Gaining strength and muscle mass are common goals for many gym-goers. Whether it is increasing squat strength, how much you can bench press, or simply improving total body strength for daily life, compound lifting can be a very effective way to build muscle.
So what is compound lifting? Compound lifting is a term used to describe a style of training that integrates movements that stress multiple muscle groups at one time.
To do this, the movement is multi-joint, meaning that it uses movement patterns that involve multiple joints flexing, extending, and/or rotating in unison with one another.
Most compound lifts involved 2-3 joints being manipulated by muscle tissue at once, such as the hips, knees, and ankles in the squat, or the shoulders and elbows in the bench press. The more joints that are moving at one time, the more muscles that are being used at one time.
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3 Benefits of Compound Lifts
Below are three (3) benefits of integrating the compound lifts into your training program.
1. TRAIN MORE MUSCLES AT ONCE
By definition, compound lifts involve more joints being manipulated at once via muscular contractions. The more joints that are being acted upon during a single exercise suggest that there is more muscle mass working at one time. This can be very helpful in overall strength development, workout efficiency, and overall muscle growth due to many of the factors below.
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2. TIME EFFICIENT
When looking to maximize a workout so that you can get the most bang for your buck, compound lifting is one way to go. Selecting movements that use large amounts of muscle mass at one time can shave minutes off daily workouts, helping some individuals sneak in training sessions while on a time crunch.
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3. INCREASED LOADING STRESS
The more muscle mass that is active at one time generally results in greater amounts of loading being used. When we look at optimal strength development, muscle hypertrophy, and increase bone density adaptations, overall loading stress (weight used) is still one of the most potent training variables we can manipulate.
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3 Disadvantages of Compound Lifts
Below are three (3) disadvantages and/or limitations of integrating the compound lifts into training programs.
1. CAN BE DIFFICULT TO ISOLATE
While compound lifts are ideal for most individuals, building a training program that employs ONLY compound lifts may not be the most optimal way of programming.
Some muscle groups may not be effectively targeted during compound movements, as larger muscle groups may end up taking over the gross movement patterning, limiting one’s ability to address muscle imbalances and/or specific weaknesses.
In these cases, more single-joint, isolation exercises can be done to isolate a specific muscle group that may otherwise go unnoticed if only using compound lifts in training.
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2. SYSTEMIC FATIGUE MAY LIMIT PERIPHERAL ADAPTATIONS
For larger muscle groups, compound lifts can be a great way to stress them with heavy loading and higher training volumes.
However, some muscle groups may not be effectively trained with the use of only compound lifts. Muscle groups like biceps, triceps, hamstrings, and even quadriceps may need to be challenged on a more isolated approach to target the muscle directly rather than allow other muscle groups of factors to influence the training stimulus.
For example, some lifters may fatigue their lower back muscles prior to their legs in a back squat. If a lifter wants to build bigger biceps, doing rows and chin-ups CAN help, but might limit overall growth due to the larger muscles groups taking over the compound movement.
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3. MIGHT BE DIFFICULT TO ADDRESS MOVEMENT IMBALANCES
Similar to systematic fatigue issues discussed above, addressing movement imbalances or muscular systematics can be difficult using large, compound movement patterns.
In these cases, a more isolated approach to muscle growth and movement coordination should be used in addition to other compound lifts.
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When to Use Compound Lifting?
The compound lifts are great movements to use in any training program, especially those looking to maximize strength, athleticism, muscle growth, and power. Integrating them as the foundational movements in any program is suggested. However, utilizing single joint and isolation exercises as well can help increase the overall effectiveness of a training plan.
Generally speaking, compound lifts should be placed in the beginning or workouts when fatigue is at its lowest. This often allows individuals to perform more complex movements with better technique, handle heavier loads, and maximize the effectiveness of complex lifting. That said, you can also do complex lifts later in workouts as long as you understand the benefits/drawbacks of both.
Looking to take the guesswork out of programming altogether, then try using the Fitbod app, which will design your strength training program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt to your levels of recovery and rate of progress and help you maintain strength and muscle while cutting. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results.
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10 Best Compound Movements to Build Strength
Below are ten (10) of the best compound lifting movements to build strength, muscle mass, and fitness. Note, that these are movements, not exercises, meaning that each of these movement classifications can have a wide variety of exercises within them to allow for greater customization, progression, and regressions of a training plan.
For example, the squat is a movement pattern, and within this, you may find exercises like the barbell back squat, kettlebell goblet squat, or dumbbell front squat.
The squat is a paramount movement for building leg strength (quadriceps) as well as back and core strength The squat movement can include but is not limited to: front squats, back squats, overhead squats, box squats, and all the variations with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.
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The deadlift is a key movement for building back, hamstring, and glute strength. This movement includes but is not limited to conventional deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, elevated deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, and other deadline variations involving barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, etc.
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The bench press is a foundational upper body movement for building chest and triceps strength. This movement includes but is not limited to flat bench press, incline bench press, and other bench press variations involving barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, etc.
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The push up can be done using a wide variety of angles such as incline push-ups, floor push-ups, and even handstand push-ups. Changing the angles can shift emphasis from the chest to the triceps, shoulders to chest, and so forth. Increasing push up performance can also increase upper body pressing strength and help improve bench pressing stability and performance as well.
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The high pull is a compound lift that includes both hip extension and upper body pulling stretch in a vertical plane. This movement includes exercises like the snatch and clean grip high pulls, as well as high pull movements using barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells. This movement can be done to place emphasis on the hamstrings, glutes, back, and posterior shoulders and traps.
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The overhead press is an overhead movement for building shoulder, upper chest, and triceps strength. This movement includes but is not limited to military presses, push presses, jerks, Arnold presses, and other overhead pressing variations involving barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, etc.
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The dip is an upper body strength movement that can be done to increase the chest and triceps strength, boost pressing performance and even enhance lock-out in the bench press and overhead pressing movements.
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The bent-over row is a pulling movement for building back and biceps strength. This movement includes but is not limited to bent-over rows, Pendlay rows, single-arm rows, inverted rows, and other upper body pulling variations involving barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, etc.
The chin-up is a movement that can be done with a variety of grips and targets the biceps and back muscles. Similar to the pull-ups, the chin-up has the palms facing the body which shifts emphasis more onto the biceps than the back.
The pull up is a movement that can be done to build a stronger back and biceps. Unlike the chin up, the pull up has the palms facing away from the body, shifting more emphasis on the back rather than the biceps.
The lunge movements can be done to increase lower body strength and muscle growth of the legs. Some exercises that fall under the lunging movements classification include but are not limited to split squats, walking lunges, Bulgarian split squats, and other lunging variations using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight, etc.
Read our article covering The Best Upper Body Workouts for Beginners for muscle gain!
How to Integrate Compound Lifting Into Your Training NOW?
You can insert any of the compound movements within your current training plan by swapping them in for any “less compound” movements. While these 10 movements are not the only ways to develop optimal fitness and muscle growth, they are pillars in which most training programs, regardless of fitness level and goal, are built upon.
I recommend that you have most of these movements, or their direct variants within your training program to maximize results and improve movement, mobility, and fitness.
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Compound lifting is a term that can be used to describe any exercise that involves multiple joints moving in unison at one time.
They can be done in a wide variety of movement patterns, such as the ones above. It’s important to note that the tools used (barbell, dumbbells, bodyweight, kettlebells) can vary based on need, equipment, and goal.
Start by building most of these movements within training programs, using them as pillars in which progression and regressions can be made for optimal results.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.