Whether you’ve been in the fitness world for a long time or you’re just starting out, you probably know that exercises are usually divided into two categories: isolation exercises and compound exercises. While isolation movements are great for targeting one specific muscle group and are helpful for fixing any muscle imbalances that you may have, compound exercises require multiple muscle groups and joints to perform the movement, increasing your overall muscle growth with just one exercise! Additionally, compound exercises require more balance since you’re often using your whole body to perform the movements, helping you develop your overall stability. These multi-joint exercises also mimic day-to-day activities, since you use several major muscle groups to perform different daily movements, such as picking stuff from the floor, grabbing something from the top shelf, or pushing your cart at the supermarket.
All in all, compound exercises should make up a big part of your workout routine if you’re serious about building muscle and overall strength, so we’ve prepared a list of the best compound exercises that you should master to really get the most out of your workout next time you go to the gym!
The squat is probably one of the first movements that you tried when you first started your fitness journey because of its popularity, but did you know that they’re a killer compound exercise? This movement works all your lower body, helping you strengthen it and build endurance while engaging the core for stability and balance. It mainly targets the quadriceps and the glutes, along with the hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back, and core. The best thing about squats is that it’s a gradual exercise that you can perform at any fitness level! You can begin doing bodyweight half squats, then work your way down to regular squats, practice going as deep as you can with good form and start adding resistance bands or weights to your workouts until you’re able to do a classic barbell squat and other variations.
How to do it: To do a squat, stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can put your hands behind your head or straight to the front, however you feel more comfortable. Begin by lowering your body as deep as you can, keeping your chest up, and maintaining your balance. When your thighs are below parallel to the ground, pause for a moment, then stand back up and repeat.
To do a barbell squat, stand beneath the rack to take the bar out and let it rest on your shoulders comfortably. Perform the squat movement in a controlled manner, making sure you’re keeping your balance and not fighting with the weight. Go back up pushing the weight through your heels, and repeat.
The regular stationary lunge is already a great compound exercise, but the walking lunge incorporates the added challenge of keeping your balance while walking since you need to shift your weight as you advance. Similar to the squat, the walking lunge strengthens your legs for a more powerful lower body, using your core to keep you balanced while you temporarily stand on one leg. It targets your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes, as well as your abs and lower back. This bodyweight exercise is great for any fitness level, and you can perform it anywhere at any time, you just need a little bit of space to do the walking! You can also add weights when you feel more comfortable with your form and technique, gradually increasing it as you make progress.
How to do it: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart, this will be your starting position. Begin by stepping forward with one leg, flexing both knees to get down in a controlled movement until your rear knee almost touches the ground. Keep your front shin perpendicular to the floor as you go down, without letting your knee go past your foot. Make sure your torso is upright and your back isn’t curved. Pause for a moment, then begin pushing through the heel of your front foot. When you’re standing back up, take a step forward with your opposite foot and perform the same lunge movement.
An upper body routine is often incomplete without a good push-up! This compound movement strengthens your delts, triceps, and pectorals for a more powerful and toned upper body, as well as your hip muscles, abdominals, obliques, and the erector spinae located on your back. Having a stronger upper body will help you perform other exercises more efficiently, making any upper body workout more effective, and it also helps you perform day-to-day activities that involve any form of pushing. The push-up also offers many variations that you can try according to your fitness level, or if you want to change things up a little in order to make it more challenging, such as the diamond push-up and the military push-up.
Hot to do it: Lie face down on the floor and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor. Hold your torso up with your arms straight and the tip of your feet on the ground for stability. You can make this position easier by getting on your knees and locking your feet together so that you don’t lose control while performing the movement. Begin by lowering yourself downward until your chest almost touches the floor, then press your torso back up again while squeezing your chest. Pause for a moment in the starting position and repeat.
Another classic compound exercise, the deadlift is a must if you’re serious about building lower body and back strength! It targets a great number of muscle groups in your whole body, particularly your hamstrings, glutes, quads, and lower back muscles. For stability, you engage your abs, core, shoulders, and upper back while lifting the weight to keep it balanced and controlled. This lifting exercise is great for building muscle mass and it’s a staple among weightlifters because of how effective it is! Traditionally, the deadlift is performed with a barbell, but you can do it with dumbbells or long resistance bands first to practice your form and start building your lower body strength to be able to lift heavy weights. Keeping this in mind is important when doing deadlifts so you can avoid the risk of injury since lifting a lot of weight at once can be damaging for your muscles and joints.
How to do it: To perform a barbell deadlift, stand straight and centered in front of the rack and bend at the hips and knees to grab the barbell. Make sure your hands are about shoulder-width apart, as well as your feet. Take the barbell off the rack so that it’s touching your shins, and begin the movement by extending your hips and knees, lifting the weight up. Keep your arms straight while holding the barbell, and make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are back, and your chest is up. At the top part of the movement, the weight should be in front of your thighs. Pause for a moment, then bend at the hips to drive the barbell down to the floor and repeat.
Dips are a staple compound exercise, and the triceps dips are the most popular variation because of how effective they are. They work and strengthen your upper body, specifically your arms. As the name suggests, the main focus of the triceps dips are the triceps muscles as a whole, hitting all three heads, but you also engage your core and abs when raising your body off the ground. This is a great bodyweight tricep exercise and it can be done anywhere and with a lot of variations depending on what you’re looking for!
How to do it: Find a bench or a chair and sit on it with your hands just outside of your hips and your knees bent, or you can make the movement more challenging by extending your legs all the way. Lift your body with your hands, bending your elbows while bringing your hips forward, and start lowering down your body. Make sure to keep your shoulders down, your abs engaged, and your elbows pointing back until they’re at about 90 degrees and your glutes are almost touching the floor. Pause for a moment, then push back to the starting position and repeat.
Pull-ups are often a difficult exercise for beginners, but working your way up to them is highly rewarding. This exercise is one of the basic compound movements that many people overlook because of how simple they look, but they’re incredibly effective for building upper body strength and resistance, as well as keeping good posture. It primarily targets the lats, helping you build a stronger and more powerful back, but it also engages the chest, abs, shoulder, and other upper back muscles. Since it can be a difficult exercise to tackle at first, there are many variations that you can try first, such as using the assisted pull-up machine or doing chin-ups.
How to do it: Stand straight facing the pull-up bar and grab it with both hands shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip. Bring your torso slightly back while sticking your chest out to get into the starting position while you grab the pull-up bar. Begin by lifting yourself up until your upper chest touches the bar, keeping your shoulders down and back. Pause for a moment at the top part of the movement, then lower yourself back down until your arms are fully extended and repeat.
Want tips on how to accomplish your first pull-up? Have a look at our >> Pull-Up Guide! We give you the steps you need to take to do your first pull-up with proper form and technique.
Standing military press
The military press, also commonly known as the strict press, is a variation of the classic bench press and it mainly works your shoulders for a stronger and more toned upper body. Aside from helping you build more powerful shoulders, this compound exercise involves a lot of core strength when lifting the weight up in order to stabilize it. It targets all three heads of your deltoid muscles, as well as your triceps, core, upper back, and other shoulder muscles. It’s a great exercise that you can include in full-body workouts or prioritize on shoulder days.
How to do it: First, set a barbell chest-high in a power rack (or Smith machine). Hold the bar with an overhand grip and hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your palms up and elbows pointed forward, and your upper arms near parallel with the floor as the barbell rests atop your upper chest. Your feet should be set about shoulder-width apart or just outside of that, and your toes angled slightly out. From this position, begin by explosively driving the bar overhead to full elbow extension. Hold the position for a moment, and then lower it back until it touches your upper chest and repeat.
These are just a few of the best compound exercises that you should master for your workouts, but there are many more as well as a great number of variations that you can try to change things up a little. Always keep in mind that weightlifting exercises should be done with a weight that’s not too heavy for your current fitness level in order to avoid any injuries. You should be able to perform your reps without struggling to move the weight around until the last rep, where you should feel the burn. So keep this in mind next time you’re strength training!
And if you want to try these compound exercises to build strength but have no idea how to incorporate them into your workouts or need help building your routine from scratch, check the Fit With Iulia app! Iulia plans new goal-focused workouts each week to help you get better and more effective results. Try your first workout for free by downloading the Fit With Iulia app, choose a goal, and start your first workout with Iulia – no subscription required!