T Nation

Are Isolation Exercises Underrated?


I've been doing compounds for over a year now. Hardly any difference in size. Most gains were in strength. ( I could barely push the bar when I began) My arms are lagging, though and I started to wonder why.

Over a cup of coffee this morning, it struck me. Are we doing this wrong?
Sure when compared to the bench press, the skullcrusher/ tricep pushdown won't cause much anabolic hormone release. But is the Bench Press better than Flyes, front raises and tricep pushdown?


Bench: 135 lb
Each hand hypothetically is carrying around 67.5
Of that 67.5, around 40 is probably being carried by each pec.
That leaves a measley 27.5 lbs for the tricep and shoulder to share.

Whereas on the isolation, with some grunting and good form, hypothetically, I am able to lift 60 for flyes, 20 for front raises and 60 with the triceps.
For each side, this comes out to 140 lb, much more than the benching weight. If performed on the same day, I believe the hormonal response would be similar to the bench press( it would also take more time).

Am I thinking something wrong? Are isolation exercises underrated? Sure, we can lift much less weight, but they do produce more muscular contraction than an ordinary compound exercise. Isn't that what's required for optimum muscle growth?


holy shit i think you're right! we're doing it wrong everyone, lets ditch compounds, they never really worked anyway..


Here's a crazy idea - do both.


Your math is wrong, the physics aren't that simple.

When you first start you are going to gain a lot of strength just learning to lift.

How much weight have you gained?


Agreed with both of you. What am I doing wrong that Compounds won't help me grow? Is it the nutrition part? I was eating clean last month, most of it went straight to the gut.

Anyways back to the topic, I agree. Doing both would probably bring the best of both worlds. Do we do heavy compounds and moderate-heavy isolation, then?


30 Pounds, most of it (15 lbs in first three months)in the early phases. The growth gradually slowed down over time.


Define "moderate-heavy".

Just use the weight that allows you to complete the selected number/range of reps and allows you to achieve maximum contraction.

Do compounds with heavy weight without breakdown in form. Whether you do it explosively, constant tension, locked out or not seems to be a matter of preference. I'm nowhere near experienced enough to comment on that, regardless of what I do myself.

If there is hardly any difference in size, what exactly went "straight to the gut"?

You didn't write anything about your nutrition, so we can't tell you if it's good or bad. No, clean does not tell us anything.

Not trying to be a dick here, but you need to give us a bit more than "I'm not growing. Help!".


To clarify the misunderstanding, the 30 lbs I put on(went from 110 to 140), I'm sure that was mostly muscle as I got my bodyfat checked at the BodPod station twice that year. Later on, what I gained caused me to panic as the strength levels ( the weight I was lifting) only increased marginally, but on a diet of brown rice, veggies and grilled chicken breasts (Being a college student, the occasional drink or two, never binging), my midsection started to grow too fast( went up to 158). I incorporated more cardio and cut down on calorie intake to take care of that. Weight dropped back to 140.

Going back to topic,

My lifting at that time was mostly compound exercises for 3 sets in the 15 RM ( I was told that was the range for hypertrophy by the personal trainer). I noticed most of the mass gain during that time went to the chest and back, some to the arms.

I son got tired of the lagging arms and decided to work them intensely
I started doing compounds at 3-5RM recently( heavy compounds = testosterone + more food = growth). After 2 sets of the heavy compounds, I jump into isolation work, exhausting the muscles in 2-3 sets of 7-10 RM. I've noticed quite a change these days. My muscles are often extremely sore and my appetite is turning voracious. I'm expecting the weigning scales to give me good news soon.
Does this mean that the "Do compound lifts only" group was not exactly right?


Ya for most people only doing compound movements will leave certain muscle groups behind. For you it is prolly arms.

Start training muscle groups and don't leave anything behind.

Pick exercises that hit the desired muscle group it will most likely be a combination of iso and compound.

Train arms directly prolly give them their own day.

Sounds like you need to get bigger overall as well.




IMO biceps and shoulders are really the only isolation exercises you NEED to do...everything else can generally be targeted with compounds.


I'd probably add calves into the needing iso-work, but agree with the other two!


"Do compound lifts only" vs "Do isolation only": They both have their place. I like seeing compound exercises as the basis that allows me to work on strength and fatigues a lot of muscle fibers across multiple muscle groups. I then add isolation to target the specific muscles. If I have the time and the energy I hit all the main muscles I worked during compounds (my split is essentially upper/lower/lats+biceps), if not I focus on what I consider to be the most important.

I don't try to separate compound and isolation exercises as much as some people seem to do. They're both used for strength AND for size. If I suddenly switched to doing isolation ONLY I imagine I would have a hard time fatiguing all the muscles sufficiently and in a safe way. On the other hand, if I only did compound exercises I would not be growing proportionally.

Whether you put on a lot of fat or not depends on a lot of factors. If I only train 3 times a week and are barely physically active beyond that I gain a lot more fat than muscle. That's what happened to me the first time I "bulked" a year and a half ago and led to me being much lighter than I'd like to be at this point. Now I'm training 6 times (4 heavy sessions and 2 light ones) and walking a lot. I'm starting to add more calories in now (as in actually started this week) and I'm going to see if I actually have any idea what the hell I'm talking about over the next couple of months.



What if you are a shoulder/chest dominate presser? I think triceps are pretty damn important in bodybuilding. Especially, the long head which doesn't get hit for a lot of ppl on presses. Overhead extention movements that stretch it seem to work best. So I would recommend doing it for triceps as well.


What he said.

You need isolation for whatever gets neglected through compounds, which is highly individual.



Would love to see the physiques this has built compared to people who do whatever is needed instead of drawing lines in the sand.


YEAH!! No hamstring curls! They suck. No direct forearms work even if yours are tiny. They suck too. No pec deck flyes or anything else but pressing movements! No triceps pressdowns!! No front raises!!!

I have been clearly doing this wrong and will wait for you guys to correct my horrid habit of doing whatever is necessary.


I do isolation exercises for every muscle group, every time I train.


how quickly did you gain the weight? did you take measurements and photos, or did you just Think it was going all to your stomach? Mind can play a lot of games with you.. and sometimes so can the mirror


Your mistake seems to be in thinking that there is anything particularly special or superior about "compound exercises", for instance you keep repeating that it "increases testosterone" which isn't true except maybe minimally during a workout.

Muscle is muscle. In bodybuilding the point is to work through all the muscle fibers while progressively overloading them over time to cause an adaptation. Traditionally the best way to do this is to begin with an exercise that allows a lot of weight to be moved (with the target muscle group) while you are fresh (eg: bench press for chest, barbell rows for back) and work your way down to smaller movements so that the entire muscle is given a stimulus to grow.

If all you ever did was 3-5 rep sets using only compound exercises, not only would entire muscle groups have no stimulus to grow, but the muscle groups you are using would be given no reason to utilize all of their muscle fibers. The few at the greatest mechanical advantage would be called upon each time by the body to lift the heavy loads, and yes they would probably adapt by growing.

Bodybuilders aren't stupid. There is reason we all do 3-5 exercises per muscle group, 3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions, using both big and small exercises. That is what it takes to cause the greatest growth stimulus.