Why do mediocre exercises, when you can do the best exercises?
Today, we will go over the complete list of compound exercises you need to do to get amazing results.
Each compound exercise will be listed by the body part, and it will include an instructional video.
Let’s get started.
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Okay, let’s get started.
What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises are movements that train multiple muscle groups at once- making them the most efficient exercises for building muscle.
As a result, you get the biggest bang for your buck. You can train more muscle groups with fewer exercises.
This is especially critical for busy people like you & me, who don’t have hours to spend at a gym.
These exercises are not only efficient, they are also essential.
What Are The Main Compound Exercises?
There are 4 main compound exercises, each training distinct muscles.
- The Push: Trains the pressing muscles of the chest, triceps, and shoulders
- The Pull: Trains the back muscles of the rhomboids, lower traps, lattisimus dorsi, and the biceps
- Knee Flexion: Trains the muscles of the quadriceps, hip flexors, and adductors in the leg
- Hip Extension: Trains the muscles of glutes, hamstring, and lower back like the erector spinae
Alright, enough chit-chat.
Let’s get started…
A List of The Best Compound Exercises For Each Body Part
In this next section, we will cover…
- The Best Compound Exercises For Legs (Quadriceps and Adductors)
- Back Squat
- Pause Squat
- Front Squat
- Box Squat
- Barbell Split Squat
- The Goblet Squat
- Front Rack Reverse Lunge
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Step Ups
- Wall Sits
- The Best Compound Exercises For Glutes and Hamstrings
- Conventional Barbell Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Dumbbell RDL
- Back Raise
- Cable Pull Through
- Kettle Bell Swings
- The Suit Case Deadlift
- The Best Compound Exercises For Pulling (Back & Biceps)
- Barbell Row
- Underhand EZ Bar Row
- Power Cleans
- Lat Pulldowns
- Seated Cable Rows
- Dumbbell Rows
- Horizontal Pull-ups
- Face Pulls
- Chest Supported Rows
- The Best Compound Exercises For Pushing (Chest, Triceps, and Shoulders)
- Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Dumbbell Press
- Dumbbell Incline Press
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
- The Best Compound Exercises For Abs
- Plank Variations
- Side Planks
- Ab Wheel Rollouts
- Weighted Carries
- Leg Raises
- Reverse Crunch
Let’s get started.
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Compound Lower Body Exercises
1. The Best Compound Exercises For Legs
The Squat pattern is the most fundamental lower body compound movement for basic human physiology
If you could only do one exercise, the squat would be it.
The fascinating thing about squats is that it has so many different variations that every single human can find a scalable version of the squat that they can perform.
You can do squats:
- Against resistance (barbell squat, dumbbell squat, kettlebell squat, resistance bands, and even weight vests)
- With your body-weight (air squats, jump squats, box squats)
- With support (i.e. holding onto a chair that is placed in front of you for additional support)
It is unfortunate to hear people say that they cannot squat down because of pain or restrictions.
So what you’re saying is that you cannot ever sit or stand back up?
Regardless of whatever limitation you may have, there exists a squat variation that you can perform to strengthen and relearn this natural pattern.
This is a movement pattern that must be trained and nourished for the rest of our lives.
Squat Exercises Improve
- The strength of the legs, glutes and core muscles,
- The mobility of the hips, knees, and ankles,
- Lean muscle mass development of the lower body
Ok so without further ado… here are the best compound squat exercises.
Major Compound Leg Exercises
5. The Barbell Split Squat
Now we will cover what I call the minor compound exercises.
These are exercises that are done either with a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or your own bodyweight.
The only reason why they are considered ‘minor’ is that they do not cause as much fatigue as a barbell exercises.
Here are the best of the best…
Minor Compound Squats Exercises
With that, we transition into the best compound exercises for glutes and hamstrings.
2. The Best Compound Glute Exercises (& Hamstrings)
The next best Lower Body Compound pattern is the hip hinge. These include exercises that activate and strengthen your glutes, your back, and your hamstrings.
These are likely to be the compound exercises women are looking most forward to.
These powerful muscles work synergistically to extend (straighten) your hips from a flexed position.
Not only do these muscles look good, but many trainers would also argue that the glutes are one of the most important skeletal muscles in the body.
This major muscle group is responsible for keeping you erect while you stand and while you walk, and allows you to stand up from a seated position.
Hip hinge exercises include all variations of the deadlift exercise and a few other close variations.
Hip Hinge Exercises Improve
- The strength of the upper back, low back, hamstrings, glutes and core muscles,
- The mobility of the hips and thoracic spine
- Lean muscle mass development of the lower body and posterior chain
Ok, let’s get to the best glute exercises
Major Compound Glute & Hamstring Exercises
Now we transition to the minor compound glute and hamstring exercises.
Minor Compound Glute & Hamstring Exercises
22. The Suitcase Deadlift
Upper Body Compound Exercises
3. The Best Pulling Compound Exercises (Back & Biceps)
The upper body pull is the first essential Upper Body Compound exercise to include in your workout routine.
These exercises train the large muscles of the back including the rhomboids, the posterior deltoids, the trapezius muscles as well as the spinal erectors.
These exercises also train your biceps too (so you can skip the bicep curl if you’re short on time!)
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when it comes to their training is neglecting the upper body pull.
Unfortunately, the back muscles are not ‘mirror muscles.’ This means that they are less likely to be trained because they cannot be readily seen in the mirror.
Being able to pull objects towards you is a critical human movement that deserves constant attention. These exercises include all rowing variations as well as pull-up variations.
Pulling Exercises Improve
- The strength of the upper back, lats, and posterior shoulder muscles,
- The posture that is created from rounded shoulders and a kyphotic spine,
- Lean muscle mass development of the upper body
Here are the best back exercises..
Major Compound Pulling Exercises
Minor Compound Pulling Exercises
32. Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
You can also vary the height at which you pull which can emphasize a different part of the back; i.e you can row towards your face, towards your chest, or towards your abdomen.
Next, we move on to the best compound exercises for the chest.
4. The Best Pushing Compound Exercises: (Chest, Triceps and Shoulders)
The opposite of the upper body pull is the upper body push.
The upper body push is the group of movements that train the deltoid (shoulder) muscles, the triceps, and the pectoralis (chest) muscles.
The options are numerous, and they include
- horizontal pushing,
- vertical pushing,
- and incline pushing variations.
These exercises are extremely popular and are already being performed frequently in all gyms.
It is important to know that excessive use of the upper body pushing exercises can exacerbate an anterior dominant posture, creating muscular imbalances and shoulder pain.
Push exercises must be balanced by an equal amount of pull exercises.
Examples are the barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, barbell overhead press, dumbbell overhead press (standing and seated varieties), incline barbell bench press, incline dumbbell bench press, and all pushup variations.
Incline variations will emphasize the upper chest more than the lower chest.
Pushing Exercises Improve
- The strength of the chest, the arms, the triceps, and the shoulder muscles,
- Stable shoulder positions in the horizontal and vertical plane,
- Lean muscle mass development of the upper body
Let’s cover the best ones now…
Major Compound Pushing Exercises
In order to get the most tricep activation from these two exercises, bring your hands closer together and perform them with a close grip.
In addition, the bench presses train the shoulders well, but they tend to stimulate the chest more than the shoulders.
In order to compensate for this, you should aim to include the best compound shoulder exercise which is the…
The Best Compound Shoulder Exercise
35. The Barbell Overhead Press (AKA Military Press)
Again, you can vary your grip here too.
The closer your hands are, the more tricep activation you will get.
Minor Compound Pushing Exercises
Minor Compound Shoulder Exercises
You can do this exercise standing or seated.
If you sit, fewer muscles get activated, namely your core.
In order to stimulate the shoulders during the dip, it is important to maintain an upright posture.
Naturally, you are going to lean forward some, but try to limit this. The more you lean forward, the more your chest will get activated.
These Are The Only 4 Exercises You Need To Do
I could stop there. These would be the only 4 exercises you need to build muscle, get in shape, burn fat, get ripped, and create effective workouts.
- Knee Flexion Aka Squat
- Hip Hinge
- Upper Body Push
- Upper Body Pull
These 4 exercises will provide a full body workout and drive significant changes in your body composition.
The other advantage is that you can use a variety of exercises that fall into one of these four categories.
But what about abs?
Many of the aforementioned exercises will train your core indirectly, but no training program is complete without some direct ab work.
5. The Best Compound Exercises For Abs
Core training is already a key component of all training regimens. However, most programs go about training the abs in the wrong way.
The abdominal muscles should not be trained via sit-ups or crunches.
Sit-ups are a horrible exercise that has become extremely popular with magazines and other fitness ‘gurus.’ These exercises create poor spinal mechanics and repetitively place your neck and spine in compromised positions.
Your abdominal muscles are meant to stabilize your core and allow you to maintain a well-aligned posture despite external forces. This is why your abs should be trained for stability.
Having true core strength will allow you to resist lateral, sagittal, and rotational forces on your spine.
Core Exercises Improve
- The stability of the rectus abdominis, the obliques and the transverse abdominis muscles
- Spinal health and integrity
- Low back pain
Okay, the best ones are..
Major Compound Ab Exercises
To see more amazing core exercises, check out our post on the 17 best core exercises.
What are the main benefits of compound exercises?
- Compound lifts will train multiple major muscle groups simultaneosly, improving workout efficiency
- More muscles groups are stronger than individual muscle groups, therefore you will be able to produce more force and lift heavier loads
- Compound lifts are more efficient at improving muscle strength
How many compound exercises are there?
There are hundreds of compound exercises you can do. But the good news is, you only need a handful to get great results.
Pick 1-2 exercises from each of the main compound exercise categories to create a routine with.
I show you how to do this in my post How Many Exercises Per Workout Should I Do?
What are compound exercises good for?
A compound movement allows you to train more than one muscle group at the same time.
As a result, you will be able to lift more weight per exercise. This will allow you to
- produce greater increases in muscle growth
- burn more calories
- have a more efficient workout
Is it better to do compound exercises or isolation exercises?
Overall, it’s better to do more compound lifts than isolation lifts Go for an 80:20 split.
An isolation exercise is different from a compound exercise in that it only trains a single muscle group per exercise.
A common example is the biceps curl.
While there is nothing wrong with isolation movements, you can have a much more efficient workout by doing compound exercises.
Instead, you can do pull-ups: which train your lats, your rhomboids, and your traps, in addition to your biceps as a secondary muscle group.
I’m all about efficiency. If I can do more work in less time, I prefer to do that.
Should I do compound exercises first or isolation first?
You should always do the harder exercises first. Compound movements will fatigue you much more than isolation moves.
Therefore you should always do compound exercises before isolation exercises in any given workout.
Can I just do compound exercises?
The short answer is yes.
If you only did compound exercises, you would be training more than 80% of all the muscles in your body.
That is not a bad proposition.
With that said, some compound exercises are difficult to recover from, especially if you regularly use heavy weights,
Therefore, I recommend that you do an ~80/20 split.
80 percent of the exercises you do should be compound, and 20 percent could be isolation. Even if you did 90/10 you would probably still be fine.
What Are The Best Compound Exercises With Dumbbells?
I went over them above, but I will list them here again.
- Goblet Squat
- Reverse Lunge
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Step Ups
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Suit Case Deadlifts
- Dumbbell Row
- Chest Supported Row
- DB Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Bench
What If I Have Pain When Doing Compound Exercises?
One of the biggest excuses people have for not exercising is… pain.
The number one reason for pain is improper technique AND poor joint positioning when performing the movement.
It is essential that you learn the proper form for every single exercise you are going to perform.
In addition, your posture may also play a role in preventing you from achieving these positions.
Check and see how your posture holds up at You Probably Have Bad Posture- Here’s How to Tell.
You will be shocked to learn how pivotal a role posture plays in how well you move and exercise.
A Full-Body Compound Workout
So now you know the best exercises ever of all time.
If you only use the exercises listed above, you will improve your strength and fitness level significantly over the long haul.
Stop wasting your time doing tricep kickbacks and bosu-ball sit-ups.
If you want real results, and you don’t have an hour to spend at the gym, then check out our compound exercise program for busy professionals.
It is a step-by-step 15-week strength program that utilizes only compound exercises.
The best part?
Each workout only takes 30 minutes to complete. Check it out at WCT Strength Program.
Can I Do Compound Exercises At Home Without Weights?
What if you can’t make it to the gym and you could only exercise from home?
Thankfully, our bodies could be used as external resistance.
There are several bodyweight exercises that you can do, all of which resemble the 5 exercises described above.
We have created a comprehensive post on The Best Compound Exercises You Can Do At Home.
In this post, we cover the 7 key fundamental bodyweight exercise patterns and provide several variations to increase or decrease the difficulty of each exercise.
What Do You Think Of Our Compound Exercises List?
So there you have it. These are the only exercises you need to create effective strength training workouts, get in shape, build muscle, and lose fat!
To quickly recap
- The best ways to build muscle and strength fast is to use large compound exercises that train functional movement patterns
- A compound lift trains multiples muscles at the same time
- These include the squat, the hip hinge, the upper body push, the upper body pull and ab stabilization exercises.
- Each of these 5 exercises has many variations, making them useful for any trainee at any level.
Related Posts On The Best Compound Movements:
- My 5 Favorite Compound Lifts
- How Often Should I Workout?
- How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
- How Much Weight Should I Lift?
Now we turn it over to you. What do you think?
Do you agree with our list?
Any exercises you would remove from the list?
Any exercises you would include?
Comment below and let us know!
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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT
Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader’s Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.