Are you interested in using compound lifts in your workout program?
You are in the right place!
After reading this article, you will learn
- what the 6 best compound movements are,
- how to modify them to fit your skill level, and
- how to create a complete workout plan using these exercises.
Although we are doctors and personal trainers, we are not your doctors. The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not substitute the advice from your healthcare professional. All kinds of exercise and dietary activities are potentially dangerous, and those who do not seek counsel from the appropriate health care authority assume the liability of any damage or injury which may occur. Please read our full Disclaimer for more information. Also, this post may contain affiliate links: meaning we may receive a commission if you use them.
Okay, let’s get started.
What Are Compound Lifts?
Compound lifts are exercises that train multiple muscle groups simultaneously. In contrast, isolation exercises only train a single muscle group at a time.
The great thing about compound exercises is that they help to create an efficient workout. You can build functional strength by performing just a few key exercises.
In fact, many people argue that you only need 5 exercises total.
Let’s go over them now.
The 5 Compound Lifts (That You Should Always Try To Include In Your Program)
The 5 compound lifts are:
The Barbell Squat
The squat is the king of lower body exercises. This movement will train the quadriceps, adductors, glutes, hamstrings, lower back / spinal erectors, and core.
The deadlift trains more muscle groups than any other exercise that we know of. It trains the posterior chain which includes hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. It also trains your quadriceps, core, upper back, forearms and grip strength.
Barbell Bench Press
The bench press allows you to lift the heaviest amount of weight with your upper body. It trains the chest, the anterior shoulders, the triceps, and muscles in the lower body if done correctly.
Overhead Press (AKA Military Press)
The overhead press trains the shoulders, the triceps, the core, and several other stabilizer muscles in the upper body.
The horizontal row trains the rhomboids, the lats, the middle trapezius and lower traps, the posterior shoulders, the spinal erectors, the forearms, and the biceps. They will also train grip strength.
In reality, the specific exercises themselves aren’t the most important part.
These just happen to be the most popular variations of key fundamental functional movements patterns.
- The squat is the Knee Flexion Pattern
- The deadlift is the Hip Extension Pattern
- The bench press is the Horizontal Push Pattern
- The overhead press is the Vertical Push Pattern
- The row is the Horizontal Pull Pattern
The nice thing is, you can do these compound movements with barbells, dumbbells, and even your body weight.
The bodyweight versions are:
- Squat variations
- Glute Bridge variations
- Push-up variations
- Pike Push-up and Handstand variations
- Bodyweight Row variations
These movement patterns form the foundation of any effective workout routine.
Together they will train your entire body while helping you build muscle mass, and get strong. Many call these movements the big 5.
But, you may notice that there’s one movement missing.
The 6th Key Compound Exercise
If there is a Horizontal Pull, there should be a Vertical Pull Pattern as well.
The Pull-up is the last compound lift that rounds out the list.
In fact, many argue that the pull-up is the best upper body compound exercise of all time.
The pull-up trains the lats, the rhomboids, the biceps, the forearms, and the posterior shoulders. These are done with an overhand grip.
In contrast, chin-ups are done with an underhand grip.
The pull-up is arguably the best exercise for the lat muscles, and it trains the rhomboids, the posterior shoulders, the biceps, and the core. The real-world functionality of the pull-up is also very high.
So rather than “the big 5,” you can think of them as the big 6.
If you can’t do pull-ups yet watch this short video:
Now let’s go over the pros and cons of these movements.
The Benefits Of Compound Exercises
There are several advantages to lifting with compound lifts over isolation lifts:
Here are the top 3 benefits:
- They are efficient: Why do 3 different exercises to train 3 muscle groups when you can do just 1? As someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to waste, my workouts use at least an 80/20 split of compound to isolation moves.
- They burn more calories: When you use multiple muscle groups at the same time, you will lift more weight. As a result, you will perform more work and burn more calories. So if weight loss is one of your goals, compound > isolation.
- You can build more strength: Since you are using more multiple joints to lift a weight, you will be able to lift some heavy weights. As a result, your potential to get stronger is higher than with single-joint movements.
The Disadvantages of Compound Lifting
Now, compound movements aren’t perfect. Here are the downsides.
- Harder to learn: You need to practice the compound exercises a lot to master the technique. You can learn how to do isolation exercises in 1-2 sessions.
- More physically demanding: Doing a heavy set of squats and/or deadlifts is really challenging. Any exercises that you do after these movements will suffer a bit.
- Requires good mobility: Some lifts will require good mobility in multiple joints. For example, squats require decent mobility in the hips and ankle. Bench press requires good thoracic mobility. The overhead shoulder press requires good scapular, thoracic, and shoulder flexion mobility.
- Higher potential for injury: Since you can lift a lot of weight using compound exercises- you might be tempted to lift heavier weights than you can handle. If your technique isn’t dialed in, the potential for injury is higher.
How To Include Compound Movements Into Your Strength Training Routine
When designing your strength training program, I suggest that you center each workout on 1 compound barbell exercise.
This movement will be the primary exercise (or main lift) of the day. Every other exercise in the workout will then complement the main lift, using less demanding variations of the “big 6.”
A common way to break this up is to use an Upper/Lower workout split.
In this type of workout split, you will train 2-3 upper body compound exercises on one day, and 2-3 lower body compound exercises on another day. You can then add an additional isolation exercise (accessory lifts) to the end of each workout if you desire.
This workout can be done four days a week. Here’s an effective way to break it up:
- Day 1: Upper Body Workout
- Day 2: Lower Body Workout
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Upper Body Workout
- Day 5: Lower Body Workout
- Day 6: Off
- Day 7: Off
I go over a lot more detail in How Many Exercises Should You Do Per Workout.
How Many Times A Week Should I Do Compound Lifts?
You should do compound lifts 3-4 times per week. This will give you enough time to train each major muscle group two times per week.
You could also use a different variation of each movement pattern in your weekly cycle.
On one of the lower body days, you can do the conventional barbell deadlift for your hip extension movement.
On the second lower body day you can do the Romanian deadlift with dumbbells to give your muscle tissue a slightly different stimulus while still training the same movement pattern.
Can I Just Do The Compound Lifts?
It is possible to do only compound lifts as they will train almost every muscle group in the body. You will be able to build a lot of muscle and gain a lot of strength only by doing just compound lifts.
This is especially true if you don’t have a lot of time to exercise and you only want to focus on exercises that have a big return on investment.
In fact, you might find that focusing on the basics is all that you need to make your program more effective i.e. trimming off some of the fat (which represents exercises that are low-yield) can help you focus on what matters most.
With that said:
Compound lifts are harder than isolation lifts, physically, mentally, and technically. That’s why it’s a good idea to include different variations of these movements as well as occasional isolation movements.
How Do You Increase A Compound Lift?
To increase the amount of weight you can lift in compound movements, you need to use the concept of progressive overload.
This means that you must present your body with a new and challenging stimulus over time. The key is to do this gradually, using an incremental and measurable approach.
You can’t do the exact same routine over and over and continue getting stronger.
The good news is, you can progressively overload with several different methods. The most common include:
- Lifting more weight
- Doing more reps
- Doing more sets
- Using a different variation
The key is to only change one variable at a time while keeping the rest constant.
So if you want to increase the weight you lift, add weight to the movement gradually while keeping the repetitions and sets constant.
I suggest no more than 5-10 lbs per session.
Once you can no longer add weight, you can then switch the modality and do more reps while keeping the weight the same.
Or you can do one more set while keeping the weight the same.
Rinse and repeat.
Other Related Questions
What Are Isolation Lifts?
An isolation lift is an exercise that trains only one joint or muscle group at a time. The most common examples are bicep curls, triceps extensions, and leg extensions.
These movements are beneficial because they allow you to focus on strengthening and/or developing a specific area that might be lagging.
Plus, isolation exercises aren’t as physically demanding on your body, allowing you to recover quickly between workouts.
In general, you will need dumbbells to perform many of the typical single-joint movements.
Which is Better Compound Or Isolation Exercises?
Compound exercises are better if:
- you need to be efficient,
- your goal is a combination of strength and muscle development,
- you want to improve your functional fitness.
Isolation exercises are better if:
- you have a lot of time to exercise,
- you don’t mind doing several exercises,
- you only care about muscle growth and aesthetics,
- you prefer to always use lightwe weight,
- you can’t do compound lifts.
I recommend using both in your training, skewing more towards whichever one aligns better with your goals.
Do Compound Lifts Make You Bigger?
So you may be wondering, do compound lifts build more muscle, or do isolation exercises?
If you look at the scientific literature, studies show that if total training volume is equal, you can build similar amounts of muscle using multi-joint exercises or single-joint exercises.
This makes sense.
Your muscles cant really tell what type of resistance exercise you are performing.
They will do what they do best- produce force against an object, regardless of how many other joints or muscle fibers are being used.
So, you will build muscle mass with either approach.
But if you were to ask me, the comparison falls short when you realize that you can accomplish more work in less time by training multiple muscles at once.
Do Compound Lifts Build Abs?
Compound exercises by design will train the abs to a degree, provided there is a stability component involved.
With that said, compound lifts don’t target the rectus abdominis muscles directly. Rather, your abs are working through isometric contractions. i.e. they are preventing your spine from moving.
Your core has to work hard to support your spine and the load of the bar. It takes a great deal of ab activation to keep your body stable during movements like squats, deadlifts, and overhead press.
Just to be safe, I recommend doing at least one direct core exercise two times per week.
The Complete List of Compound Lifts For Every Body Part
Alright, so you now have a good understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of compound and isolation exercises.
If you are looking for a complete resource on the best compound lifts for:
- glutes, and
Head on over to the Complete List of 46 Compound Exercises For The Whole Body.
In it, I go over the best exercises for each body part along with video tutorials.
You Can Get The PDF Of All The Best Cmpoind Movements
In addition, you could also get a PDF outlining all of these exercises in one convenient place!
That way you can build your very own compound workout using the best exercises.
Click the link below to check it out!
My Strength Training Programs
If you are interested in getting the most efficient training program on the market- check out The White Coat Trainer’s Strength Program.
It includes all of these exercises in one simple-to-follow program that you can do in just 30 minutes a day.
- What exercises to do
- How to do them
- When to do them
- How often to do them
- What weight to use
- How many sets and reps to do
- When and how to increase weight
- and more!
Check them out here:
Compound lifts are a great tool for building muscle, total-body strength, and functional fitness efficiently.
Whatever program you are following, be sure to include the 6 best compound exercises in your weekly weight training routine!
Now I want to hear from you.
Which compound movement is your favorite?
Any you would like to add to the list?
Comment below and let me know!
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.
- Gentil P, Soares S, Bottaro M. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy. Asian J Sports Med. 2015;6(2):e24057. doi:10.5812/asjsm.24057
- Brigatto FA, DE Camargo JBB, DE Ungaro WF, et al. Multi-joint vs. Single-joint Resistance Exercises Induce a Similar Strength Increase in Trained Men: A Randomized Longitudinal Crossover Study. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020;13(4):1677-1690. Published 2020 Dec 1.
- Paoli A, Gentil P, Moro T, Marcolin G, Bianco A. Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Front Physiol. 2017;8:1105. Published 2017 Dec 22. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.01105