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If getting bigger and stronger is your priority, then you absolutely need to be including compound lifts in your regular workout routine. But which lifts should you include in your training, and why is it important to include them at all?
In order to answer these questions, and more, we’re going over everything you need to know about compound lifts, from what exactly they are, to our list of the 8 best compound lifts for building size and strength.
What are Compound Lifts?
When it comes to lifting weights, there are two basic types of exercises: isolation movements and compound lifts. In simple terms, isolation movements are exercises that only target a single muscle group — a good example would be the bicep curl, where you’re primarily working only your biceps when you perform the movement.
In contrast, compound lifts are defined as exercises that engage multiple muscle groups (often across multiple joints) and they’re prominently featured in most muscle and strength building programs — that’s not to say that many programs won’t also include isolation movements, but rather, that compound lifts will usually take first priority.
That’s because compound lifts lift the squat for example, which simultaneously works everything from your calves, quads, and glutes, to your core and lower back, are not only more efficient, but they’ve also been shown to be more effective when it comes to building size and strength.
Benefits of Compound Exercises
On top of helping to maximize both your muscle and strength building potentials, compound lifts have also been shown to help with everything from burning up more calories during and after your workout, to reducing the amount of time it takes to complete a workout.
⫸Compound Lifts are More Efficient
Targeting multiple muscle groups at once with compound movements is far more practical (and way less time-consuming) in comparison to trying to work out all of the different muscles in your legs, for example, in isolation.
Besides the fact that it can be difficult to fully isolate certain muscle groups, it would potentially take you multiple hours if you were to sit there and try and do a different isolation exercise for every muscle you’re trying to work.
Instead, choosing a few exercises that simultaneously engage all of the muscles you’re trying to target can be a far more efficient use of your time in the gym.
So as opposed to your workout session dragging on, with the right exercises in place, you can get a seriously challenging workout under your belt in as little as 30 to 45 minutes.
⫸Compound Lifts Burn-Up More Calories
In addition to helping to increase the efficiency of your workout, compound lifts can also help to improve your calorie-burning potential.
That’s because, as we’ve already discussed, compound lifts recruit more muscles than isolation movements, and the more muscles you have involved in the movement, the more calories you’re going to burn.
In fact, with the right training volume and workout intensity in place, an exercise routine centered around compound lifts can even potentially rival most traditional steady-state cardio programs in terms of the number of calories you can burn in a single training session.
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⫸Build More Size and Strength With Compound Lifts
Because you’re recruiting more than just one muscle group with compound movements, you’ll be able to lift substantially more weight in comparison to isolation movements. When it comes to maximizing your strength and muscle-building potentials, lifting heavy weights is the name of the game.
Lifting heavy places more strain on your muscle fibers, causing more tissue damage and creating the necessary circumstances for your muscles to grow bigger and stronger.
In simple terms, the more muscle fibers you’re able to damage with your workout, the greater the degree to which muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is potentially elevated. MPS is the main mechanism behind muscle growth, and the higher your levels of MPS are, the greater your strength and muscle-building potentials are.
In comparison to isolation movements, compound movements have been shown to trigger a greater MPS response in the hours and even days after a workout, especially in combination with a high protein intake.
The 8 Best Compound Lifts For Building Size and Strength
Listed below are 8 of the best compound lifts for building size and strength. In addition to covering the big 3 — the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press, which are the centerpieces of most strength-building programs — we’ll also be going over bodybuilding staples like the leg press and bent-over row.
When it comes to the best compound movements, no list is complete without the squat — it is known as the king of all exercises after all. The squat is typically performed with a barbell, weight plates, and a squat rack — weight plates are added to the barbell to achieve the desired resistance.
The movement is performed by lowering your body (with the bar across your shoulders) into the squatting position until the back of your legs are just about parallel with the ground. From there, you lift yourself back up into the standing position squeezing your glutes at the top, repeating the process until you reach the desired number of reps.
In terms of compound lifts that target your legs, the deadlift is right up there with the squat both in terms of popularity and effectiveness. While it’s not as much of a staple exercise in some bodybuilding programs, it’s a central feature in just about any serious strength-building program.
To Perform the deadlift, you simply load the bar up to the desired weight and lift it straight up off of the ground. Concentrate on pushing the bar up off the floor with your legs rather than pulling it up with your arms, and focus on keeping the bar path as close to your body as you can.
3. Bench Press
Rounding out the big 3 is the bench press, which is a mainstay in almost every size and strength-building program out there. When it comes to building size and strength in your chest, there is no exercise that is better. And on top of that, your triceps and shoulders are also involved in the movement.
While there are all sorts of different approaches to performing the bench press, nothing is more effective than the traditional free weight bench press performed with a weight-loaded barbell.
4. Incline Bench Press
A variation of the traditional bench press, the incline bench is like the name implies, performed at an incline, instead of flat on your back. While this might not be a first priority lift in some strength training programs, it’s an especially useful tool when it comes to developing bigger, more well-rounded pecs.
On top of targeting the upper head of the pectoral muscle more than the flat bench, the incline bench is also going to recruit your shoulder muscles to a greater degree as well.
5. Overhead Press
The overhead press is your go-to movement when it comes to building size and strength in your shoulders. It works all of the major muscles in your shoulders — though it primarily targets the anterior delt — and even hits your triceps and core as well.
The overhead press can be performed with dumbbells, but it’s most often performed with a weight-loaded barbell, which allows for heavier loads to be lifted. During the movement itself, make sure to keep the barbell centered over your body as you press upward, locking out your elbows at the top of the movement.
6. Leg Press
While there is nothing better than the squat and deadlift when it comes to making your legs bigger and stronger, the leg press is also a useful and versatile tool. While it works everything from your calves up to your glutes, which muscles are more or less involved in the movement ultimately depends on your foot placement.
Put your feet closer to the top of the platform, and place more of the focus on your hamstrings. Move your feet further downward, and feel the emphasis shift to your quads. It’s a great exercise to do after the squat or the deadlift, where you can really focus on targeting and exhausting your leg muscles.
7. Bent-Over Row
When it comes to working all of the major muscle groups in your back, there’s just about no movement better than the bent-over row. It singles handly targets everything from your lats and rhomboids to your traps and rotator cuffs. On top of that, it’s also a great workout for your biceps, especially if you go with an underhand grip.
Because the bent-over row involves all of these different muscle groups, you can really go heavy on the lift, which is the perfect scenario for building up size and thickness in your back.
The pull-up is right up there with the bent-over barbell row when it comes to the most effective compound lifts for building up your back. Along with alternatives like the lat pull-down, the pull-up has been a staple in the bodybuilding community and is prominently featured in many standardized strength and muscle-building programs.
Like the bent-over row, it also targets most of the major muscle groups in your back (along with your biceps), however, the pull-up ultimately engages those muscles in different ways and from different angles, which makes it the ultimate compliment to exercises like the bent over and seated row.
From the squat and deadlift to the bench press and bent-over, there you have it, 8 of the best compound lifts for building size and strength across your entire body.
Now that doesn’t mean that you have to avoid isolation movements like the bicep curl altogether, but rather that compound lifts should be the central feature of your training routine. Start off your workouts with heavy, compound lifts, and then move on to lighter isolation movements afterward to maximize your muscle-building potential.