Compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press work large numbers of muscles, making them a very efficient use of your training time. I like them a lot.
However, they’re not always the most joint-friendly exercises available.
Your joints are often the limiting factor when it comes to the type of training you can do in the gym. The benefits of the compound lifts have to be weighed against the potential negative effect they can have on connective tissue.
If you want to do some compound lifts without beating up your joints, here’s how to go about it.
Compound Lifts: Alternatives to the Bench Press
The stock answer usually given to anyone who finds that the bench press hurts their shoulders is to use dumbbells instead. This isn’t bad advice, but you also need to consider the position of your hands and elbows.
More specifically, if your elbows are out wide and your palms face forwards, that’s exactly the same position they’re in if you’re using a barbell. If the barbell bench press causes shoulder pain, then doing the same thing with dumbbells isn’t going to help.
Rather than flare your elbows out to the side, or going to the other extreme and tucking them all the way in, they should be somewhere in between, like so:
Something else to consider is your range of motion. Some people are built in a way that makes them more likely to suffer from shoulder problems than others.
If you have long arms and a small rib cage, bringing the bar all the way down to your chest in a compound lift like the bench press means that your shoulders have to go a lot deeper into extension than someone with short arms and a large rib cage.
It may be the case that no matter what you do, you won’t be able to perform the bench press or dumbbell bench press through a “full” range of motion without your shoulders giving you grief.
If so, try the decline bench press or the “shoulder saver” bench press, both of which involve a much shorter range of motion than the flat bench press.
The humble push-up is often seen as an inferior choice to the bench press when it comes to training the chest. However, there’s plenty of research out there to show that the push-up does the job just as well.
In one study, four weeks of push-ups delivered gains in muscle size that were no different to those seen with the bench press . The pecs grew to a similar extent in both the bench press and push-up groups.
Japanese researchers report very similar results . Eight weeks of training with the bench press or push-up delivered similar gains in muscle thickness in both the chest and triceps.
In another trial, the push-up (performed with an elastic band to add resistance) required the muscles in the chest and shoulders to work just as hard as the bench press .
During the push-up, the shoulder blade is able to move a lot more freely than it does during the bench press, making it a much more “shoulder friendly” way to train the chest.
If you’ve got a dodgy shoulder that hurts when you bench press, switching to push-ups may well allow you to continue training your chest without a problem.
To make the push-up harder, and put more of an emphasis on the upper chest, you can raise the legs and do decline push-ups.
You can also use a weighted vest or elastic band to make the standard push-up more of a challenge.
Compound Lifts: Alternatives to Chin-ups, Pull-ups and Rows
Heavy chin-ups (where your palms face away from you), pull-ups (where your palms face away from you) or rows can sometimes lead to pain in your wrists, elbows or shoulders.
Switching to lighter weights and higher reps is often enough to solve the problem.
Doing sets of 15-20 reps isn’t an option with pull-ups or chin-ups, but it can be done with lat pulldowns. We already know that lighter weights and higher reps stimulate can be used to build muscle, so you won’t miss out on any gains in size.
Many exercises for the back can be done with rotating handles, allowing you to work around niggling joint pain in your wrists, elbows or shoulders.
Because the handle rotates, you can start with whatever grip feels comfortable, and then supinate your hands to whatever degree you want as you perform the exercise.
Working one side of the back independently also helps to iron out any differences in muscle strength from one side to the other.
Here are some compound lifts that you can use if your elbows, shoulders or wrists flare up when you train your back.
Single Arm Lat Pulldown
Single Arm Cable Row
If your lower back plays up during a compound lift like the barbell row, try the inverted row instead. It’s been shown to work many of the muscles in the upper back just as well as the barbell row, but with less load on the spine .
You may find that a particular grip or hand position is less stressful on your joints than another. If so, use that. Experiment to find out which one feels best for you.
Don’t worry about the optimal grip width or hand position for activating your lats. Most studies show that it doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. You can’t train if you’re injured, so the best compound exercises for your back are ones that don’t cause you pain.
Compound Lifts: Overhead Press Alternatives
If a compound lift like the overhead press causes pain, you’ve got a few options. The first is to change the position of your arms.
One quick and simple way to relieve shoulder pain is to move your upper arms closer to the center line of your body. In other words, rather than positioning them straight out to the side (the 0° position in the image below), your arms should be tucked in at an angle of around 30° degrees.
This is known as lifting in the scapular plane. It reduces the stress placed on the “anterior capsuloligamentous structures” and prevents impingement of the rotator cuff under the shoulder blade .
It’s a much more shoulder friendly position during many exercises, particularly the overhead press.
You could also try switching to dumbbells and using a neutral grip with your palms facing each other.
I much prefer to do this exercise one arm at a time. Doing so makes it easier to adjust the path of the dumbbell, the position of my elbows and range of motion in such a way that it doesn’t cause me any pain or discomfort.
Compound Lifts: Alternatives to the Squat
The squat is another compound lift that’s often touted as “essential” for building muscle. While it is a highly effective exercise for your lower body, there are other exercises out there that work just as well.
Take the Bulgarian split squat for example. It works many of the same muscles as the squat, but takes some of the load off your lower back. And it can make you stronger at squatting too.
In one study, both the squat and Bulgarian squat were equally effective at improving lower body strength [. Not only did the split squat make people stronger in the split squat, it made them stronger in the squat as well.
Bulgarian Split Squat
An exercise like the reverse lunge will do a similar job to the split squat.
Compound lifts like the split squat or reverse lunge are quite awkward to do, and you may find it tricky to keep your balance.
If so, try the single-leg leg press. This way, you can hit the quads and glutes without losing your balance.
The single-leg leg press also makes it a lot more difficult to round your lower back (repeatedly rounding your lower back under heavy load won’t do your spine any favors), making it a lot safer all round.
For most people, compound lifts like the bench press, squat or deadlift are tools to make your muscles bigger and stronger. They’re a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.
If a particular exercise causes pain, the solution is simple. Stop doing it, and find a similar one that doesn’t. Despite dogmatic assertions to the contrary, there is no single “must do” exercise that can’t be replaced with something else.
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.