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Inside The Gym

Should You Do Compound or Isolation Exercises First?

4 min read

Should you do compound or isolation exercises first in your workout? This conundrum is almost like the question of “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” In the bigger picture of things, it shouldn’t matter. However, when trying to be purposeful and efficient, it can be a game-changer. In the end, whether compound exercises or isolation exercises come first really depends on what your end goal is, so let’s break it down.

Note, whether you start with compound exercises or isolation exercises, incorporating a warm-up session is desirable and highly advisable.

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Do Compound Exercises First

… When Aiming to Lift with Maximal Strength

Compound exercises recruit more muscles in their movement and by extension, more muscle recruitment tends to mean bigger, more demanding movements/lifts. If this is the case, you want to do compound movements early on in a workout while you’re still fresh and can work to your maximum potential. The longer a workout goes and the more exercises you do, the less power you can draw out and your numbers naturally decline due to mental and physical fatigue. So, for those of you who want to hit your best numbers, focus on performing compound exercises earlier in the workout.

… When Aiming for Overall Muscle Development

The recruitment of more muscle fibers means you’re stimulating more muscles, which translates to more overall growth across the body. I don’t think this needs more explanation? If it does, basically know this: isolation exercises promote individual muscles to grow whereas compound exercises promote a group of them to grow.

… When Seeking to Minimize Injury Risks

Hitting out isolation exercises at the beginning of a workout and tiring out muscles that will need to provide assistance in compound exercises for later is a recipe for injuries if you’re not paying attention to your body and ignoring that mind-muscle connection.

The chance of injuries is high at any point in a workout, let’s get this straight, so doing isolation exercises first won’t suddenly and magically make compound exercises severely more dangerous. So don’t suddenly be turned off from performing compound exercises late on in your routine. However, you want to be mindful of your level of fatigue as you get along; tiring your muscles early on through isolation exercises and then trying to lift heavy or perform complicated movements when doing compound exercises is stupid.

When it’s close to the end of a workout, we tend to be tired, less alert, and rushing. Due to these factors, if you’re not monitoring your energy level, you’d rather do injury-prone movements at the beginning when you’re more alert and fresher.

Do Isolation Exercises First

… When Doing a Warm-up Session

Your body needs to be reasonably warmed up and ready to go before exercising, and when executing isolation exercises you can have them act as the warm-up. At lighter weights, compound exercises can also be utilized as warm-up movements, but isolation exercises are more conducive because specific muscle regions are being targeted as opposed to the overall area of muscle groups. Do note that, alongside warming up your whole body, another purpose of a warm-up is to prep the muscles that are about to be used in the workout session.

… When Aiming to Develop Muscle Endurance

As we’ve stated, your body is at its best/freshest at the start and the longer a workout goes, the more tired you are and you can’t draw as much power or lift as heavy. However, this can be advantageous if you want to train your body to perform while already tired down, basically you’re training your muscles to perform in a fatigued state.

… When Targeting a Specific Muscle or Muscle Group

Whether you’re targeting a specific muscle because you’re trying to recover from an injury, aiming to further develop the muscle, or giving attention to a neglected body part, it’s best to hit it at the start, when you’re fresh and can work the muscle(s) more optimally.

Compound exercises train a group of muscles together, therefore a collection of muscles are working in conjunction to execute a movement (e.g., squats, clean and jerks, rows), whereas isolation exercises involve fewer muscles (e.g., biceps curls, triceps extensions, seated calf raisers) therefore in isolation exercises, the worked muscles are performing with little or no complimentary support.

Concluding Remarks

A lot of people are quick to dismiss isolation exercises as a waste of time, but typically it’s done because they don’t realize how to maximize their use. As this article has highlighted, going in any order isn’t the biggest train wreck, but depending on what you’re trying to do or achieve, developing a cohesive structure can get you from point A to B a lot more efficiently.


A writer, gamer, geek, and gym rat all packaged into one. I'm a certified personal trainer who writes about the things he loves and I enjoy sharing them with others all on MXFitness.