When I began strength training many years ago, I did every bicep and tricep exercise I could find.
My idea of being big and strong began and ended with a mental image of big upper arms, so, naturally, that’s what I was training.
And sure, my arms grew.
But the rest of my body didn’t. I was still a skinny kid.
Nor did my body get stronger in any meaningful way.
It wasn’t until many, many years later, when I tried a completely different (and far more sensible) training program, that I suddenly started adding muscle and strength all over.
The main difference?
I started doing compound lifts.
With this article, I hope to save you from wasting as much time as I did and get you on the gain train much sooner.
How to Really Build Muscle & Strength
A compound lift, or compound exercise, is an exercise that uses multiple joints and muscle groups at the same time.
For comparison, a dumbbell chest fly is what you would call an isolation exercise that only uses your shoulder joints. It works your chest and front delts but not your triceps.
Compound and isolation exercises are sometimes also called multi-joint and single-joint exercises, respectively.
Why should you focus on compound lifts in your training?
Because they are the closest thing to a shortcut to muscle growth and strength gains as you will find!
- When you squat, you don’t only work your quadriceps. You work your glutes, adductors, and lower back, too.
- When you do barbell rows, you don’t only work your back but also your biceps.
- When you deadlift, you don’t only work your lower back, but … well, pretty much your whole body.
Compound lifts will enable you to train all your major muscle groups in a shorter time and with fewer exercises than if you were to work each muscle separately with isolation exercises.
It will likely make you stronger, too.
Because compound exercises more closely mimic movements we do in our everyday life.
Pushing, pulling, lifting, shoving – most of the time, when you need your strength in real life, you will need it in some kind of multi-joint movement, and training with compound lifts enables you to use your newfound strength effectively.
- Bench pressing will make you stronger at pushing and throwing.
- Rowing makes you stronger at pulling and starting your dad’s old lawnmower.
- Deadlifting makes you world-class at helping your friends move.
Does That Mean You Should Only Do Compound Lifts and Isolation Exercises Suck?
It just gives you a way of prioritizing your training.
If you only have a little time for training or only want to do a few exercises, make sure to pick lifts that give you a lot of bang for your buck.
Don’t mess around with small, single-joint exercises before you’ve laid the foundation with big, multi-joint exercises.
After you’ve laid this foundation with one or two compound lifts, then it is a perfect time to add some isolation lifts for muscle groups you want to prioritize if you still have time and energy left.
You will find most of the recommendations in our PDF of the best exercises for every muscle group following this pattern: first, some compound exercises at the top of the list, and then one or two isolation exercises to mop up the leftovers.
Another reason for doing compound exercises at the beginning of your workout is that they are often more technically challenging and require more effort because of the heavier weights and greater muscle mass they involve.
Do them while you’re fresh, and leave the lighter single-joint stuff for the finishing touches.
Training Programs Based On Compound Lifts
Almost all of our training programs follow the principles above and include a hefty amount of compound lifts.
Here are three of our most popular ones:
All three are available 100% free in our app StrengthLog which you can download with the buttons below.
Want to add more isolation exercises for your guns or bum?
Be my guest.
But do the important stuff first.