Should I do compound or isolation exercises first? This is a hotly debated question. And this is what I will be answering today!
It is generally better to do compound exercises first. These movements activate the most muscles and are therefore well-suited to building overall muscle mass and burning fat. But for people who are looking to define specific muscles, doing isolation exercises first may be better.
I have personally worked on both compound and isolation exercises throughout my training history. And I have been stumped with the same dilemma myself. Which training order should I choose in order to gain muscle on my skinny frame?!
This is why I want to share my research and personal experience with you today!
So let’s dive right in!
- Compound Or Isolation First: What The Expert Says!
- Compound Or Isolation First: What The Public Say!
- Advantages Of Doing Compound Exercises First:
- Disadvantages Of Doing Compound Exercises First:
- Advantages Of Doing Isolation Exercises First:
- Disadvantages Of Doing Isolation Exercises First:
- Training Goals Should Help You Decide Training Order
- Personal Lifting Capabilities Should Also Help You Decide
- A Combination Approach Also Works!
- Does Exercise Order Even Matter?!
Compound Or Isolation First: What The Expert Says!
First of all, here is what bodybuilder, Adam Katz, has to say on the matter
What’s the take-home message from Adam?
Most people- especially those looking to maximize strength and hypertrophy- should go for the compound exercises first before doing isolation.
But everyone is different. And everyone has different goals.
So here’s a quick-point summary table of the pros and cons of doing either first:
|Pro #1||Pro #2||Con #1||Con #2|
|Performing Compound First||More energy to perform the big exercises. This will benefit in gaining overall muscle mass.||More muscle-building hormone release. This will benefit in gaining overall muscle mass.||Faster rate of fatigue. This limits energy available for developing specific muscles.||Not ideal for developing specific muscles. This may lead to small muscle development lag.|
|Performing Isolation First||Efficient way to warm up small muscles. This will benefit small muscle development.||Allows for longer workout durations. This will increase training volume and muscle growth.||Limits your ability to lift heavy on compound exercises. This means you may sacrifice overall muscle mass development.||Increased risk of injury due to the higher risk of pushing your muscles past the point of fatigue,|
Compound Or Isolation First: What The Public Say!
I wanted to dive deeper into the question.
Above, we looked at a Bodybuilders opinion. According to Adam, most people will find it beneficial to work on the hardest and biggest exercises first.
But not everyone is a bodybuilder.
So I took to Reddit to find out what the general public thinks.
In support of Adam Katz’s opinion, 100% of Reddit lifters also agreed that compound movements should be done before isolation
Additionally, 83% of Reddit lifters from another thread agreed that compound movements are generally better than isolation movements for overall muscle growth.
I think that’s a pretty conclusive opinion!
According to the public, the harder compound movements are the preferred exercise type, and these should be performed before the easier isolation exercises!
Advantages Of Doing Compound Exercises First:
Ok, so you are a skinny guy. And everywhere you read, you are recommended to do compound exercises first.
So what are the advantages of doing your compound exercises before performing isolation exercises?
Note: I assume you already know the difference between a compound and an isolation exercise. If not, then be sure to check out my compound lifting introduction!
1). More Energy To Perform The Big Exercises
The main benefit of completing compound lifts comes down to effective energy distribution.
This 2017 study compared energy expenditures between a compound exercise (half-squat) and an isolation exercise (leg extension). Both were performed at 80% intensity.
What did they find?
The half-squat resulted in higher energy expenditure (11 kcal per minute) compared to the leg extension (8 kcal per minute).
Thus, compound exercises require more energy to complete.
Additionally, compound exercises are generally considered to be better at building overall muscle mass, compared to isolation exercises.(1)
Therefore completing your compound exercises first, will allow you to lift heavy where it matters (i.e. the muscle-building exercises)
2). Stimulates A Larger Hormone Response
The second benefit comes down to the release of muscle-building hormones.
As a skinny guy, you are probably looking for the best way to promote muscle-building hormone release right?
Well, this 2001 study showed that increased muscle activation correlates with increased growth hormone release.
Therefore completing your compound exercises first could help you to generate a larger growth hormone response.
And this will help you to build more muscle!
Disadvantages Of Doing Compound Exercises First:
Ok, so compound lifts are great.
But are any disadvantages of doing compound exercises before isolation exercises?
There sure are!
1). Faster Rate Of Fatigue
As I mentioned above, compound exercises are energy-intensive.
This means your muscles will fatigue faster if you choose to do your compound exercises first.
Why is this a disadvantage?
Well, it simply means you will have less energy to work specific muscles during your isolation exercises!
This brings me to the next disadvantage.
2). Not Ideal For Developing Specific Muscles
Is your goal to develop a specific muscle? Like the bicep?
Then opting to complete your compound exercises before the isolation exercises may not be the best route forward.
That’s because compound exercises are so energy-intensive.
By the time you start on your isolation exercises, you may simply not have the energy to push as hard as you could have otherwise!
And this means you will not maximize the muscle gains for a specific muscle of interest.
Advantages Of Doing Isolation Exercises First:
It is generally recommended to do compound exercises before isolation exercises.
But are there any advantages to completing isolation exercises before compound exercises?
There certainly are!
1). Good Way To Warm Up
Doing isolation exercises first can be a great way to warm your muscles before you jump into the compound exercises.
This is because light isolation exercise will get your blood pumping to specific muscles.(2)
For example, you could start with light pec flying before bench pressing. And this will prep your pecs.
Additionally, isolation exercises are an effective way to prepare your mind for muscle connection (this refers to your ability to consciously engage a muscle to contract).(3)
By physically and mentally warming up with light isolation exercises, you can work more effectively in your compound exercises afterward.
And this will help you to gain overall muscle mass as a skinny guy!
2. Allow For Longer Workouts
Another benefit to performing isolation exercises first is that it allows for longer workouts.
This is because isolation exercises work on specific muscles. Moreover, these muscles tend to be smaller compared to the large muscle groups worked by compound exercises.
So by doing isolation exercises first, you can fatigue your smaller muscles first. After this has been achieved, you can then use the compound exercises to recruit the neighboring muscles.
Overall, this allows for a longer and higher volume workout.
And high volume workouts will benefit skinny guys looking to make serious muscle gains!(4)
Disadvantages Of Doing Isolation Exercises First:
Most people would recommend you to complete compound exercises before isolation exercises. So what are the specific disadvantages of doing isolation exercises first?
1). Can’t Lift As Heavy On Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are widely accepted to be the best muscle mass, builders. So if you are a skinny guy looking to bulk up, then going in isolation first may not be the best idea.
This is because your muscles will be fatigued before they can be recruited for the big compound lifts.
And this will ultimately mean you are unable to lift heavy on the compound exercises.
End result? You will sacrifice muscle mass gains!
2). Increased Risk Of Injury
If you perform isolation exercises before compound exercises, you also run a higher risk of injury.
Why is this?
When you perform your isolation exercises, you are fatiguing your muscles and neural connections.(5)
Consequently, your physical and mental capacity to lift heavy on compound exercises will diminish.
Furthermore- since compound exercises usually involve heavy weights, this will also increase your risk of injury.
This is especially relevant to skinny guys.
Well, chances are that your muscles are not currently in optimal physical conditioning. So you will want to be cautious when it comes to pushing your muscles to fatigue!
Training Goals Should Help You Decide Training Order
Your training goal should ultimately help you decide whether to go compound or isolation first.
Let me explain.
1). Gaining Muscle Mass
Gaining muscle mass is a common goal for skinny people.
If your goal is to build mass, then you should try to complete your compound exercises as soon as possible. The reason is that compound exercises are superior at building muscle mass quickly.
After you have completed your compound exercises, move on to the isolation exercises!
If you want to know how to gain muscle fast, be sure to check out my muscle-building guide!
2). Increasing Strength
The same applies if gaining strength is your main goal (another common goal for skinny people).
This 2017 study compared leg strength between individuals who undertook isolation leg training and compound leg training.
And they found that compound leg training resulted in higher strength gains in a squat 1 rep max, compared to isolation training (13.8% vs 8.3% increase, respectively).
Therefore if your main goal is to increase strength, you should choose to complete your compound exercises first!
3). Developing Specific Muscles
Some people train to increase the size and definition of a particular muscle. For example, skinny guys often want bigger shoulders, pecs, and biceps (specifically!).
If this is your goal, you can perform your isolation exercises before compound exercises.
In my opinion, however, the best approach is to gain overall mass with compound exercises before sculpting with isolation exercises.
And this is particularly true for skinny guys who lack general muscle mass.
Personal Lifting Capabilities Should Also Help You Decide
Your personal lifting capabilities should also be a consideration factor to help you decide training order.
Are you a beginner or an experienced lifter?
For beginners, it may be a sensible choice to first warm up with light isolation exercises. And I stress the word light!
In fact, diving headfirst into the heavy compound exercises may be a recipe for disaster for beginners!
Even experienced lifters will warm up their muscles with isolation exercises or warm-up sets before moving on to compound exercises.
Not only does this warm up the muscles, but it will also prepare the joints.
A Combination Approach Also Works!
So far I have weighed up the pros and cons of performing compound vs isolation first. But why not try combining both approaches in your training program?
By that, I mean switch every once in a while. If you usually do compound exercises first, do isolation exercises first and vice versa.
In reality, everyone has a different body.
Where one person may prefer performing compound exercises before isolation exercises, another may find the opposite works better.
This will allow you to experiment for yourself. And by doing so, you can find the best method for you to reach your own goals.
Does Exercise Order Even Matter?!
Having said all this, you may be overthinking the issue.
In fact, a 2015 study showed that both compound and isolation exercises in untrained men can result in similar muscle size increases.
This suggests that the whole “compound or isolation exercise first?” debate is insignificant.
In my opinion, it is much more important to work your muscles at an intensity that brings them to fatigue.
Remember, intensity is relative to how hard your muscles are working. And not relative to the order of exercises you are performing.
Even a 10kg bench press can be extremely intense if you have destroyed your pecs beforehand!
To put it simply, don’t worry too much about the training order. Instead, focus on fatiguing your muscles.
Because this is what ultimately drives muscle growth!
Today I have answered the question “should I do compound exercises or isolation exercises first?”.
Both training orders have their own merits and drawbacks. And the answer really depends on your training goals and current lifting capabilities.
If you are a skinny beginner looking to build muscle, I would recommend you do compound exercises first. This will allow you to concentrate your energy on the exercises which will drive muscle mass.
That being said, it wouldn’t be disastrous if once in a while you decided to do light isolation exercises first. This could even be beneficial since you are providing your muscles with a new kind of stimulus.
If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, doing isolation exercises first can be a great way to warm up the muscles and achieve a higher-volume workout.
Regardless of training order, if your goal is for muscular hypertrophy, then you should always push your muscles to fatigue.
Do you currently do compound exercises or isolation exercises first?
Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions! You can find my details on the “contact us” page.
You may also be interested in the downloadable Kalibre Blueprint PDF which details exactly how I gained 40lbs of lean muscle (it’s 100% free!). It details the exact exercises and nutrition (with printable worksheets) I used to go from skinny to ripped!
Thanks for reading guys!
(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)