You’ve probably heard that compound exercises are a great way to stack on muscle and increase your strength.
If you’re looking to gain strength there is no question that your workout should be featured heavily with compound movements.
If you are looking to build muscle and put on size some argue that isolation movements are safer and will get you the same results.
In this article you’ll learn the pros and cons of compound exercises and whether they fit your fitness goals. We’ll also cover some of the best compound exercises to use in your workouts.
What is a Compound Exercise?
A compound exercise is a movement that uses two or more joints and muscle groups to complete the lift.
So for example a deadlift involves the ankles, knees and hip. The deadlift is a whole body movement but the quads, glutes, hamstrings, traps and rhomboids are responsible for the majority of the load.
Compare this to a movement like a preacher curl. With the preacher curl the only joint that is moving is the elbow and the purpose of the exercise is to isolate the bicep muscle.
So a deadlift would be considered a compound exercise whereas a preacher curl wouldn’t.
Compound Exercise Benefits
Compound exercises lay a foundation of strength and muscle that will cary across into any other activity you are engaging in.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re working out is misunderstanding the importance of compound exercises.
Heck, I even made this mistake when I started out.
I used to follow the traditional bodybuilding magazine advice that would recommend doing lots of high rep isolation exercises in my workouts.
I did start to see an improvement in my physique but it wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.
Now I have changed my workouts to focus more heavily on compound movements that allow me to improve my strength and as a result build more muscle.
Here are a few reasons why compound exercises should be the main exercises you focus on in your workouts.
They train many muscle groups at once:
The first big benefit of compound exercises is that they allow you to train multiple muscle groups in the one movement. This means you can do less sets of different exercises and make better results.
A workout routine based around compound exercises is much quicker than one that requires you to do isolation movements for each muscle group. The more muscle groups that you hit in the one movement the more overall strength and muscle you will build from that exercise. That is why the deadlift is such a great exercise.
They allow you to lift heavier weights
Because you are using multiple muscle groups compound exercises give you the ability to lift heavier weights.
This will help grow your strength through the roof. Lifting heavier weights also allows you to progressively overload your muscles better.
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.
Progressive overload is the key to getting bigger and stronger. If you don’t continue to subject your muscles to increasing amounts of stress you will stay the same.
It’s that simple, keep getting stronger and lifting heavier or you won’t continue to get bigger.
Improves Intermuscular coordination.
Human kinetics gives a good definition of intermuscular coordination.
“In a sedentary person, when motor neurons discharge their electrical impulses, they do so in a disorderly fashion. The muscle fibers contract in a random, and therefore inefficient, way. Through training, these discharges become synchronized. The fibers begin contracting in a coordinated manner. Muscles become more efficient. You can achieve this by doing weight training exercises with a weight that is close to your repetition maximum.”
Compound exercises require multiple muscles to work together to perform a lift. As you train them they begin to become more efficient at moving the weight. This allows you to lift heavier weights without requiring more strength.
This is great if want your workouts in the gym to enhance other areas of your life too. If you play a sport or just want to be more athletic and functional outside of the gym, improving your intermuscular coordination will help with that.
Think of it this way. Which person do you think is going to be more athletic overall.
Somebody that trains with heavy deadlifts and squats?
Or the person that spends most of there time on the machines doing leg curls.
The deadlift is an exercise that mimics movements that you will do in your day to day life and strengthens and coordinates your legs, back and arms.
Isolation movements can help to train one muscle group but in real life it doesn’t matter if one muscle group is strong if you have other muscle groups that aren’t as strong you won’t be able to perform as effectively.
That’s why some of the big muscular guys at the gym can seem like they aren’t very athletic at all. Often they move around awkwardly almost like a robot between the machines.
This is because training one muscle group at a time doesn’t teach multiple muscle groups to coordinate their contractions and firing rates, which is how muscles work in real life.
Heavy Compound Training Is Key
If you are looking to get stronger and put on more muscle than lifting heavy is vitally important.
A good workout program will focus on 70-80% compound movements. Isolation exercises still have a place in workout routines however the main focus should be on heavy compound movements.
Of those compound movements best strength results can be seen at 80-85% of your 1rm.
This might sound like a big change if you have based your workouts around chasing a pump, by doing drop sets, supersets and other variations.
It was for me when I changed.
I now focus on the 4-6 rep range and focus on getting stronger every session. This has helped me to gain size and strength.
If you want to build muscle and strength you need to focus your workouts around heavy compound exercises.
Try it and see the results for yourself.
Best Compound Exercises
The following is a list of compound exercises that you should think about including in your workouts.
The Squat is a full body compound exercise. Like the deadlift the squat is one of the best compound movements you can perform. It works more muscles with heavier weight than other popular exercises.
The squat works your quads, glutes, hamstrings, core and back. Although the squat is thought of as a compound exercise for the legs it actually has benefits for much more than just the legs.
The barbell back squat is the most common form on squat performed in the gym. The barbell allows you to load up on the weight and squat heavy.
Proper squat form is key to avoiding knee and back pain and staying injury free. Make sure you go all the way down until your hips are below your knees. Push your knees out so they’re in line with your feet and make sure they don’t buckle in when you stand up. Brace your core and keep your back neutral, don’t let it round down.
The deadlift is another full body compound exercise and is probably the best one you can do as it involves just about every joint and major muscle group in the body.
The main muscles worked in this lift are the posterior chain. The posterior chain is made up of the muscles on the backside of your body: glutes, hamstrings and back muscles. Because of this the deadlift is often thought of as a compound exercise for the back.
However pretty much every other muscle in the body is active in assisting with this lift.
There are a lot of variations of deadlift that work slightly different muscles.
Conventional deadlift form starts with the weight on the ground. Grip the bar with your hands on the outside of your legs. Lift the bar to your knee height, then lock your hips and knees to finish. Return the weight to the floor by sliding your hips back and while bending your legs.
The deadlift is a safe exercise when done correctly. If proper form isn’t used you can leave yourself at risk of getting hurt. Make sure you start with lighter weights and work your way up, focusing on perfect form on each rep.
The best way to increase your deadlift is to improve your form. Like we talked about earlier with intermuscular coordination, the more efficient you are at lifting the weight the heavier the weights you will be able to lift.
A staple in every guys chest workout, the bench press is one of the best upper body mass building exercises you can perform.
Working the pecs, lats, shoulders, triceps and even legs to a small degree the bench press deserves its spot at the top of the pecking order for upper body compound exercises.
Like all compound exercises form is key to making gains on the bench press.
Take a slightly wider than shoulder width grip, retract your shoulder blades back and down. This will create a small arch in your back. Plant your feet into the ground, brace your core and you are ready to begin the lift.
The military press or overhead press is one of the best shoulder exercises that you can do.
It also hits the triceps and works the back and core when done standing.
A common problem people have with the military press is pushing the weight up and out in front of them. You want to push the weight up and directly above your head to perform this lift with correct form.
See the example images below. Start with the bar on your chest and then push the bar up and over you head. Make sure you don’t lean too far backwards during the movement.
Wether it’s with a barbell, dumbbell or cable it’s a compound exercise.
The main muscles targeted are the back with involvement from the forearms and biceps.
To perform the barbell row set the barbell up in a rack so it is raised off the floor. Plant your feet with a sight bend in your knees. Keeping your back flat, lean forward until you’re on an angle that is comfortable. Your flexibility will have an impact on this angle. Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width and row it up and towards your hips.
The lunge is a great compound exercise for your lower body.
The lunge works your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. To add weight you can add a barbell to your back or perform the lift with dumbbells in each of your hands.
Focus on keeping your front leg perpendicular with the floor and not letting your front knee push out over your toes.
The leg press allows you to push a large amount of weight in a safe way. As a compound exercise the leg press trains all major leg muscles during the lift.
The main muscles under tension are glutes, hamstrings and quads. The higher you place your feet on the platform the more glute activation you will get and the less work your quads will do.
Make sure you don’t lock out your legs at the top of the movement as this puts the strain directly on your knee joint and not on your quads where you want it.
Pull ups are a great bodyweight compound exercise. The advantage of the pull up is it can be done anywhere you have a bar.
Training the chin up will work your back and arms slightly.
Grip the bar wider than shoulder width apart and pull your chest up towards the bar squeezing with your back as you do. Lower yourself to a dead hang and then repeat.
To continue improving with this exercise you can use a dip belt to add weight and work your way up in weight.
Dips are an awesome compound exercise that will train your chest and triceps.
There are two slight variations in movements of dips depending on whether you want to emphasis your chest or triceps.
Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip, let your elbows flare out and lean forward. Brace your core to prevent swinging and to maintain proper position throughout the exercise. Lower your body until you feel a stretch in the chest. To raise push through your chest back to the top.
Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip. Keep your elbows tucked in by your sides and allow your body to hang straight up and down. Lower your body until your arms make a 90 degree angle and push through the triceps to raise.
The Final Word On Compound Exercises
Compound exercises should make up the majority of the exercises you do at the gym.
If you want to improve your athletic ability (run faster, jump higher be more explosive and powerful.) Then compound exercises will benefit you much more than isolation.
If your goal is to improve your whole body strength then compound exercises are the best choice for you.
If you want build more muscle and look the best you ever have. You’ll achieve this the quickest by sticking to mostly compound movements and adding a few isolation exercises when necessary. Make sure the majority of your sets are coming from compound exercises.
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