How do you choose which exercises to do for a given workout? Are some exercises better than others?
There are hundreds of exercises to choose from, but you can boil them all down into two categories: compound or isolation.
So which is better?
In my 20-plus years experience of training (myself and others) and competing, the exercises I have found to be most effective for gaining muscle and getting stronger have been compound movements like squats (legs), bench presses (chest), deadlifts (back, legs and more) overhead presses (shoulders), bent over rows and pullups (back).
As the name suggests, compound or multi-joint exercises require multiple joints and muscles to complete the movement. Because you’re using more muscles, you can lift more weight to increase the load on the muscles. Variations on compound exercises are virtually endless.
Just taking the squat for example, you can do the standard version with the bar resting on your traps, or do front squats with the bar across the front of your shoulders, which transfers more of the load from your lower back and glutes to your quads. There’s dumbbell quats, Smith Machine squats, Bulgarian split squats and more. All (including machine varieties) are compound exercises that work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and core.
Here are a few of my favorites broken down by muscle group (this list is by no means comprehensive). Note: I left biceps off this list as all curls are single joint exercises. Pullups and chinups would qualify as a compound exercise, but they involve the back so heavily that I would not really count them as biceps exercises.
Stiff Legged Deadlift
Barbell Hip Thrust
Incline/Flat/Decline Barbell or Dumbbell Press
Smith Machine Incline/Flat/Decline Press
Bent Over Row
Barbell/Dumbbell Overhead Press
Close Grip Bench Press
Close Grip Pushup
Isolation exercises are single joint movements. Because you’re limiting the number of muscles being used to lift the weight, you can’t use as heavy a weight as you would for compound exercises. On the plus side, you can target a specific muscle or area of a muscle to a greater degree than you can with a compound exercise.
If I wanted to add more width to my shoulders, I would emphasize the side deltoids with variations of lateral raises, which isolate this area of the shoulder muscle. Now complete isolation of a muscle is pretty hard. For example, when I do dumbbell lateral raises, I still get a little involvement from the front delts and traps. Nevertheless, my side deltoids are doing most of the work.
Here are some of my favorite isolation exercises.
Lying/Seated Hamstring Curl
Glute Cable Kickback
Straight Arm Pulldown
Lateral/Front/Rear Dumbbell Or Cable Raises
Preacher Barbell/Dumbbell Curl
Pushdown (all types of handles)
Overhead Dumbbell/Cable Extension
Lying Barbell Extension
WHICH TO CHOOSE?
As with all exercises and workout plans, variety is the key to success. For example, if my goal was overall leg development, I would do 3-5 compound exercises and 2-3 isolation exercises:
Lying Hamstring Curl
Stiff Legged Deadlift
If I was focusing on increasing upper body strength, I might do the following workout:
Standing Overhead Press
Bent Over Barbell Row
If was trying to bring up my side deltoids, I might structure a workout like this:
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Seated Behind The Neck Barbell Press
One Arm Cable Lateral Raise
Wide Grip Upright Row
Bent Over Rear Delt Flye
The combinations really are endless so don’t feel you have to choose one or the other. The takeaway is to use any and all available tools to help you achieve your physique goals.
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One of the biggest names in the fitness industry, Nicole Wilkins is a world-record holding four-time Figure Olympia Champion and 2012 IFPA Personal Trainer of the Year. Nicole earned her BA in Wellness, Health Promotion and Injury Prevention at Oakland University. The owner and founder of nPower Nutrition, Nicole has helped thousands of people start living a healthier lifestyle and reach their fitness goals.