If you’re training hard and not seeing the results you’re after, I’m here to to tell you why, and how we can change that using compound movements.
The main types of exercises you’ll see in weight lifting training plans are:
- Isolation with free-weights
- Isolation with machines
- Compound lifts (spoiler alert: these are the ones you need to be using)
In this post, I’m going to talk you through these exercises, how they can work for and against you, and which ones to prioritize to get the most out of your training.
What are isolation exercises?
Isolation exercises involve one joint; these movements, such as the biceps curl, or leg extensions are excellent if you’re looking to work out one muscle at a time.
They’re not very stressful on your body — this is important to note when you’re putting together a more complex training plan.
The two ways you can use isolation movements are by using free weights (barbells or dumbbells) and by using machines.
Free weight movements can be advantageous in a training plan; they adapt to your body and work out a specific muscle from many different angles. Machines, on the other hand, present more of an issue if used very often.
One of the main problems when using machines in training is that they are just too isolating. To get visible results from this type of exercise, you need to work out a lot, as well as using many different types of machines. They also force you to follow an unnatural bar path.
The Smith machine moves in a linear fashion — whilst this is the most efficient type of movement, it is unnatural and unrealistic.
When you squat or overhead press — the bar will never move in a perfectly linear manner.
This is why it’s healthier not to force your joints to follow a directed path; train them in a way that respects your body’s morphology and free-movement.
Don’t get me wrong — machines aren’t all bad — otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. Specific muscular isolation can be a blessing and a curse.
Isolating specific muscles damages your training efforts as the surrounding muscles aren’t hit; if, however, you have a lagging muscle that you need to target alone — training with machines will be a blessing.
Another time machines will be useful for you is if you are injured. Let’s say you injured your knee — you can’t deadlift for a while. Using machines, you’ll be able to target muscles that are hit when deadlifting — leaving your knees out the equation.
What are compound movements?
Compound movements are the best way to get more bang for your buck in your training as they involve multiple joints at the same time.
Classic compound movements you’ll have heard of before are squats, deadlifts, dips, bench press, push ups, pull ups, chin ups, and the overhead press.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t biased when it comes to these movements; they are just so efficient!
You can get an entire body workout using compound movements; this just isn’t achievable using isolation exercises alone.
Deadlifts are the perfect example of compound lifts — an exercise that works your entire body, by working many muscular groups at once. When you perform a deadlift, you’re going to hit all of these muscles:
- Lower back
- Core muscles
- Upper back
Now, just imagine the time it would take heading to each and every machine to hit all of those muscles separately.
You’d have to do 3 sets of leg extensions, 3 sets of shrugs, 3 sets of leg curls, 3 sets on glute machines — just to get the same result.
Compound movements are natural
The weights you’ll use to perform compound movements will adapt to your body’s morphology — meaning you won’t be forcing your joints into an unnatural, predetermined path. This is a much healthier way to train in the long-term — by respecting your body’s free movement.
Compound movements are functional
You’ll find these movements simulate real-life situations — a deadlift is basically lifting a heavy object from the floor. This is far more useful, and applicable than a bicep curl.
Compound movements involve balance and core stability
Balance and core stability are essential in your day to day life — they can also translate to other sports such as combat sports, grappling, running, cycling, climbing — and so much more.
Compound movements improve cardiovascular health
A common misconception is that you need to go running or cycling to improve your cardiovascular health. By focusing on compound movements such as the squat or deadlift, and by doing them in high volume (increase sets and reps whilst reducing rest times), you can just as easily improve your cardiovascular health.
If you’ve not tried this before — you are in for a memorable experience. Try doing 5 sets of 12 reps of squats and let me know how it goes in the comments below.
Compound movements promote greater metabolic responses
Heavy movements such as the squat or dead-lift will induce a higher hormonal response compared to isolation exercises.
This translates into a greater release of testosterone and growth hormone — leading to a higher anabolic effect for better fat loss results thanks to the fat oxidation boost.
These are the kind of results that you just won’t get from isolation exercises.
So, why isn’t everyone at the gym doing them?
With all the benefits I’ve talked you through, I don’t blame you for wondering why more people don’t choose to focus their training on these movements.
The long and short of it is: anyone can learn to do a bicep curl or how to work a machine, not everyone will learn how to perform a compound lift.
To perform compound lifts, and to do them well, takes time, effort and patience — think of them as an investment.
Coaches in commercials gyms will be reluctant to teach them as they take time, skill and effort to teach, not all coaches will be equipped to teach them to their clients.
The good news is, the internet is a wonderful place, packed with resources on how you can learn to do compound lifts: getting even 70% of the technique right will enable you to avoid injury. Check your form by recording yourself every now and then to keep improving.
Alternatively, get in touch with me via tarballbarbell.io to chat with me on how I can teach you through my one-on-one, personalized, online coaching.
A special mention for beginners
At the very start of your lifting journey, you’ll have low muscle mass — your sensitivity to training is increased and you can build a lot of muscle in a relatively short time.
To optimize this — focus on compound movements and eat in caloric surplus if you’re skinny.
Think of your body as a rock that you want to sculpt — outline the main elements: head, arms, legs, torso… then chisel in the finer details.
This should be reflected in your training: prioritize compound lifts, and use isolation exercises to complement your training.
Don’t forget to tell me if you learned something new in this post in the comments down below, and to check out my other platforms: