Single Joint Exercises vs Multi Joint Compound Exercises

When we are discussing muscle building activities there are two distinct types of exercises.

There are single joint exercises and there are multi joint compound movement exercises. They are both very different and in fact often times one is much more useful than the other.

Single joint exercises are things like bicep curls, leg extensions and lateral raises etc. Compound Exercises are your presses, squats, pull ups etc.

There are a couple ways to compare these two. First you want to look at difficulty, then have a look at amount of weight used and lastly I believe the best way to compare the stark differences is to actually look at the amount of “work” involved.

When I say work, I am actually referring to the physics term, for those of us who took physics in high school you may know what I am talking about. If not here is a quick refresher…

Technical Alert: Work = the amount of energy transferred by a force through a distance

So when I say work I am referring to the actual amount of energy you need to transfer the weight you are using.

Few Examples

Let’s look at a few examples a little later to really nail down what I am talking about. First I want to really nail down the differences between single joint and compound movement exercises.

When we look at single joint exercise we are really saying Isolation exercise. These are the exercises that focus on one particular body part, and have very little effect on others.

Most of the time the exercise is completely focused on one joint that is moving. For example bicep curls are almost completely focused on the elbow joint bending.

In contrast compound movement exercises are more of a full body workout. For the majority of them you still have a particular muscle group that is the primary stressor but there are many other muscles that also work to assist and stabilize.

If we think of bench press as a popular example you see that the pec or chest muscle is the primary stressor, but the tricep plays a big role as well as shoulder and back muscles for stabilization.

Back to The Work Example

Below you are going to see two workouts one completely using single joint exercise and one using compound movement exercise. We will look at the work needed to accomplish both.

Single Joint Workout

  • Lateral Raises Work = 45lbs x 3sets x 12 reps x 2 feet of movement = 3,240 lb of work
  • Barbell Curls Work = 95lbs x 3sets x 10reps x 2 feet of movement = 5,700 lb of work
  • Shoulder Shrugs Work = 315lbs x 5 sets x 10 reps x 0.25 feet of movement = 3,938 lb of work
  • Calf Raises Work = 300lbs x 3sets x 20 reps x 0.33 feet of movement = 5,940 lb of work

Compound Movement Workout

  • Dumbell Snatch Work = 55lbs x 4 sets x 6 reps x 8 feet of movement x 2 arms = 21,120 lb or work
  • Pull ups (with weight) Work = 235lbs x 4 sets x 6 reps x 2 feet of movement = 11,280 lb of work
  • Squats Work = 275lbs x 5 sets x 5 reps x 2 feet of movement = 13,750 lb of work
  • Clean and Press Work = 155lbs x 5 sets x 4 reps x 8 feet of movement = 24,800 lb of work

So I think you can clearly see that there is a winner and loser here. If you look at this as one of the determining factors then you can see that compound movement exercise clearly beats single joint exercise in this race. The difference is outstanding.

Single Joint = 18,818 Total Pounds Of Work

Multi Joint = 70,950 Total Pounds of Work

I don’t mean to say there is no room out there for single joint exercise, but I do feel that if you are interested in really building a great body, you need to focus on compound movement exercise.

This is just clearly the best time spent in the gym. You will build more muscle, and you will burn more calories and fat because of these exercises.

My Recommendation

I personally recommend that you do approx 90% multi joint exercises in your daily workout routines. If you stick to a number like this you will be sure to maximize the time spent and the results from the workouts. Any less and you run the risk of just not getting enough from your workout routine.