Thoughts On Compound Versus Simple Exercises

Both compound (multi-joint, linear) and simple (single-joint, rotary) exercises can be used to safely and effectively improve muscular strength and size along with other factors of functional ability, however each has specific advantages and disadvantages which may make one or the other a better option under different circumstances and the best approach for improving your overall muscular strength and size along with other general factors of functional ability requires a combination of the two.

The biggest advantage of compound exercises is the ability to effectively target multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which would require two or more exercises to target with simple movements. This is more time efficient and, because of the greater amount of muscle mass involved, places a greater demand on the cardiovascular system. Compound exercises are also much easier for most people to learn, making them the best choice for beginners.

Although compound exercises do not provide direct resistance (resistance applied directly to the limb being acted on) to all of the muscle groups targeted or provide resistance over as much of a range of motion as is possible with some simple exercises using certain machines, this does not appear to negatively effect muscular strength increases for any of the muscle groups being targeted. Assuming proper positioning and movement the muscles of the arms and legs are not “weak links” limiting the effectiveness of compound exercises for the muscles of the torso and hips. If you understand the levers involved you can even alter your positioning to change the relative effort required by the different muscle groups if you feel it is necessary to balance things out or to emphasize or de-emphasize a specific muscle group. An example of this is varying hand spacing on the bench press or push ups to increase or decrease the lever against the triceps.

Not all muscles can be effectively trained with compound exercises, however. Simple exercises are required to effectively work the majority of the muscles of the neck, and certain muscles, like the short head of the biceps femoris which helps flex the knee but does not extend the hip like the rest of the hamstrings, can only be effectively trained with simple exercises. A few of the muscles involved in gripping also flex the wrist, but effectively targeting all the wrist flexors and extensors also requires simple exercises.

Also, although compound exercises might result in greater growth hormone secretion, the difference is probably not large enough to be a practical concern.

Casey Viator assisting Mike Mentzer with forced reps

The biggest advantage of simple exercises is the ability to selectively target single muscle groups, which may be necessary either to address muscles which can not be effectively worked with compound exercises, to bring up a lagging muscle group, or to work around an injury. For example, someone with a foot or ankle injury may not be able to squat, deadlift, or leg press, but they can perform knee flexion and extension and hip extension, and someone who already has really good back development but whose biceps were not as well developed can substitute arm curls for their usual compound pulling exercises on some of their workouts until they achieve the desired proportions.

As I mentioned earlier, improving your overall muscular strength and size requires a combination of the two. While a compound leg exercise and both a vertical and horizontal pulling and pushing exercise will cover most of the major muscle groups, you still need to perform simple exercises to effectively work your neck flexors and extensors, and probably for your calves and forearms as well. Although research shows it makes little difference for muscular strength and size gains whether you perform compound or simple exercises first in a workout, since the compound exercises involve more muscle mass and require more energy to perform, I recommend doing them first when you have more energy unless you are prioritizing a muscle group which you want or need to perform a simple exercise for.

Reader Questions

I have tried to address the most common questions I received above, but readers had a few specific ones which I’m going to answer separately before. If you’ve got a question about compound versus simple exercises not answered here post it in the comments below.

Question: Is it safe/advisable to do multiple compound exercises that have crossover in trained muscle groups (e.g. squats and deadlifts or bench press and military press) on the same day?

Answer: Most beginners will have no trouble recovering from a workout with multiple compound exercises targeting the same muscle groups, but as you become more advanced and learn to train more intensely you will probably need to cut back. For example, I start most new clients with squats, chin-ups, dips or bench press, rows, overhead presses, and stiff-leg deadlifts (and a few simple exercises for the calves and neck), but divide these up as they become more advanced so they only perform squats, dips or bench press and rows in one workout, and deadlifts, overhead presses, and chin-ups in another.

Question: Are simple exercises necessary? Is it enough to focus on the compound exercises? I ask this because I enjoy working out and doing compound movements like squats chins dips.  But for some reason the same attitude isn’t there for when its time to do calf raises or sit-ups or wrists. They feel… bland. I don’t know why, maybe they’re unnecessary for most of us that just want to get/feel fit and aren’t looking to get up on the stage with an absolute perfect body.

Answer: That depends on your goal. If you are only concerned with general health and fitness, a workout consisting of compound leg, pushing, and pulling exercises plus neck extension and flexion is enough. If you want optimal overall muscular development you may want to perform some simple exercises if necessary to balance out the development of different muscle groups. If you play any sports or participate in any recreational activities involving running you should also perform leg curls, since the short head of the biceps femoris isn’t worked by hip extension.

Question:Do you really believe one can get sufficient bicep and tricep stimulation with compound exercises? If so, which ones? My time is very restricted. I have been a competitive bodybuilder over 25 years ago but am trying to make a comeback. It seems when I train legs first, I cannot get the upper body trained sufficiently and vice versa. I do train with very high intensity. Anyway, those are my questions directly and indirectly to your question about compound vs. simple.

Answer: Yes, and research seems to support this. Don Matesz recently informed me of a few studies which shows if you are already doing compound exercises adding simple exercises does not produce better strength and size gains in the arm muscles:

Rogers, R.A., Newton, R.U., Mcevoy, K.P., Popper, E.M., Doan, B.K., Shim, J.K., et al. 2000. The effect of supplemental isolated weight-training exercises on upper-arm size and upper-body strength. In NSCA Conference. pp. 369.

Abstract:

The aim of this study was to examine the hypothesized additional training effect of programming isolated supplemental exercises in conjunction with compound weight-training exercises on muscle size and strength. Seventeen national-level baseball players volunteered to participate in this 10-week training study and were randomly divided into 2 groups. The control group completed a 10-week training program consisting of the bench press, lat pull-down, dumbbell incline press and dumbbell 1-arm row exercises. The treatment group completed the same training program but with the addition of biceps curl and triceps extension exercises. A tape measure was used to record upper-arm circumferences, and a 5 repetition maximum (5RM) was determined on the bench press and lat pull-down for each subject before and after training.

Both the treatment and control groups displayed significant increases in upper-arm circumference (6.6 and 6.5%, respectively), 5RM bench press (21.4 and 22.1%, respectively) and 5RM lat pull-down (15.7 and 14.5%, respectively). There were no significant differences between the groups in the percentage change before and after training. The findings of this study suggest that isolation exercises are not necessary in order to increase compound movement strength or increase upper-arm girth. These findings also suggest that strength coaches can save time by not including isolation exercises and still achieve increases in strength and size.

Gentil P, Soares SR, Pereira MC, Cunha RR, Martorelli SS, Martorelli AS, Bottaro M. 2013. Effect of adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise resistance-training program on strength and hypertrophy in untrained subjects. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4.

Abstract:

The aim of this study was to examine the effect of adding single-joint (SJ) exercises to a multi-joint (MJ) exercise resistance-training program on upper body muscle size and strength. Twenty-nine untrained young men participated in a 10-week training session. They were randomly divided in 2 groups: the MJ group performed only MJ exercises (lat pulldown and bench press); the MJ+SJ group performed the same MJ exercises plus SJ exercises (lat pulldown, bench press, elbow flexion, and elbow extension). Before and after the training period, the muscle thickness (MT) of the elbow flexors was measured with ultrasound, and peak torque (PT) was measured with an isokinetic dynamometer. There was a significant (p < 0.05) increase in MT (6.5% for MJ and 7.04% for MJ+SJ) and PT (10.40% for MJ and 12.85% for MJ+SJ) in both groups, but there were no between-group differences. Therefore, this study showed that the inclusion of SJ exercises in a MJ exercise training program resulted in no additional benefits in terms of muscle size or strength gains in untrained young men.

A lot of compound exercises effectively work the biceps and triceps, but the best are probably chin-ups or close underhand-grip pulldowns, dips, and bench presses. If after training legs you feel too wiped out to be able to train arms intensely I recommend experimenting with an upper body/lower body split. Several examples of these are included in High Intensity Workouts.

Question: Where is the right place to put simple exercises in the routine? In the same day of the compound for the same group? In another day if it’s a split routine? If it’s in the same day, (right) before or (right) after the compound that is for the same group?

Answer: If you want or need to perform a simple exercise for a muscle group it makes little difference for muscular strength and size gains whether you perform it first or last, or on the same or separate days (as long as your total workout volume is not excessive). I recommend reading my recent article Pre-Exhaustion Versus Prioritizing Compound Exercises, which discusses a recent study on this:

James Peter Fisher, Luke Carlson, James Steele, Dave Smith. The effects of pre-exhaustion, exercise order, and rest intervals in a full-body resistance training intervention. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2014; 1 DOI: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0162

Abstract:

Pre-exhaustion (PreEx) training is advocated on the principle that immediately preceding a compound exercise with an isolation exercise can target stronger muscles to pre-exhaust them to obtain greater adaptations in strength and size. However, research considering PreEx training method is limited. The present study looked to examine the effects of a PreEx training programme. Thirty-nine trained participants (male = 9, female = 30) completed 12 weeks of resistance training in 1 of 3 groups: a group that performed PreEx training (n = 14), a group that performed the same exercise order with a rest interval between exercises (n = 17), and a control group (n = 8) that performed the same exercises in a different order (compound exercises prior to isolation). No significant between-group effects were found for strength in chest press, leg press, or pull-down exercises, or for body composition changes. Magnitude of change was examined for outcomes also using effect size (ES). ESs for strength changes were considered large for each group for every exercise (ranging 1.15 to 1.62). In conclusion, PreEx training offers no greater benefit to performing the same exercises with rest between them compared with exercises performed in an order that prioritises compound movements.

Question: Can I build functional strength with nothing but simple exercises?

Answer: Yes, as long as you perform exercises for all of the major muscle groups, however it will be a lot more time consuming since you will need to perform two or more simple movements for each compound exercise being replaced.

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