which is exactly what it sounds like- actually thinking about the muscles that are activated and targeted while performing certain exercises. If you try this, you should be able to feel the difference from something like a bicep curl (primarily target your biceps) and a shoulder press (targeting shoulders, but also your chest and back)!

So now that we know the difference between these two types of exercises, how do we know which kind of exercises we should be doing? And is one better than the other?

Well… you can probably guess that compound exercises are going to help you achieve that toned, defined physique more easily. When you target more than one muscle at a time you can have a much more efficient workout! Also, compound exercises just tend to be more physically demanding than isolation exercises (think about sitting at the leg extension machine vs. doing a barbell squat). Basically, that means that you’ll be able to burn more fat and more calories when loading up your workout with compound exercises instead of just doing isolation exercises!

But that’s not to say that isolation exercises don’t have a place in your workout routine! Don’t get me wrong- I love a good bicep curl. Incorporating isolation movements into your workout can help you to target muscles that you are focused on growing or defining more than others. It’s also just fun to have variety in your workouts instead of doing the same squats, deadlifts and presses over and over.

Wondering how I personally approach it?

What I like to do is set up my workouts using a combination of both compound and isolation movements, with a heavier focus on compound movements. I also like to string exercises together (like a bicep curl into a shoulder press) to switch things up and get the benefits of both!

Here’s an example of a recent lower body weight training workout I did:

SUPERSET 1 (4×12):

  • Step Ups (Compound)
  • Sumo Squat + Calf Raise (Compound)

TRISET 1 (4×12):

  • Static Lunges- Right Leg (Compound)
  • Static Lunges- Left Leg (Compound)
  • Glute Bridge (Isolation)

PYRAMID 1 (12/10/8/6)

  • Leg Press (Compound)

BURNOUT (4×24)

  • Alternating Leg Glute Kickbacks (Isolation)

Which exercises do you tend to do more of? Are you inspired to switch things up now? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

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