This article brings you 5 of the best compound exercises for developing superior strength. If integrated into your training regime, the following exercises can help you build both bigger and stronger muscles.
The 5 best compound exercises selected have been organised into upper and lower body categories. This way when you select a compound exercise, you’ll know which muscle groups it works.
Concluding the technical application of each of the compound exercises, you will discover a whole-body workout. This workout will provide you the opportunity to put theory into practice.
What’s compound exercises?
A compound exercise transitions through two or more joints and engages one or more of the major muscle groups. For example, when executing a squat, which is one of the best whole-body building compound exercises you can do, flexion occurs at the ankle, knee and hip joints.
In addition, when performing this comparatively simple compound exercise (comparative to the highly technical clean to press), you will engage the major muscles of the leg.
Furthermore, because compound exercises require the activation of a wide array of synergist muscles, the squat has been shown to promote core and upper body strength.
Why are compound exercises good?
For building strength and size compound exercises are essential. According to Anita Bean, author of The Complete Guide to Strength Training, ‘compound, or multi-joint, exercises cause the greatest stimulation of muscle fibres and should form the basis of strength- and mass-building programmes.’
Compound exercises have acquired their strength-building renown for two prominent reasons. The first is that when performing a compound movement, such as the bent-over row, you recruit at least one major muscle group to assist the lift.
This means that a wider range of muscles are simultaneously engaged which enables you to shift much heavier loads. One of the cornerstones of strength development is overload, ‘a training effect [that] occurs when a part of the body is worked harder than normal,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance).
In addition to working major muscle groups and facilitating overload, compound exercises also promote whole-body development. During a barbell squat, or standing barbell shoulder press, you are not just working the muscles specific to those exercises.
To stabilise your body and form a solid platform from which to lift, the core and a whole host of synergist muscles must constantly contract and relax.
compound exercises list
The following exercises qualify as ‘compound’ because they transition through two or more joints and they activate large muscle groups.
So as to help you select compound exercises for specific muscles, the list has been organised into muscle groups.
Of course, there are many compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups including those of the upper- and lower-body. For example, the deadlift – which is widely regarded as the best strength-building compound exercises – engages muscles of the legs and back – not to mention a multitude of synergist muscles.
compound shoulder exercises
Standing push press
upper body compound exercises
The three shoulder press variations above
compound back exercises
compound leg exercises
Deadlifts (work the legs as well as the back)
Whole-body compound exercises
Clean and press
upper body compound exercises
Muscles worked: when performing this classic strength exercise the primary muscles worked include the pectoralis major and minor (aka chest), anterior deltoids (front part of your shoulder), triceps and, to a lesser extent, your latissimus dorsi (which is engaged during the eccentric – or downwards – phase of the exercise), abdominals and intercostal muscles.
It’s not up for debate, the bench press is one of the all-time great compound exercises. And if you want a hulking chest that looks as though it’s about to burst out of your t-shirt then get benching sooner rather than later.
But if you don’t believe me, here’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger has to say about it in his magisterial The Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding:
‘The Bench Press is a fundamental compound exercise for the upper body. It produces growth, strength, and muscle density, not only for the chest muscles but for the front deltoids and triceps as well.’
Firstly, prior to thinking about the lift, you should concern yourself with the setup. To set up for the bench press: position the bench under the bar BEFORE performing the exercise. Also, test your position and set-up with an unloaded bar first. When you’re comfortable, begin adding weight.
Your feet are planted flat and firmly on the floor and from your feet to your navel the shape of a pyramid should be made. This ensures that you have a stable base from which to execute the lift.
Grasp the bar: your hands are nearly double shoulder-width spaced.
Remove the bar from the rack and position it over the chest.
Under control lower the bar so that it touches your nips. At this point, a 90°angle should form between your biceps and forearms.
Smoothly press the bar to the start position.
Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift
Breathe in during the downward phase (eccentric) of the lift and breathe out during the upward phase (concentric)
Do not arch the lower back at any point while benching. This is the classic mistake made by people who a) don’t know how to bench properly and/or b) have overloaded the bar.
Do not bounce the bar off your chest. Again, the fool who has overloaded the bar tries to spring-board it off his ribcage to generate some assistance. Of course, this is not only dangerous, but it also looks ridiculous.
Do not lock the arms out in the top position; there should be a slight kink at the elbow. Remember: muscles, not locked joints, should support a weight.
bent over row
Muscles worked: this classic strength exercise targets mainly the muscles of the back – latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and major, the rear (or posterior) deltoid, erector spinae (which take on the role of synergist supporting the bent-over position). In addition, rowing is a fabulous biceps builder and if it’s a bulging pair of Popeye guns you’re after then find a place in your weekly strength session for this exercise.
The bent-over row is synonymous with strength and size – certainly in the aforementioned muscle groups. And I don’t think I’d be over-selling the superiority of the bent-over row if I said that it is a paragon of upper-body compound exercises.
Stand with your feet under an Olympic bar and execute a perfect deadlift (see teaching points above).
However, before concluding the deadlift movement we need to complete a set of bent-over rows. To do this:
Whilst keeping a slight bend in the knees hinge at the hips until the bar is level with that fleshy bit just above the patella (aka knee cap).
In this position your back must remain perfectly straight (better still concaved), eyes fixed on an indefinite point to your front, arms straight.
Pulling smoothly and evenly with both arms draw the bar up from the bottom position to your navel – the bar should make physical contact with your abdomen.
Under control lower the bar back to the top of the knee.
Hinge at the hips
Keep your back straight
Space your hands slightly over shoulder-width apart
Do ensure to maintain strict form when picking up and putting down the bar
Do not round the back – this is by far the single most prevalent technical error bent-over rowers make
Do not lock the knees out
In a bid to generate momentum a trainer may bounce at the hips: don’t do this for not only does it look stupid but by bouncing at the hips the posture becomes corrupted which could result in injury
Whole-body compound exercise
Muscles worked: the deadlift is a superlative whole-body exercise and pretty much every muscle from your trapezius down to your calves are in some way activated when executing this towering giant among compound exercises.
The primary muscles engaged, however, include the quadriceps, gluteus maximus (aka the extensor muscle of the hip), erector spinae (a group of muscles that run the length of the vertebral column) and forearms.
Truly, if it’s strength and size you’re after then you absolutely must include the deadlift into your training regime. As Delavier says in his book Strength Training Anatomy, as well as working ‘virtually every muscle . . . it builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscles mass.’
Firstly, then, begin by organising your weight and engineering your environment so that you will in no way be impeded whilst performing the exercise.
Start with your feet under the bar adopting a stance slightly over shoulder width.
Bending at the knee and ensuring to keep the back perfectly straight grasp the bar: the palms should face toward you and your hands should be spaced slightly wider than your feet so as to prevent your arms and knees from clashing.
Before executing the lift take the slack out of the bar by applying force against the load.
Looking forward and slightly up fire through the quads and glutes pushing the hips forwards as you stand.
Once you are fully erect there should be a slight bend in the knees – not locked out. Also, from a side angle, a vertical line could be drawn from your shoulders down to your heels. A common mistake is to lean back. DO NOT do this! All you will succeed in doing is compressing the intervertebral discs around the lumbar region.
To conclude the exercise simply return the bar to the start position making sure to retrace your steps.
Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift
Select a weight commensurate with your current strength
Keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift
*Do not, under any circumstances, round your back!*
Do not snatch the bar from the floor – take up the slack prior to lifting
Do not lock out the knees in the topmost position
Do not arch your back at the top position
Do not ratchet the bar up your quads – the movement from start to finish should be smooth and continuous
Do not hold your breath
Do not use bar wraps!
compound leg exercises
Muscles worked: When squatting the primary muscles recruited are those of the gluteus maximus (bum), the quadriceps (vastus lateralis, rectus femoris and vastus medialis), adductor magnus (hamstrings), the soleus (lower calves) and the abdominals and erector spinae.
‘The squat is the number one bodybuilding movement because it involves a large part of the muscular system,’ Delavier (Strength Training Anatomy).
Firstly prepare the barbell: ensure that you have not overloaded it and that, if you are using a free-weight bar, the clips are securely fastened so as to prevent the discs from sliding off the end.
Now stand under the bar.
Before attempting to un-rack it make sure that your feet are in the correct position, your hands are evenly spaced and that the bar is resting across your trapezius muscles.
When you are comfortable and have organised your anatomy in the correct position, only now should you consider removing the bar from the rack.
To do so tighten up the core, stand up under control and step back and away from the rack (of course whether you need to do this depends on the structure that you are squatting in).
Again organise your feet so they are just over shoulder-width apart.
Under control slowly execute a squat ensuring to bend at the knee.
When there is a 90° angle between the calf and hamstring pause then fire through the quadriceps as you return back to the start position.
Maintain a smooth continuous movement from start to finish
Keep your eyes riveted on an indefinite point in the distance (or a spot on the gym wall)
Ensure that your entire foot remains flat on the floor – it is common mistake to lift the heel.
DO NOT flex your spine – ‘this error contributes to most lower back injuries, especially slipped discs,’ (Delavier).
Don’t let your knees collapse inward – this is indicative of physical incompatibilities with the weight selected; in short, the squatter has gone too heavy: it’s better by far to lift less weight and to lift it well than to overload the bar and look like one of those fools fighting under the load, body quaking and creaking.
Don’t hold your breath
Don’t shift your weight onto your toes
Muscles worked: When sumo squatting the primary muscles activated include the gluteus maximus (bum), the quadriceps (vastus lateralis, rectus femoris and vastus medialis), adductor magnus (hamstrings), and the trapezius and forearms.
The technical application of a sumo squat is in many respects similar to a deadlift. However, the minor differences that distinguishes the two exercises include foot positioning and the degree of hip extension.
When performing a sumo squat, you will adopt a 1.5 should-width stance. It’s the pronounced foot position from where the exercise derives its name. Think of the wide stance a sumo wrestler takes when facing down an opponent.
Whereas with a deadlift you are required to hinge at the hip when executing the movement, during a sumo squat you should keep your back perfectly straight. All the hinging – flexing and extending – takes place at the knee joint. This ensures that the primary muscles recruited are those of the legs.
Standing directly in front of an Olympic barbell, adopt a 1.5 shoulder-width stance.
Keeping the back perfectly straight, squat down and grasp the bar. Your hands should be about shoulder-width spaced.
Maintaining correct posture, squat out of the position ensuring to fire evenly through both quadriceps.
In the topmost position there should be a slight bend at the knee joint.
Lower the bar back to the start position in readiness for the next repetition.
Maintain a smooth continuous movement from start to finish
Keep your eyes riveted on an indefinite point in the distance
Keep your arms perfectly straight.
DO NOT flex your spine
Do not hyperextend in the topmost position – this is a common mistake made by beginners and the overenthusiastic. There is absolutely no need to lean back when you are standing erect. By doing so you will compress the intervertebral discs and increase your chances of back injury.
compound workout routine
The knowledge of how to execute a compound movement effectively and safely is just the beginning. When you’ve taken this important first step, you’re ready to start including compound exercises into your workouts.
Because compound exercises are more technical than isolation movements, and because the loads are typically greater, you should workout at much slower pace.
During a compound exercise workout, it is normal to take long rest periods of 3- to 5-minutes between sets. Rest enables the muscle to recover after exerting near maximal force.
Also, by taking your time and enforcing adequate recovery periods, you will likely maintain better quality technique. This will reduce injury susceptibility while also enabling you to get the most out of each lift.
When embarking on a compound workout routine, consider the following procedure (or protocol):
Ensure to complete a comprehensive 10-minute whole-body warm-up
Engage in lighter lifts to prepare the muscles
Progressively and incrementally increase loads
Enforce long recovery periods of 3- to 5-minutes between sets
Focus on pre-lifting positioning
Strive to maintain perfect from for every lift
Solicit the support of a spotter if you are attempting near maximal lifts
Try this full body compound workout
10-minute warm on ergo rower or cross-trainer.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 reps (Begin the first set, 10 reps, at a very light weight and begin to increase incrementally as you progress down the pyramid. This is supposed to act as an extension to the warm.)
Standing shoulder press – 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps
Sumo squat – 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps
Bench press – 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps
Squat – 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps
5-minute cooldown technical development. To cooldown grab an Olympic barbell, one bereft of weights, and proceed to practice the techniques of the above four compound exercises.
5-minute whole-body stretch. For a comprehensive post-exercise stretching plan follow the link
Compound exercises FAQ
How often should I do compound exercises
You can incorporate compound exercises into all of your training sessions, which for most people is between 3 to 5 workouts per week.
Just as long as you’re not training the same compound exercise every workout you should be fine.
Of course, overusing an exercise will likely lead to the deterioration of the muscles and with it an increased risk of injury.
When you have overloaded your muscles, as compound exercises typically do, you need to give them adequate rest to recover.
But because different compound exercises engage different muscle groups, you could include them in most of your workouts.
Are compound exercises better than isolation?
In truth, an exercise is only as good as your fitness goal. If your goal is to build whole-body strength and increase the mass of your muscles, then yes, compound exercises are certainly better than isolation movements.
However, if your goal is to shape and sculpt your physique, then it’s the other way round: isolation exercises are better than compound movements.
Do compound exercises make you bigger?
No, compound exercises will not make you bigger. But compound exercises plus overload plus adequate rest plus quality nutrition together could increase muscle size and density.
To get the most out of an exercises and training methodology it has to be applied intellectually. In addition, other factors, such as diet and rest, must be taken into consideration.
For a brilliant book on the subject of developing goal-specific strength training programmes, consult: NSCA's Guide to Program Design
Bean. A. (2008) Strength Training: The Complete Guide To. A&C Black. London.
Delavier. F. (2010) Strength Training Anatomy. Human Kinetics. USA.
Schwarzenegger. A. (1998) The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon& Schuster. New York.
Watson A. W. S (1995) Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance. Longman. England.