Compound exercises – those that involve more than one muscle or joint – should form the foundations of any strength training programme because of their tried and tested ability to bring about rapid gains. Exercises such as the squat and deadlift have been used by lifters for many years to increase muscle mass and strength for the simple reason that they work. Over time a multitude of exercises have been developed to isolate small muscles or specific parts of a muscle, using a variety of different pieces of equipment, however these exercises may never be able to deliver significant increases in the same way as compound exercises. If you’re looking to make fast gains then get back to basics.
In order to appreciate why compound exercises are so crucial, a basic understanding of the how the body responds to exercise is necessary. Weight training represents a stress to the body, causing a series of events that lead to the adaptations commonly experienced; increased muscle size and strength. Whilst in the gym, a workout causes disruption and damage to muscle fibres. As part of the recovery process, an inflammatory response follows, then hormones are released which interact with muscle tissue and finally synthesis of new proteins (muscle growth) occurs. The endocrine system, responsible for the release and regulation of hormones within the body, therefore plays a crucial role in the adaptive process, yet research has shown that differences exist in the ability of training programmes to elicit these positive effects (Fleck & Kraemer, 1997).
The main anabolic (muscle building) hormones are testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, and insulin-like growth factor. These hormones are released as a result of weightlifting, yet not every session will have the same effect, the type of resistance training workout dictates the hormonal response (Kraemer et al., 1993; 1991). By applying the findings of research into this area you can ensure that your training produces the gains you are after in the shortest possible time.
The stress from exercise and the hormonal responses generated combine to shape the training response of the muscles. The body’s hormonal response occurs as a result of the stress caused by the significant force produced during resistance exercise. In order to make rapid, significant gains, the training stress needs to be at the optimum level; too little and no adaptations are made, too great and you risk overtraining and injury. The magnitude of the hormonal response depends on the amount of tissue stimulated and only the muscle fibres activated during training will adapt. Studies have demonstrated that the training volume and type of exercise are pivotal to the hormonal response and therefore the adaptations that occur.
Only the muscle fibres activated during a workout will adapt, so in order for training to have the maximum benefit the exercises should involve the greatest number of muscle fibres. Compound exercises recruit a far greater muscle mass, and therefore more muscle fibres, than isolation exercises. For this reason, compound exercises are much more effective at eliciting a hormonal response and the associated gains in strength and size.
Benefits of compound exercises
• Allows you to lift greater loads, creating a greater training-induced stress on the body
• Greater amount of muscle fibre stimulation so higher metabolic cost and more calories burned during exercise.
• Time efficient – target multiple muscles in one exercise
• Improves coordination, body awareness and balance.
• Improves joint stability and muscle balance across a joint.
• Creates a greater training stress so gains are more significant and more rapidly delivered.
Essential compound exercises to include in your programme:
Clean and Press
One of the Olympic lifts, the clean and press involves the majority of the major muscles of the body. The lift is quite technical and should be performed explosively, so spend time mastering the correct technique.
The best exercise for stressing the quads, as well as the glutes, squats involve the majority of the muscles of the lower body. Good technique is crucial to staying injury free and shifting the most weight so practice with just the bar until your technique is perfect.
A simple but effective exercise that stresses the back and legs. Keep your back straight and the bar close to your body throughout.
One of the most basic back exercises, pull-ups, can be performed inside and outside the gym, all you need is something to support your bodyweight. Use assisted pull ups until you are comfortable with your bodyweight, then add additional weight to increase the challenge when required.
The best chest exercise, the bench press builds mass and develops upper body strength. Focus on driving the bar off your chest without bouncing and gripping the bar tightly to help you push more weight.
The hormonal response to training highlights the need to vary your workout periodically. The extent of the anabolic hormone response is related to the adaptations that have already occurred within specific muscle fibres. Since adaptations are related to the loads and exercises used in training, if the same exercises and weights are used results will be limited. Varying the exercises, angles used and loads will mean a greater amount of muscle fibres are stressed throughout the training period, maximising the potential for gains.
Studies have shown the optimal hormonal response occurs with compound exercises, heavy resistance (80-90% 1RM), moderate/high volume of exercise (multiple sets or multiple exercises), and short rest intervals between sets and exercises (30-60secs). Applying these principles to your training should help you harness the body’s anabolic response to exercise and therefore make the maximum possible gains.
Cycling the training loads and volume of your compound exercise programme can help you break through plateaus. To see increases in strength you need to lay the foundations and this is achieved through a period of higher volume training. If you were to pyramid up to your one rep max each time you go to the gym, it’s unlikely you’ll ever make any significant gains in strength. It’s like building a house and trying to put the roof on first, it won’t work unless you lay the foundations first.
Think of your training as a series of 3 week blocks, spend three weeks doing sets of 8, then move onto sets 5, then 3, and finally 2, increasing the weight you lift in each block. Give yourself a week of recovery every six weeks where you reduce the weight and volume of training, giving your body the chance to regenerate and to prevent overtraining. Cycle through every 12 weeks, recording the weight you lift and varying the exercises used in each cycle. The lowering phase of each exercise should be performed more slowly, while the lifting phase should be more explosive. Focus on driving the weight from the start to finish position. Take the same approach regardless of the weight you are lifting, whether it’s an 8RM or 2RM your objective should be the same, the only difference being the speed that the bar moves.
Compound exercises should be the cornerstone of your workout but there is still a role for assistance exercises. Supplementing your training with single joint exercises can increase your strength gains in the compound exercises. Adding flys to your chest workout will help with the initial drive off the chest in the bench press, while Romanian deadlifts will develop hamstring strength which will help with the squat and deadlift. Begin each workout with two or three compound exercises then move on to another one or two assistance exercises.
Following the guidelines presented above will enable you to harness the body’s anabolic to response to exercise, using compound moves to make the most of your time in the gym yet maximise your training gains.
Fleck, S.J. and Kraemer, W.J. (1997). Designing Resistance Training Programmes. 2nd Ed. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Illinois Kraemer, W.J., Dziados, J.E., Marchitelli, L.J., Gordon, S.E., Harman, E.A., Mello, R., Fleck, S.J., Frykman, P.N., Triplett, N.T. (1993). Effects of different heavy-resistance exercise protocols on plasma beta-endorphin concentrations. Journal of Applied Physiology. 74(1):450-9 Kraemer, W.J., Gordon, S.E., Fleck, S.J., Marchitelli, L.J., Mello, R., Dziados, J.E., Friedl, K., Harman, E., Maresh, C., Fry, A.C. (1991). Endogenous anabolic hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise in males and females. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 12(2):228-35