Chances are, even if you've never heard the phrase before, you've been doing compound exercises without even realising. Unconvinced? Well, have you ever been tasked with squats, deadlifts or press-ups in a circuit training class or sweaty HIIT workout? Perhaps you've followed a functional fitness plan or a strength training for beginners programme?
Whatever it is, compound exercises are amongst the most common and widely used moves on the fitness scene and for good reason. They have a long list of benefits, plus, are quite fun once you get your head around the right technique.
What are compound exercises?
To put it simply, compound exercises are any moves that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. For example, deadlifts. They target your back, hamstrings, glutes, core and upper body, all in one exercise.
'Compound lifts are any strengthening exercise where you’re using more than one muscle group at the same time,' explains trainer Josh Davies, PT at Aimee Victoria Long training.
6 benefits of compound exercises
Compound exercises, when performed correctly, have a number of benefits. Here are six from trainer Davies.
1. Compound exercises are efficient
'By working multiple areas at once, you save time. Perfect if you’re trying to squeeze a couple of workouts around a busy work/life schedule,' he says. And he's not wrong. Just making the time for a gym workout is tricky enough, wasting time when you're there can feel sacrilegious. Instead, using compound resistance training exercises, you can make the most of your session and target multiple muscle groups at the same time. Jobs a good'un.
2. Compound exercises allow you to lift heavy
'By relying on more than one muscle group, you can afford to go heavier with compound lifts,' says Davies. 'However, it's still important that you're able to maintain correct technique with the weight you're using.'
3. Compound exercises expedite calorie burn
'Doing bigger moves that engage more muscle groups while lifting heavier loads, are all things that contribute to burning more calories. And by taking on more weight, you use more of the glycogen stored up in your muscles. Great for using up that pent-up energy,' he says.
4. Compound exercises get your heart rate up, too
Davies explains: 'Done right, strength training based workouts can be just as good at getting your heart rate up as cardio-based ones. This is because you’re using several muscles at the same time and you’re also asking them to work hard. So, to make sure your muscles are kept topped up with enough energy to lift, your heart needs to pump harder.'
5. Compound exercises help improve your mobility
'Compound lifts are often quite technical. And being able to do them correctly, as well as hit all the right muscles, means having a good amount of joint mobility. Hips, shoulders, knees, ankles and wrists all play their part in helping you build muscle. And so, as well as working on your strength, compound exercises also help you focus on improving your mobility,' says Davies.
6. Compound exercises can improve your coordination
We're all clumsy from time to time. But, building muscle and strength using compound exercises can help you keep more stable when you need it most. (This is also important as you age and balance becomes more important than ever.)
'Compound lifts often take years to master. Every little detail should be spot-on – not only so you can build muscle but also so you can avoid getting injured. So, learning the movements and allowing your muscles to learn as well, is great for helping you focus and improving your coordination.'
The 'big 5' compound exercises
Here are the five basic compound exercises, along with exactly what they're good for, care of Davies.
What they work: Quads, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors and core.
Why do them:
Squats are most likely going to be the exercise when you can take the most weight. Mainly because the weight is already placed on top of you, but also because you don’t need to arch or move around to complete the exercise.
That’s not to say they’re easy. And getting the technique right when you’re lifting a decent amount of weight at the squat rack is all the more reason to be accurate with your form.
Plus, in terms of building muscle mass, squats are vital as they hit so many areas at once.
What they work: Hamstrings, lower back, glutes, hip flexors and core.
'Deadlifts are one of those compound strength exercises that many people are just not sure about. From a young age, many of us are taught that bending while lifting is bad. So, from a beginner’s perspective, they can look like injuries waiting to happen. However, the correct technique involves keeping your back straight throughout the whole exercise.'
'Once you have got the form correct, deadlifts are more likely to help prevent injuries than create them. They’re incredibly useful for targeting the weaker areas of your posterior chain and they will really help you to make great strides in reaching your strength goals.'
'Practice with just a barbell and make sure you’re lifting with your glutes and hamstrings, not your upper body.'
Just starting out? Trap bars will help you perfect your form while you’re still learning. They will also help to eliminate the temptation to let your weight fall forward as you lift.
What they work: Lats, delts, traps, biceps and core.
'The term "pull-ups" refers to a multitude of exercises that can be done on a pull-up bar,' explains Davies. 'The most popular type being chin-ups. However, all forms have their benefits so once you have mastered one type, it’s good to keep mixing it up.'
'Pull-ups are one of the best ways to target your back and they’re great for improving your functional fitness levels too. And by having to take your entire body weight, they’re ideal for building up your grip strength too which is vital for a full range of lifts.'
What they work: grip, shoulders, back, core stabilizers, arms and legs.
'First of all, they work pretty much every part of your body. You can perform loaded carries with dumbbells, buckets of water, kettlebells, sandbags, trap bars Just be sure the load is heavy. Brace your core and bend down and grab two of the heavy implements you will be using and walk as far as you can. Rest and then repeat. Look do walk roughly about 20 meters.'
What it works: Chest, shoulders & triceps
'The bench press is a great exercise for building strength in the upper body. It is a push exercise and will help you if you’re looking to tone up your upper body. It targets three muscle groups so you get great bang for your buck.'
Bench press tips:
Make sure you set your shoulder blades before beginning. Squeeze them together into the bench.
Always use a spotter (someone to watch you and help if you falter) for safety reasons
Take a big inhale at the top of the lift when the bar (or free weight) reaches your chest. Exhale as you drive back up.
What are the best compound exercises for beginners?
'The three compound lifts beginners should be using are squats, deadlifts and pull-ups,' says Davies.
'For beginners you can swap the pull-ups out for prone pull or use a resistance band for assisted pull-ups and with deadlifts, if you suffer from a weak back, using a trap bar would be beneficial as your starting point is higher placing less strain on the lower back.'
Can you build muscle with just compound exercises?
You bet you can. Because you're recruiting multiple muscle groups at the same time, you can lift heavier weights or increase the time your muscles are working under tension – the keys to building muscle.
Can you do compound exercises with a range of equipment?
Yes, absolutely. You can perform a squat using a loaded barbell placed across your upper back and shoulders, or you can do it holding a dumbbell of kettlebell in front of you goblet-style. Similarly, deadlifts can be done with barbells, resistance bands, and freeweights.
Lighter free weights are a good place for beginners to start. You have more control over the weight which can feel more accessible. Or, an unloaded barbell can help you get to grips with strength training for beginners, as well.
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