Nothing is more aggravating than putting in serious effort at the gym day in and day out, but feeling like you’re not witnessing results. The truth is, to truly observe (and feel) significant changes, you must strategically plan your workouts — and that entails incorporating compound exercises into your routine.
Compound exercises not only make your time at the gym more effective but also assist you in becoming stronger in less time. Here, experts explain “what are compound exercises?” and share their main advantages. Additionally, you’ll discover a compilation of the finest compound exercises and suggestions on how to incorporate them into your workouts.
What Are Compound Exercises?
In simple terms, compound exercises are exercises that engage multiple muscle groups and necessitate the movement of multiple joints throughout a repetition, clarifies trainer and physical therapist Bill Kelley, D.P.T., ATC, CSCS, owner of Aeries Physical Therapy in South Florida. For example, during a squat, both your legs and core activate as you lower yourself into a seated position by moving your hip, knee, and ankle joints, and then rise back up.
The opposite of a compound exercise is an isolation exercise, which targets only one muscle group and involves the movement of only one joint to execute a repetition. A prime example: biceps curls. You engage your biceps muscles to bend your elbow joints and lift the dumbbells, without involving any other joints or muscle groups.
The Advantages of Compound Exercises
Isolation exercises are beneficial if you aim to concentrate solely on one muscle group, whether it’s to safeguard injured muscles or to specifically develop that muscle group. However, compound exercises are an absolute game-changer for your workouts and overall physical fitness.
Enhance Strength and Functional Fitness
When you use multiple muscle groups together to perform a compound exercise, you “generate heightened functional strength, force, and power, and [you] obtain more value for your efforts at the gym,” states Kelley.
In fact, a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Physiology compared individuals who performed compound exercises versus isolation exercises over the course of eight weeks, with the rest of their workouts being equivalent. The findings revealed that the group that focused on compound exercises experienced greater improvements in both strength and VO2 max (a measure of cardiovascular fitness) compared to the group that performed isolation exercises.
In the short term, using multiple muscle groups simultaneously demands a substantial amount of energy from your body, resulting in more calories being burned.
In the extensive duration, those enhancements in operational potency, intensity, and ability imply that you not solely execute more effectively in the fitness center but can also manage day-to-day responsibilities — such as carrying your baggage up a malfunctioning airport moving staircase — with greater ease.
Better control and timing of multiple muscle groups — as well as the joints they act upon — are necessary for more intricate movements,” states Kelley. “This coordination and control also have a positive impact on other activities, enhancing your strength and balance in everyday life.” (These exercises that improve strength can also help prevent common muscle imbalances.)
An additional benefit: “Compound exercises involve the contraction of a larger number of muscles, providing more resistance against the pumping of blood by the heart, ultimately strengthening it,” says Kelley. After all, the heart is a muscle too!
Serve as a Full-Body Workout
On a practical level, compound exercises that engage multiple muscles simultaneously can be combined to create a complete full-body workout, according to Kelley. (Achieving a full-body burn solely through isolation exercises would likely take twice as long.) So, if you’re pressed for time but still want to maximize the benefits of your workouts, compound exercises can help you achieve that goal.
Compound Exercises to Incorporate Into Your Routine
If you desire to optimize the benefits of a short gym session in terms of strength-building and calorie-burning, incorporating a few core compound exercises can help develop functional strength throughout your entire body.
Squats engage multiple joints, including the ankle, knee, and hip, activating your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core. This fundamental exercise facilitates the transition from a crouched position to standing and is utilized in nearly every sport, as well as in everyday activities such as getting on and off the couch, as mentioned by Kelley.
“Deadlifts are particularly effective for developing the muscles in your posterior chain, such as the hamstrings, glutes, and back extensors,” explains Kelley. Deadlifts engage your knees, hips, and back, improving your capacity to lift objects off the ground and enhancing your grip strength.
All the various iterations of lunges necessitate a stable core and strong, balanced legs as you bend at the hips, knees, and ankles to lower yourself towards the ground and then push back up.
While you might assume that overhead presses solely target your shoulder muscles, they also engage your core to maintain stability in your torso. Additionally, your chest and triceps assist in pushing the weight upwards, while your lats and biceps contribute to lowering it back down. Need to place something heavy on a high shelf? Shoulder presses have got you covered.
Presses on the Bench
Activating nearly all the muscles in your upper body and utilizing every joint from your shoulders to your fingers, the bench press is an essential upper-body exercise. Additionally, you will engage your lower back, hips, and legs to stabilize your entire body during each repetition. Interpretation: The bench press is a compound movement that will undoubtedly provide you with a comprehensive workout for your body.
Suggestions for Compound Movements
While there isn’t really a significant drawback to burning more calories, gaining strength more quickly, and becoming an all-around physically impressive individual, there is one thing new gym-goers should keep in mind when performing compound exercises.
“Compound exercises are generally more technically advanced,” says Kelley. “In essence, they demand more skill to maintain proper form, particularly when you start to feel fatigued or increase the weight you are using.”
Without proper motor control and awareness during compound exercises, you do increase the risk of injury. While it is quite difficult to mess up a biceps curl (and not a significant threat to your body if you do), performing a squat incorrectly can put your body (specifically your lower back) in a potentially dangerous position, especially when using heavier weights. That is why you should always prioritize performing compound exercises at the beginning of your workout (when you have the most energy) and save isolation movements for later.
However, as with anything in the realm of fitness, it is advisable to “take it slow and start with light weights, gradually increasing as your strength and skill improve,” according to Kelley. It is also never a bad idea to have a trainer assess your form or guide you through the proper movement patterns either individually or during a class.
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