Introduction – Compound vs Isolated Exercises
Resistance exercises undertaken in the gym can largely be divided into two different types: Isolated and Compound exercises. Compound exercises involve multiple joints and use more than one muscle group. Examples of compound exercises are the deadlift; bench press; and barbell squat. On the other hand, isolation exercises, isolate a single muscle group for the most part. Examples of isolation exercises include biceps curls or machine leg extensions).
Both isolation and compound movements have their place in the gym. However, there are some major advantages to making sure your workout contains compound exercises, particularly at the start of a workout.
The Benefits of Compounds Exercises
1. Joint involvement and Muscle Group Recruitment
Let us for instance break down the mighty deadlift (perhaps my favourite exercise of all time!) A multi-joint exercise (that utilises both the hips and knees) as well as several major muscle groups. These include the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, lats, trapezoids, deltoids, and the core muscles!
Compare this to the biceps curl which is a single-joint exercise (the elbow joint is the only joint involved). Furthermore, as the name suggests, the biceps curls primarily works muscles associated with the bicep. In this case, the biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis muscles compared to the multitude of muscles engaged by the deadlift.
2. Correcting Muscular Imbalances
Another issue with overreliance on isolation training is that it’s far too easy to overtrain specific body parts whilst neglecting others. This can result in muscle imbalances.
Compound movements help avoid this problem since they are total body movements and require more muscle groups to undertake the lifts. Although larger muscle groups undertake the hardest parts of the movement they are supported by secondary muscles in roles as fixators and synergists. The muscles groups have to work together otherwise the lifts would be incredibly difficult and could result in injury.
For example, with the dumbbell bench press, the pectoral muscles are dealing with most of the resistance. However, the exercise is also heavily targeting your triceps, biceps and anterior deltoids in the role as fixators and synergists. This recruitment of both major and supporting muscles at once will result in a much more balanced muscular distribution.
3. Better Strength Progression
The fact that compound exercises recruit more muscles per movement will mean you have more power available for lifts. If you are working with isolation exercises, you are training just a few specific localised muscles. These targetted muscles will fatigue quickly and cannot deal with the vast amounts of weight for long periods. This means using smaller weights, which translates as slower returns over long periods of time.
With compound lifts your muscular strength will increase much faster. Since you’ll already be able to handle much heavier weight-loads (with many of your muscles will be working together). This will have an exponential effect on the amount you can lift over time. The combination of heavier weights and combined muscle groups involved will enable more rapid hypertrophy of muscle tissue. Essentially you’ll get bigger and stronger in half the time!
For this reason ensure you include big compound exercises into your resistance routines (deadlifts, bench press, squats etc). It is also important to remember the principles of overload, adaptation and progression when thinking of compound resistance training. Meaning when the weight is not an effort any more, then its time to go up a notch. Otherwise, no progression will be made. Add more weight gradually as the sessions go on and you grow stronger. Challenge yourself!!
4. Improved Joint Stability
Many sports and indeed occupations require moving in more than one direction at a time. To undertake these everyday movements require great stability. Regular heavy lifting will challenge and improve this stability. Training can strengthen the individual joints, surrounding tendons, ligaments and stabilising muscles involved. All of which are important in keeping you balanced and upright whilst moving.
Training the stability muscles will reduce the risk of injury during sports and other activities. If you’ve got weak stabiliser muscles in your knees, sprinting along a field will be much more difficult. Weaker stabiliser muscles will also leave you more susceptible to injury.
5. Fat Burning Benefits
Compound exercises utilise some of the biggest muscles in your body. In order for these big muscle groups to keep working effectively, they require vast amounts of energy via nutrition (See Nutrition for Muscles below). Certainly, more energy is required than if using smaller muscle groups in isolation exercises. The subsequent breaking down of nutrition into energy for your muscles will increase your metabolism. These extra metabolic processes in your body encourage the body to use excess fat as fuel for exercise.
The afterburn effect
The fat burning effect from using compound lifts can also continue long after your training session has finished. This is particularly if the session involves little rest between sets or super-setting exercises. EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) aka the ‘afterburn’ effect is the bodies response to exhaustion from the demands of training.
During EPOC, your body requires extra oxygen to restore homeostasis (its normal, resting level of metabolic function). The energy used for an intense workout can leave the body in oxygen deficit. In fact, your oxygen consumption is elevated for up to 24 hours and sometimes more!
This extra oxygen requirement is for the bodies cellular repair and to help it make adaptations to exercise undertaken. To help pay back the debt quickly the body needs fuel to produce ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) or energy and for this, the body will tap into fat stores.
Compound strength building workouts are ideal to create EPOC effects as you will be working many muscles to exhaustion. Alternatively, you could make a session a High-intensity session to create a similar effect. This would mean lighter weights, increased reps and sets, little rest between sets and perhaps cardio type sprints at the end.
Please note that your body will, of course, require extra food to help refuel during recovery, this will encourage calorie burn. Try to eat within an hour post-workout with good carbohydrates and proteins intake.
6. Cardiovascular Benefits
Using compound lifts, of course, means utilising more muscle groups. All of these muscles will require increased blood flow to provide nutrients, energy and thus function adequately. As a result, cardiac output will have to increase to match the extra demand for oxygen-rich blood.
Over time and with further sessions, this continual increase in demand (as your muscles grow) will improve overall cardiovascular and muscular endurance fitness levels as your body makes adaptations to match the demand.
7. Hormone Release
As compound movements will be recruiting more muscle fibres than isolation exercises, your body will consequently release greater levels of hormones, particularly growth hormones such as Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and Testosterone. HGH is the hormone responsible for the growth of all cells inside the body. It also contributes to effective fat burning; cell reproduction and regeneration. These functions are all particularly important for improving athletic performance.
Testosterone is responsible for a variety of useful functions such as building muscle, burning fat and even increasing sexual appetite.
These hormones are responsible for repairing your body. They help you improve the way you can deal with similar stimuli next time they occur (i.e. next weight session). By this process of continual multi-muscular damage, repair and rebuilding, these hormones can help you to increase muscle mass and get stronger. This process is greater enhanced with compound lifts than if you were training with isolation exercises alone.
8. Core Involvement
With compound lifts, the core is worked to a far greater degree compared to isolated exercises. This is due to the core muscles being challenged by the instability of using free weights.
For example, with the overhead barbell squat, the core has to resist and support the weight in order to keep the body upright. The core is further required to help stabilise and drive the movement.
Let’s compare this full core inclusion movement to a leg extension machine in which the leg muscles are isolated completely. Here the machine picks up most of the slack (where the core is meant to) and helps guide the movement with no instability.
With the leg extension machine, there is no/little challenge to tense the core to keep the balance. The lifter can simply release the weight safely if they become too fatigued. Furthermore, the move is unnatural in comparison to the full body movements required of a front squat, which is a move we undertake on an everyday basis.
9. More Efficient Use of Time
Isolation movements are not time efficient for those leading busy lives in modern society or for the time poor. One of the greatest benefits for those training with compound lifts is the time required for an effective workout. By targeting many muscles at once, you get a whole body work out in a fraction of the time compared to isolated exercise routines.
Additionally, since you will be working with limited equipment (barbell, some weight plates and dumbbells), waiting around for resistance machines to free up is no longer an issue. Changing the weight on a bar will provide you with the rest time required between sets.
When is best to Utilise Compound Exercises in a Workout?
Compound exercises are always best to use at the start of a resistance training workout. The reasons for this are they involve many muscle groups working together and so won’t solely exhaust one particular muscle group as with Isolation exercises. If you were, for example, to start with dumbbell flyes before a barbell press session. The chest and triceps muscles (as well as smaller muscle groups) may already be fatigued when it came to the more challenging heavier lifts!
However, many people use this method as part of a ‘Pre-Exhaust’ exercise session. This involves super-setting isolation exercises of a particular muscle group prior to the compound exercise of the same area.
So using the above example with chest press/flyes, the idea is to hit your chest would be completing several sets of flyes, Following this, then undertaking bench-presses immediately after. This will ensure that your chest will hit failure before your triceps do.
Or if you alternatively wanted your triceps to reach failure first, you might complete a set of cable pushdowns before the bench press. This is an advanced technique however and it is best to stick to using Compound exercises first if you are new to this type of training.
Examples of Compound Exercises
For a powerful compound workout, consider incorporating these exercises into your routine. You can use heavy weights, or even scale down to just body weight if needed.
- Deadlifts – hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteal muscles, calves, back, trapezoids, core.
- Squat – quads, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, calves, core.
- Lunges – quads, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, calves, core.
- Bench Press – pectorals, triceps, anterior deltoids, core.
- Chest Dips – chest, triceps, core.
- Overhead Press – Shoulders, deltoids, trapezoids, triceps, biceps, lats and core.
- Upright Row – deltoids, trapezoids, biceps.
- Lat Pull Downs – lats, biceps, rhomboids, posterior deltoids.
- Bent over Row – rhomboids, biceps, lats, posterior deltoids.
- Pull Ups/Chin Ups – lats, biceps, rhomboids.
Repetitions and Sets?
This, of course, depends on your goals according to the MSE (Muscular Strength and Endurance) Continuum. Fundamentally, stick to between 8-12 reps of a challenging weight if starting out and aim for between 3-4 sets.
If your gains are strength go heavier with the weight and aim for 6-8 reps, if you are chasing hypertrophy (to bulk up) then 10-14 reps. If alternatively, muscular endurance is your goal, aim to use lighter weights with more reps (between 20-25 reps). Look to get compound lifts in several times a week on top of other training to maximise gains, for example, do the workout on alternating days like Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to give your muscles some time to repair.
Initially, concentrate on lighter weights and good technique for the first few sessions. Only when you are happy with your progress, your technique is good and you are injury free should you progress with adding extra weight. The last few reps of each set should be more challenging but shouldn’t cause you to compromise your form.
Muscle Repair and Nutrition
It is important to remember nutrition at this point. To undertake heavy compound lifts adequate nutrition is key, those Glycogen stores need filling!! Your body is always trying to decide which fuel source to use with any movements we undertake. We need to encourage it to use excess fat for fuel and ignore muscle stores (which it will go for if you are not careful!). Correct eating times and nutritional balance can go a long way to encouraging the body to choose fat stores.
The basics…you must eat! Adequate nutrition is key to getting bigger and stronger.
Pre-workout, keep it light but protein heavy. I use intermittent fasting so use Amino Acid supplements to give me a boost pre-workout, and caffeine of course….preferably black coffee.
Post-workout, aim to refuel within half an hour of your workout! An hour at the latest, this is your window for muscle repair and enhancing Hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Keep the proteins and healthy fats high watch the carbohydrate portions (roughly but definitely include them post workout!! To compensate for the repair of those muscles post workout, ensure that you’re consuming enough protein in your diet!!
Adequate rest and sleep are also important factors in the muscle repair process. Ensure you are stretching post workout if any tight muscles and consider using a foam roller. Use active rest on your days off to help get rid of any lactic acid build up (walks, light cardio, yoga, stretching).
With heavier compound movements, there are clearly several great advantages over isolation exercises. It is evident that compound movements are proven, time-efficient muscle builders. They will help build a stronger body and fantastic physique in a fraction of the time it may take with isolation movements.
Additionally, compound lifts are also a great way of measuring strength during sessions and can be effectively utilised as benchmark exercises in the gym. If strength building or muscular hypertrophy are your goals, then you should definitely be integrating compound movements into your weekly workouts. Used effectively alongside isolation exercises they can help you towards your goals in far less time.
On a final note, the importance of focussing on proper form rather than lifting a weight too heavy should be emphasised. Ensure your body is working as efficiently as possible to minimise the risk of injury.