When you’re short on time, you might be tempted to skip your workout. This is especially true if your current programming includes lots of different movements, all designed to target big muscle groups.
Instead of ditching the sweat session, you might consider adding in compound exercises. The best compound exercises help maximize your time spent in the gym and help produce serious results. Let’s take a look at what compound exercises are and how you can add them to your training programme.
What Are Compound Exercises?
“The Big Three” is a phrase that’s batted around on gym floors often, but maybe you’re not clear on what it means. The squat, deadlift, and bench are often grouped together and called “The Big Three” because they’re the three fundamental compound movements.
A compound exercise is a movement that works multiple muscle groups at the same time. The squat, bench, and deadlift are considered foundational movements for all training programmes because they engage and strengthen the largest muscles in your body.
For example, a bench press isn’t just working chest – it’s also working your core, triceps, and delts.
Squatting does a lot more for you than just help you grow big leg muscles – it also helps you strengthen your core, work on foot flexibility, and helps to strengthen your back.
When you deadlift, you’re doing more than learning to pull weight from a dead start from the ground. You’re developing your core, leg muscles, and to some degree, your chest.
All of these movements recruit and use the big muscle groups in your body and also help engage the smaller isolated muscles. These stabiliser muscle groups go a long way in developing strength and will, in time, help you put bigger numbers on the bar.
Compound exercises go beyond The Big Three to include Olympic lifting movements – the snatch and the clean and jerk. To some degree, most coaches also include front squats as a compound movement since the very nature of the exercise engages several muscle groups at once. Depending on your level of fitness and your interest and goals, you might consider adding Olympic movements into your compound exercise purview.
The best compound exercises are going to be those that fit your goals and overall plan. With that in mind, it’s usually beneficial to begin with The Big Three, since they’re generally easier to master as compared with their Olympic lift cousins. Because Olympic lifting has so many technical components to it, you might consider bringing on a coach or another lifter who has experience with these exercises.
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
So now we know that compound exercises engage several muscle groups and joints at the same time. Isolation exercises are movements that engage a specific muscle group and only one joint. For example, you might find yourself sitting on a quad extension machine to help grow bigger legs. When you’re using the machine, you’re engaging your quad and working toward building bigger muscles. Conversely, if you were to squat instead of using the machine, you’d be developing your quads along with glutes, core, and other muscles.
On the most basic level, isolation exercises are those that include curls, raises, and extensions. You might incorporate them as part of your accessory work, or you might work on them to address deficiencies with your functional movement.
As the name suggests, an isolation exercise isolates a specific muscle. Iso movements are exceptionally helpful if you know that one muscle group is lacking. For example, if you’ve been struggling to master strict pullups but have stalled in your efforts, you might consider adding in more triceps work to help with your pull. Isolated movements can help reach hypertrophy in a way that compound movements can’t. For example, after doing an intense back squat session, you might incorporate weighted lunges or Romanian deadlifts to help isolate the muscle groups in your legs.
Isolation exercises are also exceptionally useful when you’re coming off of an injury. They should be a big part of your training programme if you’ve been through any physical therapy or know that you need to strengthen a specific area.
Why You Should Do Compound Exercises
If your goal is to get fit in a short amount of time, you should absolutely be doing compound movements as part of your daily exercises. When you work multiple muscles and joints at the same time, you’re going to end up burning more calories – not just during your lift but during the entire day too. That’s because your body engages with more muscles to complete the movement as opposed to isolation exercises that only use one or two muscles at a time.
Compound movements should be the cornerstone of your training program for several reasons.
First, they’re efficient. You’re going to activate and engage multiple muscles concurrently. That’s a big plus for anyone who has suffered through a long workout that targets small accessory muscles. Compound exercises help you build bigger muscles because they’re harder to perform.
Let’s break that down.
If you went to the gym and wanted to work on your upper body strength, you might consider doing several different exercises.
- Bicep curls
- Triceps press down
- Upright rows
- Shoulder presses
- Lateral dumbbell raises
- Arnold presses
Or, you could work everything at once and work on a compound movement like a jerk or a power clean. A power clean will include activating all of these muscle groups and more since it’s a full-body movement. Yes, all of the individual exercises can help you achieve the same results as one big movement, but there’s not much sense in doing a bunch of small movements if you can do one big exercise instead. Of course, that’s not to detract from the very real benefit of accessory work on small stabiliser muscles, but that’s not the focus of compound exercises.
An easy way to remember it is that the best compound exercises help you build strength and endurance all at once.
Burn more calories
Buring more calories is always a good thing, and compound exercises can help you do just that. These exercises make fitness fun because you’re using your body in more complex ways. It’s going to feel like a lot of work (because it’s definitely a big switch from small accessory movements to big compound lifts), but it’s going to be worth it in the end. If your fitness goals are to get strong and still have a social life, then you should absolutely consider adding in compound exercises.
Be more flexible
In addition to maximizing your time and improving your output, compound movements help your flexibility increase. Most people think of flexibility in terms of static stretching (holding one posture for a long period of time). It’s definitely beneficial to add in static stretching to any warmup and cool down. Compound movements help to activate the range of motion for all joints that are used in the exercises, which helps to lengthen the surrounding tissues.
When muscles on one side of a joint contract, the muscles on the opposite side have to lengthen to allow the contraction to happen. If you’re performing multiple reps of the same movement, over time, the length of the muscles improves, which helps you become more flexible.
Think about it like this. Imagine if you decided to do air squats every single day. We know that squatting helps develop your glutes and quads and gives you a strong core. But if you’re not used to squatting, you might be sore for a few days as your muscles learn to adapt and lengthen to allow for the movement to occur. Over time, your muscles get stronger (and longer), which helps you perform the reps with less soreness.
Elevates your heart rate
Who doesn’t need a little more cardio in their life? Compound movements use a lot of muscle tissue, which in turn forces the heart to pump blood to keep the muscles fuelled. Sitting on a machine or doing a small isolated movement like a bicep curl uses a very limited amount of muscle tissues and doesn’t require the heart to work as hard as during compound lifts.
The recruitment and activation of stabiliser muscles mean that you’re going to be working on muscular imbalances that you might not even know you had.
If you’re new to the gym and aren’t sure how to begin with a compound movement programme, don’t worry! Every single person you’ve ever seen in the gym has started out exactly where you are, even if it might not seem like it. Let’s take a look at three different workout options for the beginner lifter to the advanced.
Focusing on compound lifts three days a week and isolation exercises twice a week can help locate and address muscle imbalances. If you’re a beginner, then one set of any compound movement is going to be effective. As a novice, you should be working in the 8-12 rep range to help develop muscle memory and learn to perform the movements. The last set of any workout should be challenging, but you should be able to complete it with perfect form. It’s best to easy into incorporating compound movements, especially if you’ve been training isolation exercises for a long time.
As you move forward in your fitness, you’ll learn how to best structure your routine to fit your changing needs and your developing fitness level.
For example, your programme might look something like this:
Day One – Squats
Day Two – Bench
Day Three – Deadlift
Day Four – Leg accessory work and core
Day Five – Upper body accessory work
Intermediate lifters can typically handle more volume in a programme, since their muscles are more accustomed to prolonged movement. For those who have been lifting for at least a year, a programme that’s a combination of both compound movements and isolation exercises will be very beneficial to continue to see gains. Intermediate lifters might also be more comfortable working six days a week instead of five. However, this is generally a personal choice and largely depends on the athlete and specific goals.
- Day One – Chest and Triceps
- Day Two – Legs – Squats
- Day Three – Metabolic conditioning
- Day Four – Shoulders and traps (Overhead press, jerks)
- Day Five – Back and Biceps
- Day Six – Metabolic conditioning
You’ll notice that this programming includes two days of long conditioning work. This can either be LISS (Low Impact Steady State) or a few short HIIT workouts. Either will be beneficial, and your choice should be informed by your level of energy on any given day. Of course, if your preceding pays are intense workouts, you can always take an additional rest day. As an intermediate lifter, you know that getting proficient at core lifts will have a significant impact on everything else.
Advanced lifters are likely going to spend six days a week in the gym, with each day specifically focused on compound movements. No matter if you’re a powerlifter, bodybuilder, or functional fitness athlete, your sessions should include a focused strength training portion, short accessory work, and then metabolic conditioning.
Each type of athlete – powerlifter, bodybuilder, or functional fitness athlete – is going to have a different goal, so each person’s programming will look different. Here’s an example of a powerlifter’s programming. Note that it does include Olympic lifting since that’s a good way to tackle deficiencies. Advanced lifters know their one-rep maxes, which means that most programming works with percentages to determine how much weight to use for any given day. Most advanced lifters will go into the gym with one specific goal in mind for each training session and keep assistance (isolation) work to a minimum.
- Day One – Back Squat
- Day Two – Presses
- Day Three – Deadlift
- Day Four – Front Squats/Cleans
- Day Five – Bench
- Day Six – Snatches/Overhead squats
Of course, this is just an example for an advanced lifter, but your programming will be directly influenced by your specific goals.
If your programming doesn’t include The Big Three (or their Olympic cousins), then you might consider taking a step back and reevaluating your routine. Compound movements can help you save time in the gym, develop better overall flexibility, and help you burn more calories during your day. Improved coordination will help make you a better athlete, which will ultimately help you get stronger.
That’s not to say that isolation exercises don’t have their part in a good programme. In fact, they can be a great addition to your routine. The key here is to build a routine that focuses on compound movements but one that adds in isolated accessory exercises. Don’t forget that compound movements work multiple muscle groups at once, so be mindful not to overwork stabiliser muscles. These small muscle groups that help assist in the big movement are just as important as the larger muscle groups.
When you incorporate several muscle groups to help build muscle, the best compound exercises help you do more with less time. While it’s true that you could get the same results from several isolated movements that work one muscle group at a time, many people find benefit in compound exercises.