Why Compound Exercises Get Great Results

Functional Moves for Fitness Gains and Weight Loss

Side Squat with Kettlebell Curl
Side Squat with Kettlebell Curl. Ben Goldstein

Compound exercises are moves that involve more than one joint and muscle group at a time, as opposed to an isolation exercise which only works one muscle/joint at a time.

For example, a leg lift involves moving the hip joint and focuses on strengthening the outer thigh and glutes. If you were to change that to a side step with a squat, you would still be working the outer thigh, but now you've added more joints (hips, knees, ankles, and elbows) and more muscles (quads, hamstrings, calves, biceps, and forearms).

Biceps curls are another isolation movement, involving the elbow joint and the biceps muscles. But, what if you were to add a squat? Not only are you working the arms, but you're targeting the major muscles of the lower body at the same time. This also makes the movement more challenging and raises the heart rate, adding an element of cardio to a traditional strength training move. All of this translates into burning more calories than you would by doing a set of traditional biceps curls.

5 Reasons to Perform Compound Movements

Compound movements are important in any exercise routine for a variety of reasons.

  • They're functional. If you think about what you do with your body on a given day—picking up a laundry basket, putting something onto a high shelf, carrying a briefcase while pulling a suitcase and pushing open a door—all these movements involve multiple joints, muscles, and planes of motion. Compound exercises help strengthen your body the way it actually works in real life.
  • They burn more calories. There are more body parts, muscles, and joints involved in compound exercises which translates to performing a larger volume of work in the same amount of time. More volume means burning more calories than you would with more traditional isolation exercises. Adding more compound exercises can help you avoid or at least manage weight loss plateaus, nudging your body in the right direction to push past those stubborn plateaus. That doesn't mean isolation exercises are bad, just that they don't necessarily need to make up the bulk of your workout if your goal is to lose body fat.
  • They add intensity to your workouts. If you want to lose weight and change your body, you have to challenge it on a regular basis. Compound exercises, by the very definition above, are more intense simply because you have to recruit more muscle groups to do the exercises with good form.
  • They make your workouts more effective. You have a limited time to exercise, but you can get more out of the time you do have by using challenging multi-joint exercises. Save even more time by combining both the upper and lower body in the same exercise.
  • They make sense. Many people start lifting weights using the rules gleaned from bodybuilders or other professional weightlifters. For them, it's important to work individual muscle groups to get maximum mass. For most people, using total body movements is much more important for losing weight, changing your body, and getting in shape.
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