Doing compound exercises can take your workout from good to great. What exactly does that mean? Well, compound movements are ones that put multiple muscle groups and two or more joints to work, explains Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness. They can help you gain lean muscle mass and burn more calories, all while saving you time at the gym.
“The more muscles working, the more energy output required,” Tamir says. Calories are a unit of energy, so this means you’ll burn more of them.
While there’s no way to speed results at the gym—nothing will replace consistently working hard—there are ways to make sure you’re training smarter, and doing compound exercises is one of them.
Wait, what exactly is a compound exercise?
Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups while isolation exercises (like a bicep curl) concentrate on a single muscle group. There are benefits to both, but when it comes to doing more in less time, compound exercises have the upper hand, which is why they’re used in most strength training workouts.
There are two main types of compound exercises you should know:
Single moves that incorporate multiple muscle groups and joints, like lunges, deadlifts, and squats.
Two moves strung together to create one exercise, like a bicep curl to a shoulder press.
Whichever type you’re doing though, when performed correctly, compound exercises are effective as hell.
Compound exercises are excellent for increasing overall muscle mass and burning calories.
“Since compound exercises involve more muscle groups and joints, they can be used to move heavier loads,” explains Tamir. (For example, you can probably deadlift way more weight than you could with a tricep extension, which is an isolation movement.) And when you’re performing moves that are strung together, like with that bicep curl to shoulder press, you’ll want to use the heaviest weight you can to complete both movements with good form to avoid injury. “Since the shoulders are larger muscles than the biceps, most people will be able to press more then they curl,” says Tamir.
“Putting more stress on the body [with compound exercises] has been shown to create higher hormonal responses, which leads to more muscle growth,” says Tamir.
Here’s how that works: When you strength train, you do mechanical damage (damage to the muscle fibers) and metabolic damage (when you fatigue the muscles by depleting their energy stores), explains exercise physiologist Pete McCall, host of the All About Fitness podcast. This damage (it’s a good thing!) signals a hormonal response that kicks in during the recovery period after your workout. The body releases growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factors, which help replenish energy stores and repair structural damage to the fibers, says McCall. (Eating protein and carbohydrates also helps repair this damage and build up stored energy, which is why a post-workout snack is so important.) Because more muscle groups are recruited and broken down during compound exercises, your body releases more of these hormones, so you end up building more overall muscle than you would have spending the same amount of time on isolation moves.
Keep in mind that isolation moves aren’t a bad thing—if you’re trying to focus on developing one specific muscle, they can be great, says Tamir. (Think bodybuilders doing ultra-heavy bicep curls for arm gains.) However, if your goal is to gain more muscle mass all over, compound exercises are much more efficient.
Building lean muscle also helps increase the number of calories you burn at rest (your basal metabolic rate, or BMR), because muscle requires more energy for your body to maintain. So because compound exercises help build up that extra muscle mass, they can give your BMR an even bigger boost.
And compound exercises are also really great at working your core.
In addition to the muscle-building, calorie-burning powers of compound exercises, they also require your core-stabilizing muscles to get involved to power through the movement. And a lot of the time, this means your abs are going to put in some serious work. “Without stabilizer muscles, you wouldn’t be able to do any movements,” explains Tamir. “For example, the muscles in the core stabilize your trunk so you can squat and deadlift.” So while the squat is working your butt, hips, and thighs, your core is also getting in on the action.
And many compound movements will just make you better at tackling day-to-day life activities because they’re considered functional movements, explains Tamir. “Doing real-life movements is useful because it teaches us how to properly move outside in the world—for example, not rounding our backs when we bend over to pick something up, or using our back muscles to help pull something versus just using our arms.”
Here’s how to lunge and lift your way to results with compound exercises.
Tamir suggests focusing 70 to 80 percent of your strength workouts on compound exercises, while isolation exercises can make up the other 20 to 30 percent.
Yep, you don’t need to ditch isolation moves entirely–they’re still great for building strength in the body part you’re working, explains Tamir. And if we’re being transparent, a true isolation exercise doesn’t really exist because the muscles in your hands and shoulders often come into play during movements like a bicep curl. But since the concentration is heavily on that single muscle group they’re often looped into this overarching concept.
When you’re at the gym, Tamir suggests starting with your compound moves because they’re more challenging and require more energy and focus. (Doing them when you’re low on those two things can lead to injury.)
Here are seven of Tamir’s favorite compound exercises to incorporate into your strength routine:
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