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Compound Exercises List | A Strength-Building Bonanza

A woman performing a back squat. This image heads the article: compound exercises list.

We’ve compiled a compound exercises list for those who want to develop their strength training regime.

The compound exercises list below will enable you to diversify your workouts. In addition, they offer the opportunity to break away from traditional compound strength exercises.

By doing so you can train your body in different ways which can help stimulate strength gains and help you push through physical plateaus.

For example, substituting front squats for back squats shifts emphasis more to the quadriceps. Furthermore, broadening your compound exercise repetition will enhance your lifting skills.

How to use this compound exercises list

You can use this compound exercises list as a guide or reference source for strength exercises. Because each compound exercise is accompanied by an outline of the muscle worked, you will easily be able to identify an appropriate exercise for the muscle group you want to build strength in.

This is made simpler still by the structure of the compound exercises list. You’ll notice that the compound exercises follow a logical ordering.

Compartmentalised into muscle groups, the first set of compound exercises targets the shoulders. This is followed by compound exercises that target the chest, back, posterior chain, and muscles of the leg: glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.

The compound exercises list concludes with two whole-body movements.

Why you should do compound exercises

Compound exercises can build considerable strength in the major muscle groups. Of squats, Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he ‘included a lot of Heavy Squats in my leg routine, especially Half Squats’ to build both strength and size (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).

In addition to increasing localised strength, compound exercises also improve strength across multiple muscle groups. For example, Delavier says deadlifts engage ‘virtually every muscle’ of the body. He praises the deadlift further. This one simple compound exercise also ‘builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscles mass.’ (Strength Building Anatomy).

Compound exercises build muscle mass

Compound exercises are notorious for their effectiveness at increasing muscle size. If you want to build muscle mass, you should include compound movements in your regime.

Anita Bean, author of Strength Training: The Complete Guide, maintains that compound exercises are ‘fundamental’ for increasing ‘overall mass, strength and power in both the lower and upper body.’

Compound exercises improve sports performance

If you regularly play a sport you could enjoy a boost in performance by including compound exercises in your training routine. Many top-level athletes – from footballers to rugby players to cyclists – incorporate compound exercises in their workouts.


Because whole-body strength is beneficial in the majority of sports. The performance of a football player is going to be enhanced if they can apply more force when kicking the ball or powering into a sprint when chasing down an opponent.

Two staple exercises of the training diet of Olympic rowers is squats and deadlifts. These compound exercises forge immense pushing and pulling strength – two key physical attributes of the rower.

Regardless of your sport, compound exercises can probably help improve your performance.

Build whole-body strength with nothing but a barbell

What constitutes a compound movement?

For a compound movement to classify as such, it must satisfy some key requirements. Those requirements include:

  1. A compound exercise works large muscle groups.

  2. A compound exercise transitions through two or more joints.

Compound exercises list

Compound exercises list for shoulders

shoulder press

Muscles worked: the primary muscles engaged when performing the barbell shoulder press include the deltoids (all three heads: anterior, medial and posterior), pectoralis major (mainly the upper part of the chest), triceps, abdominals, erector spinae and, if you decide to use your legs to assist (push press – see below), the quadriceps and glutes are also engaged.

Technique breakdown for the shoulder press

  • Holding an Olympic barbell under your chin, ensure to adopt a neutral posture: feet shoulder-width, knees slightly bent, looking forward.

  • Your hands must be spaced evenly across the bar.

  • Under control and applying force evenly through both arms smoothly press the bar above your head.

  • At the top position there should be a slight bend in both elbows: Do Not lockout at the joint.

  • To complete the movement, retrace your steps in reverse. When the bar is below your chin you are ready to perform the next repetition.

push press

Muscles worked: As with the shoulder press, the push press engages all the same upper body muscle groups. However, because you are engaging your legs, the quadriceps and glutes get worked as well.

Technique breakdown for the push press

  • The start position for the push press is the same as the shoulder press.

  • Before pressing the bar, you are to take a short dip at the knee. This enables you to engage the legs for the push part of the exercise.

  • Fire through the quads to get the bar moving.

  • At this point, and almost simultaneously, your shoulders take over as you start to press the bar.

  • The exercise should be one succinct fluid movement.


Compound exercises list for chest

chest press

Muscles worked: when performing this classic compound 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 downward – phase of the exercise), abdominals and intercostal muscles.

Technique breakdown for the chest press

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Grasp the bar: your hands are nearly double shoulder-width spaced.

  4. Remove the bar from the rack and position it over the chest.

  5. Under control lower the bar so that it touches your nips. At this point, a 90°angle should form between your biceps and forearms.

  6. Smoothly press the bar to the start position.


Compound exercises list for back

bentover 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.

Technique breakdown for the bentover row

  • 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 kneecap).

  • 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.


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.

Technique breakdown for the deadlift

  1. Firstly, then, begin by organising your weight and engineering your environment so that you will in no way be impeded whilst performing the exercise.

  2. Start with your feet under the bar adopting a stance slightly over shoulder width.

  3. 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 clashing.

  4. Before executing the lift take the slack out of the bar by applying force against the load.

  5. Looking forward and slightly up fire through the quads and glutes pushing the hips forwards as you stand.

  6. 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.

  7. To conclude the exercise simply return the bar to the start position making sure to retrace your steps.

sumo deadlift

Muscles worked: the sumo deadlift activates much the same muscle groups as the traditional deadlift. Where the sumo deadlift differs is the way in which it targets the muscles of the legs. The characteristic double-wide stance you are to adopt when performing this powerhouse of a compound exercise brings into play the adductor group and sartorius.

Technique breakdown for the sumo deadlift

  1. Firstly, then, set up your lifting platform: organise your bar, drop mats (if you’re not using bumper plates), and create a safe space.

  2. Stand in front of the bar ensuring to adopt a 1.5 shoulder-width stance. Remember, you’re adopting the stance of a sumo wrestler right before they bulldoze their opponent.

  3. Grasp the bar taking a narrow grip. Your hands should be inside your shoulder frame.

  4. Before lifting: fix your eyes forward and slightly up, take a deeper than normal bend at the knee, push the hips forward, and take the strain.

  5. Now, execute a deadlift but ensure to assist by firing through the quadriceps.

  6. When you’re fully erect, either drop the bar, or lower under control.

Hang clean

Muscles worked: the hang clean is a great arm and back strength-building compound exercise. The action of heaving the bar from the quads up to the shoulders engages a wide range of muscles. Those muscles include: erector spinae, trapezius, rhomboids, rear deltoids, biceps, and the muscles of the forearm.

Also, to stable and control the bar, the muscles of the core are constantly firing.

Technique breakdown for the hang clean

  1. Start with your feet should be shoulder-width, knees slightly bent, bar resting against your upper thigh.

  2. The hands remain in the same position as when performing a bent-over row: shoulder-width and spaced evenly across the bar.

  3. Hinging forward at the hips slightly, you’re using the muscles of the lower back to get the bar moving. It is helpful to spring the bar off the quads during the initial phase of the exercise.

  4. Assist with your arms and trapezius – you’re kind of performing a shrug.

  5. Be mindful to pull the bar up ensuring to keep it close to the body. You are not swinging the bar out.

  6. As the bar comes level with your chest, quickly dip at the knee and ‘catch’ it in the front squat position.

  7. Stand up out of the shallow squat.

  8. Under control return the bar to the start position and repeat.


Compound exercises list for legs

Barbell squat

Muscles worked: the traditional back squat primarily targets the muscles of the quadriceps – rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, biceps femoris – and the gluteus maximus.

But, as Arnold Schwarzenegger tells us, the squat is a terrific whole-body building exercise and one that can promote strength and mass gains from the ground up (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).

Technique breakdown for the back squat

  1. Depending on your training competence and experience, there’s a number of ways to get the barbell in position for when squatting. Personally, I prefer to perform a full clean and press first. From the top position, I lower the bar onto my trapezius muscles. Clean and pressing the bar first brings into play a whole host of other muscle groups. However, I can only do this because I never exceed 60kg. If you are a beginner, or you plan to ‘go heavy’, then it would be best to start with the bar on a squat rack.

  2. With the bar on a squat rack, positioned slightly lower than your shoulders, manoeuvre yourself into position.

  3. It’s very important to ensure that you are situated centrally along the bar. Often you see novices off centre which of course causes an unequal distribution of weight between the legs.

  4. Un-hook the bar and step clear of the squat rack.

  5. Organise your feet so that they are slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  6. Maintaining perfect posture, and keeping your eyes fixed on a point to your front (NOT looking down), bend at the knees until a 90-degree angle forms at the back of the legs.

  7. Pause momentarily then, ensuring to fire evenly through both quads, return to the start position.

front squat

Muscles worked: the front squat engages the same muscles as the back squat. However, where the front squat differs is the emphasis it places on the quadriceps. With the bar positioned anteriorly, the load is directly over the quadriceps thus shifting focus from the glutes forward to the quads.

Another key difference of the front squat is that it’s far less forgiving of poor technique. Whereas with the back squat you can get away with rounding the back and over-hinging at the hips. Make these technical mistakes with the front squat and the bar will roll off the shoulders.

Technique breakdown for the front squat

  1. Firstly, position the bar on a squat rack so that it slightly lower than your shoulders.

  2. Manoeuvre yourself under the bar ensuring that you are positioned dead centre. The bar should be resting on the front of your shoulders, your arms crossed over at your front, hands placed on the bar. Note: it helps to raise your elbows as this creates a ledge on which the bar sits.

  3. When you’re comfortable, lift the bar off the squat rack and step back.

  4. Before executing the front squat, organise your feet so that they are evenly spaced, and you have created a stable base from which to lift.

  5. Now that you are in the correct position, under control squat down until a 90° angle forms between the calf and hamstring.

  6. Firing through both quads stand up.


Compound exercises list for whole-body

barbell thruster

Muscles worked: The barbell thruster is the ultimate whole-body compound exercise. This beast of a movement works the muscles of the legs, lower back, shoulders and triceps. In addition, the barbell thruster activates a whole host of synergist muscles including the core.

Another attribute of the barbell thruster is how it engages the cardiovascular system. Few compound exercises get the heart rate up like a set of thrusters. Thus, as well as building lower and upper body strength, the barbell thruster torches calories. Pop it into a circuit or this boxing workout and watch the fat melt!

Technique breakdown for the barbell thruster

  • The start position of a barbell thruster is the same as a standing shoulder press: the barbell is supported at shoulder height, hands spaced on the outside of your shoulders, eyes fixed front.

  • Position your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • Initiate the movement by squatting to 90°.

  • Power out of the squat using the upward momentum generated by the quadriceps to press the bar overhead. This should be performed as one smooth single movement.

  • At the topmost position the bar should be directly above your head and a slight bend in the elbow joints.

  • Under control lower the bar to the shoulders ensuring simultaneously to sink into the squat.

Clean and jerk

Muscles worked: When clean and jerking the quads, glutes, lower and upper back, and the shoulders are all recruited to assist the lift.

The clean and jerk (or clean and press) is a quintessential compound exercise that features heavily in Olympic lifting. It is notorious for two reasons. The first, clean and pressing is the ultimate whole-body building exercise. In this one movement – which is comprised of four exercises: deadlift, hang clean, squat, and push press – more or less every muscle in the body is engaged.

The second reason, it’s technically challenging to perform correctly. When attempting the clean and jerk for the first time, it’s recommendable to break the movement down into its constituent parts or four phases: deadlift, hang clean, squat, push press.

After spending a few sessions working on these four exercises, begin piecing them together.

Technique breakdown for the clean and jerk

  • Stand in front of a barbell. The barbell should be within a whisker of your shins. Your feet are spaced shoulder-width.

  • Bending at the knees, ensuring to keep the back straight, grasp the barbell taking a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.

  • Smoothly and under control initiate the movement by performing a deadlift.

  • As the bar passes the knees you have entered the second phase of the exercise.

  • The hang clean is assisted by thrusting the bar up off the upper quads or hips. This is a technically challenging transition that is nigh on impossible to explain with words. You’ve got to practice the technique with a light bar (preferably a wooden broomstick) and feel the movement.

  • From the hang clean with the thrust assist the bar is literally launched into the front rack position. When Olympic lifters perform the clean and jerk, the bar is so heavy that they must drop underneath it, catching it in mid-air. To see this in action follow the link.

  • If the clean and jerk is performed as described above, dropping under the bar, when it is securely supported in the front rack position, squat out of the position.

  • Now standing upright you are ready to execute the final phase of the movement.

  • Taking a shallow dip at the knee fire through the quads to assist the push press.

  • When the bar is locked above your head you should just drop it to the floor. But only do this if you are using bumper plates. If you are using solid discs, you’ll need to retrace your steps to the start position using muscle contraction.


Compound exercises list FAQ

Which compound exercises burn the most calories?

The compound exercises that burn the most calories include the thruster, hang clean, and clean and jerk. These movements engage all the major muscle groups. In addition, if they are performed as part of an AMRAP or EMOM workout, they also stimulate the cardiovascular system. This is all great stuff for burning calories.

How often should I do compound exercise?

That question hinges on how much weight you plan to lift, and how extensive your workouts are. For example, if you plan to focus more on technique, which requires much lighter loads, then you could do compound exercises during every workout.

However, if you are training for maximal lifts, your body will need plenty of rest. It’s for this reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding recommends only one “heavy day” per week per body part. ‘Once a week or so,’ says Schwarzenegger, ‘I would pick one body part and go to the maximum with strength moves that worked that area.’ (p.146)

Why compound exercises are better than isolation?

Compound exercises are better than isolation exercises for the simple reason that they engage a greater range of muscle groups. In addition, compound exercises transition through multiple joints which means they improve body mechanics.

Also, compound exercises activate the core as well as synergist muscles. It’s for this reason, and many more besides, why compound exercises forge full-body strength.


Have we forgotten your favourite compound exercise? Let us know and we will include it in the list!


In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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