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The Effectiveness of “Compound Movements” And Which Exercises Are They

Compound exercises are at the heart of many fitness programs. Unlike isolation exercises that are performed with commercial weight machines, compound exercises focus on functional fitness developed by exercises that simulate real-life activities.

While compound exercises have the benefit of using a variety of movements to go through a wide range of motion, isolation exercises are also beneficial and belong in a well-rounded exercise program. Fitness experts recommend performing both compound and isolation exercises in your weekly workout routines.

What’s the Difference?

are at the heart of many fitness programs. Unlike isolation exercises that are performed with commercial weight machines, compound exercises focus on functional fitness developed by exercises that simulate real-life activities.

While compound exercises have the benefit of using a variety of movements to go through a wide range of motion, isolation exercises are also beneficial and belong in a well-rounded exercise program. Fitness experts recommend performing both compound and isolation exercises in your weekly workout routines.

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time. A great example of a compound exercise is the squat exercise, which engages many muscles in the lower body and core, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, and core.

Isolation exercises work only one muscle or muscle group and only one joint at a time. Examples of isolation exercises include the biceps curl or the quadriceps extension. These exercises are often performed with the commercial weight machines found in health clubs.

The idea is to isolate one muscle group and move from one machine to the next until you work your whole body. Isolation exercises are frequently used in physical therapy clinics and rehab centers in order to correct a specific muscle weakness or imbalance that often occurs after injury, illness, surgery, or other conditions.

Most healthy athletes will use compound exercises for the majority of a training program and use isolation exercises to complement that program as needed.

Benefits of Compound Exercises

For healthy athletes who are trying to get the most out of a training program, compound exercises are generally recommended. Many people preferred compound exercises because they translate to common movement patterns and work more muscles at once.

Compound exercise allows you to get a full-body workout in less time, keeps your heart rate up offering cardiovascular benefits, and generally burns more calories. Because it simulates real-world movements, it helps to build strength for everyday living.

Benefits of Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises are often recommended to correct muscle imbalance or weakness that often occurs after an injury. Isolating a specific muscle is sometimes necessary to get it to activate and increase its strength. After an injury, a muscle often becomes weak and other muscles compensate for that weakness.

If you never retrain the injured muscles to fire properly again, it may set up a biomechanical imbalance that is difficult to correct. Even if your weakness isn’t noticeable because other muscles are compensating, imagine how much stronger you would be if all the muscles were firing at maximum contraction. That alone is a good reason to occasionally do isolation exercises.

Another reason to do specific isolation exercises is to increase the size of a specific muscle group. If you want big biceps for your spring break beach vacation, you’ll probably want to add some bicep isolation work to your regular exercise routine.

Compound vs. Isolation

Both compound and isolation exercises have their place in a well-rounded workout regimen. If you are interested in getting a complete, efficient, and functional workout, doing predominantly compound exercises during your training is ideal. But there are times when isolating a specific muscle, muscle group or joint is necessary and recommended.

Compound Exercises

  • Allows you to get a full-body workout faster and burns more calories

  • Allows you to lift heavier loads and build more strength

  • Decreases the risk of injury during sports

  • Keeps your heart rate up and provides cardiovascular benefits

  • Simulates real-world exercises and activities

Isolation Exercises

  • Allows you to add isolate areas you’d like to bulk up, such as pecs or biceps

  • Can help in rehabilitation following an injury

  • Improves strength in specific muscles

  • Isolates individual muscles

Creating A Plan

If you aren’t sure what is best for you, a personal trainer or athletic trainer can help locate any muscle imbalance or weakness you may have and design a program to fit your needs. One strategy is to focus on compound lifts three to four times a week and isolation exercises twice a week.1

Alternately, you can combine both using isolation exercises as accessory movements to compound exercises. For example:

You can also split up the days like squats and lunges one day, bench press and dips the next workout, and deadlifts and military press in on another day.

How many training programs do you think there are out there? Hundreds, if not thousands, right? Training programs can be a great way to build size, definition, and strength, but there’s really no one-size-fits-all program. That’s because we’re all different and what works for me might not work for you.

But there is one common approach to strength training that brings us back to the basics. By focusing on compound moves like squats, bench presses, and deadlifts in a strength program, it becomes the foundation for all future training.

Mark Rippetoe, the bestselling author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, tells us that doing strength training with compound moves can result in strength gains more quickly. With decades of experience and coaching, Mark believes that a simple training program is essential for anyone, whether novice or advanced because it paves the way for success in future development. 

In this article, we will focus on what compound movements are, the benefits of compound exercises, the three major compound movements (squats, bench press, and deadlifts), some example programs, and how you can build your own routine. 

What are compound movements? 

Compound movements are seen as the key to strength development. They’re moves that can make your workout go from good to great. Compound movements can be described are ones that use multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously. Compound movements are designed to help achieve lean muscle mass and burn calories. Not to mention the fact that they can save you time at the gym or wherever you choose to work out. 

As we mentioned above, compound moves use multiple muscle groups, which differs from isolation exercises (like lateral raises) because they focus on a single muscle group. You can also perform compound moves in an alternate approach, where you combine moves into one exercise.

For the purpose of this article, we will focus on compound moves that involve squats, bench press, and deadlifts.  

What are the benefits of compound movements? 

Even if you’re not a beginner and have some experience under your belt, compound strength training is still important for perfecting technique and future muscle development. Even as an experienced lifter, compound strength training can still be effective in making progress. 

How? According to research, you’re continually putting mechanical and metabolic damage to your muscle fibers, which release all sorts of responders in the brain and body. This is why you end up building more muscle versus just doing isolation exercises. That’s not to say that isolation exercises aren’t good, but they typically best for developing a specific muscle. 

For overall muscle mass, compound moves are a much better route. And who doesn’t want more muscle mass? What’s also great about compound moves is that they help burn more fat when you’re resting. That’s because the muscles worked require more energy to function, increasing your basal metabolic rate (BMR). 

Major compound movements 

As we mentioned previously, our focus today will be on three major compound movements — the squat, bench press, and deadlift. The reason these are so important and the topic of this article is that they bring you back to the basic level of training and really help push strength and muscle mass development. 

Mark Rippetoe’s Strength Training Program also focuses on these key muscle groups during an incremental three-day per week schedule. The main purpose of a program like his is to increase more weight over time, which builds muscle and strength.

Let’s cover the three major compound movements for strength development.

1) The Squat

Although it looks like an easy movement, squats have a hidden struggle that’s often overlooked — the squat form. It’s such an important part of long-term training. Squats are a compound move, as they involve the use of multiple muscles and joints (knees, hips, and legs) that work the entire body. The added benefit of squats is that they help improve the strength and muscles of the mentioned joints. 

There are different types or squat variations such as the back squat, front squat, and bodyweight squat. In this article, the focus is on the standard back squat form. The biggest aspect to remember with the squat form is to engage the hips and knees at the same time, keeping the chest high, and using your upper leg muscles to push you back up.  

2) Bench Press

A staple in almost every training routine is the bench press. Performing the bench press move helps build chest muscles, but also triceps and shoulders. The form is also important when performing a bench press, but there are variations that can be done. Some use dumbbells or a Smith Machine as an alternative to barbell bench press. For strength training, a barbell bench press is the recommended move. 

While the bench press seems pretty straightforward, there are some things to remember for proper form. For example, make sure to have a slight bend in the spine, with your feet flat on the floor. Keep a slightly wider grip on the bar (wider than shoulder-width) and angle the upper arms to 45 degrees. Focus on the breathing, exhaling as you push up towards the ceiling. It may also be good to have a partner or spotter to avoid potential danger. 

3) Deadlift

The final compound movement we’re focusing on is the conventional deadlift. This is one of the best exercises that can be done to benefit the full body. The reason being, again, is that it uses multiple muscle groups all at once. There are variations to this move as well, such as the Romanian deadlift, straight leg, sumo deadlift, and the conventional. 

For the conventional deadlift, start with a shoulder-width stance. The barbell should be at the starting position on the ground. Your grip should be just outside your legs, head in-line with your spine, strong core, and as you stand (finish the move) make sure you’re careful to avoid hyperextending your back. The power should come from a combination of your back and hips. 

Worthy Strength Programs

We’ve referenced the strength training program by Mark Rippetoe which has been used by beginners and advanced trainers. Mark has been active in the fitness industry since the late 70s and has developed an exercise plan that focuses on compound movements such as squats, bench press, and deadlifts.  

His program is separated into three phases, where phase one lasts from one to three weeks, progressively moving up/adding weight to each compound movement. To review Mark’s entire program which includes weekly workouts, including a breakdown of sets and reps, you can check out the guide for more details

If you don’t think that Mark’s program is adaptable to your plans, there’s an intermediate plan by Bill Starr named the Mad Cow program, which is preferred by those who’ve hit a plateau. The basis of this training program is that you’re progressively increasing weight (2.5%) on every set (and each week). For a complete breakdown of the program, you can check out this helpful article.

How to plan your own routine

At this point, you’ve probably referenced the two most popular strength training programs and likely done additional research. So it’s time that you put it all together and try it out, right? Before you implement this for yourself, here’s what you need to know and how to plan accordingly:

1) Evaluate your current stage

Before you can get serious about your routine and progress, you need to face facts about your fitness level. Where are you right now and what does the roadmap look like for you? If you’re a beginner, you’ll make faster progress than someone who is at an intermediate or advanced level. How do you know your level? Look at your weight and lifting capabilities, and if it’s not significant than start over (as a “beginner”).

2) Choose your exercises

We’ve focused on three major compound movements in this article, and we suggest you start with those. The programs we mentioned above also focus on the big three — squats, bench press, and deadlifts. Implementing those movements or variations of them, along with some accessory work (if you want) will give you overall strength.

If you’re at an intermediate or advanced level, you’d include moves (or weights) that apply to your overall fitness vision (bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc). 

3) Routine setup 

Having a planned routine is crucial to progression and muscle mass. No matter your fitness level, making progress should be the key focus. If you’re a beginner, you want a routine that will call for progression from workout to workout. If you’re split is to bench every other day, you’d want to increase the weight from the last workout. For the intermediate level, focus on increasing the load weekly because your body is good at adapting to the workouts. Shoot for a weight that challenges you but isn’t causing you to max out on each move every day. For advanced level trainers, adopt a similar approach but on a monthly or quarterly basis. 

4) Training frequency and intensity

Having a better idea about your routine gets you ready to determine how frequently and intensely you’ll work out. Most programs suggest doing a full-body routine in a three-day split. For example, if you chose Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and started with the squats, bench, deadlift split sequence, you’d increase the weight of each rep, each day (whether it’s five or ten pounds). The point here being is that you want to have an adequate workload so you’re constantly challenging the body.

5) Decide on the reps

This portion will depend on the individual because we’re all built differently. For most beginners, the repetitions on compound moves range from five to eight. Most start out with three to five sets. The program by Mark Rippetoe has a 5×3 split (5 reps, 3 sets) for compound movements like squats, bench press, and deadlifts.  Having this foundation will prove successful with moving onto more advanced weight training such as powerlifting and serious bodybuilding. 


Effectiveness of Compound Movements 

In this article, we talked a lot about what compound movements are, the benefits of compound exercises, the three major compound movements (squats, bench press, and deadlifts), some example programs, and how you can build your routine. 

The biggest thing to remember is that no matter what fitness level you might be at, sticking to these basics will build muscle mass and increase your strength. Whether you’re looking for a new program or just trying to get back to the basics, you’ll want to put the three essential compound movements (squat, bench, and deadlift) into your routine. 

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