man doing biceps curls

Should You Be Doing Compound Exercises?

Whether you’re working out to build monster quads or keep up with your kids better, the moves you spend your time on in the gym have a big impact on the results you see. Regardless of your goals, if you want to make the most of every workout, you’re going to want to show compound exercises plenty of love.

Here, trainers break down what compound exercises actually are—and why they’re so crucial if you want to become a stronger, fitter you. 

Compound Exercises vS. Isolation Exercises

“Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work large muscle groups,” explains Nick DeChino, C.S.C.S., Director of Team Training for Precision Sports Performance. 

Two common examples: the squat and the bench press. The squat, for example, incorporates the ankle, knee, and hip joints, along with the muscles throughout your legs and core. 

Related: How To Build Muscle And Shed Fat At The Same Time

“Isolation exercises, meanwhile, are designed to work a single joint and single muscle or muscle group,” says Jesse Sattler, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., Precision Sports Performance’s Clinic Director.

Biceps curls, for example, involve moving just your elbow joint and mainly benefit your biceps muscles.

The Benefits Of Compound Exercises

Because compound exercises utilize more muscles and joints throughout the body, they generally give you more ‘bang for your buck’ both in and out of the gym. 

Compared to isolation exercises, compound exercises:

  • require greater core stability so you can stay balanced throughout the movement
  • activate more fast-twitch, type-two muscle fibers
  • boost release of hormones essential for muscle, strength, and performance development
  • better support muscle-building
  • offer greater cardiovascular benefits
  • burn more calories
  • support greater full-body strength gains 

Basically, compound exercises are incredibly efficient.

While leg extensions (an isolation move) may help you build bigger quads, squats help you build bigger quads, hamstrings, and glutes—while strengthening your core, too. 

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Even if you’re crunched for time, “you can train every muscle in your body three times a week and still recover well” if using compound exercises, Sattler says.

Plus, since many compound exercises involve moving in different directions and patterns, they help your body become all-around more resilient and capable outside of the gym. (Read: Carrying moving boxes or your suddenly super-heavy toddler gets easier.) Talk about functional fitness!

Compound Exercise Caveats

Though compound exercises offer a wide variety of benefits, they do require greater skill and practice to perform well than isolation exercises. 

Example: “In order to squat weight heavy enough for you to get stronger, you have to have a certain amount of mobility in your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and back,” explains Sattler. You also need to have a solid base of core stability to keep you balanced. 

Related: 18 Abs Moves That Work ALL The Core Muscles

Some people may need to develop their core strength and work on mobility before they can truly reap the benefits of compound exercises. 

How To Add Compound Exercises To Your Routine

As long as you can safely perform compound exercises, they should be the primary focus of your workouts, says Sattler. Your leg day, for example, should emphasize moves like squats and lunges over isolation moves like machine leg extensions.

That doesn’t mean you have to shun all isolation moves, though. “When used together, compound exercises and isolation exercises will make you much stronger, help tone your body, and keep you healthy,” Sattler says. Just make sure you spend the majority of your workout on those compounds moves, and consider isolation moves ‘accessories.’ 

The 8 Best Compound Exercises

Where to start? Incorporate the following compound exercises into your workout routine:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Bench press
  • Lunge
  • Weighted carry
  • Pull-up
  • Push-up
  • Overhead press

“Each of these exercises have multiple possible modifications and variations, so you can feel comfortable and keep your workouts fresh,” says DeChino. Take deadlifts, for example: You can perform ‘em with a barbell, trap bar, dumbbells, a kettlebell, or even a resistance band.

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