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Since the dawn of bodybuilding, trainers have argued over whether compound movements or isolation exercises have the most value in building muscle. Well, the truth is out, and it might just surprise you a little.

If compounds are multi-joint moves working more than one muscle group, isolations must be the opposite.

Isolations can be classified as a single joint move, or where a single muscle is working during an exercise.

As discussed above, no exercise can truly be an isolation, as every muscle in your body is always working to some degree, but picture a biceps curl:

Every joint is locked in place, except for your elbow, and the prime muscle working is your biceps. It really is just focusing on that one muscle and one joint.

Other examples include lateral raises, calf raises, leg extensions, leg curls, push-downs, front raises and flyes.

Isolations Pros

- Easier to master, meaning beginners tend to err toward isolation movements
- It’s easier to get a mind muscle connection on isolations than on compounds as you can really focus on just working the one target muscle group.
- Much like a lack of direct targeting on certain muscle groups is a con when performing compound movements, isolations resolve this by allowing you to really dial in on one muscle.
- Very effective for bringing up lagging body parts.
- Less demanding, so you can get more training volume in per session.

Isolations Cons

- By going too heavy and using poor form, it’s very easy to take the focus away from the area you’re meant to be working. The biceps curls is a prime example again – using a weight that’s too heavy will cause you to throw body momentum into the movement, making it a much less effective biceps builder.
- Can place excessive strain on joints, particularly the elbows, shoulders and knees.
- You can’t lift as heavy, leading to much reduced strength gains.
- Anabolic hormone release is lower.
- Isolations aren’t as mentally demanding as compounds, and often seen as a cop out, or an excuse to shirk real training.

The Wrap Up

If you were pushed, and it came down to the wire, compounds are king when it comes to building muscle. Fortunately however, that’s not a choice you have to make, as it isn’t an either or scenario.

Your best approach is to base your routine around compound moves, and start every session with two or three of them, before moving on to your isolations.

There are exceptions to this rule, but these only really apply to advanced bodybuilders and those undergoing rehab treatment for injuries.

A leg session for example could start with three compound moves -- a squat variation, a deadlift and a lunge, before hitting your muscles with three isolations – a leg extension, a leg curl and a calf raise. The same could be done in a chest, shoulders and triceps session, by starting with bench presses, military presses and dips, before moving to flyes, lateral raises and cable push-downs.

Follow these guidelines, and you can’t go wrong in your mission for muscle.

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