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Compound Lifts That Build Extreme Strength

Man performing the compound lift deadlift.
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Compound lifts are a key component in the pursuit of complete fitness development. Because they cause the ‘greatest stimulation of muscle fibres’ compound – or ‘multi-joint’ – exercises are best for building muscular strength and size (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).


Moreover, multi-joint exercises performed with free weights – barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells – force you to coordinate and balance your body against the constant pull of gravity. This, Arnold Schwarzenegger maintains, gives the muscles a ‘structure and quality that high-repetition, relatively light training alone does not provide,' (The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding).


Compound lifts also involve one or more muscle groups. In terms of maximising training time and getting the most bang for your buck, multi-joint movements are superior to isolation exercises.


To support you on your strength and fitness journey, we have curated a broad range of compound lifts – twelve in total. You can use this article as an exercise reference guide. In addition to the tutorials and video demonstrations, each exercise features a list of ‘muscles engaged’ and ‘alternative equipment options.’


Furthermore, throughout the article, you’ll find useful training tools and links to workouts and exercise programs. But before we get into the lifts, let’s take a look at a few frequently asked compound exercise questions.


What are compound lifts?

A compound lift is a complex movement that typically engages large muscle groups. The author of The Complete Guide Strength Training To, Anita Beam, defines compound lifts as ‘multi-joint exercises’ that cause the ‘greatest stimulation’ of the muscle fibres. She goes on to say that compound lifts ‘should form the basis of strength- and mass-building programmes.’


Delavier, the author of Strength Training Anatomy, tells us that compound lifts, such as squats bent-over rows and the bench press, are exercises that work ‘virtually every muscle’ in the body as well as building ‘terrific … muscle mass.’


Compound lifts vs isolation exercises

Really, there’s no contest. If you want to improve full-body strength and enhance muscle mass, compound lifts are far superior to isolation exercises. The reasons?


First, because compound lifts involve one or more major muscle groups, you are able to push heavier loads. Also known as ‘overload,’ lifting heavy weights is an essential factor for encouraging muscle growth. Watson observes that overloading the body, which occurs when we work it harder than normal, triggers 'biological changes' that increase fitness (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance).


Second, unlike isolation exercises, compound lifts require the activation of multiple body parts. This contributes to the development of ‘real-world’ strength – that is, strength that’s useful in everyday tasks.


A third reason that compound lifts are superior to isolation exercises has to do with the wider engagement of multiple components of fitness. Other than inducing a ‘pump’ in the bicep, in what other ways does a cable curl work the body? Now consider a deadlift. This compound exercise builds strength in every link of the posterior chain. Furthermore, executing a power clean safely and effectively requires the coordination of your whole body. And balance is needed to maintain control of the load.


Arnold Schwarzenegger in his New Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding explains the fourth and final reason why compound lifts are superior to isolation exercises.


He maintains that when we do ‘large-muscle group, free-weight exercises’ in which we ‘coordinate a number of major muscle groups at the same time like the Squat, Deadlift … and Power Clean’ testosterone production is increased. The rate of production ‘is not similarly increased,’ however, ‘by isolation free-weight exercises – or training on machines.’


But why’s testosterone production important? Schwarzenegger reminds us that it is an ‘anabolic’ agent and with more ‘in your system you get stronger and can build large muscles more easily.'


Why do compound lifts?

Compound lifts help to build strength in the major muscle groups. In addition, they stimulate a wide range of stabiliser muscles, meaning you get more back for your buck.


For example, when performing a barbell squat, the primary movers are the quads and glutes. But because it’s such a big exercise, squatting also engages the hamstrings, core, and lower and upper back. Contrast that with the seated leg extension. This isolation exercise engages solely the quads.


Another reason to do compound lifts is that they are the most effective method of promoting muscular hypertrophy. Increasing the density and size of muscles improves strength and slows sarcopenia – defined as an ‘age-related, involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength,’ (National Institute of Health).


For more reasons why you should start doing more compound lifts, scroll down to the next section.


Benefits of compound exercises

If you start including more compound exercises into your training regime, below is a long list of benefits that could be yours. Of course, the benefits are contingent on a number of factors.


For example, the frequency that compound lifts feature in your routine. Deadlifting once a month is not enough to bag you those benefits. For best effects, compound exercises should be performed in the majority of your workouts.


Another factor is overload. We’ve already considered this training principle. To encourage physical development the body must be stressed. Lifting a little heavier than you’re used to can stimulate gains in the form of growth and strength.


Increased whole-body strength and muscle endurance
Promotes muscular hypertrophy which can slow sarcopenia
Engages a broad spectrum of muscle groups
Enhanced strength of connective tissues – ligaments and tendons
Develop multiple components of fitness – strength, muscle endurance, power, flexibility (for example the overhead squat), coordination, and balance
Reduces injury risk (a consequence of augmented physical strength and that of the connective tissues)
Improves physical robustness

Compound lifts quick finder

Compound lifts #1: Deadlift

Compound lifts #2: Sumo Deadlift

Compound lifts #3: Front squat

Compound lifts #4: Sumo Squat

Compound lifts #5: Bent over row

Compound lifts #6: Bench press

Compound lifts #7: Hang clean

Compound lifts #8: Power clean

Compound lifts #9: Clean & press

Compound lifts #10: Push press

Compound lifts #11: Cuban Press

Compound lifts #12: Thruster


 

Compound lifts #1: Deadlift

A man performing compound exercises.

Muscles targeted: Glutes, lower and mid-section of the back.


Instead of covering the conventional barbell deadlift, this tutorial focuses on the double kettlebell variation. Why bother breaking the mould, you might well ask?


Well, for starters, deadlifting with two bells requires considerably more control than with a barbell. Because the bells jiggle about a bit throughout the movement, you are forced to keep your core constantly engaged. If you don’t, you’ll be pulled off balance.


In addition to activating a wider range of muscle groups, twin bell deads are safer. But how? With kettlebells, you can position your centre of mass directly over the load. The same can’t be said for the barbell version which puts the load before your centre of mass.


This subtle shift significantly reduces the stress absorbed by the lower back because the weight is more equitably distributed across the hip and knee joints.


Deadlift techniques

  • Stand directly over two kettlebells and adopt a sumo squat stance. (Alternatively, you can perform the conventional deadlifting technique where the resistance is positioned either side of your feet.)

  • Squat down and grasp the bells.

  • From this position, tighten up the core before standing up.

  • Focus on hinging more at the hips as opposed to the legs. This will shift emphasis from the quads to the lower back.

  • Remember to breathe throughout the exercise.

 

Compound lifts #2: Sumo deadlift

A powerlifter performing a sumo deadlift.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, lower back, and the muscles of the upper back and deltoids.


Sumo deadlifts are a novel alternative to the standard variation. The sumo engages pretty much all the same muscle groups. However, many people find that a wider stance is more comfortable and reduces stress on the lower back.


But don’t think you can only sumo deadlift with an Olympic barbell. The exercise is even better when performed with kettlebells or dumbbells.


Sumo deadlift techniques

  • Adopt a double-wide stance and manoeuvre yourself so that your shins are touching the bar.

  • Squat down and take a narrow-hand position.

  • Keeping the back straight, smoothly stand up out of the sumo position.

  • Remember, we don’t lock the knees at peak contraction.

  • If you’re using bumper plates, drop the bar.

  • If not, lower under control.

 

Compound lifts #3: Front squat

A woman performing the compound lift front squat.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and core.


Performing the front squat with kettlebells is far more challenging than with an Olympic barbell. The reason: you can’t rest the kettlebells on your shoulders thus using your skeletal system to support the load.


During the kettlebell front squat, you must physically hold the weights in place. This quirk of the exercise broadens the range of muscles engaged.


Kettlebell front squat techniques

  • If like me you lack flexibility in the Achilles tendons, you will probably need to use heel spacers.

  • To get the bells into position perform a clean.

  • Before front squatting, organise your feet and ensure that you have formed a stable base from which to lift.

  • Keeping the back straight and the trunk upright, squat down until you reach 90 degrees (you can go lower).

  • Pause momentarily before powering out of the squat.

  • Focus on firing evenly through both quads.


 

Compound lifts #4: Sumo squat

A CrossFit athlete performing compound lifts.

Muscles targeted: quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus minimums and maximus.


Sumo squatting is a superior variation of the standard back squat. However, unlike the back squat, the sumo engages a wider range of muscle groups as you are physically holding the bar at your front.


Sumo squatting builds strength in the legs and lower and upper back as well as the arms. If a plyometric jump is incorporated into the exercise, sumo squats will also increase explosive power. This dynamic extension makes it an ideal movement for contact and combat sports practitioners.


Though typically performed with an Olympic barbell, alternative resistance options include kettlebells, dumbbells, and resistance bands.


Sumo squat techniques

  • Adopt a double-wide stance and manoeuvrer yourself so that your shins are touching the bar.

  • Squat down and take a narrow-hand position.

  • Keeping the back straight, smoothly stand up out of the sumo position.

  • Remember, we don’t lock the knees at peak contraction.

  • If you’re using bumper plates, drop the bar.

  • If not, lower under control.


 

Compound lifts #5: Bent over row

An exerciser performing bent rows.

Muscles targeted: Erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major and minor, trapezius, posterior deltoids, biceps, and forearms.


Few other exercises build strength in the upper back and arms like the bent-over barbell row. The exercise demonstrated above is the reverse grip variation. By reversing the grip training emphasis is shifted a little more to the biceps. But also, many find that by reversing the grip you can achieve a deeper contraction.


Bent row techniques

  • Take a reverse grip on an Olympic barbell. Hands are spaced about shoulder width.

  • Standing with the bar resting against the upper quads, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the upper knee.

  • Before initiating the exercise, ensure that posture is correct: back straight, knees bent, looking forward.

  • Now row the bar to the abdominals.

  • Pause momentarily at peak contraction as you ‘squeeze’ your lats together.

  • Return to the start position and repeat.


 

Compound lifts #6: Bench press

A man performing the bench press.

Muscles targeted: Pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps.


For building strength and size in the chest bench pressing has no equivalent. The fact that it features in many strength training books, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The New Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding, is a testament to its effectiveness.


Bench pressing is typically performed with an Olympic barbell. However, though barbells enable you to maximise poundage, they can mask strength imbalances. For example, during a barbell bench press, your dominant arm could overcompensate for your weaker arm. If left unchecked, this will result in the overdevelopment of the stronger side.


A simple way to avoid this is to bench with dumbbells. Because each arm must press 100% of the load, there’s no chance of assistance from the dominant side. Have a go for yourself and see which side is stronger.


Bench press techniques

  • First, set up your bench and barbell. Ensure that the bench is set back far enough from the rack so that the bar doesn’t clash.

  • Beginners are advised to perform the exercise on a Smith machine or, better yet, in the presence of an experienced trainer.

  • Before loading the bar, it’s prudent to put in a few practice reps. This enables you to make positional adjustments.

  • Taking one and a half shoulder-width hand position on the bar, remove it from the rack. The thumb is closed around the bar – DO NOT apply the ‘suicide grip’ where the thumb is on the same side as the fingers.

  • Under control, lower the bar to your solar plexus. It’s good practice to touch your chest with the bar before pressing it back up.

  • When you do complete the movement, remember to maintain a slight bend at the elbows. Don’t lock out!


 

Compound lifts #7: Hang clean

A woman performing the hang clean exercise.

Muscles targeted: The mid and upper section of the posterior chain – erector spinae, lats, and traps. Also, posterior deltoids and biceps.


Hang cleans enhance strength, power, and endurance in the mid-to-upper posterior chain muscles - (a bit of) glutes, (but mainly) erector spinae, lats, and traps. Because the hang clean is a maximal-stimulation exercise, it is excellent for developing whole-body fitness conditioning.


Hang clean techniques

  • Standing with a barbell resting across the upper thigh, adopt a neutral stance: feet shoulder-width, knees soft, looking forward. Remember, if you're performing the exercise for the first time, practice with an unloaded bar.

  • Hands are spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • To initiate the exercise, take a short dip forward before exploding into the clean: you are physically propelling the bar up off your thighs.

  • As you do so engage the lats, traps, and rear deltoids and heave that bar up into the front rack position.

  • You can, during this phase of the exercise, take a shallow dip at the knee to drop under the bar.

 

Compound lifts #8: Power clean

A woman performing the compound lift exercise power clean.

Muscles targeted: quads, glutes, lower, mid, and upper back including the deltoids.


Power cleans build strength (and power) in all the muscles of the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, lats, and traps. In addition, because the power clean is a maximal-stimulation exercise, it is also excellent for developing whole-body fitness conditioning.


Power clean techniques

  • Adopt a neutral stance with a barbell touching your shins. If you're performing the exercise for the first time, practice with an unloaded bar.

  • Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width hand position.

  • Before attempting the lift, bend the knees and the hips a bit. Also, tighten your core and keep your eyes fixed forward.

  • The first phase of the power clean is a deadlift. But you're trying to pull the bar onto the upper thighs so that you can use hip extension to assist the lift.

  • On pulling the bar onto the upper thighs, thrust the hips forward and physically push the bar up into the next phase of the exercise.

  • The final phase is effectively a hang clean. Using lat, trap and rear deltoid strength heave the bar into the front rack position. You can dip at the knee during this phase of the exercise.


 

Compound lifts #9: Clean & press

A powerlifting performing the clean and press.

Muscles targeted: quads, glutes, lower, mid, and upper back including the deltoids, triceps and forearms.


The clean and press is a classic powerlifting movement. Think of the super-squat, leotard-wearing Hulk heaving two times their bodyweight first into the front rack position and then, once stabilised, snap! above the head. That’s the clean and press.


And because it transitions through a complete range of movement – from floor to ceiling – it activates all the major muscle groups. Also, stabilising and controlling the body through this complex exercise requires the engagement of a considerable array of synergists and deep stabiliser muscles.


Clean and press techniques

  • Adopt a neutral stance with a barbell touching your shins. If you're performing the exercise for the first time, it is advisable to do so with an unloaded bar. However, it is helpful to have the bar raised. Raising the bar about a foot above the floor which makes the pick-up and put-down phases of the exercises easier.

  • Bend down and grasp the bar – the start position is the same as it is for deadlifts.

  • Take the strain before initiating the lift.

  • In a single smooth movement, you are hoisting (cleaning) the bar up and into the front rack position. If you watch the professionals, they pull the bar onto the hips and use ‘hip extension’ to assist the lift. But this is a technical nuance that isn’t necessary during the initial stages of learning the exercise.

  • Once in the front rack, take a second or two to reorganise your posture and prepare for the second phase of the lift.

  • Taking a shallow dip at the knees, use quad and glute strength to power the bar above the head.

  • As it passes your face, take a second dip and drop underneath the bar while simultaneously locking your arms out.

  • Now in the topmost position, powerlifters will drop the bar. Lowering a heavy load is arguably more dangerous than lifting it.

  • If you are not using bumper plates, follow the previous key steps in reverse.


 

Compound lifts #10: Barbell push press

CrossFit athletes performing compound lifts.

Muscle targeted: all three heads of the deltoids (anterior, medial, posterior), upper pectorals, and triceps.


The push press is an awesome power-strength exercise. In addition to building upper-body strength, it also engages many muscles of the lower body – especially the quads and glutes.


It builds explosive power in the upper body while developing whole-body dynamism. Furthermore, due to the strenuous effort required to control the bar, the push press forges physical robustness. It’s this quality that makes it a must for fighters and combat sports practitioners.


The Olympic barbell is the training tool of choice for push pressing. Yet, the barbell is inferior to dumbbells and kettlebells. The reason: it requires considerably more effort to control two separate resistances.


Push press techniques

  • To get the bar into position, perform a deadlift followed by a hang clean – or just a power clean.

  • The bar is supported in front of the deltoids.

  • The hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • To initiate the movement, take a shallow dip at the knee before firing up through the quads.

  • Engage the shoulders to maintain momentum.

  • As the bar passes your face, take a second shallow dip.

  • Straighten the arms but don’t lock out.

  • Stand up and repeat.


 

Compound lifts #11: Cuban Press

A man performing the Cuban press with dumbbells.

Muscles targeted: forearms, biceps (primarily the long head located on the lateral side of the arm), deltoids (primarily the anterior head) upper chest and triceps.


The Cuban press is a brilliant upper body builder. But sadly, it’s seldom used. Why I couldn’t rightly say. However, this tutorial offers you the opportunity to acquire the basic techniques, after which you’ll be able to implement the exercise into your routine.


If you’re wondering which muscles the Cuban press targets, here’s a list of the primary movers:

Forearms
Biceps (though mainly the outer head of the brachii)
Anterior and medial deltoids
Trapezius

Cuban press techniques

  • Holding a barbell (or pair of dumbbells) against your upper thigh, adopt a neutral stance.

  • The hands are spaced a little over shoulder-width – but you can space them wider still if you wish.

  • Without ‘cocking’ or ‘rotating’ the wrists, initiate the movement by performing what is essentially a reverse biceps curl.

  • When the bar is level with the shoulders, proceed to press it above your head.

  • Do not lock out at the elbows.

  • Retrace your steps to the start position before repeating the previous steps.


 

Compound lifts #12: Thruster

A woman performing the barbell thruster.

Muscles targeted: (from top to bottom) forearms, triceps, biceps, deltoids, upper chest, traps, core, lats, lower back, glutes, and quads (and if you perform high reps of thrusters they also engage the cardiac muscle) – basically the whole body.


As the long list of muscles shows, the thruster is a formidable exercise. This single movement builds an abundance of strength and muscle endurance in all the major muscle groups.


Moreover, it can enhance fitness conditioning on account of its uncanny ability to engage the cardiovascular system. Just ten reps are enough to send your heart rate through the roof.


Thrusters can be performed with a wide range of exercise equipment. So, if you want to shake things up a bit, try doing thrusters with dumbbells or kettlebells. (You can also use resistance bands, powerbags, and medicine balls.)


Thruster techniques

  • Stand with a barbell level with your shoulders (also called the front rack position). Your hands are spaced a little over shoulder-width.

  • To initiate the exercise, sink into a squat – aim for 90 degrees at the knees. Depending on the flexibility of your calves and Achilles, you may find that the bar starts to slip forward. This can be counteracted by raising your elbows.

  • Power out of the squat while simultaneously pressing the barbell above your head. The transition between the two movements should be seamless.

  • Pause momentarily before lowering the bar to the start position.

  • When performing reps it helps to drop straight back into the squat.

 

Conclusion

This article has covered a vast array of compound lifts. On our travels, we’ve reviewed the muscle groups each lift engages including the key technique points.


Due to the technical complexity of the compound exercises, you should focus on one at a time. Only when you’ve mastered the mechanics and can execute the movement safely and competently, should you start the process with another exercise.


Related: Discover the Benefits of Strength Training

To improve your performance on a newly acquired compound lift, aim to include it in your training routine. Remember, though, the weights selected should remain low – at least for a month or two.


Related: Learn how to build a Strength Training Program that gets results

Below I have included links to workouts that feature one or more of the above exercises. This will provide you with an opportunity to put them into practice and see how they can be integrated into a training session.


Alternatively, you could have a go at this 4-Week Stronglifts Training Programme.


 

Putting the compound lifts into practice

The Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 3 is packed to bursting training plans that promote whole-body fitness conditioning.

Blog on compound lifts concludes with the hungry4fitness book of circuits and workouts.

 

Blog author bio.

 

References

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.


Definition for sarcopenia – National Institute of Health journal

Walston JD. Sarcopenia in older adults. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2012 Nov;24(6):623-7. doi: 10.1097/BOR.0b013e328358d59b. PMID: 22955023; PMCID: PMC4066461.

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