No Holy Grail: The Compound Movement Madness

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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.

Comments

  1. Kylee says

    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.

  2. says

    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 says

      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

        • bassackwards says

          Brute Strength = read “Dinosaur Training” by Brooks Kubik, see the website Diesel Crew, Zach Evan-esh.com 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 says

            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.

  3. Jacob says

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

  4. says

    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.

  5. Mark Martinez says

    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?

  6. julian landeau says

    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 says

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

  7. Dave says

    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 says

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

      thanks for your comment.

  8. Tim says

    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.

  9. Weefit says

    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

  10. Matt says

    BTW, when you read older books like “the strongest shall survive” the “Big 3″ were squat, bench and power clean. No deadlift. It’s a newer developement because powerlifting became more popular. (And in it’s erliest days powerlifting didn’t include deadlifting either. They actually used a “power curl” (you start from the floor like a deadlift but with an underhand grip and than curl it up).)

  11. says

    Hello,

    I was arguing with JC. Well, the argument for me was about compounds vs Isolation exercises and about squats being more effective than leg presses (they work but are they as effective?)

    . I love compounds, love the Big 3. If you have long arms (like me) change the grip from wide one to your shoulder width grip (learned from Scrawny to Brawny book). Some tricks apply for squats and deads for people.

    Dips are great but I definitely don’t feel as much tension in chest after then as bench presses, the most of it goes to triceps for me. I wont pretend to be expert and use fancy terms about exercises but I do know that squats are better then leg presses. Why? Simply because of the way how my legs feel after doing them compared to leg presses. I love simplicity too and that’s as simple as it gets. I think that sticking to compounds are the best. You can build strength and good physique with them, isolation exercises might come later on when you have achieved most results. Or if you had injury recently…

    There is no best workout definitely, but I really can’t think off better exercise than squat or deadlift. Can you JC?

    I’m not always right, never claim to be..

    • says

      Forgot to answer your question about “what is the difference between a leg press and squat?”

      The difference is with squat you have to work to keep your balance and your stabilizer muscles get a good workout. It maybe the same movement but it’s not as effective..

    • JC says

      Isolation movements and compounds are totally different(and this may have been my misunderstanding). Dips are not an isolation movement though.

      I was simply aiming to make the point that the big 3 are not always superior. A compound is a compound. Besides the stabilizers being affected, a machine bench is not going to be much different than flat bench. As long as you are able to safely add more weight over time, that’s all that matters.

      The leg press is essentially the same movement as the squat. So you take balance out of the equation… the same muscles are being hit with the same load, granted you add more weight to compensate for the angle but you can still get the same stimulus.

      Some people want to hit their glutes more so with the squats, so you have them do low bar. You get the same effect on the leg press by placing the feet higher up on the platform.

      • says

        I definitely agree that you CAN build a good physique with isolation movements, but for me I like barbell and dumbbells more than fancy stuff and always prefer exercises that are real world movements or are as close to them. It’s all about effectiveness for me!

        Dips are compound movement definitely and I do them. Just don’t feel they workout my chest greatly so I count it as worse then B. Press, but it’s for me.

        Anyway, I think we had kind of misunderstanding earlier! I should have communicated more clearly.

        Best of luck and keep writing nice content!

        Adrian

        • says

          JC worded this in such a way that made it seem like he was arguing against compounds, rather than saying the big 3 aren’t magic. I’m in agreement with this:
          1. Prior to the invention of the bench press, dips and military press were used to build the chest. This clearly worked for Steve Reeves. More to the point, gymnasts are force-fed dips with good result for the chest. Scratch that: FANTASTIC result.

          2. Proportions must be taken into account. If you’re tall with proportionally long legs, squats can be challenging. To the point, my barbell squat becomes a good morning hybrid, but I can squat fine if I use a safety squat bar. Since not every gym has such a bar, front squats and leg presses can fatigue the shit out of the glutes and quads.

          3. Going on about training the stabilizers, while important, is irrelevant when it comes to hypertrophy. Are you trying to increase your balance or build bigger legs? If your goal is the latter, you pick the exercise you can work the hardest on in the best form, even if that is the leg press. I’ve seen big legged guys leg pressing 1000+lbs; remember that resistance is the infinite modifier, no matter the exercise you’re using.

          To sum up my argument: if you’re good at the bench, squat, and deadlift, the classic versions, use them. If your proportions are wonky or you don’t have access to special bars, make adjustments. Just make sure you train your balls off.

          Best,
          Skyler

          • says

            Can’t agree with your 3rd point. So what a guy can leg press 1000lbs, he can’t squat that much for sure and I bet you they build this strength with squats too…Leg presses are good for ego too, it’s good to say I can leg press 1000lbs , it’s definitely more than you can squat, better for boasting. Unless you can’t do squats properly then squats are always better then leg presses. If you want hypertrophy you take an exercise that challenges your body the most and best and do it with proper technique, not with the biggest weight and proper technique.
            Adrian

  12. says

    Glad you wrote it down. Those holy grails really lead to some serious injuries I guess. I hurt myself several times just because I believed in them. Floor Presses sound interesting, I got long arms. In “Scrawny to Brawny” they suggest Bench Press with a wrapped up towel on your chest as a limit for depth.

    • JC says

      yea, back in the day coach used to have us do towel presses when going for heavier weights.

  13. Pete says

    Hey JC,

    As always good article! You make an excellent point that no exercise is perfect for everyone, everyone has a different structure! (not to mention goal)

    On a side note have you had a chance to listen to, In the Trenches Fitness podcast from Mike Robertson? His latest has an interview with Charlie Weingraff (sp?) who was/is a strength coach for the 76ers, there is some great discussion about box squats. If you have not listened to it I think you might enjoy it, let me know what you think.

    Keep the good stuff rollin!

    • JC says

      Thanks Pete.

      I haven’t had a chance to listen. Is it on Mikes website? I have been doing box squats solely while fixing my hips, so I would like to listen. Either shoot me an email or respond with a link here.

  14. says

    JC,

    Great topic (incredible site by the way…not sure how I’ve missed this one…”sleeping at the wheel” I guess). Anyway, it really is a trendy thing to knock exercise machines. I do a large portion of my lifts in the free-weight room, but love machines for certain exercises. I think the low cable row, for instance, blows away the typical bent over barbell row. I prefer the hammer preacher curl over a typical preacher curl because the hammer strength machine provides resistance at the top of the movement. After my 5 sets of military presses with a barbell, I like to hit the hammer strength military press to “finish off” the delts.

    I certainly understand the benefits of the bigger compound movements, but there are many more choices if you want to mix things up.

    Also I agree with James about incline dumbbell presses. If I had to chose only one lift for chest, this would be it. It develops the upper pecs from outside to center of the chest, creating that square chest look…instead of rounded pecs.

    Look forward to reading more of your posts,

    Rusty

    • JC says

      Hey Rusty, thanks for dropping in.

      I, like you, tend to be a big fan of some of the Hammer machines. We have an incline Hammer machine at the gym and IMO it’s a lot better than the flat bench from an activation standpoint. It feels a lot better no my shoulders too.

      This article was not necessarily a knock on compounds, as I am a big advocate of compound movements. It was more so a knock on those who think the only way is to squat, bench and deadlift. It’s like you said, the low cable row tends to do a lot more for you than the traditional row. Guess what? It’s still a compound, albeit on a machine.

  15. K...c... says

    A few things here. I like this article, mainly because I avoid squats for two reasons: My knees won’t have any of it and I find that leg pressing keeps my form accountable seeing as I always work out alone. Also, I am so glad you mentioned the long arm thing. I have always wondered if that was slowing my bench down.

    I love dips, especially weighted…For some reason they are the most exuberating lift for me.

    Question: Sticking to the main three seems like a difficult way burn fat. Do compound movements mixed into a good lifting circuit produce more results in fat loss?

    • JC says

      yea, I worked with a guy once who had issues with squatting, so we swapped out squats for leg presses. It was a much better fit for him.

      If you have long arms, perhaps try some floor presses. They take a little while to get used to but are definitely a good thing for the guys/gals with long arms.

      Strength training is not what causes fat loss to occur. Fat loss occurs through a deficit of kcals. Now it’s important to keep strength training into the diet/fat loss equation to ensure you retain your muscle mass but strength training alone is not responsible for fat loss or gain.

  16. Fred says

    Good article.

    Having being dictated to about the powerclean mimicking the rowing stroke I have started trying out the hang-clean instead, in my A, owing to the fact that I have never been taught the powerclean properly and I am fed up after 2 years of trying to teach myself. Also the hang-clean-jerk, done ion my B seems to complement both my hang-clean duhh and my press.

    Speaking of which both you and your argu’er left out the Military press. I would argue that the Standing Military Barbell Press is better than the bench in terms of time/muscles hit. Done properly, according to Rippetoe, everything below the delts should be freakin solid, ie you are working it. But then you also hit the same muscles bar the pecs subbed for delts.

    • JC says

      thanks for the input. The standing military press is a good one for the time/benefit factor. I particularly like seated overhead presses because it seems to take my ego out of the equation because it keeps it from turning into a push press.

      The powerclean is a difficult movement to learn without a coach. Heck I had great coaches in school who taught it very well, however I hated the lift and never really developed it. I was much more interested in squatting.

  17. says

    Prior to the invention of the bench press, the pecs were built with dips and military presses.

    And, when it comes to bodybuilding, the big 3 should mean “lower body compound press, upper body compound press, upper body compound pull.”

  18. dorian says

    The points you mentioned seem very well-concieved.
    However, when you read a book about training which is written with the “Big Three” as training base the always bring up the point of more testosterone segregation through heavy movements such as the squat.
    Perhaps it wasn’t your intention to belittle compound movements in general but only the big three.
    If so, then your article headline may be a bit confusing.
    Well, just my two cents.
    See ya.

    • JC says

      I didn’t belittle compound movements and if it read like I did, I didn’t mean for it to. Later in the article I write

      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

      I was just highlighting the point that some get tunnel vision and tend to think that bench, deads and squats are the only movements one should be doing. Sometimes anatomically, it’s just not too smart for certain individuals.

  19. says

    Interesting.. I don’t have much experience on this matter because I have only done squats and deadlifts in the last 2 years, but I’ve been doing bench press for 9 years now and I can’t say it’s any better than dumbell presses or even machine presses.

    I prefer dumbell press for simplicity but focus on bench press simply because I want to be able to say I can bench press a lot.

    I’ve seen more gains with inclined dumbell press than any other chest exercise.

    For squats and deadlifts, when I work out regularly I make strength gains every time I work out, but size-wise I’ve made no improvements at all. It still comes down to eating enough and I just don’t have the time to.

    • JC says

      I used to bench solely for ego. Then I got hurt. Now I solely choose to do dips because it’s safer(for me) and keeps my ego in check.