Wednesday Workout: Discussion time! Compound vs. Isolation Exercises?

Hey everyone! I do have a workout for you today, but before I get to that, I want to take a minute to talk about something I’ve been thinking about since my SHRED class last Thursday. Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises. What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, simply put (read: VERY simply), compound exercises or movements work more than one muscle or muscle group at a time and isolation exercises work only one muscle or muscle group at a time. Some of my favorite compound exercises are squats with and overhead press, lunges with biceps curls, deadlifts with a row, whereas isolation exercises would be JUST biceps curls or rows.


(Compound vs. Isolation)

Since compound exercises generally work both upper and lower body muscles, they burn more calories, which is why I tend to teach those types of exercises in my class; “more bang for the buck,” shall I say. Since I only have an hour to teach, including warm up and cool down, I want my members to get the most out of that hour and keep their heart rates up even when we are not doing cardio.

However, last week I changed things up in my SHRED class and decided to focus on isolation exercises. You may remember this Jump Rope & Strength Circuit Workout” that I did at home about a month ago.

Jump Rope and Strength Circuit

I decided to take the basis of this workout- isolation exercises- and change up the cardio to make it doable in my group ex. class. In order to make this work, I switched the 5 minutes of jump rope to 3 minutes of cardio (3 moves at 60 seconds each), while still keeping the strength portion the same (except I replaced one of the triceps exercises to biceps curls). I encourage my members to go HEAVY on the weights for the strength portion since we were only focusing on one muscle/muscle group rather than spreading our energy throughout our whole body to work more than one muscle group.

Since I have gotten to know a bunch of the members in my classes, I know what they usually lift and it was nice to see them go heavier. As much as I love compound movements, I think that when we do them, we usually have to go a little lighter with the weights, but with isolation movements, we can go heavier since we are only focusing on doing ONE thing. This made me wonder: do we lift BETTER and STRONGER and more EFFICIENTLY when we focus on isolation exercises? What do you think?

Personally, I think I do have a better workout when I only focus on one muscle group. If I am just doing biceps curls, or shoulder presses or lunges, I only have to focus on ONE thing, rather than multiple, so I think I can push through and gain better muscle by doing this. When we are doing timed intervals for compound movements, I think one of the exercises tends to suffer; maybe you don’t squat as low in a squat and OH press, maybe you don’t lunge as deep when you are doing lunges with biceps curls, maybe you’re not lifting as heavy weights when you’re doing squats and overhead presses, etc. Now, I am not saying that compound movements are not wonderful ways to get the best “bang for your buck,” but I think we have to be extra careful to not get “messy”.

I want your opinion, though. What do you think? Do you prefer compound exercises or do you prefer to lift heavier and focus on isolation exercises? Does it differ depending on whether you’re in a class or working out on your own? What’s your favorite exercises for compound and isolation exercises? I’m really interested to see if anyone feels the same way as I do.


I know I promised you a workout, so here is the running workout I did on Monday when I was in Maine!

run + strength training

I ended up running a 5K (3.1 miles), so I saved the 3rd set of 25 rep exercises for when I finished. And then, to make things even (I like 100 much better than 75!), I did a 4th set of the exercises. I finished with some push-ups into side planks, full burpees and stretching. Stretching with Charlie is not easy…


So, there you go! Let me know if you try this, and let me know what you think about my recent revolation! Enjoy your day, friends 🙂

20 thoughts on “Wednesday Workout: Discussion time! Compound vs. Isolation Exercises?

  1. Dana says:

    So I actually just read an article that talked about the benefit of compound movements being just what you said-more calorie and fat burning per movement. I tend to prefer doing compound movements, and for me it helps when you said things like “Remember to keep your back straight” or “Squat lower” because hearing you say those things actually brings me back to the class and I reevaluate my form and usually immediately notice a change. I find that with isolation moves, I don’t feel as good at the end. The class “Bodypump” is all focused on isolation moves. It’s not a “sweat hard” class, so I’ve opted out of it after trying it twice. What I like about your class is that it challenges my body to focus on two things at once. I actually prefer the compound moves because when I’m not in a class, I’m less likely to do them or do them with proper body form. That being said, now that you post your workouts and since I have a ton from Athena as well, even when you may say “squats” I tend to amp it up with weights all on my own, or do squats with a Bosu. Maybe it’s personal preference, but I can feel the difference when I’m doing compound moves and I like that sense of mindfulness in my body, because I rarely focus on what my body is feeling and doing. That’s my two cents!

    • Burpees to Bubbly says:

      thanks for your two cents, Dana! Everything you mentioned is really interesting and I can totally see how you feel that way! It’s great that you are able to take our workouts and add your own twist to it, but remember, sometimes it’s good to change things up, meaning sometime you shoud dtry lifting heavier and focusing only on one muscle group at a time! I was like you for so long and slowly I have started to really appreciate focusing on just one thing… I always feel it the next day moreso than I would if I was doing compound movements, even if while I’m doing them I feel like I am “wasting time” since I am only doing 1 thing. That being said, I love both types of training and think both should be incorporated to keep the body guessing, and therefore, changing!

  2. Athena @ Fitness & Feta says:

    Here are my thoughts! I love compound exercises because they get my heart rate up and I feel that “sweat” more. Also, if I only have thirty minutes to do a workout, you betcha I’m going to get the most bang for my buck with compound exercises so I can target both upper and lower body at the same time. I do agree that form might fail a bit when working multiple muscles at the same time, but being self-aware and mindful is key!

    Also, compound exercises work well for basic conditioning and/or muscular endurance, but they actually are not the most effective when trying to make STRENGTH gains. I would probably recommend compound exercises as a complement to a strength training plan, and keep in mind that you will need to pick weight based on what your upper body can handle for reps — which is often time a lighter weight that your legs may be able to handle.

    That being said, a nice mix of everything is the best in my book! I like to “amp up” my isolation exercises sometimes not necessarily with a compound addition, but just make it harder. Bicep curls with one knee raised, triceps dips with a leg extended, squats on the bosu, etc. Also, the other day I did isolated exercises (squats and deadlifts) with heavier barbells, and I could really feel the difference — especially in form!

    Sorry for the novel response 🙂

    • Burpees to Bubbly says:

      I totally agree with everything you’ve mentioned! Also, with our teaching and “real job” schedule, I think we would have a hard time seeing the full benefits of solely isometric training, only because I don’t think we get enough chances to do our “own” workouts. Well said, Athena!

    • Dana says:

      I agree with you, Athena! Maybe because all of my “self workouts” are either from your blog or Mo’s, I tend to do isometric exercises as you described-curls with a leg up, pushups on one leg, etc.

  3. Ashley P says:

    I pretty much agree with all of Athena’s points. As you know, right now I’m focusing on isolation exercises with much heavier weights. When you’re using heavier weights and doing risky (read: possibility for injury is high) like deadlifts, you definitely shouldn’t do another move with it. I will say that I sometimes feel I’m not getting as good of a workout because I don’t leave there huffing and puffing or dripping in sweat, BUT my body begs to differ since I have lost a few pounds on the scale and a few inches on my waist and hips. Also, I feel more energized and upbeat during the day. Many of these gains are also due to small changes I’ve made in my diet 🙂

    • Burpees to Bubbly says:

      I think that’s awesome to point out, Ashley, because I think that’s why I have always tended to stray away from “heavy” lifting; I don’t leave the gym feeling as sweaty and “full body workout” good as I do when I do compound lifting. I love to hear that you’ve noticed a difference in your body since you’ve changed up your workout and cleaned up your diet! Just goes to show that hard work really does pay off.

  4. Jean Brennan says:

    do you ever have anyone who can not use the legs as me because of knee problems? I would like to know and I assume for me it would be weights and arm exercises?

    • Burpees to Bubbly says:

      I do! I have lots of people come to classes with all sorts of different issues. What I tell them, is to stay away from squats and lunges and if they can, do smaller movements for the legs. People with knee issues can do modifications (things like leg lifts and deadlifts that do not require bending at the knee), and can always do upper body work. For cardio, I encourage kickboxing punch combinations as that cranks up the heart rate without much use of the lower legs.

  5. Susan Mutty says:

    If I bike recumbent (weight loss program) and lift hand weights while biking (2-4 lb 100 X 4 ex reps for 30 minutes), then 30 minutes minutes more biking at a higher performance level, that’s OK for a 64 yr old fart lady, right? 60 minutes, 4X per week? I still drink a lot of wine, but hope to burn it off!

    • Burpees to Bubbly says:

      I think that is AWESOME, Aunt Sue! I especially think it’s great that you are incorporating light weights for your upper body while you’re biking- that’s a “compound exercise” for sure and totally helping you burn more calories! I’m not sure you or my mom could ever burn of all the wine you two drink, but working out helps to burn off a few glasses;) hahaha

  6. suzanne gagnon says:

    I enjoyed all of the comments, however, I really loved my sister-in-law’s comment about being an old fart, and drinking wine–go Aunt Sue! The original Sue Mutty. (That’s me, Nick!)

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