What are compound and isolation exercises?

What are compound and isolation exercises?

Amon Fearon - August 19, 2022

If you work out you may have heard the words ‘compound’ and ‘isolation’ thrown around the gym floor or on social media, but what are they and what’s the fuss about?

Compound and isolation exercises are two essential forms of training for every gym goer to know about. Understanding their differences and how to use both effectively can elevate your performance to break through plateaus and achieve new personal bests.


What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises are sets of movements that work multiple muscles all over the body at the same time. For example, squats, deadlifts and bench presses. 

You're more likely to perform compound exercises when using free-weights because additional parts of your body are needed for balance and mobility.


What are isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises are movements that work one muscle group at a time. For example, bicep curl, leg extension or triceps extension.

It's common to get the benefits of isolated exercises from workout machines, which are typically designed for controlled movement of specific muscles.

Isolation exercises are sometimes used to correct body imbalances. Overdeveloped muscles can lead to other weaker muscles working harder to compensate during strenuous activity and this increases risk of pain or injury. Strengthening underactive muscles is key to correcting muscle imbalance and isolation can offer more control over which muscles are worked. Though, be careful not rely too much on these types of targeted exercises without a proper workout program or they will actually become the root cause of muscle imbalance.


Do isolation exercises build muscle?

Isolation exercises promote concentrated muscle growth. By targeting individual muscle groups at a time, you create micro-tears that repair in the hours and days following your workout, and this allows the muscles to grow back bigger and stronger. That’s why your muscles feel achy and sore after working out, especially after isolation exercises.

The most important part of isolation exercises is challenging yourself. You’re never going to improve on your performance and see meaningful muscle growth if you aren’t pushing yourself. However, it goes without saying that you should never overstretch yourself. Be sensible with your weight. If you’re finding you can do a few more reps than usual on your current weight, try adding in a heavier one towards the end of your set. It’s not uncommon to use multiple weights in a workout. Some people like to start lighter and end heavier whereas others prefer the reverse. Find what works for you.


How many isolation exercises per workout?

If you’re looking for a bit of guidance on how many isolation exercises you should do per workout, a lot of people like to follow the 80/20 split of compound to isolation exercises. So, for example, if you have seven exercises in your workout, two should be isolation. This allows for the perfect balance between overall muscle strength and encouraging muscle fatigue of specific muscle groups. An example of the 80/20 split could look like this:


Type of Exercise

Deadlifts or Barbell Rows


Seated Cable Rows or Machine Rows


Pull Ups or Lat Pull Downs


Bench Press


Incline Dumbbell Bench Press


Dumbbell Fly’s or Pec Dec


Cable Crunches or Weighted Sit Ups




How many compound exercises per workout?

Sticking with the 80/20 guide, in a workout of seven exercises, five should be compound. We mentioned it above, but these five compound exercises when paired with two isolation exercises, should help you to see meaningful gains on the gym floor. All you’ll need to do is adjust that number depending on how many exercises you are doing per workout. So, if you prefer to do 10 exercises, make sure to adjust as needed to hit that all-important 80/20 balance. 


How to do compound exercises

Man doing triceps dip

There isn’t one way to do a compound exercise seeing as there are so many different movements. Each compound exercise should be done in the correct form and in a safe way that pushes you but doesn’t make it difficult for you to stop if needed. Here are some of the most popular compound exercises and how to do them properly: 

Compound exercise

How to perform


Start with your knees hip-width apart and toes pointed out. Drive your hips back and bend at the knees pushing them out as you move down to a 90-degree angle. Make sure your chest and shoulders are up and push through your heels to straighten your legs, returning to your starting stand position.


Start with your feet shoulder-width apart with the barbell at your feet in front of you. Hinge at your hips with a slight bend in the knee to grab the bar. Remember to keep your spine neutral, don’t look up as you lift. Once you’ve got hold of the bar, pull your shoulders back, squeeze your glutes and core and tuck your pelvis as you lift to stand. Slowly lower the bar back down to the floor to repeat.  


With your feet hip-width apart, step forward with one leg so that you can comfortably lower your body. Your back knee should bend to a 90-degree angle so make sure your core is engaged to avoid putting too much pressure through your knees. Push through your leg to lift back up and set yourself to go for another rep.

Bench press

Lie with your back flat on a bench with your barbell or dumbbells above you. Your grip on the bar should be slightly wider than your shoulders. Press your feet into the ground to give yourself some support. Keep your core engaged and avoid over-arching your back, keep it neutral. Push the bar away from you keeping it in line with your shoulders. Lower the bar until your elbows are just below the bench, don’t go too far. Repeat for however many reps you’re comfortable with.

Shoulder press

If using dumbbells, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your dumbbells at shoulder height keeping your elbows in a 90-degree angle. Lift the dumbbells above your head but don’t fully straighten your arms. Pause at the top before slowly lowering back down to continue with more reps.


To get the most out of your compound exercises, you need to make sure you’re fit for form and comfortable. That means stocking up on premium performance gym shorts as well as gym vests and t-shirts. Make sure to look out for the fabric your gym clothes are made from too. Gym wear that is made from sweat-wicking, breathable fabrics will keep you cooler for longer, allowing you to focus on real work.

 Man in Castore navy gym t-shirt

Why are compound exercises good?

Compound exercises are good because they recruit multiple muscle groups into use when you are working out. This is great for improving your functional capabilities which helps you not just in the gym but outside it too. The movements in compound exercises train your body in everyday movements such as standing, lifting, pushing, pulling, and rotation and can improve your coordination and balance.

Compound exercises can offer more cardiovascular benefits as training more of the body at once keeps your heart rate up and burns more calories.

It's also important to include compound exercises in your gym workout as they are typically bilateral, which allows antagonist muscles to also benefit. As mentioned earlier, you run the risk of neglecting key components of each muscle with isolation exercises unless your routine is specially designed to target everything in a balanced way.

Some regulars at the gym prefer a 4-day training split, which pairs muscle groups together within a single session e.g. day 1: back and biceps, day 2: chest and triceps, day 3: legs, day 4: shoulders. Because, for example, the triceps are already working during many compound chest exercises, you can get an additional pump and then move on to them afterwards. This is an effective and convenient way to build muscle mass if you're able to increase the volume and intensity of your workouts.