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Compound or isolation exercises better for gain strength?

Last week, I just had a chat with a member in the gym. Long story short, he wants to compete in strongman competition. We went through a lot of topics about dieting, workout forms, weight management and so on. Lots of question he asked, but one question that I been ask a lot by many, not just by him is:

“Compound exercises or isolation is better for gain strength?”

I know for experienced lifters, the answer is obvious. But for beginner or newbies to workout. This can be very confusing.

Before we further our discussion about this, we need to understand  what is compound exercise and isolation exercise.

Compound Exercise:  any exercise that involves the use of MORE than one major muscle group at a time. Typically, there is one larger muscle group that ends up doing most the work, and then one or more smaller muscle groups that are recruited secondarily.

Basically, exercises involve pushing, pulling, squatting, or deadlift.

Isolation Exercise:  any exercise in which only one major muscle group is trained by itself. Typically, the movement is done in such a way where usage of all other muscle groups is avoided, which leaves one muscle group isolated and able to do all the work.

Basically, exercises that involves raising, curling or extending.

In General, Compound exercises allow you to engage more muscle groups, which allows you to lift more weight, which allows for faster and more consistent progression.

Isolation exercises isolate muscle groups so they are trained by themselves. This means you’ll typically be using much lower amounts of weight, which there won’t be anywhere near as much consistent progression, the potential for results won’t be nearly as high as with compound exercises.

Compound exercises allow you to create much more of the right type of training stimulus than isolation exercises can. And for this reason, Compound exercises is best to pack up some serious strength.

So, what’s best for you? Here is what I recommend…

  • If your primary goal is performance related (increasing strength, improving performance, etc.), then compound exercises should comprise most your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be greatly limited or possibly avoided completely.
  • If your primary goal is looks related (building muscle, losing fat, getting toned or so on), then compound exercises should comprise most your workout routine and get your primary focus. HOWEVER, a secondary focus on isolation exercises is fine and in some cases, maybe even ideal.
  • If you are a beginner with ANY goal, then compound exercises should comprise most your workout routine. Isolation exercises should be kept to a minimum or possibly avoided completely.

Simon Te

View posts by Simon Te
My name is Simon Te. I am an ACE Certified personal trainer who have been active in the fitness field for more than ten years. I specialize in weight loss, muscular hypertrophy and general strength training. My biggest sport interests are bodybuilding and rugby. I strongly believe that staying fit is the best way to stay away from future health problems.
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