What are compound exercises and why are they so effective?

What are compound exercises and why are they so effective?

A compound resistance exercise is a multi-joint movement which works several different muscle groups simultaneously.   Examples include the “daddy” of all bodyweight exercises – the squat – and the deadlift. 

Unfortunately, a majority of gyms are full of equipment that is geared towards resistance exercises that isolate one or two joints to target specific muscle groups.  For example, in a leg extension machine, you sit down and move the knee joint alone using the quadriceps muscle group in isolation.  There are many negatives to this sort of exercise:

  • You have probably been sat down  at work all day, then sat down in your car seat to drive to the gym. You may have been sat down all day – you need to move more, not sit down again!
  • This "flexion dominated lifestyle" shortens the muscles on the front of the body and weakens the muscles in the posterior kinetic chain on the back of the body. Seated exercises simply exacerbate such problems.
  • The seated position reduces the need to stabilise the body using the core muscles, an area which most exercisers are keen to target. The fixed weight hides any imbalances in strength between your left and right sides, so it may exacerbate rather than correct such problems.

In contrast, compound exercises (using bodyweight alone or with free weights such as dumbbells or kettlebells) mimic real life functional movements, where all muscle groups are required to fire simultaneously.   A great example is the everyday activity of picking up shopping bags, which is basically a deadlift.  It certainly isn’t a hamstring curl! This isn’t to say that fixed resistance machines don’t have their uses.  If you have a lower body injury, for example, they can be used to continue to strengthen the upper body during this time, without having to hobble back and forwards to the weight rack. 

However, what may people tend to forget is that fixed resistance machines originally were designed and intended specifically as rehabilitation aids – not for general fitness!  Regrettably, their omnipresence in modern gyms persists as they require less staff supervision compared to free weights and other more functional equipment.  It certainly isn’t due to their effectiveness in helping the average gym-goer reach their goals!

So what is the alternative?  Ensuring that your resistance exercise is based around compound exercises brings many benefits:

  • Burning far more body fat
  • Strengthening the core
  • Protecting against injury in everyday life
  • Shorter, more effective workouts

If you don’t have the equipment for deadlifts or kettlebell workouts, bodyweight exercises work just as well!  Squats, lunges, woodchops, planks and mountain climbers are great examples of effective compound movements that can be done anywhere with zero equipment! 

If you prefer a group fitness environment, such exercises feature extensively in our JB Fitness & Wellbeing group exercise classes. For full details and online bookings, visit our Exercise Classes Swindon Timetable page.  

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