Compound Exercises: How to Use them for Optimal Gains
Compound exercises are the best way to efficiently work multiple muscle groups at once.
If you want to work your whole body, build muscle everywhere and you’re interested in getting the maximum returns from the time you spend training, then compound exercises are absolutely what you need to be doing.
With just 6 compound exercises you can cover the minimum you need to have a balanced training program that covers your whole body. You can get stronger and build muscle on a very minimal routine that is quick to do, if you use compound exercises.
What is a compound exercise?
A compound exercise is one which uses multiple joints and works multiple muscle groups. They can be performed with bodyweight, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells or machines.
A squat is an example of a compound exercise. Your quads, hamstrings and glutes are heavily involved, your calves help to stabilise you and your whole core, including your lower back, has to be tight to keep you upright and your back in a safe position.
A leg extension would be an example of an isolation exercise. Only one joint is involved (the knee) and one muscle group is targeted (the quadriceps).
Other examples of compound exercises:
Anything that fits into one of these movement patterns is a compound exercise:
- Squat (barbell back squat, dumbbell goblet squat, bodyweight squat, leg press etc.)
- Hinge (deadlift, Romanian deadlift, good morning etc.)
- Gait (walking lunges, barbell reverse lunge and other lunge variations).
- Horizontal push (barbell bench press and bench press variations, pushups, chest press machine etc.)
- Horizontal pull (all barbell, dumbbell and machine rows, inverted bodyweight rows etc.)
- Vertical push (any pressing of a weight above the head e.g. military press, seated dumbbell press, machine shoulder press or pushing down, e.g. dips)
- Vertical pull (any pulling down, e.g. lat pulldowns and also chinup and pullup variations)
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 take a very long time, focusing on one muscle group at a time. Compound movements will drastically 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 (assuming you’re not using machines). This means they will involve lots of smaller muscles that would get missed by isolation exercises.
- Compound exercises will allow you to lift more weight and build more strength.
- Compound exercises 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 climbing a tree with your kids or getting over a wall in an obstacle course race. If you can do dips, it will be easier to push yourself up onto the edge of the swimming pool.
- Practicing moving your body through different motions under load will help you to 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. Lifting weights in the correct manner with compound exercises will also give you a cardiovascular workout.
Do isolation exercises have any place in a workout program?
There’s a bit of debate about this.
On one hand, studies (such as this one) have found that adding isolation exercises to work muscles after they’ve already been worked by compound exercises adds no additional benefit.
On the other hand, other studies strongly suggest a correlation between increased volume (more hard sets per muscle group per week) and greater hypertrophy, up to a certain point (beyond which there’s no additional benefit). This study, for example, found that 5 sets per exercise on a 3x per week training program led to greater hypertrophy increases in trained men vs. 3 or 1 set per exercise, but didn’t lead to greater strength increases.
This suggests that there’s a dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy, with more sets leading to greater hypertrophy.
However, performing endless sets of compound exercises like pullups, dips and deadlifts would be incredibly taxing and could likely lead to overuse injuries. Pullups, for example, are a common exercise for causing overuse injuries, particularly elbow and forearm pain (lateral/medial epicondylitis – tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow). Excessive sets of dips can also cause sternum pain in some individuals called costochondritis.
Rather than performing high volume with exclusively compound exercises, trainees can achieve greater volume per muscle group by swapping some of these sets for isolation exercises targeting the same muscles.
Should you include isolation exercises in your program?
There’s not usually any need to include isolation exercises in your workout program.
You could get extremely strong and build a lot of muscle without ever doing any isolation exercises.
However, if your goal is maximum hypertrophy, it may make sense to include some isolation exercises – if you’re an advanced trainee. Beginner and intermediate trainees can get the maximum stimulus for hypertrophy without the number of sets of compound exercises posing a problem.
Studies (analysed in this 2017 meta-analysis) suggest that most people could maximise their growth with around 10 sets per muscle group per week. This could be done with compound exercises alone, without being too taxing on the body. For many people, going beyond this amount of work would be counter-productive, as the additional volume cuts too much into recovery. This is highly individual, however. Different people have different tolerances for volume and capacities for recovery.
Advanced trainees may be able to push their volume closer to 20 sets per muscle group per week, but for this amount of work it would likely be better to use some isolation exercises. This is because this many sets with compound exercises would likely be too taxing on the body and central nervous system, and could lead to some overuse injuries.
Ultra Fast, Minimal Workout Program Using Compound Exercises
If you want to build muscle, get stronger and you’re interested in getting the best possible ROI on the time you spend in the gym, then look no further than this simple, low volume workout program using exclusively compound evercises.
- Chinups, 3 sets
- Bench press, 3 sets
- Squats, 3 sets
- Romanian deadlifts, 3 sets
- Barbell row, 3 sets
- Overhead press, 3 sets
- Deadlifts, 3 sets
- Leg press, 3 sets
Every main movement patten is being worked here across the week meaning all of the major muscle groups are being worked.
This routine wouldn’t be optimal for gaining maximal muscle, but it would still lead to increases in strength and muscle mass if the principles of progressive overload, recovery, a high protein intake (and potentially a calorie surplus) are observed.
This would be an excellent routine for someone to follow if they had very little time in the day to fit in training, as these workouts could be done in 10-20 minutes. I would recommend light weights lifted to failure, as these still promote significant increases in strength and muscle mass without much need for lengthy warmups. This study found no significant difference for hypertrophy between trainees performing high reps or low reps, as long as they trained to failure. However, although high reps to failure increases strength, the carryover to increased 1 rep max is not as high as with lower rep training.
Optimal Volume Workout Program Using Compound Exercises
If you had more time, and wanted to push your hypertrophy gains further whilst still not spending lots of extra time in the gym for minimal additional benefit, this program would be ideal.
This routine exclusively uses compound exercises, training each muscle group 2x per week and hits each muscle group for around 10 sets per week (which is optimal for most people, as suggested by the earlier referenced 2017 meta analysis). These 10 sets are split across two upper and two lower body sessions. Muscle groups receive 72 hours of rest before being worked again, which allows them plenty of time to recover.
As compound exercises are used here exclusively, it’s one of the most time efficient ways of hitting the optimal volume for hypertrophy.
- Chinups x 3 sets
- Incline barbell bench press x 3 sets
- Machine shoulder press x 5 sets
- Pushups x 3 sets
- Seated row x 3 sets
- Barbell back squat x 3 sets
- Romanian deadlift x 3 sets
- Hack squat x 3 sets
- Hanging leg raise x 3 sets
- Seated dumbbell press x 5 sets
- Lat pulldown x 3 sets
- Flat dumbbell bench press x 3 sets
- Inverted bodyweight rows x 3 sets
- Machine chest press x 3 sets
- Barbell deadlift x 5 sets
- Barbell hip thrust x 3 sets
- Leg press x 5 sets
- Ab wheel rollout x 3 sets
This routine would maximise hypertrophy for most people. Some advanced trainees might need to add more, but this is already quite a gruelling routine that will take a lot out of you. You could add a few more sets per muscle group per week, but adding more sets of compound exercises would probably not be a great idea and would likely impair recovery – meaning results would be worse over time.
For the majority of people, there would be no need for any extra work and it would be stepping into the realms of diminishing returns.
Only advanced trainees might gain something from adding more sets, but isolation exercises would be recommended as adding more sets of compound exercises would likely result in quite a beat up trainee.
More advanced trainees could add some sets of biceps curls, triceps pushdowns, lateral raises, leg extensions, hamstring curls, chest flys and perhaps some other exercises to increase the volume per muscle group, without making it too much to recover from. For most people this wouldn’t be necessary and would likely be counter-productive.
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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