Centr Muscle Building trainer Torre Washington, shirtless and wearing white shorts, displays his rip
Torre Washington

Compound exercises vs isolation exercises – which is better?

Torre Washington

Building muscle requires consistency and repetition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mix up your training. I’ve introduced more compound movements, as well as cable isolation exercises, into my Centr workouts to not only give you fresh challenges, but help get you to your goal faster.

What is a compound exercise?

A compound exercise is a multi-joint movement that works several muscles at one time – like a squat, which moves both your hip and knee joints and engages your core, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calf muscles.

What is an isolation exercise?

Isolation exercises target one specific muscle group – like a barbell curl working your biceps. Muscle-building workouts are often made up of isolation exercises, like these upper-body cable exercises.

There’s a lot of debate about which – compound lifts vs isolation – is best for muscle building, but here’s why you need both in your training.

Torre Washington demonstrating a barbell back squat.

Compound: The foundation of your power

If you’re a beginner, compound exercises help you build your foundation quicker by giving you more for the time and effort you put in. They help you lift heavier loads and build more strength overall. Let's talk benefits:

1. Compound exercises save you time.

Think about exercises like squats, clean and press, push-ups, and pull-ups – you could incorporate just two of those exercises into a workout, do 10-12 reps in five sets, and have a great full-body workout because you're utilizing the multiple joint movements. To hit all of those muscle groups one by one would take much longer.

2. Compound exercises are super effective.

The more muscles you engage, the more testosterone your body releases. More testosterone means you’re capable of more muscle growth. Think of a squat, where you’re balancing the barbell on your traps. You’re using your torso and core and you're engaging your shoulders, legs, glutes and stabilizer muscles to balance that weight as you bring it down and up. So that compound movement increases your growth factor, allowing your body to really build up power and strength.

3. Compound exercises increase your functional fitness.

You’re doing compound movements every day: reaching up to get something off the top shelf, squatting down to pat your dog. Adding functional exercises to your training will help you move easier through life. Plus, getting all-over strong will help you lift more weight in isolation.

Torre Washington demonstrating an isolation exercise using a cable machine.

What are the best compound lifts?

Here are a few of the compound moves that every muscle-builder needs in their tool box.

Squats: Squats are THE foundational strength exercise that every muscle-builder needs to master. Get your squats down and you’ll build strength in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, while also working your core and the rest of your posterior chain. This will not only give your workouts a power boost, you’ll feel the benefits of balance and mobility in your everyday actions.

Deadlifts: A well-executed deadlift engages multiple muscle groups to work your whole body. Your quads, hamstrings and glutes drive this movement, but they also work your core, lats and back muscles. Picture lowering your body to lift up a heavy box, and you can see how a deadlift is a highly functional movement that will help you in everyday life.

Bench press: An upper-body essential, a bench press will work your chest, shoulders and triceps. While there’s a limit to how hard you can make a push-up, the bench press allows you to keep stacking on weight and making progress indefinitely.

Pull-ups: While a bench press will cover your ‘pushing’ strength, a pull-up will work the muscles essential for ‘pulling’ motions (you might have figured that out from the name). Hit your lats, shoulders and back, with bonus action for your core as you work to stop from swaying and keeping your body rigid.

Isolation exercises: Your muscle-building accomplice

Isolation exercises still have an important part to play in a well-balanced muscle-building regimen. That’s why I’ve added cable machine moves into my newest workouts to help you target specific areas – and make use of that fancy gym equipment. So, why should you do isolation exercises as well?

1. Isolation exercises help target spots you might have missed.

Some muscles need isolated exercises. For example, the bicep is used in a lot of pulling movements – think rows and pull-ups – but as a secondary or supporting muscle rather than the primary one. There isn't a compound exercise that can really target the bicep on its own.

2. Isolation exercises keep you active all over.

If injury strikes or your muscles need time to recover from a tough workout, isolation exercises allow you to work on individual muscles while avoiding those that are overworked or injured.

3. Isolation exercises are perfect for fixing imbalances.

We’ve all got one – whether it’s biceps that won’t bulge or pecs that won’t grow. Isolation training lets you zero in on a muscle and bring it up to speed. In my new workouts, cables help to connect the mind with that muscle, so you can sharpen and fine-tune.

Common questions about compound vs isolation exercises

Compound vs isolation exercises – what’s the difference?
Compound exercises are multi-joint movements working multiple muscles at one time. Isolation exercises, on the other hand, target a specific muscle.

What are some examples of compound lifts?
Some of the best compound exercises include:

  • Squats

  • Deadlifts

  • Dips

  • Bent over rows

  • Pull-ups

What are some examples of isolation exercises?
Depending on the muscle you’re targeting, some of the best isolation lifts include:

  • Bicep curls

  • Tricep extensions

  • Dumbbell fly

  • Calf raises

  • Leg extensions

Looking for more muscle-building advice from the Centr experts?

Torre Washington

Vegan bodybuilder Torre Washington is a championship-winning IFBB Pro and NASM Certified Coach in physique. Having followed his dream of sculpting a body like the comic book superheroes he grew up idolizing, Torre is our resident muscle-building expert, offering tutorials, full-gym workouts and at-home alternatives to ensure you don’t miss a muscle.

Torre Washington


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