After recently getting into weightlifting, I decided to do a little research into the different types of lifting and the benefits of each. Talking with people at the gym showed me that different people adopt different programs and led me to ask, “What is compound lifting?” Compound lifting is weightlifting that engages multiple joints and muscle groups, rather than targeting one joint and muscle group as in isolation lifting.
What is Compound Lifting?
Compound lifting is favored by lifters who want to choose exercises that engage multiple joints and muscle groups. The result of this is the body gaining strength and muscle equally.
The idea behind compound lifting is that many muscles are engaged enough to stimulate muscle growth. Proponents of compound lifting find that it is an efficient way to get the most out of a workout. Engaging in exercises that work multiple parts of the body is efficient and produces excellent results.
Benefits of Compound Lifting
Most lifters report that the most significant benefit associated with compound lifting is that it is the most efficient and effective use of gym time.
Most people don’t have limitless time to spend in the gym, so being able to work more muscles and joints to build strength and stamina can be done by choosing compound exercises. Compound exercises are known to build more strength and stimulate muscle growth effectively.
Additional benefits include burning more calories by engaging more muscle groups and joints. Compound exercises improve intramuscular coordination as they are worked simultaneously. The elevation in heart rate is good cardio activity while improving flexibility, strength, and of course, gaining more muscle mass.
What is Isolation Lifting?
To fully understand compound lifting, it’s a counterpart, isolation lifting, has to be explored as well. Isolation lifting refers to weightlifting that targets a single muscle group. Isolation lifting is good for lifters wanting to gain strength in a specific area. Those wishing to increase upper arm strength will engage in reps of bicep curls to target that specific muscle group.
Often beginner lifters start with isolation lifting as they want to improve strength and muscle in certain areas. As lifters become more experienced and knowledgeable, they tend to move away from isolation lifting to incorporate compound lifting into their workouts.
Results of Isolation Lifting
While isolation lifting results in the increase of specific muscle groups, it is counterintuitive to how the body works and what it knows. Isolation exercises, also referred to as ‘isometric’ exercises, focuses on muscle rather than movement.
The body does now know muscles per se, but more so understands movement and how the individual parts of the body work together. Isolation lifting is working under the assumption that the body knows muscles, rather than movement and the coordination of numerous systems within the body.
Muscles are bio-pumps, meaning they pump fluids throughout the body via contraction of the muscle fibers, and that is why the movement is the most integral part of a healthy body. Isolation lifting works under the principle of loading one part of the body, while the unloading is the outcome of the muscle stretch that produces a contraction.
Isolated exercises are counterintuitive to the body as it does not encourage the movement of the body and its connected systems and muscles but instead focuses on loading one specific area.
The Body and Isometric Exercise
While the body is capable of doing isometric exercises, it prefers not to. Loading a single area of the body robs it of oxygen, meaning that more initial strength is needed for isolation exercises.
When the body burns during isolation exercises, it is telling the body to move and use the body the way it is designed, through movement and coordination with its various parts and systems. So for individuals wanting isolated strength for a particular body part and activity, isolated lifting has its place.
Isolation Lifting Vs. Compound Lifting
Many beginner lifters start with isolation lifting as they look in the mirror, see parts of their physique they want to improve upon and decide to focus on those.
Isolation lifters want bigger biceps or toned abs, so they start with the areas they first want to see results in. The problem with this is that isolation lifting takes more strength, to begin with as it is targeting a single muscle group, rather than multiple ones that work together to share the load.
Where Isolation Lifting Belongs
Isolation lifting does have a place, but it is widely thought that that place should be after compound lifting has been perfected and produced excellent strength and muscle development throughout the body. Isometric exercises work counter-intuitively to how the body works.
We all know how one system within the body depends on the functioning of another; the same can be said of muscle groups that while different, work together to share the loads placed on the body during weightlifting and regular daily activities.
For athletes that engage in compound lifting and exercises, they have cultivated a total strength based on muscle groups working together, and that is the time to approach isolation lifting, not at the onset.
Once an athlete has experience lifting, targeting a particular muscle group to improve a specific activity is not a bad thing, and isolation lifting can certainly accomplish that. It is recommended that although beginner lifters often start with isolation lifting, this should be reversed and adopted after cultivating a full compound lifting routine.
Compound Exercises for Body Part
As discussed above, isolation exercises and lifting target a specific muscle group so are good for producing results for a specific body part. Compound exercises and lifting does accomplish that as well but gets there via a different approach.
For people wanting to get better abs, they likely will try squats. Squatting is an excellent example of a compound exercise as it works the quadriceps, glutes, calves, and abs.
So using a compound exercise to beef up the muscle and strength of a specific body part is indeed possible, but it also will enhance the strength of all coordinating body systems and parts. While engaging the abs during a squat, the legs and coordinating muscle groups are also being worked simultaneously.
Compound Exercises and the Body
Compound lifting and exercises follow the body’s natural rhythms. They encourage movement, and regarding lifting, work with the body’s ability to share the load through the coordination of different muscle groups.
It is recommended that beginner lifters start with a variety of compound lifts that will improve muscle strength and mass throughout the body.
Compound lifting is the most efficient use of your gym time as it engages different joints and muscles in the same amount of time isolation lifters would just be working for a singular group.
Compound lifting works with the body’s natural tendency towards movement, prevents plateauing, and makes your workouts more interesting and thus more pleasurable to continue.
Examples of Compound Lifts
Now that we have fully explored the pros and cons of compound lifting versus isolation lifting let’s look at some individual exercises for both.
- The Deadlift
The deadlift needs a barbell and will target the forearms, glutes, lats, hamstrings, core, and the upper, mid, and lower back.
The deadlifts start by standing with the barbell on the floor in front of you. Stand with feet hip-width apart and your toes under the bar. While keeping your core tight and engaged, push your hips back.
Keep your spine lose and squat down. Be sure to keep your back flat when you grasp the bar. Keep your hands on the bar just wider than your thighs. Try and keep your knees relaxed and push through as you begin your lift.
Keep the bar tight to your body as you lift; your hips and the bar should be rising at the same time. When you extend your body fully at the finish of the lift, squeeze your glutes. Then slowly and carefully lower the bar back to the ground to starting position. Performing 10-to-12 reps is recommended with rest durations of 30-to-60 seconds between sets. Three sets are ideal.
- Reverse Lunge with Bicep Curl
For the reverse lunge with bicep curl, you will need a set of dumbbells, and the muscles groups that are targeted are the glutes, hamstrings, abs, hips, and biceps.
You will start with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Your arms will be extended down and your palms facing inward to the body. Next, step backward with your right foot and lower hips and legs in a lunge position.
Press your left foot into the ground while bringing your right foot forth to return to standing position. Stay balanced on the left foot without letting the right foot reach the ground. Then perform a bicep curl with each arm at the same time. Bring your right leg into the lunge position while bringing your arms down and the dumbbells parallel with the body.
It is recommended to repeat 6-to-8 reps on the right leg and then switching to the left. Resting for 60-to-90 seconds between lunges with completing 2-to-3 sets is ideal.
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press on Exercise Ball
As compound lifts engage multiple muscle groups and joints, it is not uncommon that a compound lift would involve more than one piece of equipment. For the dumbbell shoulder press on an exercise ball, you will need a set of dumbbells and an exercise ball. This compound lift targets the abs, deltoids, triceps, and the pecs.
You will start with sitting on the exercise ball with your core engaged while holding one dumbbell in each hand. Put a dumbbell on each thigh and using your thighs, help push each dumbbell to shoulder height at a 90-degree angle.
Your elbows should be to the sides with the dumbbells facing forward. Push the dumbbells straight upwards until your arms are straight up and overhead. Then slowly bring your arms back to a 90-degree angle with your elbow at shoulder height. Performing 12-to-15 reps is recommended and working up to 3 sets.
- Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press works the pecs, delts, and triceps in a big way. For this compound lift, you will need a bench and a barbell. If you are a beginner lifter, be sure to start this lift with a lower weight and a spotter to ensure you have proper form and are doing it safely before you start increasing the weight.
Start by lying on the bench flat on your back, and your feet pressed flat into the floor. Grip the barbell bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Wrap your thumbs around the bar then hold the barbell at arm’s length over the upper chest area.
Next, slowly lower the barbell to your chest. Pause and then return the barbell to starting position. During the lift, make sure that your upper arms are approximately 45-to-60 degrees from the torso while the hips remain flat on the bench.
Ideally, you will be starting this lift with a spotter positioned behind your head. The spotter will help you get the barbell into the proper starting position, and they will also return the barbell to the rack when you are finished your rep.
As the bar is positioned over the neck, face, and chest, it is highly recommended that beginners use a spotter for this compound lift. It is also recommended that beginners learn the technique and form of this lift with an empty barbell to prevent possible injury.
Effective Workout Schedule for Compound Lifting
For healthy adults that are in good physical shape, compound exercises and lifts can be safely and effectively performed for two-to-three days a week. Alternating compound lifts and exercises are recommended so that multiple muscle groups are being exercised with every workout.
It is recommended that you wait for approximately 48 hours between lifting sessions so the muscles can rest and repair, and this will facilitate their ability to regrow.
Alternating your compound lifts between upper-body and lower-body is also a good idea. That way, while the upper body muscles to rest and repair, the lower body is worked, and vice versa. It is also a good idea to maintain some cardio activity while compound lifting.
While weightlifting does elevate the heart rate, especially with increasing intensity and weight amounts, incorporating cardio into your lifting helps you burn fat and reduce calories. Many athletes choose to focus on cardio on their rest days between lifting workouts for strength training.
Example of an Effective 7-Day Compound Lift Workout Routine
So here is an example of a weekly workout schedule for compound lifting. On day one, engage in compound lifts to focus on the upper body; on day two, engage in compound lifts to focus on the lower body; on day three, engage in cardio activity like swimming or running with no lifting; on day four, return to compound lifts focusing on the upper body; on day five, return to lifts focusing on the lower body; on day six, it is back to cardio; on day seven, take a rest day.
Studies have shown that everyone, even athletes, benefits from having a day of rest to recharge and rejuvenate the physical body and the mind. That day of rest also results in higher productivity moving into the week ahead.
Is Swimming on Days Between Compound Lifting Workouts Recommended?
Yes, not only is swimming the number-one favored recovery exercise used by physiotherapists, it is thought to encourage the repair and recovery of muscles after intense lifting workouts.
Water provides low-resistance low-impact exercise that helps soothe the muscles without putting any weight on joints or muscles. Swimming is also an ideal cardio exercise to engage in while the muscles worked during lifting can repair, recover, and regrow.
Is a Personal Trainer Necessary when Starting a Compound Lifting Workout routine?
Depending on your level of knowledge and experience, a personal trainer may or may not be necessary. If you have no prior experience with weightlifting, you will not be turned into the limits of your body. In this case, it is highly recommended to enlist the help of a personal trainer who will gauge your fitness level and tailor your workout accordingly.
Your trainer will watch your progress and will know when and how to gradually increase your lifting weights to produce the best results without the risk of injury. A personal trainer will also know which types of compound lifts to start with and which to progress to gradually.
For those with some experience lifting weights, while a personal trainer can still be extremely helpful, if you prefer to do some research on your own, you will likely be able to create your compound lifting workout.
With experience weightlifting, you will know your limits and abilities, and this is very important when it comes to preventing potential injuries. You will also likely be competent when it comes to establishing and maintaining proper form throughout your lifts. With some experience, you will be able to decide when to increase your weight amounts.
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