Best Compound Exercises – Introduction
What are the best compound exercises for body transformation?
Broadly speaking, strength training exercises fall into one of two categories – isolation and compound. Knowing the difference between these two classes of exercise will make it easier to choose the right one for your goals.
For most exercisers, compound exercises are best for building muscle, getting stronger, and even getting leaner.
Isolation vs. compound exercises – what’s the difference?
Several characteristics make identifying isolation and compound exercises fairly straightforward. Isolation exercises involve movement patterns around a single joint. They typically target a small number of muscles, and sometimes just one or two.
Examples of isolation movements include:
- Leg extensions
- Calf raises
- Dumbbell flyes
- Triceps pushdowns
Contrary to what their name suggests, isolation exercises do not isolate individual muscles. Even the most straightforward isolation exercise involves several muscles. That said, this idea makes it easier to remember the difference between isolation and compound exercises, so it’s okay to think of them that way.
In contrast, compound exercises involve two or more joints and multiple muscles working together. Examples of the best compound movements include:
Both isolation and compound exercises can either be a machine, free weights, bodyweight, kettlebell, medicine ball, or suspension trainer (TRX) exercises. The style of training modality is not relevant. Instead, the difference is the type of movement, i.e., single joint vs. multi-joint.
The advantages and benefits of compound exercises
There is nothing inherently wrong with isolation exercises. In fact, they can be useful for targeting specific body parts. But, for more exercisers, compound exercises are a better choice. The advantages and benefits of compound exercises include:
A more natural movement –
The best compound exercises often replicate everyday movements and tend to be more natural. For example, there are very few instances in life where you’ll need to straighten your knee joint to lift heavy weights while you are sitting down – a leg extension.
In contrast, most people do lots of squats over the course of a day. Squats involve your hips, knees, and ankles at the same time, making them a perfect example of a compound exercise.
More time-efficient –
You can train your whole body using just 4-6 compound exercises, making for shorter, more convenient workouts. In contrast, you’d need 10-12 isolation exercises to achieve the same effect. As lack of time is one of the biggest barriers that most exercisers face, it makes sense to emphasize compound exercises in your training.
Better for strength –
Most feats of strength involve multiple muscle groups, if not your whole body. This requires intermuscular coordination. By working multiple joints and muscles at the same time, compound exercises are better for building functional strength.
Better for building muscle –
Compound exercises allow you to lift heavier weights, putting more stress on the muscles you want to develop. Compound exercises also increase the production of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, leading to even better results.
Isolation moves can be useful for “finishing off” a muscle group, but the best compound exercises usually produce the best results and should make up the bulk of your muscle-building workouts.
Better for increasing bone density –
Because they involve heavier weights, compound exercises are better for increasing bone density than isolation exercises. Bone density tends to decline with age, and compound exercises can help prevent or even reverse this problem, which, if left unchecked, could become osteoporosis. This is a medical condition characterized by porous, weak bones that are prone to fracture.
Why Compound Exercises Are a Great Way to Get Stronger
The 7 Best Compound Exercises
There are so many compound exercises to choose from, it’s hard to narrow it down to a small handful to create the best list of compound exercises. They’re all good! So, here are seven of the best compound exercises that also have functional, muscle-building, strength-building benefits.
1. Back squats –
Back squats work all of the major muscles in your lower body, plus several in your upper body too. You can do squats to build muscle, get stronger, or tone up. It all depends on how much weight you lift!
To do back squats, rest and hold a barbell across your upper back. It should not rest on your neck. Step out and into a shoulder-width stance, toes turned slightly outward. Push your butt back, bend your knees and squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back. Stand back up and repeat.
Squats are an incredibly foundational and beneficial exercise and it is worth your time to learn how to do the barbell squat correctly with or without weight.
For safety, only do heavy back squats in a squat rack while using the best shoes for squats and the right weightlifting gear when appropriate.
2. Bench presses –
The barbell bench press is probably the most widely performed barbell exercise in the world. It’s a cornerstone exercise that you can use to build both muscle size and strength.
To do it, lie on a bench with your eyes directly beneath the bar. Hold it using a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Unrack the bar and hold it over your chest. Bend your arms and lower the bar down to gently touch your sternum. No bouncing! Press the weight back up and repeat.
Avoid injury by always doing bench presses with a spotter nearby. A failed rep could result in serious injury.
3. Deadlift –
Part leg exercise, part back exercise, the deadlift is arguably the best compound exercise around. As well as being useful for building muscle and strength, deadlifts also teach you the safest way to lift a heavy object off the floor.
With your barbell on the floor, stand in the middle with your feet about hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Hinge your hips back to lower yourself towards the bar, and then grab the barbell with an overhand or mixed grip.
Straighten your arms, lift your chest, drop your hips, brace your abs, and arch your lower back slightly. Drive your feet into the floor and, without rounding your lower back, stand up straight. Lower the weight back to the floor, let it settle (no bouncing!), and repeat.
For more details, see How to Do a Deadlift for Beginners – A Step by Step Guide and The Top 15 Proper Deadlift Form Tips For Beginners.
Best Compound Exercises for Total Body Mass
4. Shoulder press –
Before the bench press became the most popular compound exercise, the overhead press ruled the roost! This old-school feat of strength might not be as famous as it once was, but it’s still one of the best ways to build your upper body, and especially your shoulders.
Using an overhand grip, hold your barbell in front of your shoulders. Your forearms should be vertical. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent for balance. Brace your abs. Push the bar straight up and overhead. Straighten, but don’t lock your elbows. Lower the bar back to your shoulders and then repeat. Do not jerk with your legs. This is called a push-press. It’s not a bad exercise; it’s just not the one we want you to do!
5. Bent over rows –
This is a slightly controversial exercise because done incorrectly, it can put a lot of stress on your lower back. But, if you do it right, the bent over barbell row is an excellent lat builder that also works your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
To do it, hold a barbell with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Lean forward until your body is inclined to about 75-90 degrees. Let your arms hang down from your shoulders, and do not round your lower back. Bend your arms and pull the bar up and into your chest. Extend your arms and repeat. Do not try and jerk the weight up with your legs or back.
6. Lunges –
Squats are undeniably one of the best exercises you can do for your leg muscles, but lunges come a close second. They work one leg at a time, which means they’re useful for identifying and fixing left to right strength imbalances. Because lunges involve more balance than squats, make sure you practice this exercise before adding weight. Losing your balance with a barbell on your back could lead to injury!
As for squats, hold a barbell across your upper back. Stand with your feet together. Take a large step forward, bend your legs, and lower your back knee down to just above the floor. Make sure your front shin remains vertical. Push off your front leg to return to your starting position. Do another rep on the other leg and continue alternating sides for the duration of your set.
7. Pull ups –
This bodyweight exercise mainly works your lats, the muscles on the side of your back, but it’s also an excellent arm builder too. If you want a bigger, more muscular back with biceps to match, this is the exercise for you.
To do it, hang from a bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Bend your legs and cross your feet behind you. Without kicking or jerking, bend your arms and pull your chin up and over the bar. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
A two-part workout plan based on compound lifts
To demonstrate the power and efficiency of compound exercises, here is a two-part workout plan that uses the seven movements described above. You can do each workout once per week, e.g., Monday and Thursday, or alternate the workouts and train three times a week, e.g.:
Monday – workout A
Wednesday – workout B
Friday – workout A
Reverse this sequence the following week as:
Monday – workout B
Wednesday – workout A
Friday – workout B
Bent over rows
*Choose any anterior (front) core exercise, e.g., rollouts, crunches, cable crunches, etc.
10-12 per leg
AMRAP means as many reps as possible. Just do as many as you can!
Here’s the equipment you’ll need to do these short-but-sweet compound exercise workouts at home.
This power rack provides you with somewhere to squat and bench press in safety, and also do pull-ups. Add a top quality adjustable weight bench, and you’ve got the ideal place for all your compound free weight exercises.
This sturdy bench will support even the heaviest workout. Use it for bench presses or any other supine exercise. You can also use it for box squats.
Available in three colors, these shoes will provide you with a stable base for squats and any other standing compound exercise. Firm, supportive, and flexible, these Powerlift 4 weightlifting shoes are so much better than a pair of regular sneakers!
The ONLY 7 Exercises Men Need for Building Strength + Muscle Mass
Best Compound Exercises – Final Thoughts
While compound and isolation exercises can both be valuable, compound exercises arguably provide more bang for your buck. You don’t have to use compound exercises exclusively, but it certainly won’t hurt if you do!
Use isolation exercises to finish off your workouts and provide a little variety from time to time. But, for the best results, put most of your energy into the compound lifts.
If you had to choose just one full-body compound exercise to do for the rest of your life, the conventional barbell deadlift would be your best choice.
Not only is it one of the most productive exercises you can do, but it’s also one of the most accessible.
You don’t even need spotters; if you can’t complete a rep, just put the bar down.
But the deadlift also deserves your respect.
Done with incorrect form, it could result in severe injury.
Deadlifts genuinely deserve to be part of your strength training program.
To that end, start or continue your deadlift education with these free guides:
- How to Deadlift for Beginners – A Step by Step Guide
- 15 Ways How to Protect Your Shins When Deadlifting
- The Top 10 Deadlift With Proper Form Rules to Prevent Back Pain
- 50 Essential Deadlift Tips and Tricks Every Beginner Should Know
- 12 Week Deadlift Program for Beginners in Fitness or Powerlifting
- 5 Powerful Franco Columbu Workout Routine Tips You Can Use Today
- Beginner Powerbuilding Program: Big & Strong Workout + Free PDF
- Dumbbell Chest Workout: The 5 Best Exercises You Can Do at Home
- The Top 10 Calisthenics Exercises and Workout Plan for Beginners
- Hypertrophy Training; Essential Muscle Building Principles + Program
- 37 Remarkable Benefits of Deadlifts to Unleash Your Fitness Fast
- 7 Greatest Deadlift Muscles Worked That Can Change Your Life
- 27 Sensational Ways How Deadlifts Change Your Body
- 20 Greatest Benefits of Squats; The King of Free Weight Strength Training
- 7 Powerful Squats Muscles Worked Will Improve Your Life
- Squats for Weight Loss and Body Transformation
- Great Bench Press Benefits, Muscles Worked, Variations + How-To
- 7 Best Kettlebell Deadlift Variations You Can Do at Home
- How To Do A Dumbbell Deadlift: Proper Form, Benefits + Variations
- Weight Lift for Weight Loss: A Workout Routine That Actually Works
- Great Bench Press Benefits, Muscles Worked, Variations + How-To
- Squats vs. Deadlifts; Which Is Better For You?
- The Top 10 Squat Accessory Exercises for a Bigger, Better Squat
- The Top 10 Deadlift Accessory Exercises to Fix Your Deadlift
- 3×5 Workout Plan: The Only Strength Training Program You Will Ever Need
- Phraks Greyskull LP Variant vs. Starting Strength vs. GSLP
- 1 Rep Max Calculator Deadlifts in 5 Easy Steps
- 5 Best Shoes for Squats and Deadlifts: Review & Buying Guide for 2020