Can You Build Muscle Without Compound Movements?

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Written by Coach Charlotte Jones

In this article, we are going to define single-joint and multi-joint movements, and cover the importance of each during your training. By the end of this article, you will better understand the benefits of both isolation exercises and compound movements and how they impact your ability to build muscle.

Can You Build Muscle Without Compound Movements?

Short answer? Yes.

You can absolutely build muscle in individual muscles with focused isolation exercises such as lateral raises and hamstring curls. 

These exercises are excellent to include in order to specifically focus on smaller muscle groups. They will be generally less taxing on your overall central nervous system and ability to recover from training sessions due to only using one or two muscles rather than the majority of the body so if you are struggling to recover and you note that your sessions are full of compound movements, it might be worth it to mix in some isolation movements to give your system a better chance.

The specificity that can be created within isolation movements can make them especially helpful for developing muscles that lag behind other ones or those that you may struggle to engage and connect with during multi-joint movements because even though we try to prevent it, sometimes certain muscles just take over a bit more than others. We take full advantage of this specificity with our physique competitors to help them maximize their stage presentation and the overall package.

 

More Benefits of Single-Joint Exercises

Another benefit of single-joint movements is that they give you the chance to contract specific muscles in ways that compound movements cannot. A leg extension, for example, is a valuable isolation exercise for the quadriceps. While we can and should include volume for the quads through squats, lunges, and other various movement patterns that challenge it in the lengthened position, the only way to fully shorten the quad is through knee extension. The leg extension is the only place in the gym where you can replicate this and add resistance to the movement safely. This can also create tension in muscle fibers that you might be missing or unable to activate through squat-type patterns- something you’ll definitely want to consider if you have specific hypertrophy-focused goals. 

 

 

Basically,  if you want to maximize quad growth, including a few sets per week would probably be a good idea. The same applies to other muscle groups and their specific isolation movements.

So – if you can accomplish all of this with single-joint movements, why should we include compound movements? Recall that I mentioned they can be much more taxing on our systems, asking more of us in the gym and in our ability to recover from training sessions.

Why Muli-Joint, Compound Exercises Are Important

The issue with putting all of our eggs in the “single-joint” basket is that we miss out on the strength and power opportunities provided to us by compound movements that involve nearly the entire system to engage at once. If you want to optimize your overall strength and muscle-building efforts, single-joint movements will not get you there. This is where compound movements come in.

When talking about compound movements, we are looking at multi-joint movements that engage more than one specific muscle at a time such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, or pull-ups, to name a few.

Compound movements offer a trainee more bang for their buck by being able to train more than one individual muscle at a time. This can be more time-efficient if you’re in a pinch and are looking to get an effective workout in quickly. The involvement of multiple muscle groups also means compound exercises are just TOUGH, which can also benefit your cardiovascular system. Can we all just agree that sets of 8 or more squats are cardio? Yes? Yes. Okay, great!

 

Benefits of Muli-Joint, Compound Exercises

Compound movements can help us improve our overall coordination and stability as they more mimic lifestyle movements like bending over to pick something up or standing. More balance and core strength are needed for something like a squat versus a lateral raise as it’s a more technical movement with more moving pieces to consider during each rep. This is especially important to consider as one gets older and balance naturally begins to decline. 

Another not so glamorous but incredibly important benefit to implementing compound movements and honestly resistance training, in general, is the chance of developing a stronger connection from your brain to your muscles through various neural pathways. These pathways tell your muscles when and how to fire to help your muscles engage more fibers as you become more experienced as a trainee. This is something that is especially important in newer lifters who are likely not used to engaging their muscles in that way so these initial neural improvements will help them make great progress at the beginning (newbie gains, anyone?). Due to their complexity and the involvement of multiple joints, compound movements teach the brain to fire all the necessary muscles at once whereas isolation movements only tell it to fire one.

 

Putting It All Together

So, as you see, you most certainly can build muscle without compound movements and isolation movements have lots of applicable value in muscle growth and building a balanced physique. The value of compound movements, though, cannot be overstated and it is important to find variations that work for you. This very well may not involve performing a conventional deadlift from the floor – this is not always going to be the most optimal or safest setup for certain individuals. This would be a case to potentially try a block trap bar deadlift or to implement stationary split squats over walking lunges in order to allow compounds of different types to still play a role in one’s training for their functionality. It is worth finding some that work for you!

 

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Written by Coach Charlotte Jones, ACE CPT, PnL1

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