Multi-Joint Exercises – Compound Movements To Build Muscle


Shunryu Suzuki said, “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.” So should you adopt a similar manner in your workouts, especially when looking to get the biggest bang for your time? This article will detail the benefits of multi-joint exercises and briefly discuss several types and key points about each one.

For the purposes of this article, a multi-joint exercise will be defined as any movement in which your body must change the angles of more than one joint while performing the motion. For example, if you are performing a set of standing dumbbell curls, the only joint that should move is your elbow – this would be classified as an ‘isolation’ style exercise in which a very specific set of muscles are being utilized to perform the movement. Compare that to standing up from a chair where your body will need to manipulate the ankles, knees, hips, spine and perhaps shoulders in order to complete the motion to stand up from a sitting position.

The Basics
Here are the key rules to remember when utilizing multi-joint exercises in your workout sessions:

  • The more joints that are worked, the better the overall effect.
  • The more muscle tissue (by volume) that is worked, the better the overall effect.
  • The more joints that are worked, the more your nervous system will be stimulated (also translating into more movement complexity).
  • The more planes of motion utilized at the same time, the more your nervous system and stabilizer muscles will be stimulated (again, more complexity).
  • The greater the demand on your body, the greater the metabolic effect as energy is more rapidly consumed to complete the motion.

If you keep these rules of thumb in mind, they will provide you with a solid framework for incorporating multi-joint movements into your workouts.

The Benefits
multi-joint-exercises-2 (1)Let’s take a look at the key points listed above and translate these into the direct benefits that you can expect to realize when using multi-joint exercises. First and foremost, the more joints that are used in any particular movement, the better the overall effect. Have you ever seen a gymnast dancing along a balance beam looking graceful and in control as her body is contorted and suspended in different poses in space? In order to achieve this level of control, this gymnast has, among other things, learned to control different joint movements happening at the same time. As your body must control different joint angles and stabilization, it becomes like a juggler – the more balls that are in the air being juggled at the same time, the harder the task and the greater amount of concentration and effort must be spent to maintain that state.

Let’s look at this from a practical standpoint. If you sit in a chair and extend your right leg at the knee like a slow kick, your body will need to use the muscles that surround the knee joint to control this motion. If you perform the same movement with both legs at the same time, your body will now need to utilize two separate but equal joints. If you take both of your feet and place them on the ground while sitting in a chair and then smoothly stand up from the chair, you’ll be using your ankle, knee, hip, and spine joints in the least. If you sit back down and this time jump up from the seated position and try to immediately jump up as high as you can and clap your hands far above your head, you’ll be using almost every joint in your body for the motion.

Which of these movements takes the most energy? The last one, and for two main reasons. First, you’ll be using virtually every joint in your body to perform the task. Your nervous system, which is sending out little electrical signals telling your muscles whether or not to contract and by how much, will need to send signals all over the place at the same time. It’s kind of like the I Love Lucy scene with the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory – if your nervous system isn’t used to that kind of stimulation it gets challenged and forced to adapt. This is kind of like the ‘walking and chewing gum’ idea – if you practice it, you will get better at it as your body adapts to a higher level of stimulation and control demands.

The second reason that going from a seated position straight into a jump takes more energy is due to the amount of muscle fibers that are using energy to contract and move different parts of your body. Every muscle fiber that is firing because of the signals received by your nervous system uses a little bit of energy to contract. The more muscle fibers you have contracting, the more energy that is being consumed purely on an economy of scale perspective. Not only are the larger prime movers contracting to help lift your body into the jump position, but smaller stabilizer muscles are also working to make sure that the prime movers move your body in the direction you intended it to go. Every one of those muscle fibers, whether from stabilizers or from prime movers, is using energy.

So why is it important to develop your nervous system and stabilizer muscles? For the very same underlying reason why you exercise in the first place: to obtain a more efficient body. Whether this means being sleek, toned, muscular, stronger, leaner, etc., it all translates into a more efficient body. Since we are really all athletes, regardless of our current state of being, our body relies on its ability to move under resistance and in control. As your nervous system and stabilizer muscles develop alongside your prime movers, your body will move into a state of more efficient control, movement, energy storage and utilization, and balance.

Let’s take a look at some great multi-joint exercises that you can take advantage of. This is a brief discussion of exercises that use multiple joints at the same time.

Lower Back & Legs: Squats and Deadlifts
multi-joint-exercises-3The Squat and Deadlift exercises both utilize very similar joint activity – bend the knees and hips and progressively lower and raise a weight that is either held in the hands or suspended on the shoulders. Explicit care must be taken to maintain proper ‘flat back’ posture by keeping the midsection tight and back in a neutral position during these lifts. While proper form of the Deadlift will put more strength emphasis on the lower back, the Squat will primarily demand performance from the thigh and hip regions.

The Olympic Lifts: Cleans & Snatches
The Clean and Jerk and the Snatch are two Olympic lifts that employ almost every joint on the body and are consequently very demanding exercises. When performed correctly, these exercises can trigger a large adaptive response through massive energy, balance, coordination, power, and speed demands. These are excellent exercises that are at the top of the benefit ladder. Always remember to follow safe exercise form practices when performing these lifts as with any other multi-joint exercise you may be unfamiliar with and ask for guidance from a qualified, trained professional.

The Presses: Bench and Military
Bench Pressing and Military Pressing primarily utilize shoulder and elbow joint movements. Important note: Do not perform a Barbell Military Press behind the neck, as this can cause great stress and potential damage in your shoulder joints. With both of these classic movements, the principal idea is to move some resistance from a position closer to your body to a position further from your body by extending your arms. Performing Dumbbell Military Presses while standing can help bring more nervous system and stabilizer activity into play during this movement.

Multi-Planar: Jackknife Presses and Lunge Presses
Whenever your body has to manage movement in two separate planes or two opposite motions in the same plane, your nervous system will be challenged. The end result benefit of performing exercises like these: greater coordination and body control. These exercises are best performed rather slowly to allow your stabilizers a chance to control the movement instead of letting your prime movers bully them out of the way and losing balance.

Here are some pictorial descriptions of a Jackknife Press and a Lunge Press. The Jackknife Press utilizes movement in two different planes at the same time: the first is the pulling of your knees up toward your chest while keeping your back in a neutral alignment; the second is the push-up motion of your arms pressing your body higher as the knee movement happens.

Jackknife Press (Start)

Jackknife Press (Start)

Jackknife Press (Finish)

Jackknife Press (Finish)

The Lunge Press uses opposite directional movements in the same plane: as you lower your body down into the lunge, press the dumbbells held at your shoulders up into the air. Ideally, the dumbbells should stay in almost the same space so both the lunge and the press parts of the movements happen simultaneously.

Lunge Press (Start)

Lunge Press (Start)

Lunge Press (Finish)

Lunge Press (Finish)

Wrapping Up
Because multi-joint exercises use a large amount of energy and place a greater demand on stabilizer muscles, it is important to mostly utilize these exercises earlier in your workout session when you are most fresh. While there are times where using an isolation exercise before a multi-joint exercise may be the intention, you can rely on the fact that the total demand on your body will be the greatest with multi-joint exercises. All of this means that you will get your biggest bang for your proverbial buck right here. It also means that these exercises can be tough, which is one of the reasons that you won’t see many people doing them, just the people who want the best results. Don’t be surprised if these exercises take your breath away like a quick sprint. Have fun with them, be safe, and reap the rewards of your hard work.

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About Author

Jim Cook

Published, certified personal trainer Jim Cook has been helping people positively transform their lives through fitness for over eighteen years. He has used his varied background and vocational experiences to plug fitness understanding into clients' lives right where they need and want it. See my profile page for more information!

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