Compound Exercises In Bodybuilding


There’s always been a debate over which is better: compound exercises or isolation exercises. This is one of those age-old debates that never really gets answered. Part of that is it’s all a matter of opinion. Yet, there are clear advantages to each. However, this article is NOT going to be another tired “which one is best” article. Both have value and an intelligent, complete program should include both. This article will explore both and provide you with some classic routines. Let’s get started!

What Are Compound Exercises Anyway?

Before we go too far in this article, let’s define compound movements and isolation movements: 

Compound, or basic, exercises: These can be defined as multi-joint movements that involve several muscle groups. Examples of compound exercises include the following:


  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Presses
  • Dips
  • Overhead Presses
  • Bent Rows
  • Pull-Ups/Chins
  • Power Cleans

What Are Isolation Exercises?

These can be defined as single-joint movements that involve one muscle group. Examples of isolation exercises include the following:


  • Leg extensions
  • Leg curls
  • Concentration curls
  • Lat Pulldowns
  • Dumbbell Flys
  • Side Laterals – Dumbbell or Cable


One key proponent of isolation exercises was Arthur Jones, inventor of the original Nautilus machines. His use of high-intensity training was largely popularized by Mike Mentzer. Jones & Mentzer suggested primarily machines (Jones machines of course) to “isolate” a muscle and work it to exhaustion using intensity techniques. Mentzer, a true legend of the late 70’s – early 80’s, promoted his version of this type of training. He called it “Heavy Duty”. Menzter and Jones did recommend some use of compound movements. 


Yet the majority of their training programs used a lot of machine-based isolation exercises. As we’ll soon see, machines lend themselves to various intensity techniques. Of course, isolation movements are the cornerstone of numerous programs out there and quite honestly, no program would be complete without the use of at least some of them.   


Those who know me know I advocate the use of primarily compound exercises and progressively heavier weight as a core program that should be the starting point for any bodybuilder/weight trainer, as well as the cornerstone of any advanced program. Isolation moves are a must under certain circumstances, not to mention they fit the use of extended set techniques very well, however, it is true you will get much more bang for your buck using compound moves as your foundation.

Advantages Of Compound Exercises:

  1. They work multiple muscle groups at the same time – and that means faster progress.
  2. Compound exercises involve the smaller stabilizer muscles – machine-based isolation exercises overlook these muscles.
  3. These exercises burn more calories due to the involvement of more muscle groups. They can be part of a fat loss program if you use a circuit training program. 
  4. They promote balance and coordination. This is something machines and isolation exercises cannot do.
  5. Compound exercises promote functional strength increases. Many of the biomechanics of these exercises apply to everyday life.
  6. The fact that you can use heavier loads means greater protein synthesis stimulation. This alone is reason enough to feature compound movements in your training program.

Isolation Exercises And Intensity Techniques

As noted, isolation exercises are typically associated with intensity techniques and training to failure. My favorite intensity technique is drop sets, which I often use as part of a superset.  To get the most out of drops, you have to “drop” weight quickly, it’s much easier to change a pin or grab the next lighter pair of dumbbells, than it is to pull multiple plates off a barbell. A great exercise for this is leg extensions, and I’ll do 5-6 drops. The key here is I only do this after I’ve done squats. Always perform the compound move first when you’re strongest so you can use enough weight.

Compound Exercises And Full Body Routines

Historically, compound movements have always been the cornerstone of full-body routines, this type of routine dates way back to the early history of bodybuilding. There are two examples of full-body routines I’d like to touch on in this article: the standard 3 days a week full body and the fabled 20-rep squat full body.

The Standard 3-Day Split Routine

This classic routine is always done 3 days per week, typically Mon-Wed-Fri. Plus it always features at least 5-6 compound exercises for at least 3 sets each. I can see the benefit of this type of approach as a beginner routine utilizing light weights and concentrating on form. Beyond that, I’ve always had a big problem with this routine. Not the concept or a brief version, in fact, I use them all the time. I mean more advanced versions that add a lot of exercises and sets. I’m talking 20-30 exercises and 50-60 or more sets. Yes, there are full-body routines like this out there.  


My problem with routines like that is recovery – am I really supposed to do this 3 times a week with just one day’s recovery in between? Are you kidding me? Furthermore, am I really expected to still be training hard at the end of this routine?  An example of this type of routine can be found on p.313 of the Ironman book, “Ultimate Bodybuilding Encyclopedia”.  It’s a routine advocated by Bill Pearl and consists of 50+ sets, to be performed, of course, Mon-Wed-Fri.

The 20-Rep Squat

The 20-rep squat, also called “breathing squats”, originated in 1930, as part of Mark Berry’s Deep Knee Bend system. This was a simple, 4-5 exercise full body routine based around full squats. J.C. Hise is an excellent example of someone that used Berry’s routine.  However, at this point, it had not evolved to include 20-rep squats. Peary Rader, the founder of Ironman magazine is generally credited with coming up with the first 20-rep, breathing-style squat routine. But he had the help of Hise. 


This type of squats, for those that may not know, are squats done for 20 reps with a weight you would do 10 reps with. I mean you would fail at 10 reps. I do not mean you could knock out 10 easy reps and stop, long before getting anywhere near failure. That’s a key point, by the way. So, when you do 20-rep squats, each time you hit failure, usually beginning around rep # 12-14, you stop and take 3-5 deep breaths. You then continue until you get to 20, stopping as needed to get those breaths. Then go right into pullovers. Trust me, if you do this exercise right, those last few reps are almost impossible to hit. You will most likely think the world is coming to an end if you’re doing these right. This is an exercise I highly recommend – it’s simple but amazingly effective.


Here is the original Ironman 20-rep squat routine:


Press Behind Neck – 3 sets of 8 

Squats superset with Straight Arm Pullovers – 3 sets of 20 reps 

Bench Press – 3 sets of 8 

Curls – 3 sets of 8 


Here’s a more modern example:


Bench Press – 2 sets of 12

Squats – 1 set of 20 super-set with Pullovers – 1 set of 20

Bent Rows – 2 sets of 15


These two routines come from the classic book “Super Squats” by Randall J. Strossen. They are very brief, which means you put everything you have into your squats. The pullovers were meant to help young lifters expand their ribcage, and are somewhat controversial. Still, the real focus is on squats.

Modern Split Routines

Of course, today compound exercises form the basis of any number of split routines. Historically, as training methods have evolved to split routines; bodybuilders began to add in isolation movements for more complete development. This is especially true in the pre-contest phase of any competitive bodybuilder’s yearly training cycle. However, you’ll find that most, if not all, top bodybuilders started on a routine of compound movements. In many cases, they also started with a full-body routine. 


Arnold is one example of this. He used compound movements and basic exercises due to the influence of his mentor, Reg Park. Reg had great success using a full-body 5×5 routine. This is a routine that’s similar to the popular StrongLifts 5×5. In fact, in the book “IronMan’s Ultimate Bodybuilding Encyclopedia”, there’s an Arnold article on p.307 that lists his “Golden Six” exercises, all of which are mainly compound movements.

The Updated 20-Rep Squat Routine Featuring Compound Exercises

No article of mine would be complete without a routine. So in this case the routine is my version of the 20-rep Squat. As you will see, I’ve made quite a few adjustments to the original idea. I look at 20-rep squats as a type of rest-pause training. They are without doubt high intensity, so this routine will be high intensity utilizing a lot of rest-pause – another favorite of mine.

Day 1 –  Legs, Abs 

Squats – 2-3 warm-up sets

Start with a light weight for 15 easy reps, add weight and drop the reps to 12, add a little more weight, and drop the reps to 10. Remember, these are all easy sets. 


1 working set (that’s right, one!)

Breathing Squats – 10rm for 20 breathing style reps, superset with 1 set dumbbell pullovers. Use a moderate weight and get a good stretch on the pullovers. Let me be clear, if you’re doing this exercise correctly, you should be seeing your life flashing before your eyes during those last few reps! Anything less than that and you aren’t working hard enough!


Rest for 2-3 minutes 


Leg Curls -2 working sets of 8 reps. Perform your reps explosive up, slow and controlled down. 

Calf Raises – 3 working sets of 25 reps, alternating slow, full-range reps with faster explosive reps, done over 3/4 range of motion.

Crunch – 3 sets of 50 reps.

Day 2 – Rest 

Day 3 – Chest, Deltoids, Triceps, Abs

All reps are to be done explosive up, slow and controlled down with a 5 second static hold or pause in the fully stretched position on the last 2 reps. Here’s how it looks: tempo = 2-4-5. 


Bench Press – 3 warm-up sets, done the same way as your warm-ups for squats. 

3 working sets, each set to failure, use rest-pause on your last set. 

Incline Press – 3 working sets done the same as your bench press sets.

Incline flys -2 working sets of 8-10 reps drop set style (3 drops) by going to a lighter set of dumb bells each drop.

Military Press – 3 working sets of 8 reps, use rest-pause on your last set.

Side/Rear Laterals –this is a superset, do 2 working supersets of 10 reps per exercise and use rest-pause on the last superset.

Close Grip Bench Press – 2 working sets of 8 reps, and use rest-pause on your last set.

Triceps press downs – 2 working sets of 8 reps. Emphasize static holds in the fully stretched position. Hold each static hold or pause for at least 5 seconds.

Crunch – 3 sets of 50 reps. (Feel free to mix up your ab exercises).

Day 4 – Rest

Day 5 – Back, Biceps, Forearms, Abs 

All reps are to be done explosive up, slow and controlled down with a 5 second static hold or pause in the fully stretched position on the last 2 reps. Here’s how it looks: tempo = 2-4-5. 


Deadlifts – 2-3 warm-up sets done the same way as squats.

3 working sets of 8 reps, each set to failure. Do these slow and under complete control, concentrating on your form. Also, watch your grip, that’ll likely give out before your back does. 

Bent Rows – 3 working sets of 8 reps, use rest-pause on your last set.  

Chins to failure, extend the set using rest-pause.

EZ Curls/Drag Curls – 3 working sets of 8 reps. Fail by the 8th rep and extend the set by going right into drag curls. 

Hammer Curls – 2 working sets of 8 reps, use rest-pause on your last set.

Crunch – 3 sets of 50 reps. (Feel free to mix up your ab exercises)

Performance Notes

Using rest-pause means on each of your 3 sets, you’re failing at about 8 reps, or the number noted, then using rest-pause to extend the set. Use the rest-pause technique 2 more times in that set. You won’t get that many extra reps, even using 3 pauses a set. Also, you may notice my set totals are low. I’m not a high-intensity advocate but if you need to do more sets than what I’ve listed, you aren’t working hard enough. Rest pause is an amazing technique that’s perfectly suited to compound exercises. Now, what I would do is use the above routine for about 4 weeks and then switch to more of a power routine, such as the StrongLifts 5×5 routine. 

Supplement Suggestions

Of course, you’ll need a good pre-workout for a routine like this. Check out our pre-workout category here. Suggestions include 5% Nutrition 5150 stacked with MPA Supps Celluvol. This combo gives you plenty of energy and pump ingredients as well as glycerol, which will dramatically enhance pumps and endurance. Of course, don’t forget BCAAs, Creatine, and Protein Powder. Interested in muscle builders to top this stack off? See them here


We’ve looked at just some of the uses of compound movements – the routine above is just one example of an approach you can take.  Fundamentally, the use of compound moves in a routine involving progressively heavier weight is typical and often is a routine on its own, yet this core approach can be utilized within virtually any routine you’d like to try.


  2. Fundamentals of Resistance Training: Progression and Exercise Prescription by WILLIAM J. KRAEMER and NICHOLAS A. RATAMESS.
  3. Super Squats by Randall J.Strossen


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