You have probably heard people praise how great compound lifts are for muscle strength. Many people praise that all you need are the compound lifts.
This begs the question; can you only do compound lifts? Will they build an impressive physique on their own? This article will break down exactly what compound lifts are and how to add them into your training.

Can you Only do Compound Lifts?

Yes, compound lifts are a great way to build muscle and strength. However, if you want to build the most amount of muscle possible, you should incorporate compound and isolation lifts.

What are Compound Lifts?

Compound lifts use more than one muscle group to perform an exercise. These include bench press, deadlift, and squats. Isolation exercises focus one muscle group at a time. These include biceps curls, leg extensions, and calf raises. Compound movements involve multiple joints flexing, extending, and rotating.

If we look at the squat, the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, core, and calves are all at work.

can you only do compound lifts

Which are the Best Compound Lifts?

The bench press is one the most commonly performed exercises in the gym. It’s great for working the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Vary which part of the chest you are hitting by using an incline or decline bench. Read more about the bench press here.

The squat is known as the king of leg exercises and for good reason. It should be incorporated into anyone’s routine whether they are training for aesthetics, strength, sports, and just to look and feel better. They effectively work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core.

Deadlifts are another great compound lift for building both the back and legs. Many different variations can be done to increase the intensity and target different muscles groups including Romanian deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts and single leg deadlifts.

The overhead press is an explosive lift for training the shoulders, upper chest, triceps, and strengthening the core. It’s a very demanding exercise that will blow up the shoulders and even improve bench press strength.

What Other Types of Exercises Should you Add?

Isolation exercises are important to target and isolate certain muscle groups. While the bench press is great for building a bigger chest, cable flyes and dumbbell presses actually target the pectoral fibers more. Using both compound and isolation exercises is the best for muscle growth.

Here are some of the best isolation exercises you should implement into your training

  • Lateral raises
  • Bicep curls
  • Leg extensions
  • Calf raises
  • Chest cable flyes
  • Lat pulldown
  • Rope pushdown

The Ab Controversy

I’m sure you’ve heard of someone who claims they never train abs. They have a ripped 6-pack from only doing compound lifts. While the core does a lot of work to stabilize during compound movements, is it really possible to have great abs without directly training them?

By learning to properly brace your core during your compound lifts, you can build a lot of core strength. Flexing the abs before you drop down into your squat or lift the bar off the ground for your deadlift will do this. It will not only make you a lot stronger but allow you to feel the movement in your abs.
By squeezing the abs and making them work, they will grow a lot more.

Direct ab training will always be superior to compound lifts for building aesthetic abs. Compound lifts will help strengthen the abs, but not to the same extent that directly training them will.

Benefits of Compound Lifts

Compound lifts work multiple muscle groups at a time. This means you can work more than one muscle group by doing only one exercise. Since multiple muscle groups are assisting, extra weight can be piled on. This results in more muscle fibers being broken down, leading to more muscle growth.

When big muscle groups are working, the body releases increased amounts of testosterone and growth hormone, resulting in extra muscle gain. More information here.

Compound lifts are great for those who don’t have a lot of time in the gym. Instead of doing three different exercises that each target a different muscle group, one compound can be done.

Compound lifts burn a lot more calories as more muscles are at play. This exhausts the body more and results in more calories being burned.

In a study comparing multi-joint and single-joint exercises, multi-joint exercises were more efficient for improving muscle strength and oxygen consumption. However, no composition differences were found. This suggests that compound lifts are more efficient for building strength, but not necessarily for hypertrophy.

Compound lifts increase your heart rate, which improves the cardiovascular system. This allows you to have a healthier heart and be able to lift more without getting tired.

It is a lot easier to progressively overload each workout when programming in compound lifts. This is because you are strengthening more than one muscle group at a time. Progressively overloading is increasing sets, reps, or weight each workout. By constantly increasing intensity, the muscles always face a new challenge and you don’t plateau.

How Often to Add in Compound Lifts

How often you incorporate compound lifts will depend on what your goals in the gym are. Most people will benefit the most from doing each compound lift once a week. However, if you wish to improve a lift as fast as possible, hitting it two to three times per week is the best way to do so.


Those wishing for an aesthetically appealing physique will usually only do compound once to twice a week. Their goal is hypertrophy or muscle growth. This means they aren’t as concerned with lifting a crazy amount of weight. Having a high one rep max does not matter if you’re training for appearance.

What matters is proper contractions and time under tension. These methods of training do not require really high amounts of weight. Isolation movements are integrated a lot more in bodybuilder’s training so that they can blow up certain muscle groups.


Powerlifts lift for strength vs appearance. They need to lift as much weight as possible at their meets. This means it is beneficial for them to program compound exercises as frequently through the week as possible.

Many powerlifters will do the same compound lift 2-3 times per week to become as strong as possible at the lift. Powerlifters will have a heavy day when they do singles or doubles at 85% and 1-RM. Then they have a moderate day when they do triples-fives with at 65-80% and 1-RM. Their third day hitting the exercise will be a lighter day when they do higher volume and reps with a lower weight.

If you’re newer to training, this will be too much volume and you won’t be able to recover properly. You should only do compounds once a week if you are a new lifter. Ensure that your muscles are properly recovering before training them again.

Leave any questions or comments below and I’ll get back to you!

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