Compound movements are dynamic flexibility exercises that will help you build strength and work up a sweat in half the time. This type of workout targets multiple muscle groups and joints at the same time, compared to isolation exercises, which focus on a single muscle group (for example, the biceps curl).
This type of movement is crucial if improving strength is your goal, given compound exercises are designed to build lean muscle and burn calories fast!
Below, our experts explain all the tips and tricks.
Meet the Expert
What Is a Compound Exercise?
Put simply, a compound exercise is one that enlists more than one muscle group at the same time. "For example, a hip thrust chest press works not only your lower body (glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors), but also your upper body (chest and shoulders), while also targeting your core muscles and hip flexors," explains AJ Mason, a Studio SWEAT onDemand master trainer.
Another example is a squat, which, according to celebrity trainer and CEO/founder of HoodFit Erica Hood, "works your glutes, quads, hip flexors, abs, calves, hamstrings, and lower back—all of which play a part in performing just a single move."
One of the major benefits of compound exercises is their ability to save you time by challenging multiple muscle groups at once for a quick and efficient workout. "They are also helpful in simulating real-life movement, which helps you function in everyday life," says Mason.
Think about how your body bends, flexes, pushes, and pulls on a daily basis. "As humans, we are naturally doing these movements throughout our day-to-day lives, such as with doing the laundry, carrying grocery bags, or putting the dishes away," says Hood. "Functional fitness (all compound exercises) will connect you to your body to improve livelihood."
- Strengthens joints: "As you are using multiple muscles and moving them in a variety of different directions, compound movements help to strengthen the joints and provide a stretch to the muscles," outlines Mason. This can enhance flexibility and coordination across the body and between muscle groups.
- Improved flexibility and coordination: On that note, the wide range of movement, as well as concentration to execute compound movements properly, can improve both the flexibility in our muscles and general coordination skills.
- Calorie burner: As compound exercises call on many muscles, you will naturally burn more calories in a shorter amount of time. "This is because exercises that involve the use of more muscles require more oxygen, leading to more energy used and more calories burned," explains Mason.
- Elevates the heart rate: According to the American Council on Exercise, the more muscle tissue involved in a workout, the more the heart has to pump blood to keep the body going. This causes a spike in heart rate, which brings with it cardiovascular benefits.
Form, as always, is crucial in injury prevention, and this is especially relevant in compound exercises, which require additional movement. Aside from missing out on the full workout benefits, poor lifting patterns leave you vulnerable to hurting yourself.
"Beginners should avoid using weights that are too heavy, and first ensure they have the correct movement down," cautions Mason. In fact, isolation exercises may be a more suitable place to start in learning the basics. "Those who have never attempted compound exercises should consult with a trainer or fitness professional before adding them into their routine."
Remember, compound movements group various exercises together, and so mastering them individually is the key to progressing your fitness and strength at a quicker (and safer) pace.
Another consideration is anyone recovering from an injury or recent surgery, in which case compound movements should not be attempted. Instead the focus should shift to isolation exercises. "These are often used in physical therapy or rehab centers," says Hood.
Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises
Both compound and isolation exercises have their place on the gym floor, and benefit us in different ways. "Compound exercises are great at emulating real-life movement, whereas isolation exercises target only one muscle group at a time; so they are typically used when you want to add definition to one specific muscle or correct an imbalance," Mason highlights.
Although compound exercises can generate results fast, isolation movements serve you well if you're looking to specifically build strength or condition a specific area of the body. "Isolation exercises have the purpose of improving strength in targeted muscles, such as building up the biceps, and also have their place in rehabilitation following an injury," Hood points out.
On the other hand, compound exercises work the body efficiently and in quicker time, with both strength and cardio benefits—not to mention, the potential to improve our daily movement.
As Mason puts it: "One isn’t necessarily better than the other. Rather it’s about looking at your goals and what you want to achieve."
The Final Takeaway
Compound exercises challenge multiple muscle groups at once for a high-calorie-burning cardio, and strength workout in one. Compared with isolation exercises, which target a single muscle group (such as the triceps with a triceps extension), compound exercises target many muscles together. Examples include squats and deadlifts, which fire up many muscles.
Anyone with injuries or recovering from a surgery should avoid compound movements, given the strain it places on the body. Before attempting compound exercises, work on learning basic isolating exercises to then combine together, for proper form, execution, and to reap the full benefits of the workout.
Compound and isolation exercises both have their unique individual benefits, with neither one outweighing the other. Rather, personal goals and preference will determine which workout is most suitable for an individual.