Benefits Of Compound Movement Exercises | Build Mass, Burn Fat

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The resistance exercises you do in the gym can be categorised into two different types: isolation and compound. Compound exercises involve multiple joints and thus use a more significant number of muscle groups (and subsequently, a more considerable amount of muscle mass is used). Isolation exercises only use one joint and later focus on one muscle group, thus using less muscle mass.
For example, the barbell back squat would constitute a compound lift, as it uses the hip, knee and ankle joints, thus utilising the glutes, quadriceps and calves (along with the upper body to support the load used). A leg extension would be an isolation exercise, as only the knee joint is used, and thus the quadriceps are the prime movers.

Benefits of Compound Exercises

Burn more calories

Compound exercises use more significant amounts of muscle mass, and for these big muscle groups to keep working, they require more energy. Compare a deadlift with a hamstring curl; both exercises target your hamstrings. However, a deadlift also uses the glutes, back, shoulders, forearms and core.
During your session, all of these muscles require increased blood flow to deliver glucose, oxygen and other nutrients to the muscles, so your heart rate will increase to match these demands. During recovery, forces that have undergone exercise-induced muscle damage will demand more energy to support the healing process, which your body can get from food and fat stores.

Improve Muscular Balance

Isolation exercises are ideal for addressing weaknesses, although they can result in parts becoming overdeveloped about their antagonistic pairs. This can result in strength imbalances and potentially produce injuries if left unmanaged. Compound exercises are typically bilateral and thus will not result in these same imbalances. However, isolation exercises can still be used for extra stimulation to address any other weaknesses.

Improve Core Strength

There is much dispute around the true definition of the core. Still, in this section, we refer to the muscles that directly connect to the spine to support your posture and those that contribute to core rigidity when bracing. During compound lifts, you are likely to be stronger as multiple muscle groups work together. Proper core bracing must be used to maintain a neutral spine position (i.e. during the barbell back squat) to protect the spine from injury. Ultimately, this leads to a significant stimulation of the core muscles, thus helping to improve strength that can contribute to improved athletic performance.

Stimulate Increased Hormone Release

As these movements recruit more muscle fibres than isolation exercises, your body consequently releases more significant levels of hormones, particularly growth hormones such as testosterone. These hormones are responsible for repairing your body to help you improve how you can deal with similar stimuli next time they occur.
In this case, these hormones can help you increase muscle mass and get more potent than if you were training with isolation exercises alone. This is one of the reasons that leg training (e.g. squats, deadlifts etc.) is so essential, as they use large muscle groups.

When to Use Compound Movements

Generally, when programming compound exercises into your program, they should be performed after the warm-up but before the isolation exercises and other accessory lifts. For instance, if you want to increase the load lifted in the barbell back squat, you need to put the most energy from your session into this exercise. Suppose you perform this exercise at the end of the session, after 3 or 4 other activities. In that case, you will be too tired to achieve this lift effectively, and you will also increase the risk of getting injured as you will be too tired to maintain the optimal positions throughout the ride.
You can, however, use an isolation exercise before a compound lift, known as the pre-exhaust method. This method involves performing an isolation exercise for the same muscle group as the compound to increase muscle activation during the ‘main lift,’ also ensuring that all muscle fibers have been maximally fatigued (this is especially important when hypertrophy is the goal). Even in this case, it is still advisable to perform the rest of your accessory lifts afterward so that you can maximize the training adaptations made from the compound lifts.

Examples of Compound Movements

There are plenty of compound movements, however, just 10 to focus on, including the well-known Squat, Deadlift & Bench Press.

Compound ExerciseMuscles Used
DeadliftsHamstrings, Quads, Glutes, Calves, Back, Traps, Core
SquatQuads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core
LungesQuads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core
Bench PressPectorals, Triceps, Anterior Deltoid, Core
Chest DipsPectorals, Triceps, Core
Overhead PressDeltoids, Traps, Triceps, Core
Upright RowDeltoids, Traps, Biceps
Lat Pull DownLats, Biceps, Rhomboids, Posterior Delts
Bent-over RowRhomboids, Biceps, Lats, Posterior Delts
Pull-Ups/Chin-UpsLats, Biceps, Rhomboids

These lifts should be stapled exercises, regardless of your lifting goals. Prioritizing technique overload will help minimize the risk of injury while maximizing the effectiveness of the activities in terms of training adaptations made.

Take home message

Compound exercises use a more significant amount of muscle groups and thus a more considerable amount of muscle mass. Ultimately, this contributes to an increased demand for energy from calories during exercise and recovery, thus making compound lifts ideal during periods of weight loss. Finally, due to the capacity to load compound lifts heavily, they are ideal for training adaptations such as strength and thus should form a large part of your training program.


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