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Bigger Lifts, Bigger Muscle

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If mass and power are your goal then heavy compound exercises are a proven necessity.

By Lee Boyce

Every serious trainer knows that big compound movements like squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press are the way to go when looking to make serious gains in size and strength. However, aside from the fact that major weight is being moved when performing these exercises, few really understand the full range of benefits they have to offer.

As a result, newcomers to the world of weight training too often get the mistaken impression that the same results can be gained by focusing on smaller, single-joint isolation movements and machines. That’s why I decided to set the record straight once and for all and fully explain just why big compound movements are so important and what you’re body is losing out on if you ignore them. 

I’ve also included a total body training regimen consisting entirely of heavy compound exercises that can offer a refreshing respite to the usual body part split. 

Compound Benefits

Spinal Loading 

Heavy bars placed on the body will do two things. First, they will force your nervous system to recruit more of its high threshold motor units (which are responsible for fast twitch muscle fibers) or at very least, force the ones that are already firing to work even harder. Second, you’ll be releasing more hormones that are essential for muscle building (testosterone and GH) both during and after the workout. 

The S.A.I.D. Principle 

This is a pretty easy one. The S.A.I.D. principle stands for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.” Simply put, when you’re squatting a heavy bar with 300lbs on it, your body can either get its ass kicked by the weight, or it can adapt. It adapts by building muscle, increasing bone density, and adding strength so that it can begin to meet the demands of the loaded barbell. The S.A.I.D. principle is another way bodies build muscle. 

Joints and Connective Tissue

You’ve heard it before: “Keep pressing like that, and you’ll get an injury down the road.” Technique aside, there is some truth to this statement. Using machines and focusing on single joint isolation movements can start making the body have to deal with straining and counterstraining forces on the joints. If you train your quads often with leg extensions, and your hamstrings with prone curls, shearing forces can have their way on the knee joint if proper care isn’t taken to ensure that there is a perfect balance. When performing exercises like the squat and lunge however, the muscles on both sides of the knee contract at the same time, and therefore do a better job of keeping the joint in proper working order. 

Core Strength Benefits

Big compound or multi-joint movements are often performed standing, which puts a much greater dependency on the abdominals and lower back. Not being confined to a seat means your core has to do a hell of a lot more stability work. Other than preventing injuries down the road caused by a lack of spine stability or support, the core strength benefits yielded by heavy compound movements mean you can get away from performing conventional, non-functional exercises like crunches. 

My Top Favorites 

As far as compound movements go, this would be my list of go-to exercises that provide the most bang for their buck: 

1. BB Deadlift, Rack Pulls and their grip variations 

2. Cleans, Snatches and the Olympic Lift variations 

3. Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups 

4. Squats and their variations 

5. Lunges, Split Squats and their variations 

6. Standing Press 

7. Bent-Over Rows 

8. Bench Press, Push Ups 

9. Inverted (under-the-bar) Rows 

Introduce the movements listed above into your weekly routines as the primary exercises in a workout. Coupling these compound movements with supplementary isolation exercises can lead to a blastoff in muscle gains. 

The Best Damn Compound Lifting Program, Period 

Now for the fun stuff. The thing about having all these big movements in your program is that they can all take their place as the meat and potatoes of your training. It also gives you the opportunity to get in some total body workouts, which can be a needed shift from the typical isolation split routine for a few weeks. But first…. 

Cleverly Titled Disclaimer 

This isn’t a program structure I’d recommend doing for too long. Of course, it’s completely subjective as to what program you are currently coming off of and the demands that program placed on your body. This program places a lot of demands on the central nervous system due to the large movements. If at any point during the program you feel sluggish or overtrained, it usually means your neurotransmitters are beginning to give you the finger. Listen to your body and take a deloading week. 

The Structure 

In order to hit the whole body more than once per week, I like to arrange things into movement patterns. Two horizontal push/pull days and two vertical push/pull days will do the trick. I’ll also alternate a heavy week with a volume week. 

Day 1: Vertical Push/Pull 

  • BB Deadlift – 5x6reps 
  • BB Standing Press – 5×6 reps 
  • Pull-Ups (weighted) – 5×6 reps 
  • Hang Cleans – 5×6 reps 

*Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets 

Day 2: Horizontal Push/Pull 

  • Inverted Rows – 5×10 reps 
  • Bench Press – 5×6 reps (after final set perform push ups to failure) 
  • Walking Lunge – 5×20 steps 

*Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets 

Day 3: Vertical Push/Pull 

  • BB Squat (Front or Back) – 5×6 reps 
  • BB Push Press – 5×6 reps (push press option should enable you to perform with more weight than a standing press) 
  • Weighted Chin-Ups (palms face in, narrower grip) – 5×6 reps 

*Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets  

Day 4: Horizontal Push/Pull

  • Seated Rows – 5×12 reps 
  • BB Incline Bench Press – 5×6 reps (after final set perform push ups to failure) 
  • Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat (Using DBs) – 5×6 reps per leg 
  • Bent-Over Rows – 5×8 reps 

*Rest 2 minutes between sets 

Day 5: Isolations/Specifics 

Choose as many or as few as you feel necessary from the following list and perform 4 sets of 12 reps. 

  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts 
  • BB Biceps Curls 
  • Overhead French Press 
  • Skull Crushers 
  • Hanging Leg Raises (recommended!) 
  • DB Chest Flye 
  • Leg Press 
  • V-Grip Lat Pulldowns 
  • Lateral Raises (standing) 

*Rest 2 minutes between sets 

One More Thing 

On alternating weeks, when following this program, lower your weight and increase your volume by going for 10 reps (instead of the listed 6 reps) on every pressing movement. This can act as a minor “save” for your nervous system from one week to the next. 

The Head to Toe Summary 

The beauty of making muscles grow is that there’s a variety of methodologies that can be employed to reach the same results. Total body training is an awesome alternative to a typical body part split program that offers a size and compound strength boost. Are you man enough to give it a try? 

Lee Boyce is a sought after Toronto based strength coach. He works with clients and athletes for strength, conditioning, and sport performance. He’s a contributor to many major magazines including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness and TNATION, and is the fitness expert on the nationally televised morning show First Look. While attending York University he studied Kinesiology and competed as a varsity sprinter and long jumper at the national level. Visit his website for more articles at leeboycetraining.com and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.

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