Why Compound Movements?

A few people (all in real life, kinda ironically) have asked me about my Facebook post, which went something like this:

MUSCLE: Compound movements
STRENGTH: Compound movements
WEIGHT LOSS: Compound movements
TONING: Compound movements
ABS: Compound movements
BUTT: Compound movements

Eat, sleep, hydrate, de-stress, express

So what is this supposed to mean? Do I see compound movement as some kind of panacea, to cure the common cold, end world hunger, and even makes julienne fries?

Nah. But it is something special.

First of all, what is a compound movement? “Compound” generally refers to any exercise that involves the movement of more than one muscle, and/or the movement of more than one joint. Single-muscle movements, by contrast, are referred to as isolation movements.

Why would I prescribe compound movements for pretty much every goal, and for pretty much every body? Well, first I should mention that I wouldn’t tell a person with a back injury to start deadlifting or a lady in her seventies to squat her bodyweight right off the bat. My recommendations are always based on the client’s fitness goals, and that includes starting where their current fitness level demands. However, in general, I would use regressions of these movements and work the client up to the point where they work best.

On the surface, weightlifting seems to accomplish only one thing: building muscle. But the act of building muscle can accomplish many other things: increase metabolism (by increasing the Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR), build core strength and improve posture, burn bodyfat and reduce its appearance, heighten endurance, build mental toughness, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and other concrete benefits. And compound movements such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pullup, bent-over row, plank, lunge, and tricep dip, and all of their myriad variations, are the most effective and efficient way to build muscle.

I should note here that I appreciate the field of exercise known as “functional movement,” which generally refers to exercises that are either a) “functional” meaning useful, in that they are supposed to mimic everyday movements such as picking up a suitcase or reaching high overhead, or b) “functional” meaning involving more physical functions, and generally are combinations of two or more exercise. Why? Because they are fun and helpful to a lot of people! Really, whatever gets results is what counts! There is no absolute right way. Besides, functional training includes lots of compound movements anyhow.

What are the strength benefits of compound movements? Exercising the larger muscle groups, and the involvement of more muscles in a compound movement, results in greater muscle fiber recruitment and a greater level of healthy muscle tearing, which leads to the growth of more muscle. Whether for strength or aesthetics, more muscle is what we want.

This is not to say that we always want to recruit every muscle in our body in every lift (except as a technique practiced by powerlifters). Rather, being able to execute effective compound movements leads to more effective overall growth in each muscle group—chest, back, legs, arms, and shoulders—because of that higher muscle fiber recruitment. Isolation movements, by definition, involve fewer muscles, and so create less muscle growth. So promoting the use of compound movements means emphasizing working the large muscle groups over the smaller ones.

Are isolation movements useless then, and should we never work smaller muscles like the biceps, calves, and individual deltoids? Hell no! For the purpose of corrective exercise, when one muscle is compensating for the weakness of another in a specific movement, it is extremely helpful to be able to isolate that particular weak muscle for the purpose of strengthening it so that it “pulls it weight.”

Also, for the task of “bodybuilding,” which has aesthetics as its main goal, isolation movements can play a great part. Let’s say, like me, you are a tall guy and you’ve been working your arms just fine—your pullup and bench press aren’t suffering at all—but doing only compound movements isn’t hitting your forearms with enough stimulation to make them grow proportional to the rest of your arms. Doing some dedicated forearm work using isolation movements makes perfect sense.

Also, in order to obtain proportionality, it is necessary to hit the muscle from many different angles in one sitting, hence this is another important use of isolation movements in the context of bodybuilding. Rather than doing five types of squat in one leg workout, which would be inefficient, a bodybuilder might finish his or her allowance of squats and then proceed to perform various isolation movements in order to target each individual muscle of the quadriceps (front of thigh) to make sure that every molecule of muscle fiber has been stimulated and placed in the conditions for maximal growth. This makes a lot of sense too.

Lastly, let’s say you’re working on your deep squat, but you have trouble standing back up. Maybe a little direct glute or hamstring work would help you get through that sticking point. You’re closing a gap in the movement pattern.

However, with regard to the average person trying to grow some muscle and get healthier, it is important not to over-burden the lower back by subjecting it to endless loading such as occurs in conventional deadlifts and squats. Ideally, we would all build strong enough cores, cultivate supreme balance, and reach the height of joint health such that we could bombard our spines with heavy loads day in and day out. And this is an excellent fitness goal, only achievable by….you guessed it: daily compound movements in an extremely regimented fashion! And that is essentially what powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters do, less concerned with aesthetics and more with performance.

For most of us, isolation movements should serve to round out a compound movement-centered exercise program, so that the desired muscles receive adequate stimulation to correct imbalances and achieve growth, and your body and health develop holistically, rather than as a set of disconnected components that don’t interrelate to each other.

Another use for isolation movements may arise when, after working with compound movements for a while, you find that your progress in a particular movement is starting to “plateau.” Excluding the possibility (and likelihood) that form is the problem, it’s possible that a smaller muscle involved in that lift is lagging, even while the bigger muscle is excelling. For instance, the triceps are involved in bench pressing, even though it is predominantly an exercise of the chest. If your bench press just suddenly refuses to respond one day, maybe your triceps would benefit from some special attention. (But before you hit the triceps pushdown, there’s a compound movement for that! Dips! Or close-grip bench press!)

Or if you just can’t seem to overhead squat without hyperextending your lower back, perhaps some isolated core/ab work would help (like the plank, another compound movement, for example!)

Or perhaps your back is growing but your arms are in a rut. One answer would be bicep curls—a fine isolation movement—to spur arm growth. Another answer—a compound answer!—might be to perform weighted supinated pullups (also known as chinups) instead of regular pullups.

As I’ve indicated, altering the particulars of a compound movement will generally help to address issues of plateaus while allowing you to maximize muscle recruitment and maintain overall progress in that lift, whereas using isolation movement usually engenders a reduction of muscle recruitment, and, theoretically, time wasted that you could be spending on more productive, more badass compound lifts!

But all kidding aside, no time spent exercising is truly time wasted if there is a concrete goal in mind. When it comes to better health, more lean body mass, higher metabolism, and the other benefits I mentioned above, any resistance training program should be built around compound movements.

So, what are the weight loss and toning benefits of compound movements? As a medium-term strategy for weight-loss, and in conjunction with a healthy diet, compound movements come out far ahead of isolation movements. Working larger muscle groups, and more muscles in general, burns more calories while training. Additionally, calories continue to be burned after training as the muscles repair themselves, and even MORE caloric expenditure is occurring thereafter due to the increased Basal Metabolic Rate that comes with higher percentage of lean body mass.

With proper instruction and well-grasped form, compound movements can be employed to perform fast-paced, cardio-like exercise (for example, bodyweight squats for one minute, followed by pushups for one minute), which accomplishes greater caloric burn in a shorter amount of time than the same amount of solid-state cardio like running or rowing.

Now, do compound movements build the abs? Yes, but more specifically, they build core strength. Movements that involve holding a weight steady with your upper body require (and help to create) a strong core. Isometric contraction of the core is necessary to perform the movements safely; for example, when squatting, if your core wasn’t engaged, keeping you upright and strong, you’d fall forward! A lot of plateaus and injuries occur because of poor core strength during compound movements.

Performing endless crunches, as an isolation exercise, may possess the benefits of isolation that I describe above. But they rarely help to build true functional core strength. Rather, core strength is built most effectively when isometric contractions of the core musculature are integrated into compound exercises to prevent unwanted movement. Put in plain English, “bracing” the core while performing a squat or a deadlift helps protect the lower back during that movement, which is a skill that extend into everyday functional movements. Here is a short video demonstrating proper breathing technique.

Speaking of the core, compound movements like the deadlift, squat, and lunge are ideal for building the glutes, which is not usually considered a core muscle. But trust me, it is one. It keeps you strong and stable doing these exercises and gets you out of that low position….that is, if you are able to fire your glutes correctly.

Having a strong butt is so important in getting the most out of these movements that the aesthetic improvements should be seen as a bonus. Because so many of us are sitting all day at work and then at home in front of Netflix (nothing inherently wrong with that; just stating a fact), our butt muscles get weak and basically useless. Our hamstrings get tight, limiting our hip mobility. As a result, getting up out of chairs without using our arms, or “lifting with our legs,” becomes much more difficult. This sets us up for back injuries of all kinds.

So, the fact that they help build strong glutes is yet another reason to do compound movements. (If you’d like to start safely building your glutes, do an internet search for “glute bridge exercise” and go from there.)

So these are just a few of the reasons I’m so fond of compound movements. And I should point out one important thing: women shouldn’t worry about getting “bulky” from doing them. It’s generally impossible for women to naturally gain “mannish” levels of muscles for the simple reason that they lack the necessary levels of testosterone. Plus, I’ve never heard of anyone of any gender getting “bulky” by accident.

So, start building your exercise routines around compound movements, and start seeing the meaning of “results.”

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