You finally followed through on your New Year’s resolution. Three months in, and you’re still actually using your gym membership. Take that, apathy! Naturally, you’ve been putting in the time, so when your friends ask you what you’ve been up to, you mention that you’ve been lifting. Eventually, it’s bound to come up: “How much can you bench, bro?”
This is where you either nonchalantly throw out a figure approximating the weight of a mid-sized bison or look to the ground with your hands in your pockets, kicking an imaginary can as you mutter your double-digit mark of shame.
For one reason or another, the bench press seems to be the national anthem of weight lifting. So what’s the big, bulky deal?
The bench press is one of three major compound lifts popularly performed during strength training and powerlifting competitions, the other two being squats and deadlifts. Compound lifts, as opposed to isolation exercises, work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Think of it this way: Carrying a keg up the stairs is a compound exercise; lifting your pint glass is an isolation exercise. One of them is going to get you a lot tipsier than the other, too.
Benefits of Compound Lifts
Compound lifts present a number of benefits over isolation exercises, some of which include:
- Improved joint stability and coordination
- Decreased risk of injury during sports
- Spending an hour in the only squat rack checking yourself out while other gym members wait impatiently
- Burning extra calories
The big reason why they’re so huge, however, is a lot more straightforward: Compound exercises are a great way to pack on lean muscle.
Like a Kid in a Candy Shop
Just to be clear, squats, deadlifts, and bench presses are not the only three compound lifts. There’s a wide variety of compound lifts to choose from. There’s also the lunge, the overhead press, the beastly power clean and snatch, and many, many more. With so many options and so little time, you might be wondering where to begin.
The Big Three
The Barbell Squat
Never skip leg day. There’s a reason why buildings start from the foundation. Nothing is less healthy, aesthetically unappealing, or structurally unsound than a pair of teensy little legs perched beneath a hulking torso.
The barbell squat, when performed properly, works out the entire lower body, with extra focus on the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. It also requires an engaged and stable core to support the weight, as well as a heart of steel to avoid the literally crushing fear of failing your rep and being squashed by the weight overhead.
Your average Joe will probably ask you about your max on the bench when trying to get an idea for your lifting strength. However, make no mistake: The deadlift is one of the most powerful compound exercises out there. It’s indispensable in your arsenal whether you’re trying to gain muscle mass, overall strength, or just get really fit.
The areas of focus in the deadlift are the lower back, the glutes, and the hamstrings, but this exercise works out pretty much your entire body. Your core is engaged to support your back; your arms, while secondary to the movement, are still placed under strain to hang onto the barbell; your fists are locked like a vice grip; and you’re probably sweating and grunting like a feral beast if you’re really pushing yourself.
The deadlift will do wonders to strengthen your posterior chain and carry over in a major way to other athletic activities.
The Bench Press
So, here we are, full circle. The major reason why the bench press is the glamour girl of the big three is because it’s the key to the deep desire of most lifters: a developed upper body. The bench press is the quintessential upper body movement, sort of. As you probably already know, the main targeted muscle group on the bench press is the pectoral muscles. Depending on whether you’re using a wide or narrow grip, the bench press can work both the outer and inner pecs. It also requires stability from the shoulders and triceps, as well as a solid functional grip.
When it comes to developing a broad and powerful chest, the deadlift is king. The only thing to keep in mind is that whereas squats and deadlifts do a great job of targeting entire regions of the body, the deadlift is one of the more isolated compound exercises. You’re going to have to go elsewhere to work your shoulders, your lats, and your traps.
Balance and Safety
Before you march off to your local gym with your new workout routine, there are three major tips in closing:
- When it comes to compound exercises, form is crucial. Doing any of these exercises with poor form is a sure-fire way to throw out your back, rack up your joints, or injure a muscle. Always focus on proper form. Start with low weight, and make sure you’ve got the movement perfect before moving up.
- Injury can limit your safety or ability to perform some of these exercises. If you have pre-existing conditions, start out by talking to your physician, and don’t get discouraged if you can’t perform a specific routine. There are always options if you’re determined.
- These lifts are centerpieces but not the whole display. Make sure to balance out your routine with isolation exercises, cardio, and a bit of variety.
And with that, happy lifting!