The compound lifts, in particular ‘The Big 3’ (squat, bench and deadlift), are exercises in which you use an array of muscles or joints in the same movement.
This is as opposed to isolation movements which will only use one muscle (you guessed it) in isolation.
Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises
Due to the extra muscles used within the movement you will show the most strength on compound movements.
If you use the bench press as an example, the triceps are tiny muscles and they haven’t got that much strength. Whereas the chest muscle, the pectoralis major, is massive and this will help you shift that weight through the initial phase off your chest and assist through the movement as it transitions into your deltoids and triceps.
Which is why the weight you use on a skull crusher should be nowhere near what you can bench. No muscle in this chain of movement can perform a bench press by itself, the three main movers need to work together here.
Isolation exercises however, are generally weaker as they focus entirely on the one muscle or movement. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have their place in a training programme though.
They can be a fantastic way to stimulate hypertrophy in a muscle or area of your body, and while a bigger muscle isn’t necessarily a stronger one, a bigger muscle definitely has more potential for strength than a smaller one does.
As an example I have had powerlifting clients who struggle with bench press due to having an underdeveloped chest. The way around this firstly is to practice bench more (it’s not uncommon for a powerlifting programme to have bench press 4x a week) but coupled with this I would also have them training to focus on chest hypertrophy.
This could be with flyes or press variants, and while these exercises might not have a direct effect on the bench press strength, training them concurrently with the bench press will mean that the skill is being practiced while the muscle is being made bigger.
Regardless of whether you goal is skewered more towards size or strength, your workout should have a good mixture of both compound and isolation exercises.
On that note, lets look at ‘The Big 3’ in more detail.
When I was first getting in to strength training I remember reading that the squat was “the granddaddy of strength and lower body exercises,” and now that I’m more experienced I agree with this even more.
If you’re unsure of what a squat is, it is an exercise that uses the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the glutes and the lower back. To put it really simply you place a bar across your trapezius, or shoulders (more on that in a moment), then you squat down to a position where your hips are below the top of your thighs and the power back up to a standing position.
There are two distinct bar positions which can be used with a squat – High bar and Low bar.
The majority of people will learn high bar, and this will be in the inventory of the recreational gym goer too. High bar is where the bar is placed across the trapezius muscle near the neck. This position works best for people who squat with their back in a more upright position.
Low bar can be a bit more tricky to find the best position. The best way to find the correct position is to set the bar up in a high bar position against the rack and to slide the bar down your back until you find a second racking position, you’ll feel where it sits nicely.
With the bar being in this position you may find that your hand width is effected. You will likely also notice that your wrists, elbows and shoulders will feel a little uncomfortable due to the rotation needed to grasp the bar correctly.
Genetics play a large role in which bar position you choose –
- High Bar requires – greater ankle flexion, shorter relative femur length, longer torso length, wider stance and more quadriceps dominance.
- Low Bar requires – longer relative femur length, shorter torso, wider stance, greater gluteal strength.
Also, high bar squats respond best to an elevation in the heel, so this is where weightlifting shoes can come in handy. Low bars respond better to no heel elevation, so flat shoes are good for this.
The Bench Press
I mentioned the bench press briefly earlier in my examples. It is seen as one of ‘The Big 3’ due to its prominence in both full powerlifting competitions and bench only competitions. It also has an association with a Monday in most commercial gyms.
You could make the case that the push press or the barbell row are better strength builders for the upper body, and you’d probably have merit but really, all 3 should be used if you want to develop some real strength and power.
If you’re unsure of what a bench press is, it is when you lie down on a bench (on your back, of course) unrack a bar over your chest and bring it down to your chest (all the way) and the press it back up. With doing this you are using the pectoralis muscles, the triceps and the deltoids (you are also using the latissimus dorsi (the back) to bring the bar down in a controlled manner).
The powerlifting style of bench press can often get strange looks from the uninitiated due to its potentially wider grip, strange foot position and bizarre back arch.
The reason for this is that the rule book states that your feet need to be flat on the floor, and your butt, shoulders and head need to be in contact with the bench. There is no mention of where your back should be, and by raising the back (and therefore the chest) up you are minimising the range of motion in which the bar has to travel, and this should result in more weight being shifted.
Finally – The Deadlift
This is my personal favourite, frankly because its what I’m best at. This exercise uses the most muscles of any we’ve gone over so far, it uses –
- The hamstrings.
- The glutes.
- The Quadriceps.
- The lower back.
- The upper back, and –
- The forearms.
It probably would have been quicker to explain which muscles it doesn’t use. Due to the amount of muscles it uses it is likely to be the strongest of ‘The Big 3’.
Again, if you’re unsure of what one is it is where you have barbell on the floor and you pick it up to hip height so that your knees, hips, and shoulders are locked out. The set up you would use on a deadlift varies massively from person to person, if you’re unsure there is a good Mark Rippetoe video on youtube which explains it very well.
Conventional or Sumo?
As with the bar positions on the squat, there are two types of deadlift which can be employed.
The conventional deadlift is very narrow. You will have a narrow foot stance and as a result you will have a narrow hand spacing upon the bar (just wider than your feet).
The Sumo deadlift, however, involves having a very wide stance with your feet turned out. Your arms will be fairly narrow.
The sumo deadlift has a shorter range of motion to travel than the conventional does but it does not suit everyone. Generally, it requires a longer relative femur length and short torso length. However, this does not mean every low bar squatter will sumo deadlift, as arm length also plays a large part in the set up.
To Sum up
The compound exercises are big, they’re strong and they’re fun if you’re that way inclined. But they aren’t necessarily better than isolation exercises, they are just a different tool to get you to whichever goal you’re aiming at.
As I pointed out above, every workout should have a good mix of both, the balance will just depend upon your goals.