What is a compound lift? As opposed to an isolation lift, a compound exercise involves motion at multiple joints, requiring work from multiple muscle groups. They are often preferred over isolation exercises. This article will seek to explain why every gym-goer who can do them safely, should include compound lifts as your main and first few exercises. Along with progressive overload, you are bound to gain strength and get swole.
The Big 3
There are 3 big lifts known in the powerlifting world. They are called the bench press, squat and deadlift.
The bench press is a compound lift whereby you lie onto a bench and push a barbell from the bottom of your sternum till you lock out your elbows. They are a good exercise which targets your front deltoids (front part of your shoulders), triceps (the “back of your arm”), as well as your pectorals (chest). Along with these main movers, there are also your stabilising muscles, which are your biceps, lats (side of your back) and quads (thighs).
The squat is a compound lift where you place a barbell on your back (usually). Then you go down in a controlled fashion until you bottom out (or your quads become parallel to the ground) and then explode back up while squeezing your glutes (butt). It mainly targets your quadriceps (thighs) and glutes, as well as a little of your hamstrings and calves.
The last one of the big 3 would be the deadlift. The deadlift should usually be your “heaviest” exercise, because it basically involves the musculature of your entire body. It heavily taxes your hamstrings at the start of your lift (when you bring the bar up from a dead stop position). After that, it transitions to your quads and posterior chain (the back of your body, as well as your spinal erectors). The load is also lifted by your biceps and triceps as stabilising muscles, your lats to squeeze and ensure that the bar does not sway about throughout the lift. Your glutes play a huge role at the end of the exercise where you lock out.
As seen from my brief descriptions of these 3 exercises, they cover the majority of your muscles. Mainly focusing on the progress of these lifts should be sufficient in ensuring that your body will gain some muscle.
That is not to say that it will result in the most complete physique. For that, you probably need some other compound lifts to complement your workout.
Other Compound Lifts that I believe are important
If the bench press is the bread and butter for your push muscles, then the pullups would be that for your pull muscles. Nothing stimulates your back better than a good old pullup. It will help significantly in growing your back width.
Next, you have your overhead press (or military press). This exercise focuses on your front deltoids, triceps as well as your upper chest.
Lastly, there would be your barbell rows. If pull ups benefit your back width, then barbell rows would target your back thickness. It targets your rhomboids and traps to ensure that you can achieve the bulky frame.
Best bang for your buck
Compound lifts provide you with the best bang for your buck. Just like how you want to ensure that your money gets you the most value possible, a compound lift would train the most muscle groups over the shortest period of time. This is because you are more likely to be able to lift a heavier weight when more muscle groups are working together. A muscle group lifting 100kg would be stronger than one isolated muscle lifting 10kg.
Think about it, to replace a squat. You would have to do leg extensions, leg curls, glute kickbacks, calf raises. This is all replaced by one simple compound lift.
Easy to overload
Progressive overload is the main form of muscle growth. Repeat after me, progressive overload is the main form of muscle growth.
In any kind of exercise, if you increase the intensity, and you are able to accomplish it, won’t you be better and stronger at it? It makes sense. It also makes sense to do exercises that help you overload.
Compound lifts (except for weighted pull ups) are often done with barbells. Nothing beats overloading on a barbell. Sometimes, dumbbells do not have that small increment that the 1.25kg plate the barbell provides. If you need even smaller increments, you can buy some online (as little as 0.25kg) and bring them to the gym.
More often than not, the movement of a compound exercise is useful in your daily life. Think about it, when have you ever bicep curled an object? Almost never. But have you ever picked up something heavy on the floor? Probably. You are mimicking the movement pattern of a deadlift. Although not everyone “deadlifts” in the correct form in our daily lives (they bend their back instead of their knees), it is still a form of practical use.
Compound lifts forces you to work the entire body and even use muscle groups that we often neglect. This can include our hamstrings and our glutes, given that most people sit in front of their computers most of the day.
Why execute them first?
Simple. They take a lot of energy. If they are so important, it is logical to execute them first. Then later on when you are more fatigued, you can take on the lighter isolation exercises to improve on your weak points.
Personally, I centre my workout around these compound lift. They form the core of my workout. Just like how passive index investing should form the core of your portfolio, these compound exercises should form the core of your workouts as well.
Along with progressive overload, whereby you increase intensity (weight/volume) on a regular basis, you will be bound to gain muscle. Of course, I include some isolation exercises into my workout to improve my weak points. This includes lateral raises (for side deltoids), bicep curls (for the front double bicep pose), chest flyes (for the chest pump) and etc.
Many beginners would ask me then, which isolation exercises should they focus on first to improve their weak points? My response is, if you are a beginner, you have no weak points, your whole body is a weak point. Start from compound exercises and work your way up. As you work your way up, you will naturally realise which part of your physique is lacking. It is never too late to add them later into your fitness journey.
In the end, be sure to leave your ego outside the door and lift safely.