So you want to get lean, or you want to become a towering mass of muscle. Where to begin? If you take your cues from infomercials, and fitness magazines, perhaps they would prescribe a load of bicep curls, tricep extensions and crunches. Are these horrible exercises? No. But are they optimal? No again. So what should you do? In a word, compound exercises.
What are they?
“Any exercise that engages two or more different joints to fully stimulate entire muscle groups and, indeed, multiple muscles”. So under this definition bicep curls, tricep extensions, and ab crunches would not be considered compound movements. What are some examples?
- Overhead pressing
- Barbell/Dumbbell Row
- Bench Pressing
The list is pretty large, but just think about the movement you are doing, and if it is clearly engaging more than one muscle it is compound. Take for example the mighty Deadlift. What muscles are attacked when deadlifting? Hamstrings, Quads, forearms, upper back, lower back, Glutes, eyelids?! Ok, so the point is that a lot of muscles are used in the deadlift. But the same can be said for many compound movements.
These exercises are often the staple in many athlete programs, and even form the basis for some sports. For example, squatting helps runners run faster, makes footballers more powerful etc. And the entire sport of powerlifting is a competition of the squat, bench and deadlift. All this to say that you are in good company doing compound movements. But let’s talk more about the Why below.
Why Do Compound Movements?
We’ve already mentioned the fact that the people who are paid to be big, strong and fast all focus on compound movements. But how effective are they really?
Very. Your body reacts in a certain way when physically stressed. For instance, it releases hormones such as Growth Hormone and Testosterone. The greater the stress, the greater the release of these hormones. It is intuitively obvious as you need more resources to meet a greater challenge, the same is for your body. So these hormones that flood your system when doing compound movements create an environment for muscle growth and enhanced protein synthesis.
Another benefit is the increasing of your metabolic rate. A squat is going to require far more physical recruitment than some ab crunches, and as a result, your metabolic rate will increase much more. This obviously means, more fat loss. So from a fat loss perspective, you are going to get more bang for your buck with an overhead press or squat than a pec fly or bicep curl.
A compelling reason to do compound movements is an argument from nature. If you break down the basic human movements, you can put them into the following categories:
Compound movements will almost always follow one of these basic human movements. For instance, for the “walk” movement, you can pick up something heavy and walk with it. (Otherwise known as a ‘farmer’s walk’ or ‘loaded carry’). These movements if strengthened will make you a generally more useful human being. Since your body is made in a way that these movements utilise multiple joints and multiple muscles, these movements are perfect to help develop a balanced and strong physique. And you’ll look great obviously.
Compound Vs Isolation
Now this article has been hating on isolation exercises, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. In fact, they are terrific. As long as you know the place to use them. If you are a beginner looking to begin your weight lifting journey, then just stick to some main compound movements, then throw in some isolation if you have time. But you will be far better served focusing on these basic movements, as they are the building blocks of your physique and strength. Also, as mentioned earlier, the fat burning benefits of isolation exercises are very limited compared with compound movements.
However, if you are looking to get that bodybuilding physique, you can start adding in your direct arm work, the calves, the flyes. But these movements will only improve on the existing foundation. If you haven’t put the work in to create your physique through compound work, you will be swimming upstream. Remember, compound exercises use more muscles, so do them, work more muscles, gain more muscle. It is that simple.
Suggestions for Programs
So, by this point you are obviously convinced. If you aren’t, then tap it into google, there are more studies on this topic than you can imagine. But where can you start with a good program?
There are many fantastic programs that exist, but the basic principles will always be the same. Always remember that you are training a movement not a muscle. So the exercise selection will always be a movement that involves multiple muscles, that will stress much of your body.
A classic strength program that many beginners use is the 5×5 method:
Start with workout A. Two days later you do workout B. So first week is A/B/A, second week B/A/B, third week A/B/A, and etc.
- Squat 5×5
- Bench 5×5
- Barbell Row 5×5
- Squat 5×5
- Overhead Press 5×5
- Deadlift 1×5
This is just an example of a very simple strength program based around compound movements. If you stick at this, and increase the weight you use incrementally, you will get leaner and stronger, no questions asked. There are many other great programs, you can also use. Jim Wendler is famous for his 5/3/1 program, and of course there are many more sophisticated programs specifically for powerlifters and athletes.
No matter how sophisticated the training programs become, they all keep coming back to compound exercises. These should always be at the heart of your program. Yes they are harder than isolations exercises, yes jogging around the park is less taxing, but if you can commit to a course of compound exercise movements, the joys of a sexy body await you.