The truth is when I first started lifting as a sophomore in high school, not only did I train arms every day, but I had no idea what a compound exercise was.
I would walk into the gym, at a scrawny 120 pounds and walk over to the bicep machine. I’d sit down and do a few sets of curls just trying to pump my biceps up to make them as large as possible.
I thought that my arms were the only muscles on my body I needed to look huge.
The occasional few times I would head over to the free weights area, I would see massive guys deadlifting, benching, and doing military presses.
To me, these exercises were nonexistent in my brain. I just kept chugging along doing my curls.
Little did I know what I was missing out.
7 years later and I finally realize how important compound exercises are for building muscle mass and strength gains.
What is a compound exercise you may ask?
Very simply, a compound exercise is one that works multiple body parts at the same time.
This means it is literally impossible to complete the movement without incorporating more than 2 muscle groups.
For example, pull-ups work your lats, traps, and biceps. The squat works your quads, posterior chain, hamstrings, and glutes. The deadlift works almost every body part!
Generally, compound exercises require full body movement in order to complete the exercise or lift.
Here are a few of the most popular compound lifts and the main muscle groups worked:
- Hamstrings, Quads, Lower Back and Glutes
- Barbell Rows
- Back and Biceps
- Pull Ups
- Back and Biceps (Specifically Lats)
- Quads, Hamstrings, and Glutes
- Military Press
- Shoulders and Triceps
- Chest and Triceps
- Weighted Dips
- Shoulders, Chest, and Triceps
Of the compound lifts the ones experts would tell you to include the most in your workouts would be the squat, deadlift, and bench. These can all be found at powerlifting meets.
But Why Include Compound Lifts?
Build Crazy Strength
The benefits of compound exercises are that they allow you to lift more weight since you’re using the combined strength of multiple muscle groups.
Try doing an overhead tricep extension with a dumbbell. Now trying to do that tricep extension with 225 pounds.
Not so easy?
But if you incorporate your chest into the equation, you have a lot more pushing force.
Essentially you’re performing a bench press. It requires you to lift using your chest, shoulders, triceps, back, and even your legs!
Now you might wonder how your back and legs are incorporated into the bench press?
While performing the lift, your back is squeezed and retracted so that everything remains tight and stable.
Your feet lie flat on the floor and your legs are pushing into the group to create maximum resistance. You should be completely still and create a great amount of tension focused all towards the movement of the weight (with proper form of course.)
The combination of all body parts working together as one help you push or pull a greater amount of weight over any isolation exercise.
Since compound exercises require a great amount of your energy and willpower, your body will naturally react to the great amount of stress. In order to compensate, our bodies release growth hormones.
It also triggers men to increase and release a good amount of testosterone as well.
But in order to reap these anabolic effects, a decent amount of weight is needed.
A Huge Time Saver
The incredible benefit of incorporating compound lifts is that it reduces the number of exercises you need to perform in order to complete your workout.
In fact, I only do 3 exercises per workout!
Since all of my exercises are comprised of compound lifts, I’m working many body parts at the same time.
This way, I can quickly get an amazing and effective workout without spending hours upon hours in the gym.
At the current moment. My workout routine is split into 2 days.
- Sumo Deadlift
- Seated Military Press
- Pull Ups
- Incline Bench
- Weighted Dips
- Standing Calf Raises
On my strength focused days, these workout routines take me less than 45 minutes to complete, allowing me to focus more time on other stuff in my day, or hit the sauna for post-workout recovery.
Real World Movement
When was the last time you actually bicep curled something outside of the gym?
How about a seated calf raise? Or dumbbell incline flyes?
Get my point here?
Most of the ancillary and isolation exercises you do at the gym will never be used in the real world!
Not the same can be said for compound lifts.
Now, I doubt you’re ever going to “bench” something in real life, but squatting, deadlifting, and lunges are very relevant to some daily activities.
For example, you’re at work and you need to lift a large and heavy flower pot off the ground. You get into the squat position and pick the pot up by performing a front squat with the pot in your hands.
When I worked at Home Depot and had to move pallets off the floor, I would start by getting into a deadlift position and lifting the pallet into a standing position.
Many compound lifts performed with your legs will provide a great way to safely move heavy objects and perform real-world movements on a daily basis.
This can also help athletes tremendously in sports. Whether you’re a pole vaulter, long jumper, wrestler, or football player, squatting and deadlifting can give you the added power and strength to increase your performance.
It’s also well known that compound lifts will help prevent injuries in sports. If you can squat 500 pounds, your ability to receive a blow from someone in football who weighs a ton increases greatly. Since your body is strong enough to take that kind of weight from compound lifts, it won’t give out on you or break during the game.
And this brings me to my next point.
Compound lifts help increase your flexibility. Have you ever deadlifted or RDL’d and then tried touching your toes right after?
You can easily touch your toes! And if you really push yourself it feels like your face is right next to your feet!
Whatever Your Goal
No matter what your goal in fitness, compound lifting can help you get there.
For those who wish to lose more weight, compound lifts are known to burn way more calories than other exercises.
They also leave a lasting effect, burning calories for hours after you leave the gym.
Incorporate them with some cardio right after, and eat in a caloric deficit, and you’ll shred fat like it’s nothing.
For those who wish to put on pure muscle, compounds lift create muscle tearing effects thanks to the amount of weight you can push.
And we all know that more muscle groups mean more strength potential as well.
Cutting, bulking, burning fat, building muscle… you name it! Compound lifts have your back!
The Absolute Best Compound Lifts
The deadlift is a favorite for bodybuilders, powerlifters, crossfitters, and everyone in between.
This lift works almost every single muscle in your body. I mean it.
From your neck, to your calves, and your arms. Everything is activated and squeezing to take every ounce of energy to pull that barbell off the floor.
I personally love to do a variation of the deadlift know as sumo. It takes some stress off my lower back and allows me to incorporate more leg drive and trap activation, both of which are some of my weak points.
The difference between the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift is your foot placement.
On conventional, most people will have their feet shoulder to hip width apart.
On a sumo deadlift, your feet stand very far apart, sometimes looking like they’re going down for a split. The foot placement is very much a matter of preference, as you can go as wide or as narrow as you want. Whatever makes you feel comfortable is best.
Most of you know the bench, but what about all the variations?
The one I suggest the most is the incline dumbbell press or incline bench. This really allows for a tight squeeze of the chest while still being able to use a decent amount of weight.
It’s also known that training your upper chest is better looking for your overall physique. I’m not saying you can’t get a big chest doing flat or decline bench, but try the incline and you’ll see even better results. Your upper chest development is key to having that Greek God looking physique!
Always be sure to have a spotter when benching heavy weight. There’s nothing worse than not being able to complete that last rep. Just go onto Youtube and you’ll see guys benching at home in their garage with no spotter. Some people have almost died doing this since the bar often times will fall on their neck. No bench press is worth your life.
Everyone hates leg day, but skipping squats is a sin in my book.
Deep front squats and/or back squats sculpt huge legs. And this is coming from a guy who has fairly skinny legs. It wasn’t until I started doing squats when I started to see thicker thighs. The ‘teardrop’ effect starts forming once you really get up there in weight. Not to mention it also increased the amount I could deadlift since the start of a deadlift requires a ton of leg drive.
Squatting large amounts of weight puts stress on your body, which in turn release growth hormones in order to compensate. It also helps strengthen your lower back and posterior chain, an area you need to protect to prevent serious injuries.
If you ever have trouble squatting heavy weight, make sure you squeeze your glutes together on the way up in order to safely and properly bring it to the top. Using your glutes will add some extra power and allow your hips to shoot forward and then rise up.
Want to increase your bench?
Incorporate some weighted dips after your next chest workout. You’d be surprised to see how much your triceps work during the bench press.
Just ask legendary powerlifter and strength coach Louie Simmons.
The end of any bench press rep requires a final push from your triceps. That’s why you see some guys with weak tri’s who lockout right at the end of the rep. Their chest is there but not the triceps!
Doing dips requires you to go all the way down so your elbows lock at 90 degrees and then you must engage your triceps to come all the way back up and lockout with your arms straight.
Increase your weighted dips and so will your bench.
Best way to build a wide back?
Weighted pull ups. Period.
Pull ups use a great amount of lat activation as well as biceps to complete the exercise.
But don’t use too wide of a grip.
Studies have shown that wide grip pull ups don’t necessarily incorporate more lat activation. Instead, use a middle-to-shoulder width grip and focus on retracting your elbows ‘into’ your back.
This exercise will also place a tremendous amount of work on your biceps, better than any barbell or dumbbell curl could.
For example, I can max barbell curl maybe 120 pounds. But I can do a pull up with my bodyweight and an extra 80 pounds hanging from me. That’s a total of 280 pounds!
Which do you think is going to build my biceps more?
Working with 280 pounds or 120?
A great mass builder for building a thick back and arms. The kind where you look huge from a side angle.
Bend over with your butt out so your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Reach down to the floor or rack and pick up the barbell and just pull/row it to your upper back.
Do not jerk the bar or use a weight that causes your back to round or have to stand up too straight. You should be comfortable in the position your in.
Grab the bar as tight as possible! If you’re not grabbing tight you’re leaving some gains on the floor!
The Military Press
Talk about an exercise needing a lot of willpower.
Nothing feels better than completing a military press with heavy weight.
Knowing that you just threw a ton of weight right over your head and held it there raises your testosterone levels and confidence.
Not only does the military press work those shoulders, but a massive amount of stress is placed on your triceps.
Even your traps are used to stabilize the movement of the bar.
Avoid Unnecessary Injuries
Make no mistake, compound exercises can be used to move some heavy damn weight. And if done incorrectly with bad form, you can be looking at a serious injury.
It was just 2 weeks ago, I was doing some heavy back squats.
I thought I could go for another rep of 255, on my last set and final rep.
Little did I know I didn’t have enough in the tank. On the way up, my squat was performed with terrible form.
My hips shot back and I used the majority of my lower back to bring the weight up. After I re-racked the weight nothing seemed to be wrong.
It wasn’t until the next day that I found out I had made a huge mistake.
My back was sore… really sore. And it didn’t feel like a muscle strain either. It was right in the dead center of my back.
I had trouble bending over and getting out of bed. Tying my shoelaces felt like a new Olympic sport.
Funny enough I was scheduled to do some more lifting that day. And dumbass me thought if I just used my Hypervolt percussion massager, I could just kick out the kinks in my lower back.
Boy was I wrong.
After getting to the gym and doing some incline bench presses, I really started to feel it. I tried stretching with little relief. I decided to call it a day and headed home.
Sad to say, but the pain did not go away for almost 2 weeks.
I was out of the gym until I was better.
After being diagnosed by a chiropractor, it was most likely an irritated or inflamed disc in my lower back.
Not fun, but glad to say it wasn’t worse. I could have slipped a disc.
It’s safe to say that you have to be careful when lifting with heavy weight, specifically compound exercises that put stress on your back.
Injuries can be more than just short term, but permanent.
Good form and breathing are essential. I’m not discouraging you to go against compound lifts, I actually encourage you to start doing more of them, and forget silly isolation exercises.
Just be sure you complete your exercises with the correct form and do not overestimate your limits.
If you can only deadlift a PR of 250 pounds, do not try to hit 265 pounds for 3 reps. You are asking to get hurt.
The benefits of compound lifts outweigh the reasons not to do them.
Being lazy, not feeling it, not liking to lift heavy weight, are not valid excuses.
No matter your goal, no matter your age, gender, or size. You should start incorporating more compound lifts into your workouts.
But if you’re still wondering why, here’s the complete list.
Why should you do more compound lifts?
- Increases overall strength and muscle mass
- Works more muscle groups (full body workouts)
- Less time spent in the gym
- Releases muscle building hormones
- More calories burned
- Implements real-world exercises and movement
- Improves flexibility