No Holy Grail: The Compound Movement Madness

Photo Credit: S-A-M

In a recent encounter with another fitness writer, I had a discussion on the topic of compound movements for bodybuilding purposes. The conversation quickly turned into an argument and the person I was chatting with was very adamant about his ideology. He believed solely that the squat, deadlift and bench press were superior to all movements and every other compound exercise fails miserably in comparison when one’s focus is to build the most lean body mass. He firmly believes that anything other than the big three are suboptimal at best.

We actually debated back and forth for 10-15 minutes before I exclaimed “I do not have time for this, I will just write an article to explain my opinion.” I hate arguing and figured my time would be better spent writing about this very topic.

The Dogma

Everyone knows that in order to grow into a mass freak you must do deadlifts, squats and bench presses. If you cannot utilize these movements, you might as well take up badminton, go on a starvation diet and begin jogging 100 miles per week. Remember, only bench presses build massive pecs and squats are the only movement that will turn your legs into solid oaks. Oh yea, deadlifts are the only solution to becoming the genetic anomaly you wish to be.

While all of the previous sarcasm may sound somewhat comical, many still hang on to these beliefs with very strong conviction. I don’t really blame them though, after all, they are most likely listening to the biggest bro’s in the gym.

The Argument

He first tried to tell me that squats were better than any other leg movement. I asked “what is the difference between a leg press and squat?” It’s essentially the same movement in a different position. The leg press is a viable option for someone who may have had previous ankle or knee injuries and has not regained their balance, flexibility and/or stability just yet. Heck, it’s a great movement for those who hate or are afraid of squats and want to build lower body mass.

Then he tried to argue that bench press was the best chest builder “just because.” There was no real explanation. So I said “what do you think about weighted dips? They are great for building mass in the chest.” Then he replied with “you use a lot of triceps during the movement.” No freaking crap! It’s called a compound exercise for a reason. Your triceps are just as involved in a bench press.

Needless to say this conversation did not go anywhere.

The Truth

Back in the day, before the specialized equipment and fancy machine era, all they really had were barbells, benches, racks and weights. The setup was very minimalistic and raw. I like it this way, actually. The only reason they only performed the big three is because it’s all they freakin’ had not because they are more optimal than the alternatives.

However, nowadays the standard commercial gym is usually packed full of useful equipment. People could literally do nothing but machines to build their ideal physique. We are lucky to have such a luxury as this now provides a variety of movements to choose from, plus it provides options for movements that may better serve us granted we have an injury or shoulder impingement.

Ideally, when training to build the most muscle mass or strength, compounds are usually best when it comes to progressive overload. However you don’t have to be indentured to the big three(squat, deadlift, bench press). I personally like dips for my main pressing movement and I prefer RDL‘s over conventional deadlifts due to my anatomical structure(also, RDL’s just feel more natural to me).

The only instance you would ever have to sell your soul to the big three is if you are competitive powerlifter or a competitive athlete with a Nazi coach. Lyle even agrees.

My Philosophy

You should not be concerned with what the best movement is or what the ultimate routine may be. The truth is, they don’t exist. Every exercise has pro’s and con’s. Every routine is lacking in some form or fashion. There are many ways to achieve whatever goals you may have in terms of body composition, strength or lean body mass gains.

I believe that compound movements(barbells or machines) are important for overall strength and muscular development. In fact I think compounds are essential for long term success but I do not prescribe the same protocol for every single person. We are all a bit different in one way or another and we all have different needs and goals.

Some of us have longer arms and the flat bench press may be a bit more dangerous for us than it would be for someone with shorter limbs. How do we fix that? We do floor presses instead. Some of us are not built to deadlift due to our lower limb length but may be built to squat and vice versa. We must do what works for us as individuals and stop worrying about what others say is superior or better based on their opinion.

My philosophy is simple, actually. If your explicit goal is to build mass, pick a handful of movements and focus on getting stronger for a planned period of time. If you ate well and are pushing more weight at week 16 of your training cycle, chances are great that your body composition changed for the better.

May 5, 2009

  • Kylee May 30, 2011

    Love this post !!!!!!! I know squats are great for butt, legs and abs but lunges are amazing too, i have been doing different variations of the lunge and amazingly i have gained 4cms in each leg in 1 month and i love weighted dips they have made my arms grow 2 cms each month for the last 2 months so any exercise done properly, with good form + proper nutrition and enough rest will take you towards your goals.

    • jess August 17, 2011

      Lunges are also a compound movement! As are dips :)

  • Josh October 18, 2010

    Just going through a few of your archives. You know what bench, squat, and deads are the best at? Getting strong at bench, squat, and deads!

    This will be a huge generalization, but, building mass can be as much about time under tension as anything else. Deads, for example, do not allow for hardly any time under tension, especially as you get to heavier weights and lower reps.

    This was a good one man, cheers!

    • bassackwards November 01, 2010

      It amazes me how anyone can just throw out a blanket statement and refute years of fact that the best three exercises (does not include bench), Squat, Deads and Overheads build the best dense muscle and strength. Most gyms today cater to people with a warped sense of instance gratification that isolation is the best way to build strength. Wrong! Isolation will help build the hollywood look that they are craving, but strength, not as much as compound movements. For me, I would rather walk in to a gym and perform the big three along with olympic lifts and at 51 years old, I crush most of the younger guys in my gym. Also, I am a Highland Games athlete and have seen many of the cover model types think they can throw around the weights we do. Epic failure each time. Do not put down compound movements as a general rule, there are at least four different types of strength training at least. Compound lifts, bodyweight training, olympic liftsand isolation exercises and all of them are viable forms of training. But for real brute strength, you cannot beat the big 3 and awkward (sand bags, kegs, etc.) lifts using the 3 basic movements. Squat, deadlift and overhead presses. Thanks

      • JC November 01, 2010

        Words mean things.

        Define brute strength.

        • bassackwards November 03, 2010

          Brute Strength = read “Dinosaur Training” by Brooks Kubik, see the website Diesel Crew, Zach or Synergy Athletics or attend any strongman event or talk with any strongman participant. Brute strength is the culmination of many attributes from grip strength, core strength, muscle endurance cultivated through compound movements and lifting awkward objects. I don’t mean to sound like an ass, but I cannot stand it, when someone sounds as if they are debunking the traditional ways of lifting. Many things in life have been improved over the years through technology and chemistry, but I honestly believe that to become truly powerful, all the isolation equipment in the gym cannot be used effectively by the typical gym member. If you only had 30 minutes a day to lift, my question to anyone is, what would you choose to do? I bet that most experienced lifters (even bodybuilders) would do compound lifts, olympic lifts or a combo of the two. Also, I think that most athletes will tell you that the bench press is a useless movement for them. Maybe a football lineman would benefit, but not many others would. to me, brute strength is developing ligament and tendon flexibility and durability, followed by the ability to pull or push heavy weight which develops strong bones as well.

          • JC November 04, 2010

            While I get what you’re saying, it’s not practical for everyone to do the big three. It’s reality.

            Would it be more effecient to utilize a compound movement that hits many muscles simultaneously? Sure.

            But traditional squats, deadlifts and regular bench presses are NOT for everyone. You can still develop mad strength with leg presses, hack squats, RDL’s, floor or machine presses.

            I don’t care too much for the macho, you-must-squat-or-die mentality. Plus. I don’t see my mention of isolation movements being the foundation of any strength routine.

            I’m not saying this is your viewpoint but it’s the ideals of many.

  • Jacob September 17, 2010

    This is the first time I encountered a very direct article about the pros and cons of exercise. Thank you.

    • JC September 17, 2010

      Uhh, you’re welcome.

  • kheimbuch March 04, 2010

    Good points against the dogma of being stuck into thinking that using a barbell is the end-all to training “properly”. Substituting squats for Hammer Strength V-Squat or iso-lateral leg press and conventional deadlift with trap bar deadlifts have been a huge benefit to me when I nursed low back/hip issues. Lyle McDonald’s article nails it as well on the fact that some people just aren’t built for squatting. (John Berardi makes a similar case against bench pressing for some ecto/basketball player bodytypes in “Scrawny to Brawny”). Some of the biggest, besst built guys in my gym swear that they haven’t done barbell bench for years and train solely with Hammer machines. One guy made the argument that as you get stronger on the basic barbell compounds, the risk of injury in doing the movements safely grows – ie, hurting your lower back squatting 5 plates is likely to cause more serious damage than in the days when you only needed to use 275. This makes a good case for using machines.

    The notion of a “Holy Grail” to me suggests how to get the biggest bang for our buck in any endeavour, or how to get maximum benefits out of minimum effort. While it might sound like an excuse to be slack to some, its really all about efficiency and effectively managing energy systems, imo. Compounds offer the most efficiency in terms of metabolic conditioning and managing fatigue, as well as the obvious – the economy of being able to hit many muscles with one movement.

    Abbreviated or minimalistic training based on compounds to me, is a Holy Grail in the sense that you get all the growth stimulation you need and leave lots of gas in the tank for GPP, energy systems training and recovery.

  • Mark Martinez February 01, 2010

    Talking about weighted dips. Dude these are muscle blasters. I’d go as far as saying it got my pecs into super shape, especially the lower cut. Now this may not be the case for everyone who tries ‘em… generally I’d say it’s down to goals and tracking results. If incline bicep curls seem to hit my muscles with greater intensity than cable curls… I’m up for that as my #1 choice. I’d vary every now and then… but as a general rule of thumb, the core movements like bench, dips, shoulder press, squats are my #1 choice when I’m pressed for time. I’d do those first, then add on the rest.
    Mark Martinez,
    Is the hypergain effect for real?

  • julian landeau December 11, 2009

    the thing with isolation exercises is just that they are isolating just one muscle with compounds such as the big 3 you work more muscle groups particularly the core (abs and lower back) with increases growth hormones and uses more energy and will definitley increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. sorry to say it but im with arch nemesis on this one

    • JC December 11, 2009

      sorry you are in disagreement but the increased in GH is negligible. What you are referring to is old bodybuilding dogma.

  • Dave December 01, 2009

    I’m a big fan of squats, but it took me a long time to realize that – two years ago I couldn’t do squats, and couldn’t imagine ever adding them to my routine.
    I like them because of the reasons you cited JC, but also due to their versatility (great for plyometrics when done with or without weight), and the impact they have on your spine. I’ve read studies that indicate squats are one of the best exercises for preserving bone mass with age (all weight lifting helps of course).
    Anyway, to each his own. I hate deadlifts, but I still try to do them, and I know many people who swear by them as well.

    • JC December 01, 2009

      word. Just about any form of resistance training is going to preserve bone mass.

      thanks for your comment.

  • Tim November 05, 2009

    I actually feel leg presses more than squats because I can focus on my legs more and worry less about stabilizers. The only thing necessary for creating a growth stimulus is creating enough tension in a muscle and because the legs are doing literally the exact same thing in both the squat and leg press, these exercises can cause equal hypertrophy.

    Squat do activate stabilizers, and therefore help stabilizers grow, but if you’re only focusing on your legs, then training your stabilizers is unnecessary. I do both the squat and the leg press, so I’m in no way against the squat. People just need to realize the only extra thing the squat does is work stabilizers as well. People can bring up how it releases more testosterone and HGH, but the increase is so miniscule and irrelevant that it’s not even worth arguing.

    I think Lyle’s article that JC cited explains it very well.

  • Weefit November 03, 2009

    Good read JC

    Adrian you don’t think dips hit the chest. Try moving your arm position, wide, close, tild your body. Add weights. If you can’t get a dip to hit chest your just making an excuse b/c it might be difficult for you.
    I squat very little weight but I don’t say heck it’s not for me. No j lift the weight j can and do it right.

    JC. I agree also incline dumbell press shreds the chest like crazy. And between that and weighted dips my chest sometimes feels like it’s going to pop out of the skin

  • jake September 10, 2009

    to each his own.

    • JC September 10, 2009