I've heard this a million times:

If you want to get massive, you have to do compound exercises, not isolation exercises.

A specific example is the Hodge twins suggesting to do chin-ups rather than barbell curls to get bigger arms. What's the scientific explanation for this? In a chin-up, the weight is distributed across your biceps, latissimus dorsi, and some other back muscles. On a barbell curl, the weight is mostly concentrated on the bicep. It appears to me that the bicep is doing more work in the barbell curl than the chin-up (if you adjust the weight properly for a fair comparison). So how is it possible that the compound exercise is going to get you bigger arms than the isolation exercise?


6 Answers 6


I think we need to distinguish between different goals here.

If muscle mass in general is what you want to maximize, compound exercises help you work as many muscles as possible with a single exercise. This is why they are recommended: Most people want to build all their muscles, not just one or two in particular.

If biceps mass is what you want, and you are not interested in anything else, then I'd agree that you may as well do barbell curls, or other isolated biceps exercises, and those may be more effective for your particular goal.

I don't think it's credible to suggest that compound exercises are better if you simply want a huge biceps; it's just that most people want more than that. Some people (perhaps the guys in the video) may think that compound exercises are better no matter what, but that's not true. When experts recommend compound exercises, there's an implicit assumption that huge arms are not your only goal.

Also, most would argue that compound exercises are not necessarily more effective, they are more efficient. They allow you to work out lots of muscles in a fairly short amount of time, while isolated exercises will take a lot more time for a similar effect (to have all muscles covered). Of course this is irrelevant if you only want to work one particular muscle.

Other benefits of compound exercises include:

  • They place greater demands on your cardiovascular system, improving your aerobic strength, heart muscle function, and blood circulation.
  • They train things like coordination, reaction time, balance.
  • They enable your muscles to grow in the right relative proportions; with isolated exercises you run the risk of neglecting certain muscles that are important for real-world activities.
  • Cyper, Well said. Commented Nov 13, 2011 at 20:16
  • 1
    It is generally accepted that 70% of 1 rep maximum, which allows most people to get 8-12 reps before failure, generates the greatest hypertrophy. In a compound exercise, not all muscles are working in this optimal range. Usually, one muscle gives out before the other. For example, in a wide grip bench press, the chest is likely to give out in the optimal range before triceps and anterior deltoid give out. Here, only the chest gets strained, while the supporting muscles only get a cardiovascular workout.
    – JoJo
    Commented Nov 13, 2011 at 20:46
  • 1
    (cont.) In this light, how is the wide grip bench press better than isolation exercises in achieving maximum hypertrophy? I could separate out the exercise into flies, front raises, and overhead tricep extensions so I can fine tune the rep range into the optimal 8-12 range. Wouldn't this attain greater hypertrophy? I don't think muscles grow when they're not strained past what they're used to. Acting as a light supporting role, where you don't even feel the burn, only uses the cardiovascular pathways to supply the force.
    – JoJo
    Commented Nov 13, 2011 at 20:52
  • There's a limit to how much total mass your body can build per day, and that limit is easily reached with compound exercises. Hypertrophy does not require you to fully exhaust your muscles... a supporting role is often sufficient, the hypertrophy will just be smaller. This is a good thing, since you want to grow your muscles in the right proportions, not every muscle equally.
    – M. Cypher
    Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 20:42
  • Think about it like this: Entering the gym, you have a certain "growth budget" for your muscles, which is gone pretty fast, with just a few compound exercises. Anything you do after that simply distributes the total growth among other muscles, but there's nothing you can do to further increase it.
    – M. Cypher
    Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 21:11

There is a big difference in lifting for aesthetics and lifting for strength. While I don't think anyone will argue that lifting with the purpose of becoming stronger is better served by compound movements, people lifting for aesthetic purposes don't necessarily agree.

I think we can all agree that you need an aspect of strength to perform bodybuilding style work. If you can't increase the amount of work you are doing, you can't cause adaptations that will require the body to build more muscle. The compound exercises help build that base of strength, but they are not going to shape the muscles the way you want. This is why bodybuilders make heavy use of isolation exercises.

  • Compound exercises in the 8-12 rep range will help increase mass--particularly if you are increasing weight regularly. The amount and distribution of mass will vary from person to person depending on technique, genetics, and physiology.
  • Compound exercises build up general strength so your limbs can support more weight, in ways that your body is designed to work.
  • Isolation exercises allow you to control (to a certain extent) the amount of stress on your muscles to improve their size.

The best way to think about it in body sculpting terms, is that compound exercises allow you to rough in the body, while the isolation exercises allow you to provide the finishing touches.

In short, it's not an either/or proposition. Build a base with the compounds, and dial it in with the isolations.


People over think this. I mean use whatever excercises that allow you to progress over time. Ex. Of compound iso second. Chest. Flat bench db incline press then db flyes. All you need and decline too but you can only make a muscle grow or shrink. You can't shape a muscle. Iso can isolate a muscle better. If your lagging on a muscle or are advanced yea they are just as important to do but the average person or intermediate should use isolation dominate workouts. In the end I admire anyone who is active or wants to look better and something is better then nothing in the end

  • 3
    Did you seriously just give two answers at the same time, both stating completely opposite viewpoints?
    – user8119
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 6:01
  • I'm don't think this really answers the question either - "Scientifically, why do they say to do compound exercises to get massive, rather than isolation exercises?" Commented May 2, 2014 at 15:30
  • Meant a person should use compounds first as they allow you to go heavy. Then use iso after in a higher rep range for sarcoplasmic growth. Just how i train. Keeps it simple and not so mind draining. Basically use both if u want a great bod. I always think use compounds for low heavy reps as a base higher reps for isolation as the finishing moves or touches. My first response made no sense once I re read it. My bad. And why wouldn't anyone use isolation a lifts especially for arms and any area that is a secondary muscle during a compound movement.
    – Andy
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 20:27

So how is it possible that the compound exercise is going to get you bigger arms than the isolation exercise? It wont. As Berin L stated " it's not an either/or proposition". You must use both for bigger arms. Now in terms of time efficiency, compound would win if you used nearly identical stressors.

One thing i want to clear up: Compounds will make you bigger simply because the main compounds (squats and deadlifts) work the legs. So the "biggness" will come from the legs. You will weight more because your legs weight more.


It's simple. Compound exercises increase testosterone levels more than isolation exercises. The Hodge twins are right in what they say. It is correct. It works for me. Testosterone is the muscle building hormone and this is increased with compound lifts!


For beginners Heavy Compound exercises will end with dominant side of body getting more gains than weak side while heavy Iso exercises will give the same gains cause your weak side will tell you to stop when muscle can't lift nomore

  • No. Many Isolation exercises use a barbell, so the stronger side can compensate for the weak side. Similarily, many compound exercises can de done with dumbbells, so both sides do the same amount of work. I guess you're thinking barbell vs dumbbell or unilaterial vs bilateral.
    – user8119
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 11:01

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