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Strength Training

Compound vs. Isolation Strength Movements for Building Muscle

When it comes to building muscle there are many exercises to choose from. Some of the best exercises have stood the test of time as we see them performed by the majority of gym-goers. Things tend to get complicated when we have a clear purpose such as building muscle. Most people starting out at the gym want to build muscles like Instagram bodybuilders and start copying their routines. The problem with this is that advanced lifters already reach a certain level where they prefer to work on definition and thus they focus on isolation movements. In order to understand what kind of exercises are best for us we need to go back to basics.


What is a compound movement?

A compound exercise is a movement which involves multiple muscle groups and multiple joints. The standard example of a compound exercise is the bench press that involves the chest, triceps and shoulders. Other compound exercises include:


         • Squats

         • Deadlifts

         • Dips

         • Pull-ups

         • Push-ups

         • Military press


Most of these exercises will work multiple muscle groups and usually involve some sort of stabilizing muscles also. They are perfect for building overall muscle mass. Although other exercises come and go through time, these compound movements are recommended by trainers around the world as they have proven to actually build muscle and strength.


These exercises are also known to increase growth hormone (GH) levels and testosterone levels. These are crucial to building muscle. The best thing however are the overall results with time spent in the gym. As a new gym-goer you need to see results to continue your fitness journey and compound movements can deliver visible outcomes. If you train 3 times per week for one hour per session, compound movements are beneficial as they would ensure you work every major muscle group in a limited period of time.


Then there is the historical perspective on bodybuilding itself which doesn`t get discussed enough. At the beginning, there were mostly compound exercises for regular routines. As steroids came along, bodybuilders started focusing on specific isolation movements as the overall required effort was being reduced. 



What is an isolation movement?

An isolation movement involves the rotation of one joint. Isolation exercises include: leg raises, bicep curls, triceps extensions, flyes etc. These exercises are not bad and are not opposing to compound movements. They are complementary and can be a good option in certain situations. An injured bodybuilder for example, will have a difficult time performing a compound movement and thus isolation exercises could be a valid option. An elder person would also face some challenges performing compound movements and thus isolation exercises could be recommended. And finally, when it comes to a full range of motion, isolation exercises have the upper hand.


When it comes to building muscles, compound movements should be the foundation of any training program. But depending on the goal, isolation movements can complement the workout. If you want to build bigger biceps you best choice is a variation of a bicep curl instead of a pull-up which works back muscles also.


Compound routine examples

Beginners often face the task of choosing a routine. The bad news is there is no perfect routine. The good news is that routines come and go according to personal objectives. But for beginners, a 3-day compound routine is manageable. Let`s have a look at some example bellow:


Compound routine #1

    Monday – Chest and triceps

        • Barbell bench press – 4 sets of 8 reps

          • Incline dumbbell bench press – 4 sets of 8 reps

          • Dips – 4 sets of 8 reps

          • Close grip bench press – 4 sets of 8 reps

    Tuesday – OFF

    Wednesday – Back and biceps

        • Pull-ups – 4 sets of 8

         • Barbell rows – 4 sets of 8

         • Seated cable rows – 4 sets of 8

         • Chin-ups – 4 sets of 8

    Thursday – OFF

    Friday – Legs and abs

         • Squats – 4 sets of 8

         • Dumbbell lunges – 4 sets of 8

         • Box jump – 4 sets of 8

         • TRX crunches – 4 sets of 20 seconds

    Saturday – OFF

    Sunday – OFF


Compound routine #2

    Monday – Chest and triceps

        • Ball push-ups – 4 sets of 8

         • Parallel dips – 4 sets of 8

         • Bodyweight flyes – 4 sets of 8

         • Triceps TRX extensions – 4 sets of 8

    Tuesday – OFF

    Wednesday – Back and biceps

         • Straight-arm pull down – 4 sets of 8

         • Deadlift – 4 sets of 8

         • Bent-over rows – 4 sets of 8

         • Inline TRX biceps curls – 4 sets of 8

    Thursday – OFF

    Friday – Legs

         • Barbell front squat – 4 sets of 8

         • Barbell lunges - 4 sets of 8 for each leg

         • Leg press – 4 sets of 8


Tracking nutrition progress

When it comes to gaining or losing mass, nutrition plays an important role. Beginners might feel they are making amazing progress but this progress will gradually begin to fade without the proper nutrition. Many new bodybuilders think that tracking nutrition is something only professionals do. This is far for the truth. We need to understand what types of food are absorbed into our bodies and what this does for muscle growth.


There are many free apps for smartphones that help us track food accurately. One common advice is to eat in caloric surplus. You can do this by calculating your BMI (Body Mass Index) using on online calculator. It will tell you the weight you should have for your height and age. Knowing this will help you steadily increase the caloric index that will sustain muscle growth.


In the end it is important to consider all exercises as a beginner. Take a week to perform all exercises and see which one works for you. Don`t just believe what everyone else is telling you and experiment for yourself. Make sure you base your workout on compound exercises but adding some isolation movements is not the end of the world. And make sure you inform yourself on proper, healthy, nutrition because you will not grow any muscles with junk food. And in you feel confused by all of this just focus on getting stronger as muscle development is a result of strength increase.