Compound Exercises: Why & How To Do Them
Do you want to know the most effective way to increase strength and build muscle? While there’s no one secret to reaching your fitness goals, there are ways to make sure your training is as effective as it can be.
To get the most out of your workouts, include compound exercises. This type of exercise uses more of the muscles in your body during each movement. Using more muscles at once can mean a smarter use of your workout time, and gaining overall body strength faster.
What is a compound exercise?
There are two different types of exercises you can do in the gym: compound exercises and isolation exercises.
Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups and use several joints to complete a movement, while isolation exercises focus on strengthening a single muscle group and generally involve a single joint in the movement.
Compound exercises tend to mimic natural movement, such as doing a squat or lifting something off the ground in a deadlift movement. Isolation exercises tend to focus on a very specific movement for a limb or joint in one direction, and only target a single muscle or muscle group, like a bicep curl.
Benefits of compound exercises
During a compound exercise, you teach your muscles to move in a functional and synchronised way, training both the muscle tissue and the nervous system to work together effectively to complete the movement. Compound exercises that reproduce everyday movements can help you to improve coordination, reaction time and balance.
This, in turn, can help to reduce your risk of injury during sports where you run or change direction rapidly, or during daily activities where you lift and carry objects. As your fitness and the rate of perceived exertion for each compound exercise improves over time, your strength and endurance will improve. You’ll build core strength and be able to carry heavier loads.
Recruiting multiple muscles for a compound exercise means you can get a full-body workout with just a few moves. You’ll also maintain a higher heart rate throughout the workout, giving you cardiovascular benefits with strength training.
If you're doing more strength training, remember to eat a range of nutritious foods that help with muscle recovery and repair.
5 Compound exercises for the gym
You can build 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.
A squat is something you do every day — when you sit and stand, when you need to lift something or jump high. Here’s how to do a barbell back squat (meaning the bar is on your bar):
1. Set the barbell on the squat rack at approximately chin height. With an optional resistance band looped around your lower thighs, position yourself underneath the bar so that it rests comfortably on the back of your shoulders. Place both hands on the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body) slightly wider than your shoulders.
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 with both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart.
2. Inhale. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure that your back remains within a 45- to 90-degree angle to your hips.
3. Exhale. Push through the heels of your feet and extend your legs to return to the starting position.
Repeat, before returning the bar to a secure position on the squat rack.
1. Place a barbell on the rack and add any additional weight in the form of weight plates (optional), ensuring that the amount of weight is even on both ends of the bar. Lie down on the bench so that your head is beneath the barbell, eyes in line with the bar. 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. Push the bar away from you to lift the barbell from the rack and extend your elbows to hold the barbell directly in front of your chest, with your back arched. This is your starting position.
2. Bend your elbows outwards to lower the barbell towards you until the bar touches your chest.
3. Extend your elbows and push the barbell away from your chest to return to the starting position.
Repeat, before returning the barbell to a secure position on the rack.
This full body compound exercise works your back, hips and arms. It uses the muscles you need for lifting and pulling. If you don’t have access to a barbell you can do a row variation.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Holding a barbell with both hands with an overhand grip (palms facing towards your body), hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. While maintaining a slight bend in your knees, hinge forward from your hips so that your torso is parallel to the floor. Extend your arms directly below your chest. This is your starting position.
2. Bend your elbows to bring the barbell in 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.
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.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Safely pick up a barbell. Holding a barbell with an overhand (palms facing towards your body) directly in front of your body, plant both feet on the floor 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. Repeat.
Here’s how to do a deadlift:
1. Start with your barbell (extra weight 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 with 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, or above your shoelaces. Bending from the hips only, allow the barbell to run along the length of your thighs.
3. Once standing upright, bend from the hips and lower the barbell to the ground again, keeping your chest proud, your back straight and your eyes looking forward, with the barbell lowering over your shoelaces.
5 Compound exercises for home
These compound exercises can be done at home, and can be very powerful substitute exercises for many gym-based movements. You can raise the intensity by increasing the speed with which you do the exercise or increasing the number of repetitions.
Push-ups require you to have quite a lot of postural and core strength. You can build up to them with push-up progressions, beginning against a wall or on your knees.
Here’s how to do a standard push-up:
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 chest and extend your elbows to lift your body back into the starting position.
This squat is great when you are learning the proper squat technique. If you don’t have a kettlebell, you can substitute a dumbbell instead.
Here’s how to do a goblet squat:
1. Holding a kettlebell with both hands directly in front of your chest, plant both feet on the floor further than hip-width apart. Point both feet slightly outward. This is your starting position.
2. Inhale. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees point toward your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor, ensuring that 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.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Place a bench horizontally in front of you. Plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart.
2. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure that your back remains within a 45- to 90-degrees to your hips. This is called squat position.
3. Propel your body upwards and forwards in a jump, drawing your knees into your chest, to land in squat position on top of the bench. Ensure that you land in a squat position with bent knees to prevent injury.
4. Push through your heels and straighten your legs to find a standing position on top of the bench.
5. Carefully step backwards off the bench, one foot at a time, to return to the starting position.
Kettlebell swings are a great exercise for your posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes and spinal muscles. You will need a little bit of space to do it. Make sure you engage your core, glutes and hips during the exercise.
Here’s how to do it:
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.
Repeat, ensuring that your glutes and hamstrings power the movement and you are not lifting the kettlebell with your arms and shoulders.
This bodyweight exercise strengthens the muscles you use to stand, walk, run and jump.
Here’s how to do it correctly:
1. Plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. This is your starting position.
2. Carefully take a big step forwards with your left foot. As you plant your left foot on the floor, bend both knees to approximately 90-degrees, ensuring that 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 backward to return to the starting position.
4. Carefully take a big step forwards with your right foot. As you plant your right foot on the floor, bend both knees to approximately 90-degrees, ensuring that 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 backward to return to the starting position.
Repeat, alternating between left and right.
How to use compound exercises
When you do strength training using compound exercises to get a full body workout, you can train just three times each week. This will help you to build functional strength and muscle.
For a full-body workout, pick any three of the five exercises for the gym or at home, and do four rounds of eight reps. Be sure to include different exercises each time to ensure you maintain a balanced training program and always allow enough time for muscle recovery between your workouts.
If you have more specific training goals or you want to work on specific muscle groups, you can add isolation exercises as accessory movements to compound exercises. You’ll see this style of training in Stephanie Sanzo’s BUILD program and in Kelsey Wells’ PWR program.
Compound exercises are essential to any fitness program
You’ll find compound exercises like these in all of the Sweat programs because they are so essential to overall physical fitness. You can build a basic fitness program just using compound exercises, though isolation exercises are useful for rehabilitating an injury or achieving specific muscle strength goals.
With any new fitness routine, start slow and progress as your movement skills improve and you gain confidence.
* 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.