Fitness gurus have always known that compound movements (squat, bench, deadlift), not isolated ones, are what drive strength and muscle gains.
“But I just want a big chest. I don’t care about squats and deadlifts. Why can’t I just bench press until my arms fall off?” Ah, but if you do care about sporting a sizable chest, then you should care about squatting and deadlifting as well. Let’s take a peek at the 150,000 sets submitted by Fitocracy users.
What’s this? Deadlifting and squatting might actually help your bench press? Users whose workout routines contained squats and deadlifts, in addition to bench press, averaged 184 lbs on their equivalent one-rep maximum (1RM). Users whose workout routines did not contain squats and deadlifts only had an average 1RM of 145 lbs.
There’s a great post on T-nation by well renowned strength coach Alwyn Cosgrove that gives some great insight. The article, which cites a decade old study by Rogers et al., essentially discusses why compound movements create muscular hypertrophy across the entire body, rather than just locally.
Now, a naïve trainee might ask “What about variety”? “Shouldn’t we be doing all variations under the sun in order to confuse our muscles?” Let’s take a look at some 1RMs vs. the number of different exercises (i.e. variety) that someone performs. Let’s stick with bench press as our example. After all, it seems to be a sexy exercise (Think of how many times you get asked “How much do you bench press?” when people find out you workout).
1RMs are highest for those with 7 exercises in their chest routine, then drop off after that. The results above are slightly misleading in that it makes it seem that lower variety is not optimum for strength. The lower 1RMs above for those with 1-5 different chest exercises, is because users with less variety are typically beginners, and naturally, have lower 1RMs. I’ve personally made some of my best strides when only doing 1 or 2 exercises for chest. Variety often competes with progression since a lot of energy goes into trying to progressively overload. If you constantly change exercises, improvement becomes more difficult.
We’ve taken a look at how does the trio of squat, bench, and deadlift impacts bench press 1RM, but what about overall strength progression? At Fitocracy, we track “personal records” (PRs). A personal record is your best completed set of an exercise, e.g. squatting 400 lbs for 10 reps, when your previous best was only 400 lbs for 9 reps.
On average, it takes users who do squat, bench, and deadlift in their routine 60 sets to hit a PR. Users who aren’t in this group (i.e. they do only 0-2 of those three exercises) only hit a PR once every 70 sets.
Lastly, we took a look at the top 10 users in terms of total PRs – these users made the most progress in all of Fitocracy. (Shoutout to fellow Fitmarker writer Beardedfitness who actually had the most PRs since we launched the feature on March 11) What exercises did their routines have in common?
Surprised? Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, and Pull-Ups were the most commonly performed exercises by Fitocracy’s top 10 PR gainers. If it seems like we’re beating the horse to death, it’s intentional. Keep your training simple by improving your squat, bench and deadlift, and you too will level up in real life.
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