You know what I’m talking about here: there’s always one guy at the gym that swears by compound lifts—making fun of all of the non-deadlifters—and another that thinks compound lifts make you bulky and all powerlifters are fat. Both are equally resolute in their opinion and since what you’re doing is always right (just admit it), the other person is stupid and obviously wasting their time. Rather hilariously, however, both are actually correct and incorrect at the same time. I promise to explain, but first let’s cover the basics.
Also known as ‘multi-joint’ or ‘functional’ movements, compound lifts are anything that involves multiple muscle groups. The most common examples are bench press, overhead press, pull-ups, dips, squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts as well as all derivatives of these core exercises such as incline bench, handstand push-ups, chin-ups, split-squats, and sumo-deadlifts. Equipment does not matter. For example, whether you use dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, resistance bands, or just your bodyweight, bench press is still a compound movement; it still primarily relies on your pectoral muscles, but also engages your triceps, and deltoids.
The advantages of compound lifts are well known—and you probably have heard them listed off many times—but since I don’t want to be the one guy that doesn’t explain them, here you go:
- Increased muscle engagement—more strain to more muscle fibers, which means higher efficiency.
- Reduction in time spent at the gym—because you’re being more efficient your workouts will be quicker. Instead of doing dozens of isolation movements you can do 3-5 compound movements and essentially cover the same muscle groups.
- More HGH (human growth hormone)—the more exhausting your workout the more HGH your body releases, which is essential in muscle building. I’ve nearly passed out because back squats have taken me to the edge, but I’m not sure I could ever achieve that sort of stimulus with bicep curls. You push yourself to the limits and your body will respond duly.
You could argue that there are additional benefits from compound lifts, but those are the major ones. On the downside, however, training exclusively with compound lifts means you may be overlooking weaknesses and therefore less equipped to overcome plateaus. The classic example is again bench press. You may be stuck at a certain weight and perhaps changing the equipment, rep and set scheme, intensity, and frequency at which you train bench press isn’t getting you to the next level. The answer could be your triceps, which is why we’re moving on to isolation exercises.
In contrast to compound movements, isolation lifts— also know as ’single-joint’ or ‘utterly-useless and stupid’ lifts by your powerlifting friend—involve just one muscle group for the most part. A few examples including lateral and front raises, chest fly’s, bicep curls, tricep extensions, and calf raises. By definition they aren’t heavy on muscle recruitment, but isolation movements are far more powerful and necessary than CrossFit wants to admit.
Let’s go back to the bench example. While your pectoral muscles are the primary movers with bench, your triceps play a critical role as well. A plateau in your bench press gains could be as a result of underdeveloped triceps. Isolation movements are the answer. Adding in tricep extensions, skull-crushers, and other tricep-focused movements at the end of your workout can help to smooth out your weaknesses and put you in a better position to succeed on bench press.
Other advantages of isolation movements include:
- Recovery—if you hurt your back you likely won’t want to deadlift or squat heavy, but isolation movements allow you to still train your legs.
- Injury prevention—because isolation movements help you address your deficiencies they can help to prevent injuries.
- Aesthetics—this is a big one. If you want to look a certain way (larger biceps, squared-off chest, etc.) isolation movements allow you to better control the specifics of appearance because you’re honing in on a certain muscle group.
Correct and incorrect
Everything comes down to your experience level and goals. For the athlete looking purely to improve performance, compound lifts are the best bet, at least for the majority of the workout. Nothing will improve your speed or explosiveness like the Olympic lifts…leg curls just can’t keep up here.
For bodybuilding and physique competitions, clearly isolation movements will be important, but compound lifts should still comprise a meaningful amount of the workout.
Beginners, time-strapped folks, and anyone just looking for a good overall workout should stick mostly to compound lifts. It’s pretty darn unnecessary to worry about the single-joint stuff when you’re just starting out or if you have 25 minutes to bust out a workout.
What I recommend
Always start with compound lifts. Remember, they are key for straining muscle fibers and HGH release. If you want to gain muscle in your chest then start out with flat bench, pushing heavy weight. I like to keep the reps low here. Focus on pushing heavy weight (with good form) for 3-8 reps and 3-6 sets. From there I might back off the peddle in terms heavy weigh/low reps and opt for reps in the 8-12 range. Move on to another compound lift such as dumbbell incline bench. Then start to incorporate the isolation moves that recruit less muscles and allow you to zero in on deficiencies.
This is not the formula for everyone nor is it the formula all of the time, but I think for most people looking to find a balance between performance, practicality, and aesthetics it works just fine. Of course, I always encourage diversity of training. Complacency and stagnation are the enemy, not the powerlifter and not the bodybuilder.