In work as in weightlifting: compound movements first.

January 8th, 2014

deadlift-determination

Serious weightlifters follow a fundamental principle: compound movements first.

A compound movement is one that exercises multiple muscle groups rather than just one. In the picture, for example, the woman is about to perform a deadlift, which works all of the muscles in the legs and hips, as well as many muscles in the trunk, back, shoulders, and arms. One easy way to tell whether a movement is compound is that there will be a range of motion for multiple joints — in this case, the knees and the hips.

The distinction is with a simple movement, which calls primarily on one muscle and requires a range of motion through just one joint. A dumbbell curl would be an example of this. Ignoring the slight effort of the muscles in the hand and the shoulder to grip and stabilize the weight, the lion’s share of the work is done by the bicep, and the only range of motion is in the elbow.

Why do you do these exercises — deadlifts, squats, dips, chinups, bench presses, etc. — first? Because they work the most muscles, they work them the heaviest, and they work them all at once. If you really want to be strong, you do the lifts that allow you to move the most weight while requiring you to use more of your muscles at the same time. Only after you’ve done those big lifts do you move on to the lighter simple movements that allow you to focus on particular muscles. That’s how you get the strongest.

What’s the analogy to work?

It’s very easy to focus on the “simple movements” of the working day: cleaning up your inbox, reading headlines, making to-do lists, knocking off the little items on your list. I fall into that pattern myself, and in fact it can be a good way to warm up for the day. But it doesn’t get the Big Work done.

Think about your working life and your career for a minute. What are your equivalents of the squat, deadlift, and bench press? Maybe it’s the work that helps you close a significant deal, or develop a new product. Probably it will relate to some complex project — your research, your health, the book you’re writing. Ponder this for a minute, and maybe jot down a few things that occur to you.

If my analogy holds, these compound movements of your working life will call on you to:

  • Use multiple big skills at once. Thus my blazing-fast use of keystrokes to file Gmail into the correct folders doesn’t count. These need to be things like “product design,” “client communication,” “prospecting,” “storytelling,” or “project management.”
  • Deliver bigger chunks of value. Filing my email promptly creates value for me, because it helps keep my life less cluttered. But it generates bigger value by . . . no, actually, it doesn’t. It’s a beneficial thing to do — like a bicep curl — but it’s not worth nearly as much as finishing a writing project, pitching an article idea to an editor, or doing the research needed to write a book.
  • Perform joined-up thinking. Think about the examples in the previous two bullet points. Each of them requires bridging various ideas. In the software world, product design involves many things — researching user needs, designing interfaces, clarifying engineering requirements, and so on. Similarly, pitching an editor on an idea requires the writer to research the publication, come up with a well-formed and relevant idea, and then adhere to written and unwritten professional protocols for how to broach the subject and follow up. You get the idea: you don’t get to coast on one set of skills, or focus only on the fun parts. You have to follow through on the totality of the project.

Does this analogy work for you? What are the best examples of compound movements in your working world? And what can you do differently to make sure you focus on them first?

Image by Amber Karnes, used under a Creative Commons license.

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