Have you ever wondered:
What is the best way to build muscle—compound or isolation exercises? Doesn’t matter if you have or not because I’m going to tell you regardless.
Compound vs Isolation Exercises:
What to Choose for Hypertrophy?
Okay, drawing little Mongolians takes a shitload of time and so let’s get back to old-fashioned writing. Let me just get a glass of some dubious drink from Mongolia first.
Yup. I’m good now. Inspired. And still alive. Let’s continue. So…
With compound exercises, you can train multiple muscle groups simultaneously and accumulate sufficient weekly volume (weekly reps per muscle group) for multiple muscle groups at the same time.
Let’s say you do squats. Not only do you train your quads but your glutes, hamstrings, adductors, spinal erectors, etc. too.1
As a result, you get a greater overall muscle growth stimulus from compound exercises compared to isolation exercises. In fewer sets too.2
Also, compound exercises enable you to use heavier weights which is important because you can better progressively overload muscles over time.
P.S. Without progressive overload, there is no muscle growth. So you better assume it is crucial. Read it again: C-R-U-C-I-A-L. It’s kind of galactic guiding light for hypertrophy.
Some people after reading this will drop metaphorical napalm on me like “Well, fuck yeah, Egis! I will just do the “big 3” lifts—a squat, deadlift, bench press, and grow everything.”
Er, no. You can’t just do compound exercises and grow everything3:
…showed that performing Smith machine squats exclusively resulted in uneven growth in the quads:
Further reading: How To Build Muscle: A Practical Checklist
Compound exercises are also not the best way to target ‘weak points’—a lack of muscular development in a specific muscle group.
For example, if you notice that your triceps don’t progress as much as other muscles and after all the training they still look completely banana-shaped, no amount of bench or shoulder pressing will fix that.
Lastly, it’s very fucking stupid to do only compound exercises when some of your muscle groups approached their maximum recoverable volume (the amount of training that provides the most muscle growth).
Say, you have a squat, deadlift, bent over barbell row, and Romanian deadlift in your program. And yet you don’t see enough hamstring development.
If you keep adding more sets to these exercises to grow hamstrings, you will end up putting too much strain on your low back. In that case, throwing leg curls (isolation exercise) into your training is a great way to add hamstring work without continuing to tax already fatigued low back.
Compound vs Isolation Exercises:
- If you are a complete beginner (less than 2 years of consistent training), you want to become proficient with compound exercises as quickly as possible so that you could start progressively overload and grow.
So you are better off spending your time learning main lifts. Don’t worry about isolation exercises—you will grow without much emphasis on isolation exercises.
- As you get more advanced, include both—compound and isolation exercises—to support balanced muscular development and bring up ‘weak points.’ Do 1–2 compound exercises and 1–3 isolation exercises for each muscle group per workout.
- No matter what is your training level, isolation exercises can be a great addition to your training when one muscle is approaching its maximum recoverable volume.
I think it was Albert Einstein who said that if you want to get buff, you are better off doing both compound and isolation exercises (unless you are a complete noob).
Actually, I might have made that up (I definitely have made that up) but I’m sure he would have said something like that if he had been a serious gym bro.
So, er, do both. It’s monumental stupidity to do just one. In most cases.