T Nation

Compound vs. isolated


Hey T-folks. There seems to be a consensus here (or is there?) about compound exercises being more effective for muscle strength and size than isolated ones. Did a search, and found no physical explanation for it. Is there such an explanation, or is it just based on experience?


Part of it is that you can use a heavier load for compound moves than you can for isos.

Take triceps, for instance. Take your favorite isolated exercise--say, French Press, or Triceps kickbacks. Compare the load to what you can use with a close-grip bench press.


A friend of mine always says to people who ask him how to get bigger arms: "You never see a guy who can close grip 300 pounds who has really small triceps." (BTW, I'm talking about a powerlifter 'close grip'--the wrists should remain fairly neutral throughout the movement, which means that your grip is at around 18 inches or so.)

Another part of it is that weight training is systemic as well as localized stress. If you do biceps curls, yes, you will get slightly bigger biceps. If you do a lot of chinups and a few biceps curls, you will get much larger biceps. Why?

Well, it's the reason that we tell people to squat if they want a big upper body. When you put the body under squatting stress, it "says" two things:

1) I need more muscle in my legs to compensate for all this squatting I'm doing.

2) I need more muscle all over!

Why does it "say" number 2? Well, once you ramp up the anabolic machinery in your body, your whole body becomes anabolic. And the best way (in training) to stimulate this whole body anabolism is to hit heavy, compound movements for the bulk of your workout (80% or more of your training volume). This stimulates a hormonal cascade that adds muscle EVERYWHERE, not just to the localized area.

A third reason is (and this applies more as you become more advanced) that if you have a weakness in the chain that a certain muscle is part of (i.e. you have large biceps built through preacher curls, but you have weak lats and back) that adressing the weakness (through compound movements--i.e. chinning) will allow the desired body part to start growing again. There's some speculation as to the nature of this problem, but most people seem to think that it's a CNS issue. That is, your body wants to be in balance. If you try to build yourself up with isos, you get out of balance. The body is "intended" to function as a unit, so it makes sense to train it as a unit to bring every aspect of it up. How do you do this? You guessed it. Compound movements.

Anyway, this is just scratching the surface, there's a lot of technical detail behind all three of those reasons that others (I'm sure) will be better at explaining.

Dan "Money Exercises" McVicker


To start with which is more efficient? Doing a set of dumbbell concentration curls or a set of Chin-ups?

Both sets take about the same amount of time. With the Chin-ups you not only work your biceps, forearms (grip), and Lats directly, but also work abs, traps, neck and other muscles indirectly. With concentration curls you work your biceps.

The same can be stated for the Standing barbell press as opposed to a tricep extension. Delts, Tris, upper pecs, worked directly. Upper lats, neck, hips and even quads worked indirectly with the Press. Triceps worked with the extension.

A trainee usually wants to Gain muscular size and strength. And do it as quickly as possible. Which makes more sense, isolation movements or the big boy moves?

I don't know about you, but I don't need the latest "science" to prove to me which one is better!


compound exercises not only stress multiple muscle groups at the same time, they also allow for greater loads to be moved. for example, your triceps are exposed to a much greater load if you bench press 200 lbs as opposed to doing extensions with 100 lbs.

i read in an old article that tall people with long extremeties should use more isolation movements since ROM is much greater, when i find it again i'll give the url


I've been thinking about this lately. It seems that (for me) the larger muscle groups (chest, lats, thighs, hams) respond better to compound exercises, while smaller groups (shoulders, traps, biceps, calves) respond better to direct work.

I would have said triceps were worked better with an isolation movement, until I started doing seated 1/2 presses.


i always use isolation exercises when i'm getting big and buffed!

i always get a big audience of fine women looking at me and oohing and aahing around me when i pick up that 2 1/2 pound pink plastic dumbell and show them the proper form when i'm doing reverse wrist curls.

we usually go to dairy queen after so i can get some sundaes and ice down my quads (its heavy to move those dumbells from the bench and back!).

don't let heavy compound movements make you sweat in the gym! you'll never get any action that way!

personal note: if you do the same wrist curls at the squat rack, the ladies will think you're a tough guy. make sure you tell them you'd show them your 400lb bench if you didn't bruise your elbow on the way to burger king. sometimes, they'll even buy the sundaes!


It's nice to know the why's of this strength training shit but I prefer results. I used to do full arm days and I did the Ian King great guns and all that shit did was pump my arms up during the workout but as soon as I went to a more balanced program my arms settled in at about the 17 inch mark. I switched to power lifting and my arms are 18 and growing. Not huge but I haven't done a bicep curl in months.