by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN
Compound movements are the best way to get in shape and build quality muscle. They are at the core of many fitness programs, and it’s a place where many beginners are told to start their fitness journey. Unlike isolation exercises that are done with commercial weight machines, compound movements concentrate on functional fitness developed by workouts that simulate real-life activities and movements.
Compound movements are exercises that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously — squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and military presses are examples of compound movements. Isolation exercises, on the other hand, involve only moving one joint at a time — think along the lines of biceps curls or triceps extensions.
Fitness experts recommend doing both isolation and compound movements when you are working out for the best results possible, but make the bulk of your training routine centered around compound movements.
Disclaimer: It is recommended that you speak to your doctor before starting an exercise program to ensure you are healthy enough to do so and that it won’t interfere with any conditions or injuries you may have.
Compound Movements vs. Isolation
Compound movements are more effective than isolation exercises when it comes to increasing muscle mass. Isolation exercises can be beneficial if you’re looking to focus on a specific muscle group or movement pattern.
Compound movements are multi-joint movements that involve more than one joint and muscle group. Examples of compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and military presses. These types of exercises increase overall body strength and develop more functional strength than isolation movements can.
Isolation movements are single-joint movements that isolate a specific muscle group. They focus on one joint and one muscle group at a time rather than multiple joints and multiple muscle groups, as with compound movements. Examples of isolation movements include exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions.
The Benefits of Compound Movements Over Isolation
Compound movements work for multiple muscle groups at once, so you get more bang for your buck when it comes to building muscle mass and getting stronger.
Here are five benefits of using compound movements:
1. Burn more calories
Compound movements burn more calories because they involve so many muscle groups working together. Since compound movements involve multiple muscle groups, they need more muscle fiber recruitment and energy, which is basically calories, to complete. When you burn more calories, you can put yourself in a caloric deficit and burn more body fat, leading to greater weight loss.
For example, when you perform a squat, your glutes, quads, and hamstrings are all being used to lift the weight while also stabilizing your core. This requires a lot more energy from the body than an exercise like biceps curls or triceps kickbacks, which only target one area at a time.
2. Compound movements build more muscle
Compound movements involve multiple joints and muscles at once, which forces your body to recruit as many different muscle groups as possible in order to complete the lift. This type of training allows you to lift heavier weights than isolation movements do because they require more total energy from your body. Compound movements help build more strength than isolation exercises do because they need more total energy from your body, which is important for sports such as weightlifting.
3. Compound movements improve mobility
Compound movements improve mobility because they involve multiple joints and muscles working together. This makes them more functional than isolation movements because they mimic real-world movements like picking up heavy objects on a table and squatting down to pick something up off the floor.
The increased range of motion makes your joints stronger by forcing them to move through their full range of motion on a regular basis. This helps reduce joint pain and stiffness caused by immobility in those areas.
4. Compound exercises improve intermuscular coordination
This is the timing and function of multiple muscles around joints or a single joint. For example, the gluteal complex, which controls the motion of the hips. Compound movements such as lunges, squats, or step-ups that move the hips in all three planes can enhance how all the muscle groups work together to control and produce force.
When you’re doing compound movements, you’re using many different muscles at once. This requires you to coordinate these muscles in order to perform the exercise correctly — otherwise, your form will break down, and you could become injured.
5. Compound movements reduce injury risk
When your workout has intent, you decrease the risk of any injuries. For example, imagine that you are picking up a heavy object. If you do not use your legs properly in a deadlift or squat motion to lift it up from the ground, you might injure yourself. You will likely bend over and strain your lower back muscles if you do not engage and contract the proper muscle groups with the correct form.
Improper lifting can lead to some severe injuries, which may also need surgical intervention and cause chronic lower back pain. The more muscles you use in a single movement, the less likely you are to injure any one of them. Compound movements use multiple joints at once, which allows for greater freedom of motion.