This List of 22 Compound Exercises Is All You Need to Stay Fit For Life
You've probably been doing compound exercises for a long time without even realizing that that's what they are, especially if you're a fan of full-body workouts. Compound exercises are moves that work multiple large muscle groups. You can do compound movements that target muscles all over your body — compound exercises for legs, back, arms, you name it — but the one thing they have in common is they'll hit different muscle groups at the same time, giving you more bang for your buck. So if you're one of those people who's always pressed for time during your workouts, compound exercises are the moves for you.
Compound exercises come with a lot of potential benefits, including weight loss and muscle gain, so you might be wondering right about now what the best compound movements are. We'll get to that in a second; first, let's talk more about what compound exercises are and why they're so effective.
What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises are also called "multijoint" moves because they require you to move more than one of your joints. (Think about how you bend at your hips and knees during a squat, or how you move both your shoulder and elbow joints when you do a push-up.)
You can think of compound exercises as being super efficient, since they target multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which saves you time in your workout. If your goal is weight loss or to get your heart pumping harder, compound exercises are a good choice as well, because they elicit a greater energy expenditure compared to smaller, isolated movements like a bicep curl, Pratik Patel, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, director of performance nutrition and assistant strength and conditioning coach for the New York Giants, tells POPSUGAR. Translation: your body has to work a lot harder to get these exercises done.
Compound exercises are useful if you're trying to build muscle, too. Rondel King, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center, tells POPSUGAR that in order to build more muscle, you must first make sure your workouts focus on muscle hypertrophy (maximal muscle growth). That means your rep and set scheme should be between three and five sets of 12 and 15 reps for every exercise in your program. According to King, "You can also do heavy lifting . . . like compound lifts, [such as] squats and deadlifts, where you can do a little more weight."
Now that you know why compound exercises are integral to any workout routine, here's a list of compound exercises you can use for reference or for building your own workouts. (If you aren't sure how to create your own workout, here's a strength-training workout to get you started.) There are so many compound movements out there, so this list is far from exhaustive; however, it's a great place to start. For the record, you can do many of these moves with added weight or with just your body weight — either way, they're still compound exercises.
— Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan and Lauren Mazzo
Compound Exercise For Lower Body: Goblet Squat
- Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at chest level with both hands.
- Keeping your core engaged, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- With your weight focused in your heels, push yourself up to the starting position. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Lower Body: Reverse Lunge
- Start standing with your feet together.
- Step backward with your right foot, lowering into a lunge until both knees are bent at 90 degrees and the back knee is hovering just off the ground.
- Press your left heel into the ground as you push off your right foot to return to standing. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Arms: Push-Up
- Start in a plank position with your palms spread out evenly, your shoulders over your wrists, and your legs out behind you. Pull your belly button in, and keep your back straight.
- As you lower, bend your elbows outward to the sides, forming a 45-degree angle with your torso.
- Hold at the bottom for a second, then press into your palms to push your body back up to plank position. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Back and Upper Body: Band-Assisted Pull-Up
- Place a large resistance band securely around a pull-up bar. A band with more resistance will provide you with more assistance/momentum to pull yourself up.
- Stand on a stable object (a bench will work), and grip the pull-up bar. With one hand, place the band around the arch of your shoe. Fully extend the banded leg.
- With a neutral spine and your abs engaged, pull yourself up. The band will provide you with momentum to lift your body up. Lower back down to the starting position. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Back and Legs: Romanian Deadlift
- Stand holding a pair of medium-weight dumbbells in each hand, arms at your sides, with your knees slightly bent.
- Keeping your arms straight and knees slightly bent, slowly bend at your hip joint (not your waist) and lower the weights along the front of your legs as far as possible without rounding your back, which should remain straight.
- Squeeze your glutes to slowly pull yourself up, keeping your back straight. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise With Dumbbells: Squat, Curl, and Press
- Stand with your feet directly under your hips holding a dumbbell in each hand. Sit back into your squat, lowering until your thighs are parallel to the floor without letting your knees go beyond your toes.
- Push through your heels to return to standing while bringing the weights to your shoulders, performing a bicep curl.
- Stabilize your torso and keep your arms moving upward performing an overhead press with the palms facing out.
- Lower your arms back to your side. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Legs and Lower Body: Barbell Squat
- Intermediate and advanced exercisers, start with an empty or loaded barbell. Beginners should start with bodyweight squats and add weight as they become familiar with the movement.
- Position your hands about shoulder-width apart on the barbell, and lightly grip the bar with an overhand grip.
- Step in front of the rack, and rest the bar on your trapezius muscles (the muscle closest to your neck/upper back). With your feet about hip-width apart, lift the barbell off the rack. Take one to two steps backward.
- Brace your abs as you begin to lower into a squat, keeping your head and spine in a neutral position. Your knees should be as close to 90 degrees as possible. Hold for one second.
- With your core still braced, drive through your heels to stand back up. Be sure to squeeze your glutes at the top of your squat. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Lower Body: Walking Lunge
- Stand upright, feet together, with 10-pound dumbbells at your side. Beginners can perform walking lunges with just their body weight.
- Take a controlled step forward with your left leg, lowering your hips toward the floor by bending both knees to 90-degree angles. Your back knee should point toward but not touch the ground, and your front knee should be directly over your ankle.
- Press your left heel into the ground, and push off with your right foot to bring your right leg forward, stepping with control into a lunge on the other side. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise With Dumbbells: Dumbbell Squat Press
- Stand with your legs just slightly wider than hip-distance apart, arms raised to shoulder height with elbows bent, holding weights by your ears.
- Bend your knees as if you were sitting in a chair, keeping weight on your heels.
- Press the dumbbells overhead as you straighten your knees to return to standing.
Compound Exercise for Legs and Arms: Lateral Lunge With Bicep Curl
- Start standing with your feet together and holding a dumbbell in each hand, racked in front of your shoulders with palms facing in.
- Take a big step out to the side with your left foot, keeping your toes pointing forward. Sit your hips back and bend at the knee to lower into a lateral lunge, reaching dumbbells toward the ground on either side of your left knee. Keep your core engaged and back flat.
- Push off the left foot to return to standing and stepping your left foot next to your right, while simultaneously curling the dumbbells up to your shoulders. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Butt: Barbell Hip Thrust
- Sitting on the floor with your legs extended, rest your back against a stable bench.
- Place a towel or shoulder cushion on the bar for comfort (optional). Roll the barbell over your thighs until the bar is directly above your hip joints.
- Brace your core. As you drive your heels into the ground, squeeze your glutes, lifting your hips up to full extension, meaning your hips are even with your knees.
- With control, lower back down to the ground. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Arms: Bent-Over Row
- Lean forward and bend both knees while maintaining a flat back.
- Extend your arms so they are straight. Lift the dumbbells up to chest level, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you do. Be sure to keep your elbows in and pointed upward. Don't arch your back.
- Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise With Dumbbells: Dumbbell Bench Press
- Grab a set of dumbbells, and sit on a flat workout bench or the floor.
- With one dumbbell in each hand resting on your thighs, lie back onto the bench.
- Hold the dumbbells above your chest, shoulder-width apart, creating a 90-degree angle between your upper arm and forearm. Palms should be facing forward.
- Exhale as you push the dumbbells up, fully extending your arms. Hold for one second.
- Inhale and lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest with control. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise With Dumbbells: Deadlift With Knee Drive
- If you're a beginner, you can do this exercise without weight. For more advanced levels, grab a set of dumbbells.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and stand tall.
- Engage your core and keep your spine neutral as you begin to hinge at your hips, pushing your hips backward. At the same time, lift your left leg off the ground. Be sure to keep your left knee pointing down and your left foot flexed (don't point your toes). Continue to hinge at your hips until your back is parallel to the ground; your leg should be in line with your back. Your back should be flat, and your head/neck should be in a neutral position.
- Return to your standing position without placing your left foot on the ground. Once you're upright, drive your left knee up, creating a 90-degree angle at your knee joint. Your left foot should still be dorsiflexed. Be sure to stay tall and keep your core engaged throughout the entire movement. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Legs and Arms: Kettlebell Reverse Lunge With Overhead Press
- Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell (between 5 and 20 pounds) in your left hand racked at shoulder height.
- Step your left leg behind you, coming into a reverse lunge, and then return to standing.
- Once standing, lift the kettlebell over your head, maintaining a slight bend at the elbow joint. Don't let your arm swing out wide; instead, keep it close to your head.
- Lower your left arm back down to the starting position. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Full Body: Hex Bar Deadlift
- Load the hex bar with the weight of your choice. If you're new to the move, start by just using the bar without any additional weight.
- Stand in the center of the hex bar with your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend at your hips and knees as you grab the handles of the hex bar. Raise your hips up slightly, keeping your back flat, to create tension in the back of your legs (your hamstrings will feel tight).
- Keeping your back flat and shoulders relaxed, drive your heels through the ground as you stand straight up.
- Squeeze your glutes at the top of the lift to ensure you get full hip extension.
- Continue to grasp the handles as you lower the weight to the ground with control. Be sure to keep your chest open and your back flat. This counts as one repetition.
Compound Exercise With Dumbbells: Bulgarian Split Squat
- Beginners, try this move with just your bodyweight. More advanced exercisers, grab a pair of 10-pound dumbbells. Begin by placing the toes of your left foot on a bench, box, stair, or chair, with your right leg straight.
- Make sure your right foot is out far enough so that when you lower your hips, your knee stays directly over your ankle.
- Bend your right knee, squeeze your left glute, and lower your pelvis toward the ground as low as you can, or until your front thigh is parallel with the floor.
- Press your right heel into the ground to straighten your right knee. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Full Body: Slider Knee Tuck With Push-Up
- Start in a plank position with a slider underneath each foot. If you don't have sliders, you can use a towel on a hard surface to perform this exercise.
- Engage your core and bring both knees in, toward your elbows. With control, return to the starting position.
- Then, do a push-up. Your core should be engaged and your back should be in a neutral position throughout the entire movement. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Full Body: Burpee Squat Press
- Begin standing with a 10-pound dumbbell on each side of your body. If this is too heavy and you find that your form is incorrect, use lighter weights.
- Holding onto the dumbbells, lower down and perform a burpee. If this is too much pressure on your hands or wrists, you can set the dumbbells down in front of you for this part. If you're a beginner, you can perform a modified burpee.
- With control, push your body off of the ground as you simultaneously pick up the dumbbells. Be sure to keep your core engaged and your spine in a neutral position when pushing yourself off the ground.
- Standing tall with your core engaged, bend your arms and hold the dumbbells on or slightly above your shoulders and lower down into a squat. As you stand up, push both dumbbells overhead. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Biceps and Arms: Arnold Press
- Start holding dumbbells directly in front of your face with arms bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Open arms out to the side, maintaining the bend at the elbow.
- Press weights directly up so that arms are fully extending.
- Return to start by reversing the entire movement. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise With Dumbbells: Deadlift and Upright Row
- Stand hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees.
- Hinge forward at the hips, engage your core, and track the weights along your shins while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Slowly return to standing. Once at the top, lift your arms to your chest while keeping your elbows out to the side. That's one rep.
Compound Exercise For Legs: Step-Up
- Find a step or a bench that, when you place your foot squarely on it, your knee is at a 90-degree angle or larger.
- Step up with the right foot, then the left, bringing both feet completely onto the bench.
- To return to the starting position, lead with the right foot to step down to the floor, then the left, until ending with both feet on the ground. That's one rep.