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Benefits Of Compound Movement Exercises | Build Mass, Burn Fat

Benefits Of Compound Movement Exercises | Build Mass, Burn Fat
Scott Whitney
Sports Therapist and S&C Professional2 years ago
View Scott Whitney's profile

The resistance exercises you do in the gym can be categorised into two different types: isolation and compound. Compound exercises are movements that involve multiple joints, and thus use a larger number of muscle groups (and subsequently a larger amount of muscle mass is used). Isolation exercises only use one joint, and subsequently tend to focus on one muscle group, thus using less muscle mass. For example, the barbell back squat would constitute a compound lift, as it uses the hip, knee and ankle joints, thus utilising the glutes, quadriceps and calves (along with the upper body to support the load used). A leg extension would be an isolation exercise, as only the knee joint is used, and thus the quadriceps are the prime movers.


Benefits of Compound Exercises

Burn more calories

Compound exercises use larger amounts of muscle mass, and in order for these big muscle groups to keep working, they require more energy. Compare a deadlift with a hamstring curl, both exercises are targeting your hamstrings, however a deadlift also uses the glutes, back, shoulders, forearms and your core. During your session all of these muscles require increased blood flow to deliver glucose, oxygen and other nutrients to the muscles, so your heart rate will increase to match these demands. During recovery, muscles that have undergone exercise induced muscle damage will demand more energy to support the healing process, which your body can get from food and fat stores.

Improve Muscular Balance

Isolation exercises are ideal for addressing weaknesses, although they can result in some body parts becoming overdeveloped in relation to their antagonistic pairs. This can result in strength imbalances and can potentially produce injuries if left unmanaged. Compound exercises are typically bilateral, and thus will not result in these same imbalances, although isolation exercises can still be used for supplementary stimulation to ensure any other weaknesses are addressed.

Improve Core Strength

There is much dispute around the true definition of the core, but in this section, we are referring to the muscles that directly connect to the spine to support your posture, and also those that contribute to core rigidity when bracing. During compound lifts, you are likely to be stronger, as multiple muscle groups are working together. In order to protect the spine from injury, proper core bracing must be used to maintain a neutral spine position (i.e. during the barbell back squat). Ultimately, this leads to significant stimulation of the core muscles, thus helping to improve strength that can contribute to improved athletic performance.

Stimulate Increased Hormone Release

As these movements recruit more muscle fibres than isolation exercises, your body consequently releases greater levels of hormones, particularly growth hormones such as testosterone. These hormones are responsible for repairing your body to help you improve the way you can deal with similar stimuli next time they occur. In this case, these hormones can help you to increase muscle mass and get stronger than if you were training with isolation exercises alone. This is one of the reasons that leg training (e.g. squats, deadlifts etc.) is so important, as they use large muscle groups.

When to Use Compound Movements

Generally, when programming compound exercises into your programme, they should be performed after the warm-up, but prior to the isolation exercises and other accessory lifts. For instance, if you want to increase the load lifted in the barbell back squat, then you need to be putting the most energy from your session into this exercise. If you were to perform this exercise at the end of the session, after 3 or 4 other exercises, then you will be too fatigued to be able to perform this lift effectively, and you will also increase the risk of getting injured as you will be too fatigued to maintain the optimal positions throughout the lift. You can, however, use an isolation exercise prior to a compound lift, known as the pre-exhaust method. This method involves performing an isolation exercise for the same muscle group as the compound that follows, in an effort to increase muscle activation during the ‘main lift’, also ensuring that all muscle fibres have been maximally fatigued (this is especially important when hypertrophy is the goal). Even in this case, it is still advisable to perform the rest of your accessory lifts afterwards, so that you can maximise the training adaptations made from the compound lifts.

Examples of Compound Movements

There are plenty of compound movements, however here just 10 to focus on – including the well-known Squat, Deadlift & Bench Press.

Compound Exercise Muscles Used
Deadlifts Hamstrings, Quads, Glutes, Calves, Back, Traps, Core
Squat Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core
Lunges Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core
Bench Press Pectorals, Triceps, Anterior Deltoid, Core
Chest Dips Pectorals, Triceps, Core
Overhead Press Deltoids, Traps, Triceps, Core
Upright Row Deltoids, Traps, Biceps
Lat Pull Down Lats, Biceps, Rhomboids, Posterior Delts
Bent over Row Rhomboids, Biceps, Lats, Posterior Delts
Pull Ups/Chin Ups Lats, Biceps, Rhomboids

These lifts should be staple exercises, regardless of your lifting goals. Prioritising technique over load will help to minimise the risk of injury, while maximising the effectiveness of the exercises in terms of training adaptations made.


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Take home message

Compound exercises use a larger amount of muscle groups, and thus a larger amount of muscle mass. Ultimately, this contributes to an increased demand for energy from calories during exercise and recovery, thus making compound lifts ideal during periods of weight loss. Finally, due to the capacity to be able to load compound lifts heavily, they are ideal for training adaptations such as strength, and thus should form a large part of your training programme.



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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you're concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.

Scott Whitney
Sports Therapist and S&C Professional
View Scott Whitney's profile
Scott developed a passion for sport and performance through competing in long‐distance running and bouldering prior to attending university. Scott’s academic achievements include a BSc honours degree in Sports Therapy and an MSc degree in Strength and Conditioning. He is also a member of The Society of Sports Therapists and CIMSPA. Previously, he has worked with amateur and elite athletes, ranging from university sports teams to elite rugby league athletes and Team GB rowers. He currently works with various gyms in developing and delivering training programmes for amateur athletes and gym‐goers. While passive treatments remain in his arsenal as a Sports Therapist, Scott uses his skills to promote physical activity for combatting obesity, lower back pain and other sporting injuries, and simultaneously providing programmes for athletic development. Being a recent graduate, Scott strives to gain experience wherever possible, offering advice and sharing knowledge along the way. He believes it is important to practice what you preach, so in his spare time, Scott practices Olympic Weightlifting and enjoys being active outdoors in all weathers, although he still believes it is important to make ample time for social activities.