Whether you’re looking to boost your strength, streamline your workout, or get the most bang for your buck at the gym, you’ve come to the right place for the ultimate guide to compound exercises.
These aren’t just any old exercises that we’ve thrown together. All of the exercises in this guide are backed up by research in terms of their effectiveness.
Ready to get a taste of the secret sauce to efficient training? Let’s go!
Table of Contents
- 1 The 10 Most Effective Compound Exercises
- 2 Benefits of Compound Exercises
- 3 Compound Exercises FAQs
The 10 Most Effective Compound Exercises
- Dumbbell bench press
- Barbell row
- Romanian deadlift
- Seated dumbbell press
- 45-degree incline row
- Pull up
- Chin up
- Bulgarian split squat
Dumbbell bench press
Benefits of dumbbell bench presses
The dumbbell bench press is one of the best chest compound exercises and dumbbell compound exercises. It allows for a greater range of motion than its barbell counterpart, targeting the pectoral muscles effectively. This was backed up by an EMG study by Bret Contreras which showed that the dumbbell bench elicited the highest activation of the mid-pec.
It also engages the shoulders and triceps, contributing to overall upper-body strength. This variation can also help correct muscle imbalances and improve muscle symmetry.
How to perform dumbbell bench presses
- Lie on a flat bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing towards you. Begin with the dumbbells aligned with your shoulders, elbows bent and slightly lower than the bench level.
- Breathe out while lifting the dumbbells overhead until your arms are straight, make sure the action is controlled.
- Breathe in as you gently return the dumbbells to the initial position, maintaining a controlled pace.
- Continue with the specified number of repetitions and sets.
If you want to build a strong chest, mastering the dumbbell bench press is a good place to start. Here’s a video to show you the best form for this exercise:
How to program dumbbell bench presses
Perform 5 to 10 reps with heavier loads (75-85% of 1RM) for strength, and 10 to 20 reps with moderate loads (50-75% of 1RM) for muscle endurance and hypertrophy.
The barbell is a bread and butter compound exercise for the back. If you have access to a barbell and plates, this is one of the best ways to add strength and size to your back.
Benefits of barbell rows
A barbell row strengthens the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and traps. This powerful exercise improves pulling strength and back thickness and can also benefit your posture and support the health of your spine.
Even ACE Fitness recommended the barbell row as one of the most efficient exercises for working the traps, infraspinatus, and erector spinae.
How to perform barbell rows
- Begin by placing a barbell in front of you on the ground. Load it with the appropriate weight.
- Position your feet hip-width apart with the barbell centered over your feet, toes turned slightly outward.
- Bend your knees and hips, lowering your upper body until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight and maintain a slight bend in your knees. Grab the barbell with both hands using an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the barbell by straightening your hips and knees to stand up. Ensure that your back is straight and slightly arched, your shoulders are back, and your chest is up.
- Keeping your torso stationary, breathe out as you lift (row) the barbell towards your lower chest or upper abdomen. Squeeze your back muscles at the peak of the movement.
- Inhale as you slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position, extending your arms out fully.
- Perform the desired number of repetitions and sets
The barbell row is a staple in back training and one of the best compound back exercises. For a comprehensive breakdown of the technique, watch this video:
How to program barbell rows
Aim for 6 to 12 reps with moderate to heavy loads. Moderate loads (60-75% of 1RM) are ideal for higher reps, focusing on muscle endurance. Heavier loads (above 75% of 1RM) can be used for lower reps to build strength and muscle mass in the back and biceps.
Benefits of squats
Squats are ideal for building lower body strength. It’s been confirmed by the International Journal of Sports Medicine to effectively work the glutes and quads. By engaging the core for stability, squats also contribute to abdominal and lower back strength. If squats don’t work for you, there are plenty of other compound glute and compound leg exercises out there.
How to perform squats
- Position your feet shoulder-width apart, toes facing forward or slightly turned out.
- Maintain an upright chest and neutral spine, pull your shoulders back, and activate your core to support your upper body.
- Start the squat by bending your knees and shifting your hips backward, like you’re about to sit down on a chair. Focus on keeping your weight on your heels.
- Go down until your thighs are parallel to the floor or as far as your current strength and flexibility permit.
- Make sure your knees remain aligned with your toes, and keep your back straight throughout.
- Drive through your heels, extending your knees and hips to return to a standing position.
- Perform the exercise for the planned number of reps.
Squats are a fundamental exercise with a lot of benefits. Check out this instructional video from Squat University for step-by-step instructions:
How to program squats
Squats can be performed using body weight or with weight. If weighted, program them for 5 to 10 reps with heavy loads (75-85% of 1RM) for strength, and 10 to 15 reps with moderate loads (60-75% of 1RM) for hypertrophy and endurance.
Benefits of Romanian deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a key exercise for targeting the posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. An EMG study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found the RDL to be among the highest activation compound hamstring exercises.
How to perform Romanian deadlifts
- Position yourself in front of a barbell, loaded with a reasonable amount of weight. Stand with your feet a hip’s width apart. Maintain a slight bend in your knees, with your toes pointing slightly outwards.
- Lean forward from your hips, ensuring your spine stays straight as you lean your upper body towards the ground.
- Hold the barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart, drawing your shoulders back and down while engaging your core. Align your head and neck with your spine to prevent overextending.
- Activate your glutes and hamstrings, pressing your feet firmly into the floor to stand up straight, elevating the weight to your upper thighs.
- Ensure your back is straight, your chest lifted, and your shoulders pulled back.
- Start the RDL by shifting your hips backward and bending your knees slightly. Keep your back straight as you lower your body.
- Allow the barbell to move down the front of your legs, hinging at your hips until your hamstrings are stretched.
- Descend with the bar to a point that your flexibility allows, ideally somewhere between your knees and toes, without sacrificing your posture.
- To complete the rep, return to the standing position by pushing your hips forward. Utilize your hamstrings and glutes for the lift, ensuring the bar remains close to your body throughout.
- Repeat for the target number of reps and sets.
Trust us, the RDL targets your hamstrings like no other. Avoid common mistakes by following the guidance in this video:
How to program Romanian deadlifts
Perform 8 to 12 reps with moderate to heavy loads. Lighter loads (50-65% of 1RM) for higher reps focus on muscle endurance and technique, while heavier loads (up to 85% of 1RM) for lower reps emphasize strength and hypertrophy in the hamstrings and lower back.
Seated dumbbell press
Benefits of seated dumbbell presses
Seated dumbbell presses are a top compound shoulder exercise. Performing this exercise seated helps to target the shoulder muscles more effectively, promoting strength and muscle growth in the upper body, including the triceps and upper back.
ACE Fitness also recommended this exercise as one of the best compound exercises for activating the front delts.
How to perform seated dumbbell presses
- Select two dumbbells of an appropriate weight and sit on a chair or bench with a backrest. Position your feet shoulder-width apart on the floor for stability. With a dumbbell in each hand, raise them to shoulder height, palms facing forward.
- As you breathe out, lift the dumbbells above your head until your arms are straight, but avoid locking your elbows completely. Engage your core muscles to prevent your back from arching during the lift.
- Breathe in as you slowly lower the dumbbells back to shoulder height, controlling the movement smoothly.
- Continue with this exercise for the recommended number of repetitions and sets.
You can take your shoulder workouts to the next level with the seated shoulder press. If you’re still confused about how to do it, take a look at this video:
How to program seated dumbbell presses
Go for 6 to 12 reps with moderate loads. Use moderate loads (60-75% of 1RM) to focus on building muscle and endurance.
45-degree incline row
Benefits of 45-degree incline rows
The 45-degree incline row uniquely targets the upper back and shoulders, making it a challenging variation to traditional rowing exercises. It allows for a deeper stretch and contraction of the back muscles. This is another exercise recommended by ACE Fitness, as it activates the mid and rear delts well.
How to perform 45-degree incline rows
- Begin by choosing a pair of dumbbells that are suitable for your strength level.
- Position the bench so that when you lie on it, your upper body is at a 45-degree angle to the ground. If no bench is being used, you’ll need to bend your knees slightly and lean forward from your hips to achieve the 45-degree torso angle.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other (neutral grip). Extend your arms towards the floor, aligning them with your shoulders.
- Engage your core and keep your back straight as you row the dumbbells upwards, leading with your elbows. Your elbows should go past your back slightly at the top of the movement.
- Make sure that your upper body remains at a 45-degree angle to the ground.
- Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
- Perform the target number of sets and reps.
It’s time to learn the proper form and technique to really hit those upper back muscles. Check out this video from Mountain Dog, where he explains everything perfectly:
How to program 45-degree incline rows
Perform 8 to 15 reps with moderate loads. Moderate loads encourage muscle growth and endurance with a controlled range of motion.
Benefits of dips
Dips are very effective for building upper body strength. They’re always mentioned among the top upper-body compound exercises. Beyond improving muscular endurance, they require no equipment other than a dip bar or a similar setup. Studies have found them to be a highly effective exercise for activating all three tricep heads, making it one of the top compound tricep exercises.
How to perform dips
- Position yourself at the dip station and securely grasp the bars. Leap up, extend your arms fully, and tilt a bit forward to better activate your chest muscles. Ensure your legs remain either extended or cross your ankles to enhance stability.
- Gradually lower yourself by bending your elbows until they form a 90-degree angle. Keep your elbows near your sides to fully engage the triceps.
- Extend your arms by pressing down on your palms, raising your body to the initial position. Concentrate on using your chest and triceps for the motion.
- Complete the target number of sets and repetitions.
Get the most out of your dips by doing them the right way. Here’s an instructional video that’ll show you the ropes:
How to program dips
Aim for 5 to 10 reps with body weight or added weight for increased difficulty. Adjust the number of reps based on your strength and whether additional weight is used.
Benefits of pull-ups
Your upper body can benefit a lot from pull-ups as not many compound bodyweight exercises come close to their effectiveness. This is because they strengthen the arms, shoulders, and back, the latter of which is the largest upper-body muscle group. Doing them regularly can also improve your grip strength.
A study by Bret Contreras also found that pull-ups and chin-ups boasted some of the highest activations for the biceps and lats.
How to perform pull-ups
- Grab the pull-up bar with your palms turned outward and set just beyond shoulder width. Hang from the bar, ensuring your arms are stretched out fully.
- Activate your core muscles and hoist yourself upwards by bending your elbows and drawing your shoulder blades close. Continue this path of motion until your chin clears the bar. Hold briefly at the top of the movement.
- Carefully descend to the initial position, extending your arms completely to set up for the following repetition.
- Execute the planned number of reps and sets.
Pull-ups can be challenging but rewarding. This video tutorial will help you master the technique for maximum gains:
How to program pull-ups
Perform 5 to 15 reps depending on your body weight and strength levels. Use assistance if necessary to achieve higher reps or add weight for increased difficulty.
Benefits of chin-ups
The chin-up also benefits multiple muscles in your upper body. The underhand grip and range of motion can help in developing arm strength and improving your ability to pull. This is also backed up by Bret Contreras’ EMG study.
How to perform chin-ups
- Hold the chin-up bar with your palms facing you (in a supinated grip), spaced roughly shoulder-width. Dangle from the bar, arms stretched out and feet not touching the ground.
- Elevate your body towards the bar by flexing your elbows and drawing your shoulder blades close. Keep pulling until your chin goes above the bar level. When your chin is above the bar, pause momentarily to enhance muscle activation.
- Gently return to the beginning position, straightening your arms completely, readying yourself for another rep.
- Follow the outlined steps for the specified amount of repetitions and sets.
Much like pull-ups, chin-ups can be very hard. But, it’s still one of the best upper body compound exercises. So, here’s a video that can make doing them a little easier:
How to program chin-ups
Similar to pull-ups, aim for 5 to 15 reps. Adjust reps based on individual strength and add weight for an extra challenge.
Bulgarian split squat
Benefits of Bulgarian split squats
Bulgarian split squats are one of the best compound exercises for unilateral training, helping to correct imbalances and increase lower body strength and stability. A study from the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation even suggested that activation of the glutes and hamstrings is higher in the split squat compared to the barbell squat.
How to perform Bulgarian split squats
- If you’re using weights, such as dumbbells or a barbell, make sure they’re appropriate for your fitness level. You’ll also need a bench or a stable platform to rest your foot on.
- Stand facing away from the bench or platform, about two feet in front of it. Hold your weights at your sides if using dumbbells, or position the barbell across your upper back.
- Extend one leg back and place the top of your foot on the bench. Keep your standing foot flat on the ground.
- Slowly lower your body by bending your front knee and hip, keeping your torso upright and core engaged.
- Drive through the heel of your front foot, extending your knee and hip to return to the starting position.
- Hit the target number of reps on one leg before switching to the other.
Trust us, jumping straight into Bulgarian split squats without knowing how to do them properly isn’t wise. Ensure you’re getting it right and receiving the full benefits by following the form in this clip:
How to program Bulgarian split squats
Perform 8 to 12 reps per leg with moderate loads. Use moderate loads to challenge strength without compromising form.
Benefits of Compound Exercises
There are lots of advantages to doing compound exercises over an isolation exercise. Here are some of the most notable ones:
Compound exercises work multiple muscle groups at the same time, making your workouts more efficient. This is particularly advantageous for individuals with tight schedules, as it pretty much eliminates the need for lengthy gym sessions.
Greater calorie burn
Compound exercises raise your heart rate more effectively than isolation exercises. This results in increased caloric burn during and after your workout.
Better muscle coordination
Compared to most isolation exercises, compound movements demand a higher degree of balance and coordination. This is down to them needing several joints and muscle groups to work together. For example, doing exercises like the overhead press enhances muscle coordination and improves your ability to handle daily tasks.
Accelerated muscle development
The activation of multiple muscle groups at once can trigger a greater release of growth hormones, such as testosterone and human growth hormone. These hormones are essential for muscle growth, so compound exercises can facilitate quicker muscle gains throughout the body.
Improved functional fitness
Many compound exercises replicate common daily movements, so they can bolster your functional strength and lower the risk of injuries in day-to-day life. Whether it’s lifting heavy items or performing dynamic actions.
Compound Exercises FAQs
How often should you train?
It’s generally recommended to engage in some form of physical activity on most days of the week. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity spread throughout the week. Complement this with strength training exercises at least two days per week.
What is a compound exercise?
A compound exercise is any exercise that will target multiple muscle groups simultaneously. They’re the opposite of isolation exercises, which target specific muscle groups.
Is it okay to do compound exercises every day?
As tempting as it may be, doing compound exercises every day might not be ideal. You have to give your body enough time to recover through a well-spread workout routine. Doing these exercises every day could lead to overtraining and an increased risk of injury.