Compound lifts like the squat, pull-up, bench press and overhead press work large numbers of muscles. They’re a very efficient use of your training time, and I like them a lot.
However, there are also a number of myths and misconceptions about compound lifts that have developed over the years. Here are some of the most common.
Myth 1: Compound Lifts Are Important For Muscle Growth Because They Boost Anabolic Hormone Levels
However, there are more than a few question marks against the idea that the short-term hormonal response to training has a significant impact on muscle growth .
In one study on the subject, researchers analyzed data collected from 56 men who trained with weights five days a week for three months .
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If the post-exercise change in hormone levels was important as far as building muscle is concerned, you’d expect to see two things.
Guys with the biggest post-exercise hormonal response would gain the most muscle. And those with the smallest response would build the least muscle.
But when they looked at the data, the researchers found no significant link between gains in muscular size or strength and the post-training rise in free testosterone, growth hormone and and IGF-1.
Drilling deeper into the results, the researchers divided their subjects into fast-responders (men who gained muscle more quicker) and slow-responders (those who built the least muscle).
They found that the hormonal responses of those who made the fastest gains in size and strength were not significantly different to those who made the slowest gains.
Myth 2: Compound Lifts Are All You Need For Complete Muscular Development
Compared to isolation exercises, compound lifts do work a large amount of muscle mass. However, maximizing the development of a muscle requires the use of several exercises, rather than just one.
This ensures that all available fibers in a given muscle get a piece of the action, leading to more complete development of a muscle group.
The quadriceps, for example, is made up of four different muscles. And a compound lift like the squat doesn’t work all of those muscles to the same degree.
In fact, three months of leg extensions, performed three times a week, saw rectus femoris grow more quickly than the other three muscles in the quads .
You can’t completely isolate one area of a muscle relative to another. And the potential shape and size of each muscle is determined ultimately by the genetic blueprint you were handed at birth.
However, you can make the most of that potential by using different exercises to emphasize different sections of a muscle.
Myth 3: Squats and Deadlifts Are All You Need to Work Your Abs
Some say that deadlifts and squats render all direct abdominal work completely redundant, as both exercises provide all the stimulation your abs will ever need.
That’s the theory, anyway. However, the research tells a very different story.
If you want a decent set of abs, squats and deadlifts aren’t going to do the job, and you’ll need exercises that work the abs directly.
When they toss the word “core” around, most people are talking about their abs.
However, the term actually refers to a much larger collection of muscles (including the abs) that stabilize the spine – basically, anything that isn’t your head, arms or legs.
During the deadlift in particular, they work very hard to keep your spine in its naturally arched position. Powerlifters have such well-developed spinal erectors mainly because of all the work those muscles do to prevent the spine from bending.
In other words, squats and deadlifts are just fine for developing the posterior aspects of the core. However, neither exercise does much for rectus abdominis, which is the name of the “six pack” muscle.
The figure below comes from Dr. Jeffrey McBride, a Professor in Biomechanics at Appalachian State University. He measured muscle activation in the abdominal muscles of trained lifters performing a number of different exercises.
As you can see, squats and deadlifts – even when you’re using a heavy weight that’s 80-90% of your 1-RM – don’t hit rectus abdominis particularly hard.
A study of elite rugby union players shows much the same results . The researchers measured muscle activity in the abdominals during both the squat and overhead squat, as well as during various abdominal exercises.
Once again, rectus abdominis didn’t have to work very hard during the squat – only around 10% of its maximum. In fact, the researchers found “substantially larger” abdominal muscle activity during the plank, sit-up and jackknife.
In short, the claim that “heavy squats and deadlifts are all you need for your abs” isn’t backed by the evidence. Even the humble push-up has been shown to work the abs harder than squats or deadlifts.
Myth 4: Compound Lifts Are Better For Building Muscle Than Isolation Exercises
Compound lifts are often said to be better “mass builders” than isolation exercises because they allow you to lift more weight.
For example, I’ve heard it said that chin-ups are the best way to build bigger biceps, because you can lift more weight doing chin-ups than you can doing curls.
Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The reason you can lift more weight during a compound lift like the chin-up compared to an isolation exercise like the barbell curl is because multiple muscles are doing the work.
With the barbell curl, it’s mainly the biceps that are responsible for moving the weight from point A to point B. With the chin-up, the lats, shoulders and biceps are all involved.
The work is being distributed across multiple different muscles, which is why you can lift more weight.
The amount of weight you lift during a given exercise is less important than the amount of work being done by the muscles involved in that exercise.
Isolation exercises will involve the use of lighter weights, as fewer muscles are contributing to the movement. But that doesn’t make them any less effective than compound lifts for stimulating growth in a particular muscle.
Myth 5: Always Do Compound Lifts First
Normally, you’re told to start your workout with compound lifts. Lift the heavy weights when you’re fresh, and save the isolation exercises for later in the workout.
If your goal is to get strong in a particular exercise, such as the bench press or squat, this isn’t bad advice.
However, if your main objective is to make your muscles bigger, the order in which you do your exercises is nowhere near as important as it’s cracked up to be.
In fact, there are some benefits to doing compound lifts later in the workout. For example, you might start out training your legs with the leg extension and leg press, and finish off with squats.
Doing it this way means that you’ll have to squat with less weight, because your quads are already fried.
But that can be a benefit, especially if your knees or back give you grief when you squat with heavy weights. Lighter weights means less stress on the joints, which means less potential for injury.
“As I’ve gotten older, more and more often, I do a compound exercise (like squats) last, or at least in the middle of the routine,” says best-selling author and bodybuilder Tom Venuto.
“I might pre exhaust by doing leg extensions and or leg presses first. When I squat in that order, I usually have to squat less weight, because my quads are fatigued. But that’s the whole idea. Today I’m constantly looking for ways to make a lighter weight feel heavier. It’s not ideal for strength, but works great for physique training.”
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About the Author
Christian Finn is an exercise scientist and former “trainer to the trainers” based in the UK. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.