Compound Exercises: Gain More Muscle, Save More Time

Do you find yourself spending tons of time in the gym?  Is all that time you’re committing to your workouts getting you the results you’re after?  Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on a bit of muscle, compound exercises can help you reach your goals, without the unnecessary time spent working individual muscle groups.

What is a Compound Exercise?

A compound exercise is one in which multiple joints and muscle groups are involved.  A biceps curl, for instance, would not be classified as a compound exercise because the elbow is the only joint that moves during the lift. These single-joint movements are called isolation or accessory lifts.

Why Compound Lifts?

1. Time-Saving – Compound lifts don’t just hit the arms, or only work the legs.  The beauty part is, they work even more muscle groups at once.  The ability to work multiple muscle groups in one exercise saves valuable gym time.

2. Increased Strength & Muscle Mass – Performing a compound lift enables you to lift heavier weight as compared to an accessory lift.  An exercise that can be done at a certain weight for only 1-5 repetitions is considered heavy.  Heavier weight equals greater strength and muscle mass.

3. Increased Metabolic Activity – The use of multiple muscle groups in one exercise results in a higher calorie burn.

4. Greater Core Stability – Compound exercises require a lot of cooperation from your core in order to complete the lift.  Constantly depending on your core to stabilize you while performing compound movements results in increased strength throughout the entire core.

5. Functional Strength –  Functional strength is not just a buzzword (buzz-phrase) of yore.  The strength gained from, and the repeated movements done with compounds translate into real-life benefits.  From lugging the groceries in from the car, or deadlifting heavy objects from the ground, compounds will have you tackling your everyday tasks with ease.

The 6 Best Compound Exercises

Back Squat

Compound Lifts: Gain More Muscle, Save More Time | Your time is valuable! Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on a bit of muscle, compound exercises can help you reach your goals, without all the unnecessary time spent working individual muscle groups. Click to find out how to get more done in the gym in less time!

Squats primarily work your quads, hamstrings, and adductors.  The secondary muscles worked include your calves, glutes, lower back, and traps (trapezius); as well as your abdominal muscles.

With so many muscles involved, it’s no wonder the squat is often referred to as the King of all Lifts.

Deadlift

Deadlifts mainly target the posterior chain, including the lower back, glutes and hamstrings.  Secondarily, deadlifts utilize your hips, quads, abs, lats (latissimus dorsi) and even the calves to an extent.

Additionally, if you’re searching for a supreme exercise to target and build your traps, look no further than the deadlift.

Bench Press

Primarily the bench press works the chest, triceps and front delts (deltoids).  The mid and rear delts, lats, biceps, and abs also help you power through the entire movement.

Barbell Row

Compound Lifts: Gain More Muscle, Save More Time | Your time is valuable! Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on a bit of muscle, compound exercises can help you reach your goals, without all the unnecessary time spent working individual muscle groups. Click to find out how to get more done in the gym in less time!The barbell row specifically targets the muscles of the back, with the main focus being on the mid back, including the traps and rhomboids.  Flexing the glutes, hamstrings and abs protects the lower back throughout the movement.  The biceps and rear delts, as well as the lats also assist in successfully completing the exercise.

Overhead Press

The overhead press is a shoulder-dominant movement, working the front, mid and rear delts primarily.  The triceps, lats, abs, traps and glutes get their fair share of work during this movement as well.

Pull-Ups

Pull-ups primarily target the lats and mid back, including the traps and rhomboids.  The biceps, shoulders, pecs, and abdominals aid in the completion of the exercise.

Do you know how many exercises you would have to do to equal the amount of work done in just one of the above movements?  A lot.  That’s a lot of wasted time in the gym when you could just do a few compounds and be on your way.

When to Use Isolation Exercises

While they are not as beneficial overall as their compound counterparts, isolations do have their place.

1. Mix-it-up – Boredom with your program sets in from time to time, and isolations can help pull you out of your workout funk.  Whether replacing a compound exercise with a few isolations, or sprinkling in an accessory or two, this is a great way to temporarily break up the monotony.

2. Substitute – There will be times when the equipment you planned on using at the gym could already be in use.  When this happens, sometimes all you can do is replace a compound exercise with a few isolation lifts.

3. Finishing Move – Although you can get a great workout with compounds, sometimes you might find you want to really burn out a muscle group.  Including an accessory or two, in order to focus on a specific muscle group, helps bring up lagging body parts and helps break through plateaus.

How I Know Compounds Work

Much of my workouts used to be devoted to isolation movements because I mistakenly thought more was better.  I would do several sets of different exercises for each muscle group, focusing on thoroughly fatiguing the muscles.

Turns out I would have had more luck commanding my biceps to grow (a la C.T. Fletcher) than I did doing hundreds of reps of every kind of biceps curl known to man.  It wasn’t until I started doing pull-ups regularly that I saw decent growth in my biceps.

I didn’t have much in the way of triceps until I started regularly bench pressing with heavy weight.  This was another muscle group I would continuously exhaust without getting the results I wanted.

Guess what?  My quads started growing when I finally got serious about squatting heavy.

And my glutes?  Yep, those and my hamstrings are much more shapely since incorporating deadlifts.

I don’t even directly train my shoulders anymore.  After a slight injury, I had to take all direct work out because it was too painful.  Now I find bench pressing, along with deadlifts, pull-ups, and barbell rows hit my shoulders nicely.  And I don’t miss the thousands of lateral raises I used to do, believe me.

I know this is all purely anecdotal, but I think it says a lot.  It wasn’t just one muscle group that benefited from switching to compounds, but several.

Lifting Programs Featuring Compounds

I put off doing a full-body lifting program because I thought they were too easy.  It didn’t seem like they contained enough work to stimulate muscle growth.  And being in the “more is better” mindset I couldn’t see myself going from 9+ exercises per workout to only 3 or 4.  It just didn’t compute.

Eventually there came a time when I wanted to focus on strength, so I finally went with a full-body program, most of which happen to be compound-heavy.  Turns out the muscle-gain I had been striving for, and was failing miserably at, came about when I started focusing on heavy compounds.  Now the above anecdotes speak for themselves.  And I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

There are several great programs you can try for yourself.  And while some have isolation lifts in them, the compound lifts are the key players.

Beginner Programs

StrongLifts 5X5

Starting Strength

Bill Starr’s Beginner 5X5

Intermediate Programs

Madcow 5X5

Texas Method

5-3-1

If you’re a beginner, a full-body program is the best place to start.  Performing the same exercises 3 days a week will drill in the movement patterns, and make you more efficient at doing them over time.  This will enable you to lift more and more weight, which translates to greater muscle gains.

If you’ve been dodging a full-body program (like I did), and compound movements in general, give it a try.  You might be surprised how well you do.  And even more surprised by the results.  I know I was!  Pleasantly surprised.

14 thoughts on “Compound Exercises: Gain More Muscle, Save More Time

  1. As a rank beginner with heavy lifting, how does one protect their back while doing a deadlift? My back hurts just looking at the pictures.

    1. Ah, good question. I’m going to do a write-up on deadlifts soon since they are so involved.

      To protect your back during a deadlift, you have to flex your hamstrings, glutes, lats and abs. Mentally focusing on flexing and taking in and holding a deep bracing breath should do the trick. Flexing your abs like someone is about to punch you in the gut is what you’re going for.

      It’s not easy at first. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. 🙂

  2. This was some good exercises! I love doing deadlifts and overhead presses! & we all know how important those pull ups are! very good girl! way to keep people informed 😀

    Shay-lon

    1. Yep, deadlifts are one of my favorites. They’re on the agenda today, in fact. I miss OHP, can’t do them due to shoulder pain, though.

      Thanks so much, Shay-lon! 🙂

      1. Do you have a favorite type of deadlift?
        I have been implementing a few different ones in my workouts. Also, bummer :/ will you ever be able to do OHP again or is that a done deal?

        1. I do conventional deads mostly, but love peppering in trap bar deads from time to time. Never been a fan of sumo deadlifts, though I know plenty of people that are successful with them.

          Ah, the OHP thing is pretty much a “better safe than sorry” sort of deal at this point. I try them sometimes and things are fine for a while, then the pain creeps back in. So I’ve given up on them. 🙁

          But like I said in the article, my shoulder development isn’t suffering, so there’s that. 🙂

          Do you have a favorite deadlift? What’s your OHP number? I miss being able to train strength on that lift.

          1. My gym doesn’t offer a trap bar , but when I was interning during college, I had used it a couple of times and didn’t mind it at all, it is actually semi helpful. Some of the athletes were using it a lot too. I have been doing a lot of still-leg/stiff-leg deadlifts in my current workload, but like romanian deadlifts as well. Like you, i am not a HUGE fan of sumo deadlifts and to be honest I am not a fan of sumo squats either. My problem with the sumo is I feel awkward and I feel like I am constantly doing them wrong no matter what! hah. I know it isn’t a hard concept to do them correctly but my brain just assumes I look weird and then I think I can’t do them right. lol.
            Well on the bright-side there are other ways to get shoulder gains in! I prefer the standing overhead press vs seated.. had to do seated today .. but yeah, I would rather you be okay to lift then to ruin the whole opportunity to do so just because you took a high risk of OHP.
            My standing overhead press number is 50 lb right now, but I feel like it has been light so this week I will see if I can up it to 60 lb .. I do 50 lb for 10 reps. I think I could do more than 60 but it would only be for maybe 1 -2 reps so not as wholesome. My seated OHP is like 45 on a good day and 35 on a bad day! lol

            1. Yeah, the trap bar is useful for increasing your speed off the floor in the conventional dead. It’s also great for those days when you don’t want to involve your back too much, since it uses more leg power in the movement.

              Are you really tall? That could be the problem with sumo’s for you. That’s why I don’t really get on with them too well. Being tall is perfect for conventional deads.

              Love me some RDL’s. I use these to hit the hamstrings since my leg curl machine sucks.

              Oh yeah, standing OHP is much easier, lol. Never liked seated much. Hey, 50lbs for 10 reps is great! You might could get 60 for 4-5. I’d be interested to know how you do if you do decide to increase the weight. 🙂

            2. Exactly and I like being able to use my legs more in the deadlift to avoid pressure in my back but if done correctly most should feel it in their legs anyways. I am 5’8 so I think that is relatively tall compared to some people and I don’t feel short! haha & yes everyone has mentioned that me being taller is handy for my conventional deadlifts.
              I will definitely be letting you know how well I do with 60 lb, it will be exciting to go up! also keep in touch with me about your own workouts as well, love connecting!

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