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Since the dawn of bodybuilding, trainers have argued over whether compound movements or isolation exercises have the most value in building muscle. Well, the truth is out, and it might just surprise you a little.

Let’s start with a brief overview: What are compound exercises?

Compound moves are ones that involve the use of multiple joints and muscle groups. While in theory, you could argue that any exercise involves using many different muscles, as they don’t simply “turn off” when you’re not working them, compounds specifically involve a powerful contraction of the working muscles.

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Think of the squat for example. While it’s thought of as a quadriceps based exercise, it isn’t just your quads that are working. These do work to extend your knee joints on the ascent, but your hamstrings also work to extend your hips, and your calvesplantarflex your ankles. That’s three muscles and joints that are all working, and we’ve not even started to talk about your abdominals and lower back muscles holding your spine stable, your rhomboids and traps holding your scapular in place, or the smaller muscles like the hip flexors, adductors, abductors and piriformis. The squat is a true definition of a compound exercise.

Other examples of compound moves include deadlifts and lunges, as well as any variations of these, along with bench and overhead pressing variations, pull-ups or pull-downs, rows, dips and press-ups.

You can also add certain machine exercises like the leg press, chest press and seated row to the above free-weight movements.

So we have our definition and examples, now let’s look at the pros and cons.

Compounds Pros

- The term “bang for your buck” is thrown around a lot when talking about compound exercises, and it applies perfectly. When you work multiple muscle groups and joints, you do hit a lot of muscle groups in a short space of time. Look at it this way – you could work your forearms with a reverse curl, your hamstrings with a leg curl, your shoulders with a lateral raise, your triceps with a pushdown and your traps with a shrug, or you could hit them all with a clean and press. That’s one compound exercise to get the benefit of five.
- This leads on to a second benefits, which is that by using more muscle groups in one move, you can lift more weight. While strength doesn’t necessarily always equal size, it’s a pretty safe bet that a stronger muscle that can lift more weight is usually a bigger muscle.
- You get a bigger release of muscle building hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone with compound moves.
- Compound moves can be considered more “functional.” This is particularly useful to any athletes building muscle. The body works as a unit on the sports field, so the more muscles you work together in the gym, the better.

Compounds Cons

- Compounds aren’t too great at targeting individual muscles. In theory a chin-up works your biceps, but once you’re past the beginner to intermediate stage, you’ll struggle to get smaller muscle groups to grow through compound exercises alone.
- Compounds are draining. When working at a high intensity, you’ll probably only have the energy to perform two or three compounds effectively in one session.
- The learning process is much more difficult. If you’re just starting out on your bodybuilding journey, it can take months to learn how to execute a squat or deadlift correctly.

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