The Importance of Compound Exercises


Ask the Professional: Compound Exercises

by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Fitness goals vary greatly from person to person. You might be looking to add muscle mass, lose weight, increase your cardiovascular function, or just live a longer, happier, and healthier life. Regardless of your goal, one constant should be compound movements. There are so many benefits to incorporating compound movements into your training.

A compound exercise is a multi-joint exercise that involves more than one muscle group at the same time and is effective in improving muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. As opposed to an isolation exercise that is a single-joint movement and only focuses on one muscle group such as a bicep curl, leg extension, tricep extension, or hamstring curl. If most of your resistance training exercise is machine based, chances are you aren't engaging in many, if any, compound exercises. However, if you are performing more free weight based exercises, then you are probably engaging in a lot more compound exercises than isolation exercises. Examples of compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, and so many more. The compound effect can even be amplified when you begin to add combination exercises into the mix such as the squat and press.

Now that we are familiar with what compound exercises are, we can talk about what makes their effect on your training so great. One of the first and most obvious advantages of compounds exercises is that they simply burn more calories. Since you are using more muscle tissue when you engage in compound exercises, you also need more oxygen and more oxygen means an increase in energy expenditure of the body. This inherently allows for you to burn more calories. Generally speaking, most fitness goals fall directly in line with burning more calories. Unless you are specifically just trying to add mass, burning calories will benefit you when you are trying lose weight, lean out, or improve your quality of life.

Another great benefit of compound exercises is improved intermuscular coordination, or basically how well various muscles surrounding one joint can function together. Taking the shoulder for example, you have a ton of muscles that surround the shoulder joint. You have all of the deltoid heads, pec major and minor, latissimus dorsi, biceps, triceps, and rotator cuff muscles. While not all of them are always working together at the same time, a few of them are typically required to work in conjunction with one another in order to facilitate any sort of movement around the shoulder joint. The better these muscles are at working together, the more efficient of a mover you will be. The more efficiently you move, the easier it will be to move more weight or control the speed of your movement better, each of which will help produce a greater stimulus when you are moving. So increasing intermuscular coordination will just make you BETTER at exercising! Not only that, but you will move better throughout your day and just be able to live more comfortably.

Unlike isolation exercises, compound exercises require you to work harder. They elevate your heart rate and  this is where the cardiovascular benefit comes into play. Now I know what you’re thinking, if you are lifting weights, then how the heck does that have anything to do with cardio? When you think cardio, the first things that generally come to mind are running, walking, or biking. While these forms of exercise will go further in increasing your aerobic capacity, they are not the only exercises that can improve your cardiovascular function. Since the point of cardiovascular exercise is to help improve the strength and function of your heart, you cannot narrow the scope quite as much as many people think. Since compound exercises require more muscle tissues to be working and more oxygen to be used, they also force the heart to work harder to continue pumping the blood and oxygen to your muscles. With all of this happening, compound exercises do carry cardiovascular benefit and absolutely contribute to your heart health.

Lastly, compound exercises can also help improve your flexibility and mobility. Sure, you might think of static stretching or foam rolling talking about flexibility, but one of the best ways to improve range of motion is by actively working through as much range of that particular motion as you can. Maybe your hip and ankle mobility are not great, hindering you from performing a deep squat. In repeating this range of motion limited squat over and over again, you are doing yourself a disservice. Maybe you will not have the weight on the bar that you think you are capable of (because this is not something that you should put into practice with heavy weight), but if you want to squat deeper then you HAVE to squat as deep as you are physically capable of doing with correct technique every time you squat. The more that you continue to work through your full range of motion, that range of motion will continue to improve. Obviously there are limits to this, genetically speaking, but if you are only squatting to 90 degrees of knee flexion then I promise you have not reached those limits. More technically speaking, over time as you continue to perform more and more repetitions into that deepest squat that you can achieve, those muscles working will elevate in temperature reducing tension and allowing for the muscles to improve in length.

As you can see, the benefits to using compound exercises are plentiful and the impact on your overall fitness can be significant. There are benefits that can suit every fitness goal and every person can benefit from compound exercises. From burning more calories and building cardiovascular strength, to becoming more flexible, mobile, and functional, compound exercises help you become a more complete individual. So if you generally find yourself doing single-joint isolation exercises and just doing muscle specific bodybuilding, consider how these benefits can make you more well-rounded and try to start incorporating more compound exercises into your routine.