Compound Exercises: What Are They And Which Ones Are Best?

Sweat logo
Sweat

March 6, 2020

Compound Exercises: What Are They And Which Ones Are Best? - Hero image

Are you looking for the most effective way to increase strength and build muscle? While achieving most fitness goals takes consistency and there’s no quick fix (good things take time!), there is one thing you should definitely be doing if you want to maximise your strength training and make smarter use of your workout time. Let us introduce you to compound exercises!

Find out: 

What are compound exercises?

There are two different types of strength training exercises you can do in the gym: compound and isolation exercises. 

Compound exercises use multiple muscle groups and several joints at the same time, while isolation exercises focus on a single muscle group and generally involve a single joint in the movement. 

Two examples of great compound exercises are squats and deadlifts. When performing squats, you engage your quads, calves, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, hip flexors and core. Deadlifts also work several muscle groups, such as your hamstrings, glutes, quads, upper and lower back, hips and core.

Isolation exercises tend to target a specific muscle and use one joint, like a bicep curl.

Benefits of compound exercises

Getting more bang for your buck is one of the main benefits of compound exercises, as they allow you to work several muscles simultaneously, rather than having to spend a longer period of time training each muscle individually. Including compound movements in your training will help you complete a challenging, effective, full-body workout in a far shorter space of time!

Because compound exercises work multiple muscle groups at once, they also teach your muscles to move in a functional and synchronised way, training both the muscle tissue, joints and nervous system to work together effectively. Although they are strength training movements, compound exercises increase your heart rate and challenge your cardiovascular system to the amount of effort required.

Many compound exercises help improve your ability to perform natural movement patterns with ease, such as bending into a squat position or lifting something off the ground in a deadlift movement, which can make daily tasks easier while reducing your risk of injury! 

By performing compound exercises regularly and challenging yourself to lift heavier weights, you’ll see your strength and endurance improve. Using techniques such as progressive overload and the rate of perceived exertion are effective ways to track your progress, and these methods are used in Sweat programs such as BUILD and Lifting At Home

If you're following a strength training program, remember to eat a range of nutritious foods, make sure you’re consuming enough protein to help with muscle recovery, and prioritise your rest days.

5 best compound exercises for the gym

You can build full-body strength in the gym with these compound exercises — in some programs they may be referred to as the ‘primary movement’. No matter which exercise you are doing, make sure that you are comfortable using the gym equipment before you begin and don’t be afraid to use lighter weights or your bodyweight as you build your confidence.

Squat

A squat is a movement you perform every day — when you sit down and stand up, when you bend to lift something (or someone!) or jump high. Here’s how to do a barbell back squat (where the bar is on your back):

  1. Set the barbell on the squat rack at approximately collarbone height. Facing the squat rack, hold the bar and step underneath it so it rests comfortably on the back of your shoulders, not your neck. Your hands should be holding the bar in an overhand grip with your palms facing forward, slightly wider than your shoulders.

  2. Standing underneath the barbell with it resting on your shoulders, stand up tall to lift it from the squat rack. Take a small step backwards to stand with both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. 

  3. Inhale. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure your back remains within a 45- to 90-degree angle to your hips.

  4. Exhale. Push through the heels of your feet and extend your legs to return to the starting position. Try to avoid lifting your heels off the ground or curving your spine.

  5. Repeat, before stepping forward to return the bar to a secure position on the squat rack.

Bench press

The bench press helps you to build fundamental upper body strength. It works your chest, shoulders and triceps, and is one of the most effective upper body exercises. 

  1. Place a barbell on the rack (with optional weight plates) and position a bench underneath it. When you lie on the bench and hold the bar, you should have a bend in your arms to allow you to push it out of the rack.

  2. Lie down on the bench so your head is looking up at the barbell. Plant your feet on the floor on either side of the bench, or on the bench itself — whichever is most comfortable. Place both hands on the barbell in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than your shoulders. You should have a bend in your arms to allow you to push the bar out of the rack. If your arms are straight or you have to reach for the bar, adjust the barbell to a lower position on the rack. 

  3. Push the bar away from you to unrack the barbell and extend your elbows to hold the barbell directly above your chest. This is your starting position. 

  4. Inhale and bend your elbows outwards to lower the barbell towards you until the bar touches (or almost touches) your chest, like an inverted push-up.

  5. Exhale and extend your elbows to push the barbell away from your chest to return to the starting position. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions before safely returning the barbell to n the rack.

Barbell row

This compound exercise works your back, hips, core and arms, strengthening the muscles you need for lifting and pulling. If you don’t have access to a barbell you can try a row variation using dumbbells

  1. Hold a barbell with both hands with an overhand grip (palms facing towards your body), hands slightly wider than shoulder-width and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. While maintaining a slight bend in your knees, hinge forward from your hips so your torso is leaning towards the floor. Extend your arms directly below your chest. This is your starting position.

  2. Bend your elbows to pull the barbell up towards your lower ribs. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together.

  3. Extend your elbows to lower the barbell and return to the starting position. Repeat.

Shoulder press

Use this exercise to build strength for any overhead lifting — whether it’s storing overhead cabin luggage on your next flight or practicing your pull-ups

  1. Hold a barbell with an overhand (palms facing towards your body) directly in front of your body, standing with your feet  slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Bring the barbell forward and upwards into your chest. Your palms should now be facing away from your body. This is your starting position.

  2. Using the muscles in your shoulders and arms, extend your elbows to press the barbell directly above your head. Your arms should be in line with your ears on either side of your head.

  3. Bend your elbows to lower the barbell into the starting position by your collarbone. Repeat.

Deadlift

Strengthen your legs and back with the conventional deadlift. If you can’t access a barbell, use a kettlebell or heavy dumbbell instead. 

  1. Start with your barbell (extra weight plates optional) on the ground in front of your legs with your feet hip-width apart. If you have added weight plates, the bar should be sitting above your shoelaces. Bend to hold the barbell with both hands in an overhand grip (palms facing towards your body), with your back straight rather than curved. Draw your shoulder blades down and back to push your chest out slightly. This is your starting position.

  2. Push through your heels and use your glutes and hamstrings to stand up straight, lifting the barbell off the floor. The barbell should remain very close to your legs throughout the entire movement, or above your shoelaces. 

  3. Once standing upright and holding the bar at your hips, bend from the hips and lower the barbell to the ground again, keeping your chest proud, your back straight and your eyes looking forward, lowering the barbell close to your legs over your shoelaces.

  4. Repeat.

5 best compound exercises for home

These compound exercises can be done at home and are very powerful on their own, or can be used as great substitute exercises if the equipment you need at the gym is already in use. 

Want to increase the intensity? You can either speed up the pace, perform a higher number of repetitions, or slow down the speed of the lowering half of the movement. For example, try taking three seconds to lower into your squat position, and one second to stand up.

Push-ups

Push-ups require you to have quite a lot of postural, upper body and core strength. If you’re still building up to performing push-ups on your toes, start with push-ups against a wall or on your knees. 

  1. Place both hands on the mat slightly further than shoulder-width apart, feet together on the mat behind you while resting on the balls of your feet. This is your starting position.

  2. While maintaining a neutral spine, bend your elbows and lower your torso towards the mat until your arms form two 90-degree angles.

  3. Push through your hands and extend your elbows to lift your body back into the starting position.

  4. Repeat.

Goblet squat

This is a great way of building your confidence and making a squat more challenging by holding a weight at your chest. If you don’t have a kettlebell, use a dumbbell instead. 

  1. Hold a kettlebell with both hands directly in front of your chest and stand with your feet slightly further than hip-width apart and your feet turned slightly outward. This is your starting position.

  2. Inhale. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, lowering into a squat position while ensuring your knees point toward your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor, ensuring your back remains between a 45 to 90-degree angle to your hips.

  3. Exhale. Push through your heels and extend your knees to return to the starting position.

  4. Repeat.

Bench jump

To do this exercise you’ll need a sturdy bench, step or box. When done correctly, it will target your quads, glutes, calves and hip flexors

  1. Place a box or bench horizontally in front of you and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.

  2. Bend at both the hips and knees as if you were sitting into a chair or squat position, then propel your body upwards and forwards in a jump, drawing your knees into your chest to land in a squat position on top of the bench. Make sure you land with bent knees to reduce the risk of injury.

  3. Push through your heels and straighten your legs to find a standing position on top of the bench.

  4. Carefully step backwards off the bench, one foot at a time, to return to the starting position.

  5. Repeat.

Kettlebell swings

Kettlebell swings are a great exercise for your posterior chain, or the muscles down the back of your body, including your hamstrings, glutes and spinal muscles. You will need a little bit of space in front and behind you. Make sure you engage your core, glutes and hips during the exercise. 

  1. Hold a kettlebell directly in front of your body with both hands, with your feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. While maintaining a slight bend in your knees, tilt forwards from your hips and allow the kettlebell to gently swing backwards between your legs. This is your starting position.

  2. Using your glutes and hamstrings, extend your legs and hips to swing the kettlebell forwards and upwards to shoulder height.

  3. Bend your knees and tilt forward from your hips to lower the kettlebell and return to the starting position between your legs.

  4. Repeat, making sure your glutes and hamstrings power the movement and you are not lifting the weight with your arms and shoulders. This movement is all about hinging from the hip, and shouldn’t look or feel like a squat.

Lunges

This bodyweight exercise strengthens the muscles you use to stand, walk, run and jump, including your glutes, hamstrings, calves, core and quads. You can make it more challenging by holding a dumbbell in each hand.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. This is your starting position.

  2. Carefully take a big step forwards with your left foot and bend both knees to approximately 90 degrees, ensuring your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. When done correctly, your front knee will be aligned with your ankle and your back knee will be hovering just off the floor.

  3. Extend both knees and transfer your weight completely onto your right foot. Step your left foot back to return to the starting position.

  4. Carefully take a big step forwards with your right foot and bend both knees to approximately 90 degrees, ensuring your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. When done correctly, your front knee will be aligned with your ankle and your back knee will be hovering just off the floor.

  5. Extend both knees and transfer your weight completely onto your left foot. Step your right foot back to return to the starting position.

  6. Repeat, alternating between left and right.

How to use these compound exercises

For a full-body workout, pick any three of the five exercises from above, and do four rounds of 8-12 reps. If compound exercises become a part of your regular workout schedule, be sure to create a balanced training program by including different exercises each time and always allow enough time for muscle recovery between your workouts. 

If you have specific training goals or want to work on specific muscle groups, add isolation exercises as accessory movements to compound exercises. You’ll see this style of training in Sweat programs such as BUILD and PWR.

Work out anywhere, anytime with Sweat

Ready for your first workout?

Compound exercises are essential to any fitness program

You’ll find compound exercises in all of the Sweat programs because they’re so effective and fundamental for overall strength and fitness. You can build a basic fitness program using compound exercises alone, though isolation exercises are useful for achieving specific muscle strength goals or rehabilitating an injury.  

With any new fitness routine, start slow and progress as your skills and confidence improve.

Sweat logo
Sweat

A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.

Fitness

Recommended Stories

We have a feeling you’re going to love Sweat

That's why the first week is on us.