What Are Compound Exercises and Why Are They So Important?
Nothing is more frustrating than working hard in the gym day in and day out, but feeling like you're not seeing results. Thing is, to really see (and feel) major changes, you've got to focus your workouts wisely.
Compound exercises not only make your gym time more efficient, but help you get stronger and fitter in less time. Here's why, plus everything else you should know about compound exercises, including a list of the best compound exercises to do and how to add them to your workouts.
What Are Compound Exercises?
To understand compound exercises, you need to understand the difference between compound and isolation exercises. (Related: Common Weight Lifting Questions for Beginners Who Are Ready to Train Heavy)
Compound exercises are exercises that use multiple muscle groups and require multiple joints to move throughout a rep, explains trainer and physical therapist Bill Kelley, D.P.T., ATC, CSCS, owner of Aeries Physical Therapy in South Florida.
In a squat, for example, both your legs and core fire up as you move your hip, knee, and ankle joints to lower down into that seat-like position and then stand back up.
Isolation exercises, on the other hand, use just one muscle group and require only one joint to move in order for you to perform a rep.
A perfect example: Biceps curls. You contract your biceps muscles to move your elbow joints and curl the dumbbells up, but no other joints get in on the action.
The Benefits of Compound Exercises
Isolation exercises are great if you want to really hone in on one muscle group, whether it's because you want to avoid using injured muscles or to grow that muscle group specifically; however, compound exercises are an absolute game-changer for your workouts and overall fitness.
When you use multiple muscle groups together to perform a compound exercise, you "create greater functional strength, greater force, and power, and get a bigger bang for your buck in the gym," says Kelley.
In fact, a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Physiology compared exercisers who used compound versus isolation exercises throughout eight weeks of otherwise equivalent workouts, and found that the group who focused on compound exercises made greater gains in both strength and VO2 max (a marker of cardio fitness).
In the short-term, using multiple muscle groups together demands a lot of energy from your body, meaning you burn more calories. In the long-term, those improvements in functional strength, force, and power mean you not only perform better in the gym but can also handle everyday tasks (like lugging your suitcase up a broken airport escalator) more easily.
"More complex movements require better control and timing of multiple muscle groups—as well as the joints they act upon," says Kelley. "And that coordination and control translate to other activities, helping you be stronger and more balanced out in the world." (These strength moves will also help you prevent common muscle imbalances.)
An added bonus: "Since compound exercises involve a greater amount of muscles to contract, they create greater resistance against the heart as it pumps blood, which ultimately strengthens your heart," explains Kelley. After all, your heart's a muscle, too! (This is just one of many major benefits of lifting weights.)
Oh, and on a purely practical level, since compound exercises work more muscles at once, you can string together just a few moves to create a full-body workout, adds Kelley. (Getting a full-body burn from isolation moves alone would likely take twice the time.) So if you're crunched for time but still want to reap as many benefits from your workouts as possible, compound moves can get you there.
Are There Any Downsides to Compound Exercises?
While there's not really much of a downside to burning more calories, getting stronger faster, and becoming an all-around more physically badass human, there is one thing gym newbies should keep in mind.
"Compound exercises are generally more technically advanced," says Kelley. "Essentially, they require more skill to maintain proper form—especially once you start feeling fatigued or increase the weight you use."
Without proper motor control and awareness during compound exercises, you do increase your risk of getting hurt. While it's pretty difficult to mess up a biceps curl (and not a huge threat to your body if you do), doing a squat improperly can put your body (read: lower back) in a pretty sketchy position—especially if you're using heavier weights. (That's why you should always do compound exercises first during your workout (when you have the most energy) and save isolation moves for later.)
As with anything in fitness, though, just "start slow and light and progress as your strength and skill allow," says Kelley. And it's never a bad idea to have a trainer give you a form-check or walk you through the proper movement patterns solo or during a class.
List of Compound Exercises to Incorporate Into Your RoutineIf you want to max out the strength- and calorie-burning benefits of a short gym session, a few staple compound exercises can help you build functional strength all over.
Squats: Squats involve your ankle, knee, and hip joints, putting everything from your quads and hamstrings to your glutes and core to work. This fundamental exercise helps you go from crouching to standing and is a movement you use in pretty much every sport (even to get on and off the couch), says Kelley.
Deadlifts: "This is a big one for your posterior chain [back of the body] muscles, like the hamstrings, glutes, and back extensors," Kelley says. Deadlifting involves your knees, hips, and back, developing your ability to pick things up off the ground (and boosting your grip strength).
Lunges: The handful of lunge variations out there all require a stable core and strong, balanced legs as you bend at the hips, knees, and ankles to lower down towards the ground and then push back up.
Shoulder Presses: You may think overhead presses use only your shoulder muscles, but your core fires up to keep your torso stable, your chest and triceps help you push that weight upwards, and your lats and biceps help you lower them back down. Need to put something heavy up on a high shelf? Shoulder presses gotcha covered.
Bench Presses: Firing up pretty much all of the muscles in your upper body (and utilizing all of the joints from your shoulders to your fingers), the bench press is a quintessential upper-body move.