What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises are the (or should be) the backbone of your training routine.
By Ash May
All weight training exercises can be divided into two groups; compound movements, and isolation movements. Both of these areas have their own strengths and weaknesses, advantages, and disadvantages. Below, we will go through what compound exercises are, and why they might be the best option for building muscle.
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What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises are the (or should be) the backbone of your training routine. They are defined as multi-joint movements which work several muscles or muscle groups at one time. One of the best examples of this would be the dead-lift, which engages the whole of your posterior chain, recruiting power from your quads, back, glutes, hamstrings, and more.
Due to the huge amount of muscles incorporated when properly performing a compound exercises, they are known as the ‘big’ movements. This includes, but is not limited to:
– Bench Press
– Overhead Press
– Barbell Row
– Pull Ups
Being such massive movements, they have the potential to provide incredible benefit to your overall health and physique. However, there are a some strong disadvantages which you must be aware of when assessing the risk versus reward.
One of the major benefits of compound exercises is their potential for progressive overload. A more detailed guide to the benefits of overloading weight based exercises will be coming soon, however, to summarise:
Progressive overload is the concept of consistently adding more tension to your muscles over time, forcing them to continue adapting in terms of size, strength, and resiliance, rather than becoming used to the stimulus being given to them.
There are several ways of doing this, including increasing weight on the bar, higher reps, more sets, increased time under tension, etc.
Compound exercises are brilliant for progressive overload through increased weight on the bar. This is due to them recruiting so many muscle groups at once, making you much stronger at a movement. The overall growth of muscular strength in all groups recruited in each performance, will mean that less growth and strength increase will be required in each muscle in order to increase weight, as they can work together.
Due to this, you are able to add weight in small increments (don’t forget the 1.25kg plates) over time – often weekly for beginners.
This allows a constant stimulus for new muscle fibre growth, meaning that significant gains in both muscle size, and strength will be seen from this.
Another big benefit which comes from performing compound movements is the CNS adaption they trigger.
CNS stands for the Central Nervous System, and it will account for a lot of your performance when in the gym, as it controls most functions of the body and the mind. This can stop you reaching your full potential of strength and power output, and also make you feel more tired, in less time if it has not been well trained.
Performing compound exercises almost acts as a shock to the CNS, as it suddenly requires serious power output from a large group of muscles. By lifting heavy (with low reps) on compound exercises, the CNS shock will encourage adaption to be able to provide the power faster and more efficiently, which will in turn improve your strength on these exercises.
By becoming stronger on the exercise, you will be able to lift more weight. As mentioned in the progressive overload section, this will provide more tension on the muscles involved, leading to more increases in size and strength.
The CNS adaptation will also allow you to tap into your strength potential more, as your body learns how to safely output its power. For example, if you start at a 100kg bench press, while being able to recruit 60% of your power, as your CNS adapts to allow greater output, you will be able to bench press 110kg with 70% power recruitment.
Functionality of an exercise is important to consider, as it is about how it will translate into the real world. Its all good having a monster tricep extension, but how often will you find yourself doing that in life?
On the other hand, it doesn’t get much more functional than a squat, which is a vital human movement pattern. Through recruiting multiple muscles or muscle groups to work together, you are teaching your body how to let its muscles function and work as a team, as they should do. This is something that cannot be achieved through isolation movements, but is extremely important, further showing why compound exercises are necessary.
By improving this connection between your muscles, you will notice strength increase as a by product, through better coordination, and stabilisation. This will allow you to lift more weight, leading to increased muscle growth from a greater muscle stimulus, and also a reduced injury risk when doing these compound movements, due to better control throughout the complete range of motion.
Focusing on functionality will provide extreme benefits in the long run, such as improved mobility and joint health as you age, and also in the short term, where you will feel agile and mobile during your every day life. This is a something which can be purposefully trained for, or gained as a side product of strength training functional compound movements, so it is important to consider how important this aspect is for you.
When cutting your body weight, a common problem and mistake that many people make time and time again is not weight training in a way which helps their body retain muscle and strength as the fat falls off, resulting in lost muscle and strength.
A full guide on this is coming, however, for now – the absolute best way to stop muscle and strength being lost when cutting is to perform heavy compound exercises. What makes your muscles big and strong is what will keep your muscles big and strong, therefore you definitely should not stop doing this, just because your focus has changed from strength and size to leanness!
Due to having such a huge impact on your CNS, and stimulating the fibres of so many muscles at once with heavy weight, the recovery time requirement of compound exercises will be much greater than isolation exercises.
This means that you will need more rest between sets in order to catch your breath and recover your strength, and will likely also need to reduce your frequency. For example, most people would be fine to do dumbbell curls every day, but if you were to dead lift, bench press, or squat every day, then you would end up doing serious damage to your body in the form of injuries and exhaustion.
However, this disadvantage is very easy to manage, and could even be seen as an advantage. This is because, although overall weekly sets and frequency will be lower when compared to isolation movements, if load is equated, you will be getting the same (if not more) for less time.
Cable Chest Fly with 10kg on each side: 4 sets x 10 reps, 3 times per week
Bench Press with 60kg total: 4 sets x 5 reps, twice per week
Not only is this providing the same weight stimulus onto your chest, but the bench press is also incorporating other muscle groups which the cable fly won’t be, meaning more benefit for less work. In this example, as you get stronger on the bench press, the gap between equated volume will get larger each time.
Bench Press with 70kg total: 4 sets x 5 reps, twice per week = 2,800kg
Therefore, what you lose in weekly frequency is more than made up for in overall volume and muscle stimulus/overload.
A second possible downside to the performance of compound movements is the injury potential they come with. They are often regarded as dangerous movements, which is understandable when you consider the likely hood of causing injury to your body during a bicep curl, compared to during a deadlift or squat.
Although they risk of injury from these movements is far higher, that DOES NOT mean they are dangerous exercises! Too many people are put off of doing them – any therefore miss out on the huge benefits they provide – due to the misconception that the movement is inherently dangerous.
The risk of injury comes from the difficulty to execute, requiring much more control and awareness over your body than an isolation exercise would.
Therefore, the focus on performing compound exercises should be perfecting form, and maintaining that as you add weight, so that you can continue to provide adequate stimulus to your muscle, while keeping control over the weight. Yes, compound exercises do have a higher rate of injury, but only because people don’t put the time into learning the skill of the exercise.
Overall, it is clear to see that there are far more benefits and advantages to performing compound movements than there are disadvantages. The problems which there are, are very avoidable if you change your perspective by seeing the movement as a skill first, perfecting it before adding lots of weight. This will allow you to benefit from the overall muscle growth, strength increase, and central nervous system adaption, while staying as safe as possible, avoiding injury.
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Did I miss anything out? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or on Instagram @ash_training_nutrition.