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Part 2: Are Compound Exercises Superior to Isolations?
In part 1 we talked about the different benefits of isolation and compound exercises, exploring the relevant research on this topic. In part 2 we are going to take this research and see how we can implement it to optimize our training for balanced muscle growth.
Also, check out the impact compounds vs isolations have on fat loss. Building muscle and losing fat starts with nutrition, get your bulking or cutting macros with the IIFYM calculator.
As the research shows, in beginners, a couple of opposing compound exercises for the upper body (push/pull) is all you likely need to maximize muscle growth in this area. The same can likely be said for the lower body, although research is needed to confirm this.
Trained individuals, however, may need to do more than this. They need more of a stimulus to generate the same hypertrophic response. Wernbom (1) found that 3-4 sets per muscle group per workout tends to maximize the hypertrophy response in untrained people. While 4-8 sets were needed for more advanced lifters.
Remembering that compounds don’t hit all muscles they target evenly (e.g. bench press hits pecs harder than it does triceps and anterior delts), we can now try set up a workout around these guidelines. Your IIFYM coach can certainly help you with this process!
Sample Beginner Routine
From the studies in part 1, it’s rather clear that for complete beginners compounds are all you need for 95% of results. So a minimalist full body program for a beginner, performed 2-3 x per week, could look something resembling this:
• Back Squat 3 x 8-12
• Romanian Deadlift 3 x 8-12
• Low incline DB bench press 3 x 8-12
• DB bent over row 3 x 8-12
Now before you lose your mind at how few exercises there are. The only muscles that miss out a bit here are calves (although they are worked to some extent during squats), middle delts (although they are worked to some extent during DB bench) and upper traps.
Feel free to add in exercises to target these muscles. Yet, for a complete beginner, this is the most efficient use of time. It’s also important to remember this, from Lyle McDonald (a supporter of flexible dieting/IIFYM), in his article on beginner weight training:
“One goal of all training should always be to get the most adaptations/gains in performance with the least amount of training. That way, when gains slow down, there is actually room to increase things. Start too high, to begin with, and you’ve got nowhere to go when you actually need to do it.”
Furthermore, anecdotally, I’ve seen many beginners add a ton of muscle from focusing on progressive overload on these compound exercises for the first year or two of training.
Compounds or Isolations – which first?
Now that we know a mix of compound and isolation exercises is best for maximal muscle growth for everyone apart from rank beginners. The next question is – how do we order them?
A review of resistance training exercise order suggested that “based on strength and hypertrophy effect-size data, the research suggests that exercises be ordered based on priority of importance as dictated by the training goal of a programme, irrespective of whether the exercise involves a relatively large or small muscle group.” (2).
…when smaller muscle groups were trained before larger muscles, the subjects did less total volume (4)
This implies that you should first target the muscle groups you are trying to grow the most while you are fresh.
For example, if you are training your whole upper body in one day, and your weakness is your back, train it first. And considering no advantage in terms of muscle growth has been shown to pre-exhaust a compound movement with an isolation exercise beforehand (3).
It is this authors’ opinion (as well as the IIFYM coaches) that compound exercises should precede isolation exercises. Due to there being a greater amount of muscle mass being targeted which could benefit from being fresher/less fatigued.
Compound Exercises Before Everything
To explain this further, considering compound exercises hit many muscle groups at once. Performing them fresh will allow for more volume across more muscle groups compared to doing them when fatigued.
When one tired muscle group might limit the volume that could have been placed on the others. This idea is backed by research which showed that when smaller muscle groups were trained before larger muscles, the subjects did less total volume (4). And as shown in part 1, total volume is important for muscle growth.
Yet, it would make sense that EPOC would be higher from a program based around compound exercises which use more muscle mass.
Furthermore, compounds also place larger demands on coordination, which is another reason to do them first. In fact, due to research over the last couple of years showing muscles grow well from a variety of rep ranges.
A great way to set up your program is with heavier compounds followed by lighter isolations later in the workout. For example, below is a sample routine for an intermediate trainee.
Sample Intermediate Routine (4x per week):
• Bench press 3 x 6-8
• Bent over row 3 x 6-8
• DB shoulder press 3 x 8-10
• Pull-up 3 x 8-10
• Fly 3 x 12-15
• Lateral raise 3 x 12-15
*Note – smaller muscle groups (such as biceps, triceps and anterior delts) need no direct volume due to how much indirect volume they get during compound exercises.
• Back squat 3 x 6-8
• Romanian deadlift 3 x 6-8
• Leg extension 3 x 10-12
• Leg curl 3 x 10-12
• Calf raise 3 x 10-12
An advanced trainee’s program could look very similar. Only with extra isolation exercises added in to address their individual weaknesses or areas that are lagging compared to the rest of the body. An IIFYM coach can help you out with this assessment, as they have for many clients!
So far we’ve just talked about compound exercises vs isolation exercises in terms of muscle gain. Rightly so, because that’s what resistance training does best. In terms of fat loss, compound exercises burn a greater amount of calories per unit of time due to more muscle being used.
However, resistance training should not be programmed in a way to burn the greatest amount of fat. It should be used to build muscle, while cardio and diet (tracking macros through IIFYM) should be used to burn fat, as these will have a larger impact on caloric balance. To accurately and quickly work out your macros, use the
To accurately and quickly work out your macros, use the IIFYM calculator.
Although the calculator is a fantastic resource! Our coaches can build your Custom Macro Blueprint with numbers and an approach that’s dialed in.
However, having said this, some studies have shown large amounts of EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) from resistance training (5). Unfortunately, no study has compared the EPOC response to resistance training using compound vs isolation exercises.
Yet, it would make sense that EPOC would be higher from a program based around compound exercises which use more muscle mass since this will cause more metabolic disruption. Couple this with an IIFYM diet and you’ll see great results for fat loss!
In summary, there’s no doubt that compound exercises are more efficient for body composition changes. Yet, for those seeking maximal muscle growth that aren’t complete beginners, should incorporate isolation exercises for individual muscle groups that are lacking or, don’t get sufficiently trained by compounds will ensure maximal muscular development.
In short, base your routine around compounds, and sprinkle in isolations where needed!
Compounds VERSUS isolations???
- Wernbom M, Augustsson J and Thomee R (2007) The Influence of Frequency, Intensity, Volume and Mode of Strength Training on Whole Muscle Cross-Sectional Area in Humans. Sports Medicine, 37(3), 225-264.
- Simão R, de Salles B and Figueiredo T et al. (2012) Exercise Order in Resistance Training. Sports Medicine, 42(3), 251-265.
- Fisher J, Carlson L and Steele J et al. (2014) The effects of pre-exhaustion, exercise order, and rest intervals in a full-body resistance training intervention. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 39(11), 1265-1270.
- Sforzo G and Touey P (1996) Manipulating Exercise Order Affects Muscular Performance During a Resistance Exercise Training Session. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10(1), 20.
- Laforgia J, Withers R and Gore C (2006) Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(12), 1247-1264.