As a beginner looking into fitness, most exercises seem straightforward enough. You’ve got your movements for each muscle group, and all you have to do is bundle some of them together to make a training routine.
There is some truth to this idea, but the topic of exercises goes much deeper.
Exercises come in two categories: compound and isolation. Depending on that, movements can vary greatly in the effects they will have on you, the level of skill it will take to perform them, and the results you can expect to reap from them.
Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at compound movements, what they are, what benefits they offer, and what all of that means for you.
What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound movements are exercises that work more than one muscle group (around more than one joint) at the same time. This is quite different from isolation movements that only train a single muscle group at a given time – think bicep curls.
In most cases, one muscle group serves as the prime mover, and multiple other muscles assist. For example:
- The deadlift recruits your quads, arms, core, and grip. But the primary movers in that movement are your posterior chain muscles – traps, upper and lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
- The barbell back squat works your entire back, core, and arms. But the primary movers are your legs.
- The flat barbell bench press works your shoulders (the anterior head, primarily), triceps, and core. But the primary movers are your pec muscles.
- The pull-ups, chin-ups, and most rowing exercises work your biceps, forearms, and grip. But the primary mover is your back.
- The overhead press works your triceps, upper chest, and core. But the primary movers are your shoulders.
Compound exercises generally come in one of six categories:
- Vertical push (e.g., overhead standing or seated press, high-incline chest press, and similar);
- Vertical pull (e.g., pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pulldowns, and similar);
- Horizontal push (e.g., the flat and low incline bench press, flat and low incline machine press, and similar);
- Horizontal pull (e.g., seated cable rows, chest-supported machine row, and similar);
- Hip-hinge (e.g., deadlift variations, glute-ham raise, good mornings, and similar);
- Squat pattern (e.g., squat variations, lunges, leg press, and similar);
Now, as you can imagine, compound exercises can vary between one another in the effect they have on the body and the result we can expect. For example, seated cable rows and barbell deadlifts are both, technically, compound exercises, but that doesn’t make them equal.
With that covered, let’s take a look at the benefits these exercises offer:
The Benefits of Compound Movements
Perhaps the biggest mistake gym newbies make with their programming is underestimating the importance of compound lifts. In most cases, they cram a bunch of isolation exercises, do a few sets of each, and call it a day.
But, as with most things, true results are largely rooted within the ruthless execution of the basics over the months and years.
With that said, here are six solid reasons why compound exercises should make the foundation of your training.
1. They kill multiple birds with one stone… so to speak.
Well, this is perhaps the most obvious benefit to compound exercises. Rather than do several isolation exercises for different muscle groups, you can train them simultaneously through one movement pattern.
As a result of that you can:
2. Build strength much more effectively.
Because compound lifts train multiple muscles at the same time, we get to use heavier weights than normal. Thanks to that, we can train in lower repetition ranges much more safely and while maintaining proper technique. Doing so allows us to get stronger safely and more quickly.
Take, for example, the flat dumbbell chest fly (an isolation move) and the flat barbell bench press (a compound exercise). In theory, both are designed to train and develop your chest. But how much weight can you use on the fly? Maybe 40-pound dumbbells if you’re a strong dude. And how well can you progress on that movement? Maybe 5 pounds per year, if that? Plus, you would reach an eventual limit. You wouldn’t be able to progress forever.
Now, take the bench press:
Even if you can’t press much right now, you have an incredible potential to build strength on that exercise. It’s not uncommon to eventually press upward of 300 pounds as a man or upward of 200 pounds as a woman, which is quite the physical feat for the average person.
And on that note:
3. Track your progress much more easily.
Because improvements happen at a more predictable pace, tracking your progress happens much more easily.
Take, for example, the conventional deadlift. It’s not uncommon to add pounds to the bar almost every week, especially in the first few months to a year. And even if you can’t add more weight, you will almost always find yourself being able to do a bit more every time you train.
This is great because it gives you an almost tangible feeling of improvement that helps keep you motivated on the fitness journey.
4. Improve your intramuscular coordination and get better at your sport.
You’ve probably heard that compound exercises are inherently much more athletic and applicable to various sports. This is because these exercises naturally train our muscles and we can later use these specific movements patterns to gain a competitive advantage.
The human body has evolved to use multiple muscles at the same time – that’s how it prefers to work. And using compound exercises not only helps us get stronger, but it also improves intramuscular coordination, and makes us faster and more explosive.
For example, the bench press is a valuable exercise for many types of athletes because the movement develops our overall pushing power. The squat is quite similar, as the movement trains a range of muscles through a natural pattern. The strength and proficiency can then be applied to many types of sports and physical activities.
5. Train efficiently, especially if you don’t have much time to work out.
This seems like an obvious benefit, but most folks never take the time to think about it. We have so many overcomplicated training programs designed to help us get in and out of the gym in record time. These programs often include complicated circuits, lots of isolation exercises, and difficult to understand progression schemes.
But, if you need a time-effective way to exercise, there’s very little that can top compound exercises.
Are you looking for a quick, whole-body workout? Do a few sets of deadlifts and some overhead pressing and you’ll hit the majority of muscles.
And last, but not least:
6. Burn some calories.
Granted, strength training doesn’t burn as many calories as other activities (for example, jogging). But you need to remember that the caloric burn is a bonus benefit on top of everything else strength training offers.
According to research, doing four sets of eight reps with 385 pounds on the deadlift burns about 100 calories. That might not seem significant, but keep in mind that you burn this amount of calories from just four sets. This is equivalent to the calories you’d burn if you run a 10-minute mile at a bodyweight of 130 pounds.
But you also get to build strength, coordination, explosiveness, and muscle mass in the process.
And if your workout has three or four compound exercises, you can see how the caloric burn would add up.
So, as you can see, being able to train multiple muscles at the same time delivers numerous benefits that we don’t talk about enough.
With That Said, You Need to Approach Compound Movements Mindfully
You’ve probably heard that proper training form is vital. But why is that exactly?
We can come up with plenty of good reasons why that is, but it boils down to two things:
1. Training The Correct Muscles
The most common reason why folks don’t get the results they want from their training is also the most surprising. Walk into any gym today, and you’re bound to come across at least several individuals who aren’t performing exercises with a solid technique.
The issue is, strength training isn’t just about moving a weight from point A to B. It’s about doing so mindfully, and making sure that the correct muscles work in the process. That way, you get to make the most out of each repetition, build more muscle, and get stronger throughout the correct movement pattern.
2. Staying Healthy and Injury-Free
Sometimes, poor technique does nothing but prevent us from stimulating our muscles properly. But, sometimes, it puts us at risk of serious injury.
The truth is, while injuries can occur in many ways, the most common reason is improper form, which can occur for many reasons, such as:
- Trying to lift a weight that is too heavy for you. This is commonly known as ego lifting.
- Never taking the time to learn proper technique in the first place, or learning from the wrong person (e.g., a friend, some fitness guru, or similar).
- Having solid form, but then, once fatigue sets in, your technique begins to suffer while you’re trying to do all of your repetitions.
So, it’s important to review your form frequently (especially as you get stronger) and make sure it stays on point. Otherwise, sooner or later, poor technique is likely to result in an injury.
Three Tips to Make The Most of Compound Exercises
Granted, there are many tips you can use to optimize your training, and you should always strive to educate yourself and seek to improve. But, there are a handful of truly effective strategies you can employ to make the most of compound movements.
1. Avoid training to failure.
Training to failure might seem fun and rewarding, but an overwhelming majority of research and anecdotal evidence suggest that it does more harm than good.
You see, compound exercises are inherently complex. It takes a fair bit of time to get good at them, and the process of refining your technique and keeping it on point is ongoing.
Training to failure on such complex exercises will severely worsen your technique, and drastically increase the risk of injury. The extra couple of repetitions you squeeze out of a set are rarely worth the potential risk.
Plus, training to failure is extremely taxing, both physically and mentally. The extra few repetitions you manage to do will significantly impact both your short- (within the workout) and long-term recovery (within the week), thus impacting the remainder of your workout, as well as the ones that follow.
2. Start each workout with compound exercises.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but many lifters, even today, don’t adhere to this rule when it comes to workout structure. Folks often start workouts with isolation exercises like curls, lateral raises, tricep extensions, and chest flys — big mistake.
If you truly want to maximize your gym results, you should start each workout with the more challenging compound exercises. This means:
- Start chest training (or horizontal pushing workouts) with exercises like the flat and incline chest press.
- Start shoulder training (or vertical pushing workouts) with an overhead press.
- Start leg training with a squat variation like the high-bar back squat.
- Start back (or pulling workouts) with a hip-hinge movement (like the deadlift) or a heavy pull (like the barbell row or pull-up).
The reason for this is simple:
Make the most of each exercise while you’re fresh. Do more work (weight lifted, and the number of total reps and sets) with better form before fatigue has a chance to catch up to you.
3. Make sure you’re improving over time.
Sure, performing compound lifts is vital. But you also need to keep one other factor close to your mind: progression. In other words, you need to improve over time.
Now, lifting heavier weights isn’t the only way to make progress. Other common examples include:
- Lifting the same weight for more repetitions and/or sets.
- Doing the same workout, but with less rest between sets.
- Lifting the same weight, but with better technique.
- Maintaining your performance while getting leaner.
- Lifting heavier weights.
If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you will eventually reach a point at which your body no longer has a reason to keep improving. This is why making some progress over the weeks and months is so vital – it’s what forces your body to adapt further.
But, none of this is to say that you should disregard solid training technique in favor of progress. Always keep good form in mind when trying to improve.