Why compound movements are superior
Which exercises build the most mass? In their quest for that answer, many aspiring bodybuilders look to how pro bodybuilders train and mimic their routines. This seems like a good idea, but more often it sets you up to fail. The way a pro bodybuilder trains today is often drastically different from the way he trained in his earlier years when he was building all that freaky muscle mass. Most of them started off hitting all the free weight basics: compound lifts like the bench press, squat, deadlift, barbell rows, and so on.
As the years went by and they eventually accumulated all the size they wanted, those movements often fell by the wayside. Why would they stop doing these incredibly productive exercises? One reason is sheer laziness. These are the toughest exercises you can possibly do: the most physically taxing, painful, and mentally demanding.
Think about how a set of squats compares to a set of leg extensions. A productive 15-rep set of squats will make you feel like your lungs are about to burst and quarts of battery acid are coursing through your quads, hams, glutes, and lower back. When it’s done, you might feel like plopping down on the floor for several minutes, gasping for oxygen and pouring sweat. Even the hardest set of leg extensions is comfy in comparison.
Many advanced bodybuilders find they can maintain their mass with more machines and isolation movements, so they abandon the compound lifts that got them their size in the first place. And to be fair, many guys also rack up a collection of injuries and chronic pain that do legitimately make the big compound lifts too risky to continue doing after a certain point.
But make no mistake, the basic compound movements should form the core of workouts for anyone who is still in dire need of muscle mass. They are almost magically effective, mainly because they force you to maintain balance and coordination to execute properly. They require the most technique and the best form to perform safely, which is why they are not easy to master.
Those who do master the compound lifts, becoming very strong with good form and a powerful mind-muscle connection on them, will always transform their bodies to the degree that those who knew them before lifting would hardly recognize them. There is a distinctly more rugged, powerful look to men who have worked hard and grown very strong on these exercises that you just don’t see in others.
Consolidate, don’t isolate
There is a misconception in bodybuilding that purely isolating a given muscle group is the ideal strategy to building an exceptional physique. Perhaps later on, once a solid base of size has been established, there is merit to this idea. Until then, compound lifts are what you need more of.
Think about your triceps for a moment. Let’s say you can use a 20-pound dumbbell for a single-arm overhead triceps extension or kickback. You feel your triceps engaging and they get a little pump, so that’s good, right? Now, let’s say you can handle 225 pounds in the close-grip bench press for the same amount of reps. Not only are your triceps going to get blasted, but you will no doubt also pump up your chest and front delts too. Which one of those do you think is going to contribute more toward your triceps growth?
It’s safe to say that the heavier load of the press wins out. Involving several muscle groups at once to push or push hundreds of pounds is a brutal shock to the system that will force your body to adapt to the stress by growing bigger and stronger. I’ve seen it countless times and know this much is true. The guys who apply most of their time and energy to working hard on compound lifts are on average much bigger and thicker overall than those who toil away on more isolation movements, machines, and cables. Let’s take a look at the lifts that will give you the most bang for the buck and slap loads of dense muscle tissue onto your frame.
The bench press is the staple movement for building a thick set of pecs, and it accomplishes that via the assistance of the other major pushing muscles of the upper body, the front delts and triceps. The classic barbell version of the bench press is your best choice, since it allows for maximum resistance. For instance, most of you will eventually be able to get 315 for 10 reps; yet only the elite among you will ever get good reps with 155-pound dumbbells.
Incline bench press
Incline barbell presses don’t get as much glory as the flat version, but they do an excellent job of ‘splitting the difference’ in angle between a flat press and an overhead press. Though they do target the upper chest, you’re still getting plenty of involvement from the chest as a whole, along with – that’s right, the anterior deltoids and triceps.
There was a time over a half-century ago when weighted dips were equally as popular as the bench press among those seeking thick, massive pecs. Marvin Eder was the first man under 200 pounds to bench press 500, and he was also renowned for a max dip with 434 additional pounds hanging from his waist. We often talk about leaning forward on dips to preferentially work the chest, rather than maintaining a more upright torso to target the triceps. Leaning forward puts your chest and shoulders in a mechanically stronger leverage position, so that’s how you should dip to get the most out of its benefits as a compound lift. If you ever get strong enough to get 8-10 reps with an extra 100-150 pounds strapped on, you will surely have armor-plated pecs along with bulging front delts and hamhock tri’s.
You can do lateral raises until the end of time, and you will never build the meaty shoulder mass you would have if you had worked hard on the seated overhead barbell press to the front, otherwise known as the military press. Overhead presses stress primarily the front heads, but the side heads also receive substantial ancillary work. Of course, your triceps are involved, and there is even some spillover to the upper chest and trapezius. Those of you who have studied human anatomy and physiology are aware of these connections in muscle function that most are oblivious to, which is why you would have a deeper appreciation for the value of compound lifts. The military press has a well-deserved reputation as being the best exercise for building the shoulders, so don’t shy away from it.
If there is any exercise that comes closest to a ‘whole-body movement,’ it’s the barbell deadlift off the floor. It’s usually spoken of in terms of being a back exercise, and that’s certainly true. Deadlifts work the entire muscle complex of the back, all the way from the trapezius and other upper back muscles like the rhomboids, to the latissimus dorsi, and down to the spinal erector muscle in your lower back. They also involve the quads, glutes, hams, calves, biceps, and rear delts! Nothing else you can do with a barbell offers this much bang for the buck. To reap the greatest rewards on deads, avoid the temptation to train them in powerlifting style for very low reps with long rest periods. Instead, perform sets of 8-12 reps and strive to keep resting between sets down to two minutes or less. As for rack pulls, or doing only the top half of the movement from the shins up, this will take much of the lower body out of the equation. While that might make it more of a true ‘back’ exercise, it negates the effect of involving all that extra muscle mass.
Want back thickness? Nothing else has beefed up more backs than the humble barbell row. Bend at the waist with knees slightly bent and pull the bar from a full stretch of the lats into the midsection, focusing on driving the elbows as far back as possible for a full contraction. Form is key, with the first directive being to bend over. Often you will see trainers standing nearly upright, bastardizing the row into something more closely resembling a shrug. This allows for the use of more resistance but takes away most of the effective range of motion. The other major form error typically seen with barbell rows is yanking or snapping the weight up ballistically and failing to keep the target muscles under tension. Barbell rows have helped build king cobra backs for men like Arnold, Lee Haney, Dorian, and Ronnie. Work hard on them and your back will have no choice other than to grow wider and thicker.
Pull-ups are an exercise most trainers do in the beginning or their lifting careers, but often abandon within a year or two. Why? They’re damn hard to do! They get even tougher once your bodyweight starts to climb well past 200. Yet pull-ups do a fantastic job of working the upper back, biceps, and rear delts. If you can get more than 12 good reps with your bodyweight, start strapping additional resistance on.
Squats have been known as the king of lower body exercises for about 75 years now, and they warrant that title. If you could only choose one leg exercise to do for the rest of your life, this would be the one to go with. Squats hit everything: quads, hams, glutes, even calves to some extent. Anyone who doubts that these smaller muscle groups are truly involved in these big compound lifts would know they are if they ever injured said small muscle. Try squatting with a torn calf, or bench pressing with a shoulder or triceps injury! Getting back to squats, the barbell version is what you want, not the Smith machine or some other machine with ‘squat’ in its name. Take your reps to parallel or below, keep the reps in the range of 10-20, and watch your thighs blow up.
Some people will never be able to perform a deep squat with anything resembling an upright torso. Usually it’s taller men with long legs and narrow hips who wind up hunching forward and working mostly glutes and lower back when they squat. For them, the front squat is an excellent alternative. Positioning the bar in front of your neck rather than behind forces an upright posture so your quads can get the stimulation they need. Because the glutes and lower back don’t contribute as much, don’t expect to handle the same amount of weight as back squats.
I hate seeing people substitute the leg press for squats, but there are situations where people may have back injuries that prevent them from squatting. Also, leg presses make a good second compound movement for the legs after one has exhausted his ability to balance a heavy bar on his back. The major form error on leg presses is a truncated range of motion. It’s almost a cliché to see some guys load up the sled with 1,000 pounds in plates, only to proceed to perform half-reps at best. You’ve all seen the videos where someone has 30-50 plates on a leg press and barely moves the platform a couple inches. Do yourself a favor and press with a full range of motion, even if it means using half the weight. You will feel the benefits in every muscle group from the waist down.
Sample routine with compound lifts
(warm-up sets not shown, always warm up properly)
- Bench press 4 x 10-12
- Incline press 4 x 10-12
- Military press 4 x 10-12
- Dips 4 x 10-12
- Chin-ups 5 x 10-12
- Barbell rows 5 x 10-12
- Deadlifts 5 x 10-12
- Squats 5 x 10-12
- Front squats 5 x 10-12
- Leg press 5 x 15-20