If you have been lifting weights for a while now you should be familiar with the two types of exercise movements: compound exercises and isolation exercises.
An isolation exercise is a single joint & muscle movement that moves a weight through its range of motion. For example dumbbell curls which use the elbow joint in conjunction with the biceps to move the weight through its range of motion.
A compound exercise is a multi-joint movement that relies on the coordinated movements of two or more groups of muscles to move two or more joints through a range of motion. For example barbell squats which use the knee, hips & ankle joints in conjunction with the muscles of the upper legs, buttocks, back and the abdominals to move the weight through its range of motion.
The Benefits of Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are the most efficient way to build a strong foundation, increase strength, improve weak areas, strengthen joints, ligaments and tendons, improve balance & stability and build muscle. For these reasons you should be including compound exercises in your workout routine and the best way to do these exercises is by utilizing the full body workout routine.
The sad fact is that many gym users don’t perform compound exercises as part of their workout routine, instead their routines consist of mainly isolation exercises. I believe the main reason for this is down to the fact that compound exercises are tough, too many times I see small guys who want to “bulk up” but think they can achieve this by doing dumbbell curls, triceps press downs, leg extensions and other isolation type exercises.
Now don’t get me wrong, isolation exercises are fantastic if you are a huge bodybuilding looking to add some extra muscle to your biceps in time for a show, but for the rest of us it’s probably doing more harm than good.
The Best Compound Exercises
There are many compound exercises that can be added to your workout routine, however I am going to list the most important ones that should be included in your workout routine. In fact the best workout you could do would only contain the below compound moves, if you performed all the below exercises in one workout you would cover every major muscle group.
For the absolute best results you should perform the first 4 exercises listed below at least two times per week and exercise 5 – Pull Ups, Chin Ups & Barbell Rows, can be alternated every workout.
The deadlift is one of the toughest compound exercises you can perform, the majority of people can lift the most weight on a deadlift than any other exercise. The deadlift works the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, traps, shoulders, core muscles and almost every other muscle in the body, oh and did I mention it greatly improves your grip strength, making it the number one exercise that should be included in your workout routine.
Another reason to add deadlift is the fact that it releases high amounts of growth hormone, put simply this will help you increase in size quicker by doing this exercise.
One quick tip, if you are planning to add deadlifts into your routine (and you should be) only perform one working set as too much heavy deadlifting can have a negative impact on your central nervous system, that’s right its that damn tough!
2. Barbell Back Squat
The barbell back squat is another tough exercise that should be included in your workout routine, when you squat (and I mean below parallel squat) you work the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes and lower back. So there is no need to do leg extensions or lunges after a session of heavy squats, and just like the deadlift squats release high amounts of growth hormone.
3. Barbell Bench Press
Most of you reading this will be pleased to know that the barbell bench press should be included in your workout routine. The barbell bench press works the entire chest, triceps and the front of the shoulders, making it the ultimate upper body workout.
Don’t be tempted to “mix things up” and alternate between barbell and dumbbell bench press, whilst I can understand people like doing dumbbell bench press I do not see the need for it, especially if your primary goal is to increase muscle mass & strength, so stick to barbell bench the majority of the time.
4. Strict Overhead Barbell Press
The overhead barbell press is a fantastic exercise for working all three heads of the shoulder, the triceps, the traps and your core. To perform this exercise correctly you must never use your hips to lift the bar, doing this reduces the amount of work these muscles have to work, making it a less effective exercise.
5. Pull Ups, Chin Ups & Barbell Rows
Pull-ups are great for working the traps, lats and shoulders, if you are looking for a single exercise to make your back wider than pull-ups are the answer.
Chin-ups are fantastic for working the biceps, lats and traps, forgot barbell biceps curls, if you want bigger biceps then chin-ups are crucial. If you cannot chin up your own body weight then start by mimicking the movement on a lat pulldown machine until you get near your own body weight.
Barbell rows are fantastic for adding thickness to the back, they work the lats & traps together and because you have bent over to perform the exercise you have to keep your core tight.
If you lift weights three or four times per week you can alternate between these three exercises, depending on your goals could also mean you perform one more than others, for example I am currently trying to increase my biceps, so I’m performing chin-ups twice a week and barbell rows once per week.
Compound Vs Isolation
Now that you understand the differences between compound and isolation exercises you should understand why its sometimes best to perform compound over isolation and the other way round.
Isolation exercises are great if you are have already built a solid foundation and need to work improve a small muscle group, for example if you wanted to get bigger biceps you could use several isolation exercises, such as dumbbell biceps curls, hammer curls etc.
Isolation exercises are also beneficial if you have an injury, recovering from surgery or need to fix an imbalance, limiting your range of motion. In this instance it would become very difficult to perform compound movements on the injured area, due to the stress placed on the body.
There is generally no other reason to use isolation exercises, if you are a healthy individual trying to increase muscle mass and strength, performing isolation exercises would be seen as a waste of time, so make sure you learn the basic compound exercises I mentioned above and start adding them to your routine.
Compound exercises are fantastic if your main goals are to become bigger, stronger and more athletic looking. Compound exercises also strengthen your ligaments, tendons and increase bone density, isolation exercises do not do this at anywhere near the same rate.
So if you have been performing isolation exercises for the majority of your workouts you will be more prone to injury when you start using compound exercises, simply because you are not building all the supporting/stabilizing muscles, making the weakest link in the chain is susceptible to injury.
One Final Tip: When you add these compound exercises into your routine make sure to start with the harder exercises, deadlift and squat, as these will require the most energy and concentration.