Compound Exercises: What are they and Why Should I do them?
If you’re looking to really progress and build a lot of muscle as a beginner in the gym, then you really need to be doing compound exercises.
Even if you’ve been training for a couple of years, if you’ve never really seriously focused on compound exercises, you’ve left a lot of gains on the table.
What is a compound exercise?
A compound exercise is one which uses multiple joints and multiple muscle groups in conjunction to perform the movement.
Compound exercises are performed with bodyweight, barbells or dumbells, not machines.
An example would be a squat. Your hamstrings and glutes help you to drive out of the bottom, your quads are involved throughout the whole movement, your calves help to stabilise you. Your whole core, including your lower back, has to be tight to stabilise you and keep your back in a safe position.
An example of something that is not a compound movement is biceps curls, or hamstring curls. These are isolation exercises as they focus directly on one muscle or muscle group.
Other examples of compound movements:
- Bench Press
- Overhead/military press
What are the benefits of compound exercises?
Compound exercises should be at the heart of almost everyone’s strength training or bodybuilding program. They have the following benefits:
- They allow you to work more of your body, faster. To work your whole body with isolation exercises would mean using multiple different pieces of equipment to focus on one muscle or muscle group at a time. Compound movements will cut down the amount of time you need to spend working out.
- You will burn more calories with compound exercises rather than isolation movements because you have to involve more muscles in the movement.
- Compound exercises require you to stabilise free weights or your own bodyweight. This means they have the great advantage of helping to improve your coordination, as well as the strength of lots of supporting muscles which get missed by isolation exercises.
- Compound exercises will allow you to lift more weight and build more strength.
- Compound movements simulate more real life situations and challenges. Squatting down to find something in the bottom of your cupboard while keeping your balance will be easier if you can squat with good form in the gym. Deadlifts train you to safely pick things up off of the floor without injuring your back (e.g. a heavy box, your children etc.) Pull-ups and chin-ups, as well as many other compound exercises, will help to develop your grip. They also help you to develop pulling strength so you can pull yourself up to higher places, like your loft or attic. Need to push yourself up onto the edge of the swimming pool? If you’ve trained dips, it will be a breeze. You get the picture.
- Practicing moving your body through different motions under load will help you to develop better flexibility and become more resilient to injury. The benefits for sporting performance are huge compared to isolation exercises.
- As compound movements involve a lot more muscles, they require your cardiovascular system to work harder to supply blood to these muscles.
Do isolation exercises have any place in a workout program?
Yes, but compound exercises should still be the focus.
If you want to grow your arms, there’s only so far pull-ups and chin-ups will get you. You can keep adding weight, but most of the work is still done by your back.
Isolation exercises can help here, but they should definitely be secondary. You should focus on improving the amount of weight you can lift (added to your own weight) on chin-ups. However, if getting bigger arms is a goal of yours, once you’ve done your chin-ups there is some extra benefit you can get by doing some isolation work to focus on biceps.
Isolation exercises are good for addressing any muscular imbalances you might have.
For example, I’m a very quad dominant squatter. For some reason, my quads are just much more developed than my hamstrings. As I continue to add weight and progress with my squat, my hamstrings and glutes get stronger, but my quads do too. Therefore, to try to address this imbalance I do some work on the plate loaded hamstring curl machine.
Many beginners end up with some upper body muscular imbalances, particularly around their shoulders. This usually comes from an over-emphasis on bench press and other pushing movements in their training. This can be addressed with rowing exercises, but another good way to address it is to do an isolation exercise like the face-pull. You can use some light weight on these and really focus on putting tension on the muscles with long, slow and strict reps. This is not so easy to do with a barbell.
Compound exercises aren’t great for all muscles. Calves are a classic example. They stabilise you during squats and deadlifts, but this isn’t really enough to stimulate significant muscle growth. You can give them some more work with an isolation exercise, like calf raises.
Remember the following rules of progress:
For building muscle:
- Ensure you are following the principle of progressive overload. Small increases over time.
- Eat in a calorie surplus.
- Get enough protein.
- Lift weights with correct form.
- Get enough sleep.
- Stay consistent. Don’t miss loads of workouts or whole weeks (occasionally is fine, we all have lives).
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