10 Compound Exercises To Build Strength and Lean Muscle
Compound exercises are the best exercises to train the whole body and improve functional fitness.
They work multiple muscle groups at the same time and challenge your cardio too.
You can combine compound lifts together to target even more muscles.
For example, you can do a clean and jerk, or a reverse lunge into a bicep curl.
In contrast, isolation exercises only target one muscle group at a time.
For example, using a lower back machine in the gym only targets the lower back muscles.
But when you do a barbell squat, you train your lower body and your lower back.
Isolation movements have their place.
For example, if you want to build muscle mass, performing isolation exercises after your compound lifts is the best way to build muscle.
That’s why bodybuilders do them.
They also help in physical therapy to strengthen joints or rehabilitate muscles after an injury.
But without performing compound exercises, your posture will get worse, and you won’t make as much progress in the gym.
You also won’t train movements specific to everyday life.
It’s impossible to be fit and not train compound exercises.
Keep reading to learn about the benefits of compound exercises and the ten best compound exercises you must have in your workout routine.
What Are Compound Exercises?
A compound exercise is a type of exercise that targets multiple muscle groups at the same time.
For example, a pushup is a compound exercise because you are working your chest muscles, triceps, deltoids, and core in the same motion.
They’re an effective way to train the whole body, gain strength, and train functional fitness.
What Are the Benefits of Compound Exercises?
Since compound exercises train multiple muscle groups at once, there are many benefits.
- More strength and muscle mass gains
- Build power for sport
- Involves cardiovascular system
- Improves fitness level faster
- Build total-body strength
- Reduce muscle imbalances in specific muscles and weaker areas
- Build new brain cells (neurogenesis)
- Get in shape in less time
- Useful for weight loss or to build muscle
- For beginners or advanced trainees.
Compound movements can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, bands, sandbags, kettlebells, and other types of equipment.
They also can be modified more than isolation exercises to allow for more variety in your exercise program.
Compared to isolation moves, they always target major muscles.
Compound Exercises to Try
There are many kinds of compound exercises. Below you’ll find ones for beginners and for the advanced.
They can be done with just your bodyweight or with heavier loads.
You don’t even need a gym to do them. You can use household items like chairs and benches if you’re stuck at home, or even use a wall.
Here is a short list of some popular compound exercises:
- Barbell bench press
- Barbell back squat
- Walking lunge
- Kettlebell swings
- Sumo deadlift
- Barbell rows
- Renegade rows
- Seated row
- Chest press
- Shoulder press
- Ab wheel rollout
There is no limit to compound exercises. There is so much variety and so many places you can train them.
Remember, in general, compound movements involve important movements like pushing and pulling.
So don’t be afraid to switch it up and perform them inside or outside the gym.
Here are the ten best compound movements you must start doing today if you aren’t yet!
Targets: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, lower back, abdominals
The squat is a staple compound lift for beginner or advanced trainees.
It’s great for weight loss, building general strength, muscle growth, and building power for athletes.
You can squat with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or just your bodyweight.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Stick your hands out in front of your chest
- Slowly lower down your hips and bend at the knees
- Go down until your hips are below your knees, and then squat back up
If this is easy for you, I recommend you do the goblet squat.
For this exercise, you’ll need a dumbbell and will hold it in your palms so that the dumbbell is perpendicular to the ground.
You want your elbows bent and the dumbbell to be close to your chest and body. From there, you squat down and up.
Of course, the king of all squats is the barbell back squat.
The benefit of this compound lift is the ability to add heavier loads.
Other types of squats include the Bulgarian split squat and the front squat.
2. TRX Row
As I’ve mentioned, not every compound exercise needs to involve heavier weights and barbells.
You can even do them as part of a bodyweight workout.
The TRX row is a bodyweight exercise that is perfect for the elderly as well as beginners.
Not only does it target the same back muscles as a traditional row, but it also improves coordination and stability.
Targets: rhomboids, traps, lats, biceps, and forearms.
To perform a TRX row:
- Grab the handles of the TRX
- Walk forwards and straighten your arms until your upper body and legs are straight
- Pull your torso up by engaging your arms and pulling your shoulder blades together
- Lower yourself back down
What’s great about the TRX is that you can adjust your grip.
You can have your palms facing each other or facing the ground, or mix it up throughout the same rep.
For example, you could start with your palms facing down.
Then as you row your body up, have your palms face each other. On the way down, return to the starting position.
All rows are compound exercises, including seated rows on a machine. So don’t forget to give them a try too!
The deadlift is one of the best compound lifts period for building total-body strength and stimulating muscle growth.
It’s also the best compound exercise for the posterior chain.
When you learn how to deadlift, you will prevent injury when lifting things off the floor.
Targets: glutes, hamstrings, torso, forearms, hips, traps, rhomboids, lower back, and core.
Like the squat, you can use dumbbells, a barbell, or kettlebells to get started.
This exercise cannot be performed without weight. Below are a few different varieties of deadlifts to try.
The king of all deadlifts, this exercise requires a perfect form.
Here’s how to perform it:
- Add weight to the barbell and bring your feet under it so that your shins are almost touching the bar
- Grab the bar with one hand over and one hand under the bar
- Straighten out your lower back, and bring your hips down until you feel some tension
- Engaging the hamstrings and glutes, powerfully lift the bar up
- Lower the bar down in the same fashion back to the starting position
When performing the barbell deadlift, be especially careful to keep the weight close to your thighs to keep your lower back safe.
This compound lift, when done right, produces massive gains.
- With your feet hip-width apart, hold a heavy pair of dumbbells in front of you with your palms facing you
- Keep your posture tight and your back straight
- Hinge at the hips to push them back and bring the weight down in a straight line towards your feet
- Lower your torso towards your thighs while keeping the back straight
- Lift the dumbbells back up after you feel some stretching in your hamstrings
That’s one rep. Now do many more. You can also try doing deadlifts with bands. It’s a little bit easier to begin that way.
4. Bench Press
The barbell bench press is known as the king of chest exercises for a reason.
It builds muscle mass in your chest muscles, deltoids, and triceps.
As a strength training exercise, it will strengthen the upper body.
Here’s how to bench press with proper form:
- Lie on the bench so that the bar is above your eye level a little
- Grab the bar with both hands so that each hand is equidistant from the center of the bar
- Unrack the bar by straightening your arms and elbows
- Lower the bar to your mid-chest or lower chest, pulling shoulder blades together
- Push the bar back up until your arms are straight
Your forearms must be perpendicular to the ground for this compound movement.
As you push the bar up, you can also tighten your glutes for extra power.
This is why many regard the barbell bench press as a full-body exercise.
5. Kettlebell Swings
The kettlebell swing is a dynamic compound exercise that targets primarily the glutes and hamstrings.
To perform it correctly you must use the power in your hips to swing the kettlebell up to your chest level.
Here are the instructions:
- Grab a light kettlebell and stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart
- Thrust your hips forward slightly to give the kettlebell downward momentum
- As the weight falls, lower your hips and send them back
- Bring your torso to your thighs as you do this
- Pause for a bit and as you exhale or hold your breath, swing the weight forward and up until it is at belly button level
This exercise is a great conditioning tool, so it can be performed for many reps or 30 seconds per set.
You should feel a burn in your glutes and possibly lower back.
We can’t ever forget the chin-up in a compound movement workout.
A staple in the Army, the chin-up builds general fitness and can be done with just your bodyweight.
Targets: lats, biceps, forearms, abs
- Find a straight bar
- With your palms facing you, put both hands on the bar
- The starting position is now you hanging from the bar
- Lift your torso up and back as you engage your biceps and lats
- Get your chin above the bar
- Lower yourself back down
Chin-ups are a great strength training exercise. Try to do as many as you can for each set, until failure.
Once you can do ten easily, add weights using a belt.
7. Walking Lunge
This bodyweight exercise can also be progressed in intensity with dumbbells or even a barbell.
It targets the same muscles as the squat but involves a smaller range of motion.
What I love about lunges is how they train stability and coordination.
You need good balance to perform reps of walking lunges without stumbling. It also requires more calf involvement.
Targets: Quadriceps, glutes, calves, hamstrings, traps, obliques
- Find two light dumbbells and place one in each hand
- Step forward with your right foot and lunge down until your left knee grazes the floor
- Lean forward and squat up with your right leg, while pushing forwards with your left foot
- Now repeat on the left leg
When you use dumbbells for this exercise, you may become limited by your traps.
If you are a beginner, this is definitely an exercise you’ll feel the next day.
You also need good forearm strength to hold the dumbbells in your hands for so long.
In contrast to the squat or deadlift, in a walking lunge, each rep focuses on one leg at a time.
As a result, you spend double the time doing a set.
This is why it’s a great way to add lean muscle mass to your traps and forearms while building stamina.
8. Landmine Press
This compound movement mimics punching and throwing.
Compared to the overhead press, this is a unilateral exercise where you train one arm at a time.
In addition, you need anti-rotational core strength, so this is a full-body exercise in addition to being a compound exercise.
Targets: shoulder muscles (deltoids), triceps, obliques, abs, calves
- Attach a barbell to a landmine attachment (found on the squat rack)
- Lift the bar up to shoulder height, and rest it on your right shoulder
- Adjust your feet into a split-stance, so your right foot is behind and your left foot is in front
- With a soft bend at the knees and hips, push the barbell up with your right hand
- Pivot at the back foot (right foot) to rotate your hips forward like a punch
- Bring the barbell back to the starting position
- Repeat for the desired number of reps
- Switch sides
Really work on engaging your core as you twist your torso to push the bar up.
This is not just a shoulder and tricep exercise. Additionally, use your free arm for balance by extending it outwards.
Make sure to pivot at the back foot as well. You might feel a burn in your calves or around your ankles depending on your fitness level.
The bench press and pushup target the same muscles as the dip and are great strength training exercises.
The difference is that with the dip, your whole body is supported by just your hands.
This makes this compound lift more challenging to the mind and requires stability.
Therefore, you train even more muscle groups.
Targets: deltoids, triceps, lower chest, core
- Find a set of parallel bars
- Place your hands on the bars and lift your feet off the ground
- Bend at the elbows and lower your torso until your shoulders are at the level of your elbows
- Engaging your chest and shoulders, lift your body up again
In a dip, your whole body weight is supported by your hands.
That’s why people can’t do as many reps of a dip as they can with a pushup.
Once you get better, you can add weights to the dip by using a belt to add plates.
10. Med Ball Throw
This explosive exercise builds speed and power in your lower body and shoulder muscles.
It is best performed in front of a wall, with a no-bounce med-ball.
Targets: quadriceps, glutes, calves, deltoids, triceps, upper chest
- Find a no-bounce med ball and bring it to shoulder height
- With your feet shoulder-width apart, squat down halfway
- Like you are jumping in the air, transfer power from your legs into your arms to throw the ball upwards
- After it bounces off the wall, pick it up again and repeat
- Perform for the desired number of reps or for time
This exercise is commonly found in CrossFit workouts.
It’s great for athletes who want to build explosiveness, or for cardio.
Since it involves the lower and upper bodies, it is especially demanding and will leave you sweaty!
The Final Take On Compound Movement Exercises
Compound exercises will change your fitness routine entirely.
Do not be afraid to get creative with them to add variety to your workouts. To build muscle mass, and keep yourself engaged.
Remember, consistency is key. Incorporate these compound lifts into your routine today and watch the gains come!