There are two types of exercises that are commonly used to build muscle, isolation exercises and compound exercises.
Isolation exercises are exercises that only work one muscle group at a time and usually uses one joint (bicep curls for example).
Compound exercises, on the other hand, target multiple muscle groups at the same time.
What are Compound Exercises
The definition of a compound exercise is an exercise that utilises at least two joints to target many different muscles or whole muscle groups.
The most famous compound exercise is probably the squat, that targets numerous different muscles in your leg, such as the glutes, calves and quadriceps.
You can do compound exercises that are compound by nature, such as the squat.
Alternatively, you could also perform compound exercises by doing two isolation exercises at the same time (such as bicep curls and calf raises).
Here is a list of Compound Exercises:
Squats, in the media, have mostly been associated with building your glutes. However, they also target multiple other muscles.
They target the quadriceps, calves and core as well. Furthermore, they also help with your flexibility and joint movement.
You can perform the squat using only your bodyweight or add some weight to build more muscle as your progress.
How to perform a bodyweight squat:
- Stand with your feet flat on the ground about shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing outwards.
- Engage your core as much as possible.
- Try to shift your weight onto your heels as much as possible, if you want to target your glutes more.
- Keep your spine as neutral as possible as you lower your hips into a squat position.
- Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor before standing back up.
Tip: If you want to target your glutes more, lower yourself until your thighs are just below parallel position (but not too low). Add weight as you get more and more comfortable with bodyweight squats.
There are numerous different variations of squats, depending on the placement of your legs. For example, in sumo or plie squats, your legs are placed very far apart.
In a jump squat, you jump up from the squat position and land on squat position. You can double this as a HIIT cardio move.
The Deadlift is another great compound exercise you can perform to work several muscle groups in the legs, core and arms. There are many variations you can do such as sumo, single leg and Romanian deadlifts.
Deadlifts work multiple muscles including your glutes, hamstrings, quads, lower back, and inner thighs.
How to perform a traditional deadlift:
- Stand so that your feet are under the barbell.
- Bend your knees and reach down to grab the bar, with a shoulder-width grip. At this point, your shins should touch the barbell.
- Maintain a neutral spine as you prepare to lift the barbell.
- Slowly pick up the barbell to your hip level and revert to a standing position. Place most of your weight onto the heels and engage your core.
In a Romanian deadlift, you follow the same steps, but you don’t bend your knees as much when you pick up the barbell. You try to keep your legs as stiff as possible when lifting.
3. Pull Ups
While pullups aren’t the most beginner-friendly exercises, they do work an impressive number of muscles in your arms and core. They engage your lats, delts, biceps, pecs, core and back.
Equipment: Pull up bar
How to perform a pull up:
- Reach over and grip the pull up bar.
- Bend your knees and take your feet off the floor.
- Slowly pull your body up, so that the bar reaches your neck level.
- Lower yourself again so that you’re hanging from the bar using your hands.
- Repeat 1-4.
Pushups are another compound exercise that you can perform anywhere, without any equipment. They work muscle groups in your core and arms. Pushups work your pectorals, shoulder (delts), triceps, and abs.
How to perform a traditional pushup:
- Place your hands on the ground more than shoulder width apart.
- Straighten your legs so that your entire body is balancing on your arms and feet.
- Maintain a neutral spine with no arching or hunching.
- Slowly lower your body to the ground until your chest almost touches the floor.
- Hold for a few seconds and push your body up to the initial position.
There are many variations of a pushup you can perform, depending on how far apart you place your arms. In a diamond pushup, your arms are very close together (less than shoulder width) and in a wide arm pushup, your arms are very far apart.
5. Bicycle Crunches
This compound exercise adds a twist (literally!) to a crunch and works a wider range of muscles than traditional crunches. They primarily target your abs (rectus abdominus), hips and obliques.
How to perform a bicycle crunch:
- Lay down on the floor and place each of your hands behind your ears.
- Bend your legs and lift them off the floor.
- While keeping your hands behind your ears, reach over and touch your right knee with your left elbow.
- Repeat the same with your left knee and right elbow.
6. The Plank
This compound exercise works similar muscle groups to the pushup. They are simple to do, requiring no equipment, and yet are effective. Planks work muscles in your core such as the transverse abdominus (TVA) and rectus abdominus. They also work your upper back muscles and pecs.
How to perform planks:
- Get into a pushup position so that you’re balancing your body by the hands and feet.
- Straighten your back and maintain a neutral spine.
- Balance your bodyweight in this position as long as you can.
Like pushups, there are many variations of planks. For example, in reverse planks, you are facing up so that you’re looking up at the ceiling rather than looking down at the floor.
7. Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers, also known as running planks, are another great compound exercise that’s often incorporated into HIIT routines. Like planks, they work muscle groups in your core, arms and shoulders, but they also additionally work your legs. And the great thing is, you don’t need any equipment to perform it. You can perform it anywhere and at any time.
Specifically, mountain climbers work your leg muscles like the glutes, quads and hamstrings. They also work the abdominal muscles (similar to planks) like the rectus abdominis and obliques. Of course, they also work almost every muscle in the shoulder and back area, like the triceps, deltoids and biceps. It’s truly one of those exercises that target almost every muscle group in the body.
How to perform mountain climbers:
- Start in a high plank position (balancing on your entire arms, not just elbows).
- Bend your knee on one leg and bring it towards your chest.
- Bring it back and bring the other leg forward.
- Keep alternating your legs, so it looks like you’re ‘running’ in a plank position.
If you want to engage even more muscle groups, bring your leg diagonally towards the opposite shoulder (right leg to left shoulder).
8. Squat Jumps
The squat itself is a compound exercise, but here we take it up a notch by adding a jump to it. You work the same muscle groups as the squat, such as the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. But, you work them out a little more because of the added complexity.
You can either do squat jumps on their own or use a bench or a box to jump onto. The higher the bench or box, the harder you have to work to jump onto it.
How to perform a squat jump:
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Lower yourself into a squat position as in a normal bodyweight squat, keeping your spine neutral.
- As you reach the squat position, kick yourself upwards into a jump.
- Land back in a squat position.
Burpees are one of the most hated exercises thanks to its intensity and complexity. But with this, you engage more muscle groups and it is a true compound exercise. Burpees are a combination between a squat jump and a plank. So, this is a mixture of two compound exercises.
Burpees engage almost every muscle group in your whole body, from your legs and arms to your core. Important muscles like deltoids, biceps, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, rectus abdominis and hip flexors are all activated here
How to perform burpees:
- Start in a high plank position, balancing on your feet and hands.
- Bring both of your legs towards your elbows, so that you end up in a ‘leap frog’ position.
- Bring yourself into a squat position and jump with your arms extended up.
10. Kettle Bell Swings
Kettle bell workouts are amazing at targeting pretty much every muscle in your body. There are many different variations you can do, depending on what your goal is. Here we do a basic kettle bell swing.
Even basic kettle bell swings target a wide range of muscle groups. It targets muscles in your leg, such as hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, and hip flexors. It also targets muscles in your upper body, such as the abdominals, lats, pecs, delts and trapezoid muscle.
How to perform a kettle bell swing:
- Choose a kettle bell at a comfortable weight (usually it’s about 8-12kg for women and 12-16 kg for men).
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Hold the kettle bell between your legs using both arms.
- Swing the kettle bell upwards with both your arms extended.
- Swing the kettle bell back down until it reaches between your legs.
- When it reaches between your legs, ensure that you bend your knees and keep spine neutral. Your thighs should make close to a 45 degree angle with your shins.
- The key is to use your hips as a hinge.
- Swing it back up away from your body, contracting your glutes.
11. Bicep curl + Lunge
Lunges are ideal because they allow you to multitask and work on other parts of your body too. Here we combine the lunge, which is already a compound exercise, with a bicep curl (which is an isolation exercise). The result is that you work out your legs and arms at once.
This move works out muscle groups in the legs like the glutes, hamstrings and quads (just like a lunge). It also works out your biceps. Not only does it work the same muscle groups as the traditional lunge, but those muscles have to work harder now, thanks to the extra weight.
How to perform the exercise:
- Stand with a pair of dumbbells on each arm.
- Bend your knees and lower yourself into a lunge, with one of your legs bent behind you.
- As you lower yourself into a lunge position, bend your elbows and lift the dumbbells upwards to perform a bicep curl.
- Alternate your legs and arms, so that you perform the bicep curl on your other arm and bend your other leg behind you.
Wrapping it Up
There are many benefits of doing compound exercises over isolation exercises.
For example, because you work on several muscle groups at the same time, your workouts will be more efficient and time-saving. Also, as humans, we didn’t evolve to do isolation type exercises that only work one joint or muscle group.
Most things we do in life involve using several muscle groups at once.While isolation exercises may allow you to grow one particular muscle group, compound exercise allow your muscles to grow more proportionally.
Using multiple muscle groups at once requires more calories from your body, so it is better for weight loss as well. Some evidence suggests that working several muscle groups at once led to better gains and V02 max (maximum amount of oxygen a person uses during exercise).