Compound lifts are the lifts that use multiple muscles at once. Compound exercises should form the basis of any strength training routine as these types of lift build quality muscle quickly.
In contrast, isolation lifts are the lifts that focus on one specific muscle group. These are best used in moderation to fatigue an individual muscle after a compound workout. Isolation lifts are also good for aesthetic purposes, to develop and fine tune balanced muscles.
The big 3 compound lifts
These most important compound lifts are idea free weight exercises, but they can also be created using weight machines.
For example, the bench press can be recreated with the chest press, which uses the same muscles. Similarly, the squat can be recreated with the movement of the leg press.
Body builders will also use the isolation exercises to balance the overall look of their muscles, but isolation lifts are not the best way to build muscle in general because they are too specific.
Other important compound lifts
Dips, Chin ups and Pull ups are bodyweight exercises, so they can be performed without using any extra weights.
Shoulder press, dips, chin ups and pull ups all work large muscle groups. When used alongside the big three compound exercises (deadlift, squat and bench press), these will help to form a great strength training routine.
Groups of compound lifts:
Deadlift / Squat / Bench Press
Shoulder Press / Lat Pull Down
Seated Row / Single Arm Row / Dips
Assisted Pull Ups / Chin ups
How to use compound lifts
Compound lifts should form the backbone of your strength training workout. For each muscle group it is a good idea to perform two compound movements as the main part of your workout then finish off with an isolation exercise to fatigue the muscle.
For example, compound lifts for your upper back workout could be the lat pulldown and seated row. At the end of your workout, the isolation lift to complement these movements could be a couple of sets of reverse dumbbell flyes.
By prioritising the basic, compound lifts you can make the fastest gains. Compound exercises use more muscles to create the movement, so you get an overall workout with each compound lift. This maximises the efficiency of your workout and minimises your time spent in the gym.
Compound lift movements
The compound lifts all use big movements, such as pushing, pulling, lifting and squatting, which are all functional movements.
These are the types of movements we all make in real life, outside the gym. Compound movements help to develop this kind of functional strength, which benefits you every day, not only in the gym.
Because compound movements use many muscles together, they leave our muscles more depleted than isolation exercises, which are much easier on the body as a whole.
Compound movements also demand much more from the heart and lungs, giving us a better cardio workout at the same time as muscle development, thanks to the exhausting nature of all-over body workouts.
Due to their superb body-conditioning results, compound lifts give you a solid strength foundation which can be used as the basis for all your other health and fitness goals.
Read about isolation lifts as the ideal way to finish your workout and fine tune individual muscles after compound exercises.
Which are your favourite compound lifts?
Are there any compound lifts you think are overrated? Or underused in the gym?