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
Compound exercises like squats and deadlifts have been shown to trigger a short-term increase in circulating levels of various hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone .
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 .
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.
RELATED: The Myth About Squats, Testosterone and Muscle Growth
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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.
Research shows that while the squat leads to high levels of muscle activation in vastus lateralis and vastus medialis, the leg extension preferentially recruits rectus femoris [4, 5].
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.
Squats and deadlifts do work many of your core muscles. But it’s mainly the ones in your back, especially the spinal erectors – those cable-like muscles that run up either side of your spine [7 8].
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 muscle responsible for giving you that washboard abs look.
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: 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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