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Get Bigger, Faster, and Stronger with Compound Exercises

Reading Time: 7 minutes 30 seconds


DATE: 2022-10-27

Many clients think they need complicated exercises to accomplish their ambitious goals. But, as a fitness professional, you know that's not always the case. It is your job as a coach to educate clients on how to focus on exercises that yield a high return. And when it comes to building muscle and strength, compound movements are the most effective way for clients to hit their goals.

Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises

Weight training involves many different components, all of which can be used interchangeably based on a client’s goals. As a fitness professional, you know that there is no one size fits all program. What works for one client may or may not work for another – even if they have similar goals. Each body responds differently to exercise.

In addition to body responses, there are a variety of exercise methods that produce results. Two major exercise classifications are referred to as compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises target multiple large muscle groups at once. While isolation exercises “isolate” one specific muscle or body part.

Let’s dive into the pros and cons of compound and isolation exercises. It’s important to prepare a client’s programs and know when to use one or the other. You might even encounter clients who can benefit from both exercise types.

Compound Exercise Pros

Compound exercises require less equipment and are more time-efficient. They produce great results when working to build muscle without running the risk of building imbalances. Plus, they help improve functional fitness and prevent injuries by using the entire body. Compound lifts get clients the most bang for their buck.

Compound exercise involves multiple muscles and groups in one movement. This makes them a time-efficient exercise. It eliminates clients from having to perform numerous exercises to achieve the same effect. The barbell squat is a compound lift that requires multiple joints to work at once. 

Rather than using a particular muscle, it requires muscle activation from many. This includes the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and more. Compare this to a leg curl which targets mainly the hamstrings, or a leg extension which targets mainly the quadriceps. These exercise machines target a specific muscle group. A multi-joint exercise is more effective at building muscle than isolated exercises.

Check out this study that supports the use of multi-joint exercise for strength increases in the lower body.

Cons of Compound Lifts

Compound exercise does involve lifting heavier weights. This can increase the risk of injury. When form is compromised under heavy load, injury is more prevalent. However, if clients focus on form and technique, compound lifts are safe and effective. It is important to ensure clients move properly. This includes having minimal imbalances, especially when performing compound lifts.

Consider limiting compound lifting when working with clients who have an injury or are recovering from an injury, consider limiting compound lifting. There is not just one muscle group working at once. Therefore, an injured muscle that is much weaker than others can lead to injury elsewhere in the body.

Isolation Movement Pros

Isolation exercises work a single muscle group at one time. The bicep curl, for example, is an isolation exercise that targets the biceps. Isolation exercises are often used in physical therapy. This is to strengthen certain muscles or rehabilitate an injury. Many strength training athletes use compound lifts only. Though they may use isolation or accessory exercises to have a more focused approach. 

Isolation exercise can be used to benefit compound lifting. This happens through strengthening individual muscles that are also used in compound exercise. Accessory exercises like a triceps extension help clients build smaller muscles. These muscles are usually activated in a compound exercise like the bench press. Bodybuilders use isolation moves to provide more focus on smaller muscle groups. In addition to this, you can expect the following with isolation exercise:

Cons of Isolation Lifts

Isolation movements are a single joint exercise, which helps when correcting a muscle imbalance. Though they are not as time efficient as a compound exercise. Since they do not recruit as many muscle fibers as compound lifts, you can expect much less of a fat burning effect. They take up much more time in the gym as well. Clients only get to focus on just one muscle at a time. Gymgoers begin feeling like they are working more and harder for a lesser return. 

These efforts lead to a lower calorie burn and a minimal increase in human growth hormones. You can focus on one muscle group. Though you can only increase the weight so much on isolation exercises. 

Should You Focus Primarily on Compound Exercises?

The short answer is yes. Although it depends on the goals of the client, compound exercises produce strength, power, and muscle gains. They increase testosterone and growth hormone, which is responsible for building muscle and burning fat.

Benefits of Including Compound Exercises

Here is a list of the benefits of compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, pull-up, and pressing movements.

  • Time efficient: Compound exercises save time from having to complete individual exercises for each muscle group.

  • Higher muscle fiber recruitment: Utilizing free weights and heavy weights enable clients to recruit more type II muscle fibers.

  • Higher calorie burn: The more muscle groups used in a weight lifting exercise the more energy needed.

  • Muscle and strength gain: Higher potential of muscle growth and strength when using a heavier load.

  • Avoid building imbalances: Isolation exercises can create imbalances through unilateral training. Compound training uses mainly bilateral movements.

  • Improved RHR: Compound exercises involve many muscles and joints so much that an increase in heart rate provides a cardio benefit.

  • Better flexibility: Compound exercises mimic real-life movements. Think of it as stretching with extra weight. They help improve range of motion.

  • Requires less equipment: For compound movements, all you need is a barbell, rack, and plate weights. Barbells and free weights are much more effective than machines.

  • Improved neuromuscular coordination: The ability to control muscles during multi-joint movements is improved through central nervous system adaptations.

Working Safely Through Compound Exercises

Compound weight lifting includes moving heavy weights, which can lead to a higher risk of injury. It is important to take all safety precautions to reduce the risk of clients getting injured. Here are some safety tips to advise clients on.

  • Warm up: Always warm up the movement pattern your client will be performing with lighter weight first. Include dynamic warm-ups that target the muscles you will be using.

  • Technique and form: Practice building proper form before increasing the load.

  • Rest: Ample rest is important between sets. Strength training with compound exercises should include rest up to four minutes in between sets.

  • Spot: Always provide a spot or ensure clients have a spotter when going heavy.

  • Rest days: Having days off is important to give the nervous system a break from the stress compound lifting induces. Take 48 hours in between intense and heavy workouts before working the same movement or muscles.

  • Prescribe splits: Splits ensure maximum intensity and volume with adequate rest. Two popular workout splits are performing upper body and lower body two times per week. Total of four days per week. Or three full-body workouts per week.

  • Cool down: Always cool down after a workout to improve blood circulation and heart rate recovery.

Now, let's take a closer look at some of the top compound exercises to help your client get more out of their workout routine.

The Best Compound Exercises

The benefits of compound exercises are a result of them being multi-joint movements. When multiple joints are used, multiple muscle groups work at the same time.

Barbell Back Squat

Squats are a compound exercise or multi-joint movement. The squat movement pattern works many leg muscles, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes. The hips, knees, and ankles are all joints involved in the workout, as compared to leg extensions which involve only the knee joint.

Although a leg exercise, the squat incorporates the upper body via different muscle groups. To have good squat form, the barbell must rest on the upper back. One must have good shoulder flexibility and strength to rest in this position. Shoulder width can contribute to the mobility potential and execution of the movement.

This helps keep the body upright and balanced. When the back muscles around the spine are engaged you reduce a client's risk of injury.

At the bottom or end range of the squat, the quadriceps are highly activated. This is due to the degree of bending in the knees. The quads initiate the movement of standing back up.

To stand back up the hips need to extend forward and the posterior chain needs to work even more. The hamstring and glutes are responsible for completing the exercise.

Barbell Deadlift

The deadlift exercise is a hip hinge movement pattern targeting many different muscle groups at once. It is a posterior chain dominant exercise compared to squats.

Deadlifts use multiple joints including the hips, knees, and ankles. Perform this compound movement with an overhand grip. You'll work the forearms, glutes, hamstrings, calves, lats, traps, and abs.

The upper body involvement of the back and core helps stabilize the body and keep the spine neutral during the lift. When lowering the barbell in a deadlift, the body flexes at the hip joint and then extends when returning to the standing position. Contract the hamstrings and glutes to complete the deadlift.

Learn more: Romanian Deadlift: Training the Other Half of Your Leg

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press is considered one of the best upper body compound exercises. It helps build strength and muscle in the chest, triceps, and shoulders. With three major muscle groups working together, the return on investment is high.

The joints used during flat bench presses include the shoulder and elbow joints. The shoulders abduct and adduct while the elbows flex and extend. This recruits many muscle fibers.

Standing Military Press

The military press encompasses the shoulders, upper back, upper chest, and triceps muscles. It even stimulates the core to stabilize the body to remain upright and standing.

To perform the shoulder press, the shoulder and elbow joint must be mobile. The amount of total body activation is what creates potential for muscle growth and strength gains.

By using a barbell, you enable clients to use free weights and heavy load. By using heavy weights compared to machines your client can recruit more muscle fibers. This leads to greater growth.


There are not many bodyweight compound exercises out there, but pull-ups are one of the best. Pull-ups increase arm, back, and grip strength. Muscles used in this compound workout are the pecs, shoulders, lats, and rhomboids. Plus, to keep the body from swinging, the core must be used as well.

Check out this article on the blog to help clients increase pull-up strength.

If you enjoy working with clients whose goals are building muscle and maximum strength, consider pursuing ISSA's Powerlifting Certification. This course can help add another weightlifting method to your list of training services when you become an expert on the best compound movements for foundational strength.

Featured Course

ISSA | Powerlifting Instructor

ISSA Advanced Powerlifting Specialists have a desire to improve individuals' daily lives, and improve their strength. Focused on the science behind how the body moves and reacts, specifically in the three core movements: squat, deadlift and bench press. Advanced Powerlifting Specialists are knowledgeable in the why and how of this specific technique and are prepared to help individuals of all ages.


Goncalves, A., Gentil, P., Steele, J., Giessing, J., Paoli, A., & Fisher, J. P. (2019). Comparison of single- and multi-joint lower body resistance training upon strength increases in recreationally active males and females: a within-participant unilateral training study. European journal of translational myology29(1), 8052. https://doi.org/10.4081/ejtm.2019.8052

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