Bench press

Compound Exercises

What are compound exercises?

Weight lifting exercises can be separated into two broad categories: compound movements and isolation movements.

Isolation exercises are different from compound exercises

Isolation exercises are those which move a single joint through its range of motion. Examples include:

  • Bicep concentration curls (elbow joint)
  • Triceps kickbacks (elbow joint)
  • Leg extension machine (quadriceps muscle and knee joint)
  • Calf raises (ankle joint)

These moves are called “isolation” exercises because they put major stress on a single, isolated muscle.

A strongman performing an overhead press

A strongman performing an overhead press

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that rely on the coordinated actions of several muscle groups to move two or more joints through a range of motion.

For example, the squat involves both ankles, knees, and hips. And it puts major training stress on the quads, hamstrings, glutes, back and core, and a host of small, stabilizing muscles. Even though it’s a single strength training exercise, it works many parts of the body.

With a half-dozen compound exercises, you get a full-body workout. This style of strength training quickly builds muscle mass and overall fitness and it strengthens the body as a whole. Plus, it builds athleticism.

Training for speed versus training for strength

Although it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, you can generally divide compound exercises into two main types:

  • Olympic lifts, such as the clean and jerk or the snatch. These movements develop power and speed.
  • Power lifts like the bench press, deadlift, and powerlifting squat. They’re deceptively named because they don’t actually build power. They develop pure max strength.

Compound exercises are more suitable for skinny guys who want to bulk up than isolation exercises will ever be

Devotees of either style of lifting will undoubtedly argue the minutiae of the distinction I draw between Olympic lifts and powerlifting. But the point to take away from it all is that there are two different schools of thought about which compound exercises are best. Let me explain:

Some athletes use weight training as a tool to improve their sports performance. These guys tend towards the Olympic-style lifts.

Other folks view weight training as an end in and of itself. They gravitate towards powerlifting.

Both styles have their good and bad points, but one thing is clear: compound exercises of any stripe are more suitable for skinny guys who want to bulk up than isolation exercises will ever be.

Compound exercises for bulking up

Adding significant muscle mass is not a trivial task.

To put on good quality muscle, you must work out very hard. And you also have to steadily increase your body weight. Furthermore, your joints and connective tissue must strengthen and adapt in concert with your muscles.

Just like you wouldn’t put a high-performance engine into a compact car with a puny power-train, you can’t put 10 kilos of muscle on a frame that’s weak and unprepared for the additional stress that comes with being bigger and more powerful.

This is where compound exercises come in.

Olympic-style lifts are compound movements

Olympic-style lifts are compound movements

Compound exercises stress not only your muscles, but your joints, ligaments, and tendons.

They develop the body as a whole rather than as a collection of seemingly-unrelated parts.

Make no mistake about it: the body is not a collection of unrelated parts. If you train like it is, you will eventually injure yourself. Compound movements find the weak link in your power train and put maximum stress right there where it will do the most good. Your muscles won’t get stronger unless and until your joints can handle the additional power. This is a good thing.

Bodybuilders and others who incorporate isolation exercises into their workouts are training for hypertrophy, not absolute strength. Anyone who relies solely on isolation movements will inevitably develop weak spots. These areas of weakness will eventually give way when they’re subjected to enough stress.

Why do people perform isolation movements?

Large 200-pound and above bodybuilders know they can get an extra inch or so out of their arms by doing curls and tricep isolation exercises. They want the extra size, regardless of whether it translates into real strength.

But don’t be fooled. These big fellows didn’t get huge by ignoring the compound lifts. The huge guys in any bodybuilding gym paid their dues with compound moves when they were developing, just like every other successful weight lifter.

Smaller lifters do isolation exercises because they don’t know any better.

Yes, it’s true that smaller guys can pump up a bit with isolation movements. But this is a Faustian bargain. When these guys stop working out, the size goes away quickly. And if they ever get stressed to the max, the weak links fail because of the lack of athleticism.

Aside from bodybuilders who are already big, the people who use isolation exercises while supposedly bulking up do so because these movements are easier than heavy compound lifts like squats, overhead presses, or pullups. They would rather “feel the burn” in their biceps than feel like they were just hit by a freight-train after doing a set of squats. Compound exercises are hard, but there is no substitute for the effect they have on your body. Nobody said bulking up wasn’t hard work.

Which weight lifting exercises are the best?

There is a classic combination of compound weight lifting exercises that most successful lifters used to bulk up. It’s known as the “golden five”. When most people talk about doing a “whole-body routine”, this is what they are referring to.

Exercise Name Major Muscle Groups Minor Muscle Groups
Squats Quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back Lower legs, upper back, core stabilizing muscles, hip complex
Deadlifts Grip, lower back, hamstrings, traps, back of shoulders Lower legs, core, upper legs, isometric work for biceps, and virtually everything else
Bench press Pecs, triceps, front of the shoulders Serratus muscles at side of ribs, side of shouders, neck
Pullups (or rows) Lats and upper back, biceps, grip Core, neck
Overhead pressing Shoulders, triceps Core stabilizing muscles, neck

These movements will stress your entire body and cause it to grow as a unit, with no weak links. Other than that, all you need is a bit of running or other high-rep work for your calves. Heavy squats and deadlifts will stress the soleus muscles of your calf complex, but calves are probably not suitable for direct, low-rep isolation work while you’re also trying to bulk up.

Compound lifts for building muscle mass

Lots of people don’t like compound lifts for these reasons:

  1. It takes time and effort to learn proper technique.
  2. It takes time to build up the degree of flexibility needed to take compound exercises through a full range of motion.
  3. Compound exercises are hard and exhausting. A set of pullups is an ordeal; a set of bicep curls is something you can do while talking on the phone.
  4. Free weight barbells are intimidating. Dumbells suitable for isolation exercises are less scary.

Barbells are perfect for use with compound movements

Barbells are perfect for use with compound movements

Stick to compound exercises while you are in your mass-building phase.

Play around with isolation exercises if you are bored, but don’t wear yourself out. The real work should go into the compound movements during your regular workout. While isolation exercises are good to know, especially if you are nursing an injury and you can’t perform a full range of motion compound exercise, they don’t take the place of a proper weight training workout.

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