Posted on February 28, 2022 by Harry Edwards
You might have heard about compound exercises or movements and thought to yourself, “what’s so special about these exercises?”, “what’s the big deal?”. In this blog I’m going to explain what a compound exercise is, what the benefits of focusing on them are, and what my favourite compound exercises to build a workout around are.
What is a Compound Exercise?
A compound exercise or movement is one that involves the movement of two or more joints in your body at the same time. This means that more muscle groups will be involved in generating the force needed to complete the movement. This is in contrast to an isolation exercise or movement in which a single joint moves and only a specific muscle group is engaged to complete the movement. A good example of the contrast between the two would be a squat, a classic compound exercise which engages your whole lower body and core, versus a hamstring curl, which isolates your hamstrings.
What’s so great about Compound Exercises?
Unlike isolation exercises which, by their nature, concentrate upon a single muscle for work, compound movements maximise the benefits for development by drawing upon lots of different muscle groups. This means that, in terms of building muscle across your whole body, compound movements can offer much more widespread growth and development. This also promotes muscular balance by making the different muscles work in tandem with each other, rather than having one muscle group preferentially worked while the rest become underdeveloped. Another major benefit is the greater use of your core and stabilisation muscles during compound movements, making the gains you get from these exercises much more applicable to your everyday life as well as other physical activities and sports you engage in. So all in all compound movements are absolutely brilliant and you should absolutely be prioritising them in your workouts! But what are some examples of these awesome exercises, I hear you ask?
My Favourite Compound Exercises
Squats are the staple of compound movements, engaging almost your entire body and helping build the foundation for athleticism and good health in everyone from complete beginners to top level athletes. There are so many different versions of a squat you can literally never run out of options to add into your workouts. There are different versions according to equipment; barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell and bodyweight variations, and then different versions that are front-loaded to target your quads, back-loaded to focus on your hamstrings and everywhere in-between. I cannot recommend squats enough, so go out there and get squatting! To learn more about squats, check out this blog by our very own Kate Halsall!
This classic “bro” exercise can sometimes get a bad wrap but it is actually a fantastic compound exercise that emphasises your upper body strength and development. Bench press has a unique ability to activate the caveman part of your brain that makes you feel like a boss for moving a big old weight. The gains it offers for your chest as well as the muscles of your arms and back are very helpful for explosive power generation in other sports and for maintaining the strength needed to perform everyday tasks. As with squats there are many different variations according to equipment and bar path that you can incorporate into your workouts. Once you get into benching you’ll quickly want to do it all the time so don’t get greedy, but if you’ve never tried it before give it a go the next time you’re in the gym and get your caveman on! For some tips on how to get the most out of this exercise check out this motive8 North blog!
Deadlifts are great! Like the lower-body version of the bench press, the primal satisfaction that comes from successfully completing a heavy deadlift is second to none! Not to mention the benefits of deadlifts are so widespread that to ignore this exercise is to really miss out. Emphasising your lower body, deadlifts can provide huge benefits in terms of explosive power development. They also offer major benefits for core strength and development of your posterior chain. It should be noted that, alongside the benefits for your core and back, there is a risk of lower back injury if performed incorrectly, so be sure to ask your friendly neighbourhood gym instructor or Personal Trainer to check on your form first. But once you’ve got it down you can explore the full range of deadlift variations, standard, Romanian, trap bar, the options are nearly endless! Get practising these with a light weight and supervision to start and then as you progress you will feel your overall strength go up and up and up. You guessed it, of course we have a blog dedicated to deadlifts! Check it out here!
Often overlooked as a compound exercise, shoulder presses are the cousin of the bench press that should be ignored at your peril! Shoulder presses can help you bulletproof your shoulders from injury as well as increasing the strength of your upper body as a whole. Barbell variations include the military press which you can load up with lots of weight to work on power development, or you can do dumbbell variations to isolate each shoulder and work on imbalances or stability in each limb. Shoulder presses are an invaluable exercise and are very versatile, making them easy to incorporate into just about any workout. Give them a try next time you’re in the gym, you won’t regret it!
When people think of compound exercises they typically focus on barbell movements and lifting super heavy weights. But in reality one of the most effective compound exercises doesn’t require any weights at all! Pull ups are, in my opinion, the best exercise for building all-round upper body strength, drawing upon your grip strength, forearms, biceps/triceps and your whole back. They also place heavy demands on your core stability which in turn provides benefits for your other compound movements. Additionally they require very little in the way of equipment, making them an easy addition to any workout. Pull ups also have simple and easily tracked progressions, beginning with supported or banded variations to get you started, you can then move to bodyweight and, if you really want a challenge, go to weighted pull ups. Week by week you simply measure the amount of reps you can complete and it becomes a fun competition with yourself to get those numbers higher and higher. Pull ups will push you to your absolute limit while also being one of the most satisfying exercises you’ll ever do, so find your nearest pull up bar and get after it!
What’s the best way to implement Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises, by drawing upon a larger array of muscle groups, have the double-edged sword of enabling greater power output while also being much more fatiguing than isolation exercises. For example, your barbell squat will almost certainly be heavier than your bicep curl, however after a few sets of heavy squats your whole body will be tired. On the flipside, even if you completely burnt your biceps out with curls, you would likely still be capable of performing exercises that used other muscle groups. As such, you should design your workouts so that the compound exercises are first, as they will require the most energy. They also require more skill and technique and so should be performed when you are as fresh as possible. Once you’ve completed your sets on your compound movement, you can add accessory isolation movements to work on areas of weakness or to target specific muscle groups you want to develop further. Below is a template of how this might look:
Compound Exercise – E.G. Barbell Back Squat – 5 reps/4 sets/3 mins rest
Accessory/Isolation Exercises – E.G. DB Lunges, Russian Twists, DB Bent Over Rows, and DB RDLs – 10 reps of each/3 sets/30s rest between each exercise/60s rest between each set
Core/Stability Exercises – E.G. Calf Raises, Plank, and DB Shoulder Press – 20 reps (60s Plank)/2 sets/No rest between exercises/30s rest between sets
This is just an example but you can use this as a template for any workout, with plenty of room to adjust specific exercises, rep ranges or any factor related to your personal goals. Just take a compound movement and then add isolation movements that supplement the muscle groups already worked or stress muscle groups that are left out, whatever you fancy! Then finish with some core or stability exercises to protect your body from long-term injuries. This is often overlooked but is really important for your health. So now that you’re equipped with all this info, go out there and get working those compound movements! For some more recommendations on planning your workouts check out this motive8 blog here. If you want any help or advice while at the gym, the lovely staff at Motive8 are never far away and we’d be happy to help!