In this article, we will be taking a look at what compound exercises are, what benefits they offer, and we will also take a look at eleven compound exercises that you can add to your training program today.
What are Compound Exercises?
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.
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 legs, 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).
So, what makes compound lifts so good? Studies have shown that both multi-joint and single-joint exercises are equally effective when it comes to increasing strength and muscle size.
However, a 2017 study found that compound exercises are more efficient when it comes to building strength, and they also work your cardiovascular system more (which means more calories burned and better cardio health).
The point is that both compound and isolation exercises can be highly effective, and as one study pointed out:
“Exercises should be based on individual and practical aspects, such as, equipment availability, movement specificity, individual preferences and time commitment.”
Compound Exercise List
Now that you know what compound movements are, and why they are important, let’s take a look at well-known and effective compound exercises.
- Abdominal Compound Exercises
- Back Compound Exercises
- Chest Compound Exercises
- Glute Compound Exercises
- Leg Compound Exercises
- Shoulder Compound Exercises
- Upper Body Compound Exercises
- Lower Body Compound Exercises
- Pull Compound Exercises
- Push Compound Exercises
- Dumbbell Compound Exercises
The Best Compound Exercises
Compound exercices are usually more effective at building strength and muscle size, and they are also more efficient when it comes to burning calories.
The compound exercises below are some of the best and most effective compound exercises you can do:
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.
- Push your chest out and pull your shoulders back 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.
Variations: Rack pull, kettlebell deadlift, sumo deadlift
Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press is an excellent upper body compound exercise. Targeting the pectorals, deltoids, and triceps.
Equipment: Barbell, Bench
How to perform a barbell bench press:
- Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor
- Pull your feet backwards slightly until there is some tension on your quadriceps
- Pull your shoulder blades together, which will push your chest out creating a small arch in your lower back.
- Grab the bar with hands that are shoulder width apart. Use an overhand grip.
- Pull the bar off the stand and bring it directly over your chest.
- Pause, and then slowly lower the bar down until it lightly brushes your chest
- Keep your elbows at a 45 degree angle to your sides throughout
- Pause, and then drive the bar back up in the air until your arms are almost fully extended
Tips: Always use a spotter if you are attempting a new weight (or trying to perform more reps). If no spotter is available, use a squat rack, power rack, or even a Smith machine. Alternatively try dumbbells.
Variations: Chest press machine, push ups, incline bench press, decline bench press, dumbbell bench press
While pull ups 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.
Variations: Assisted pull ups, close grip pull ups, lat pulldown machine
Lunges are a great compound exercise that works your quadriceps, glutes, and core muscles. There are many variations too.
How to perform walking lunges:
- Stand upright with your chest pushed out and your feet together. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms by your side.
- Take a large step forwards with your left foot, raise your right heel off the floor
- Bend your right knee until it is almost touching the floor
- Stay upright throughout
- Bring your right foot off the floor and bring it forwards into a large step
- Repeat the process
Variations: Step ups, lateral lunges, courtesy lunges
Squats are often associated with building your glutes. However, they also target multiple other muscles. The quadriceps, calves and core as well. 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 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 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.
Variations: Leg press, barbell squats, sumo squats, goblet squats, dumbbell squats, squat jumps
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 kettlebell 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 kettlebell between your legs using both arms.
- Swing the kettlebell upwards with both your arms extended.
- Swing the kettlebell back down until it reaches between your legs.
- When it reaches between your legs, ensure that you bend your knees and keep the 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.
Variations: Single-arm kettlebell swings, double kettlebell swings, alternating kettlebell swings
This compound exercise works your core, glutes, hamstrings, and your upper back. They are simple to do, requiring no equipment, and yet they are highly effective.
How to perform planks:
- Get into a push up 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 push ups, 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.
Variations: Plank get ups, lateral planks, foot-elevated planks, Swiss ball planks
Burpees are one of the most hated exercises thanks to their intensity and complexity. But with burpees, you engage more muscle groups, and they are a true compound exercise. Burpees are a combination between a squat jump and a plank. So, this is a mixture of two compound exercises.
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.
Variations: Push up burpees, star jump burpees, single-leg hop burpees
Mountain climbers 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 work your legs. The great thing is, you don’t need any equipment to perform them. You can do them anywhere and at any time.
Mountain climbers work your glutes, quads and hamstrings. They also work the abdominal muscles (similar to planks). 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).
Variations: Mountain climbers with rotations, plank mountain climbers
The Romanian deadlift is probably the best hamstring exercise there is, but it also works the glutes and the muscles of your core and lower back.
How to perform Barbell Romanian deadlifts:
- Hold a barbell using an overhand grip with the bar resting on your upper thighs
- Push your chest out, pull your shoulders back and bend your legs slightly.
- Keeping your chest pushed out, bow forwards, allowing the bar to travel down your legs
- Pause when your hamstrings feel tight
- Then push your hips forwards and bring the barbell back to the starting position
Tips: Keeping your back straight is crucial in this exercise. Don’t try to force yourself lower than your hamstring allow as this will cause you to lose your straight back. Just be patient, your range of motion will improve with time.
Variations: Single-leg Romanian deadlift, kettlebell Romanian deadlift
Barbell Good Mornings
The good morning exercise is a superb lower back, glute, and hamstring exercise that requires perfect form throughout. Mastering the good morning will help to improve your squats a lot.
How to perform Barbell Good Mornings:
- Place a barbell on your upper back as you would for a barbell squat
- Push your chest out and pull your shoulders back
- Bend your knees slightly
- Bow forwards, keeping your chest pushed out throughout
- Pause when your chest is nearly parallel with the floor
- Then drive your shoulders back until you reach your starting position
Variations: Dumbbell Good Mornings
Wrapping it Up
This article has talked you through what compound exercises are, why they are important, and you’ve had a crash course in how to perform 11 different compound exercises. All you need to do now is to add them into your training program.