Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • March 25, 2021
Looking for ways to get the most out of your workout? Try compound exercises.
A compound exercise is a strengthening exercise that involves multiple joints and works multiple muscle groups at the same time. Compound exercises are one of two main classifications of resistance exercises; the other is isolation exercises.
What are some examples of compound exercises, and are they better than isolation exercises?
If you’ve ever stepped fit in a gym, you’ve probably witnessed If you’ve ever stepped foot in a gym, you’ve probably seen many compound exercises first-hand (even if you aren’t necessarily familiar with the term “compound exercises”). The most popular compound exercises include:
Standing overhead presses
Lat pull downs
To better visualize a compound exercise, think about a squat: Squats involve many muscles in the legs and lower body — the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the calves, glutes, etc. It also engages the core and lower back. In this single move, multiple muscle groups are being used at the same time.
More than one muscle is getting attention — this is the defining factor of a compound exercise.
There are many benefits to compound exercises. They typically burn more calories per exercise, as multiple muscles are being used.
They’re also time efficient. Compound exercises allow you to work several muscles in just one move and allow you to exercise the same muscle group for longer periods with lower levels of fatigue. Using compound movements, you can get in a heart rate-boosting, full body workout with fewer moves in a shorter amount of time — a win-win.
Compound exercises also help improve coordination, balance, joint mobility and natural movement.
If compound exercises are exercises that target multiple muscle groups, you can probably guess that isolation exercises are exercises that focus on a single muscle and joint at a time. They are done to isolate a specific muscle group and increase the strength of a specific muscle.
Examples of isolation exercises include:
Dumbbell lateral raises
Isolation exercises have their own set of benefits as well. When you want to work on a specific muscle, isolation exercises are ideal. They help remove muscle imbalance and allow you to specifically strengthen weaker muscles. This is key, especially if you’re recovering from an injury of a particular muscle. When you want to work on a specific muscle, isolation exercises are ideal. As you begin resistance training and building decent muscle mass, you may find you have muscle imbalance in some areas. That’s where isolation exercises come into play. They allow you to focus on specific muscles that might need some extra work and can help you achieve a more symmetrical physique.
While compound exercises and isolation exercises have their own set of benefits, they are both important parts of an effective workout routine. In fact, a 2015 study titled “Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy” published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine found that both compound exercises and isolation exercises are equally effective for promoting increases in upper body muscle strength and size in untrained men. The study took 29 young men without resistance training experience and randomly divided them into two groups. One group of 14 men performed compound exercises involving the elbow flexors (lat pull downs), while the other group of 15 men trained the elbow flexors muscles using only isolation exercises (biceps curls). Both groups trained twice a week for a period of ten weeks. After ten weeks, participants were evaluated for peak torque of elbow flexors in an isokinetic dynamometer and for muscle thickness by ultrasonography. The study compared the effects of compound exercises and isolation exercises on muscle size and strength gains in these untrained young men. Both compound exercises and isolation exercises were determined to be equally effective for promoting increases in upper body muscle strength and size in participants. Researchers concluded that the selection between compound exercises and isolation exercises should be based on individual and practical aspects, such as, equipment availability, movement specificity, individual preferences and time commitment.
Both compound exercises and isolation exercises should have roles in your resistance and strength training routine.
If you’re new to compound exercises, you might want to start with the “Big Five”:
These are classic compound exercises that engage multiple muscles at one time.
Squats are knee-dominant lifts that develop the quads, glutes and core. To squat correctly, stand with the bar on your upper-back and keep your feet shoulder-width apart. Move your hips back and squat down until your hips are parallel or lower than your knees. Move back up, keeping your knees out and chest up. Hold the weight for a second at the top, focusing on your breath. Then take a big breath and squat your next rep.
Deadlifts are hip-dominant lifts that develop the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors and traps, among other muscles. For a deadlift, stand with your feet under the barbell. Keeping your grip shoulder-width apart, bend over and grab the bar. Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar, then lift your chest up and straighten your lower back. Breathe, hold it, then stand up with the weight. Hold the weight at the top for a second with locked hips and knees. Move your hips back and bend your legs to return the weight to the floor. Rest for a second before repeating. It’s imperative that your lower back stays neutral during deadlifts to avoid injury. Rounding it during heavy deadlifts can be dangerous for your spine, as it puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs.
Bench presses develop the chest, shoulder and triceps. To bench press with proper form, lie on the bench with the bar above you at eye-level. Grip the bar with your thumbs around the bar and unrack by straightening your arms. Lower the bar to mid-chest, then press the bar back up until your arms are straight. Maintaining straight arms, hold the weight for a second at the top. Breathe, then lower the bar again and repeat.
Barbell rows develop the back, biceps and hips. For barbell rows, maintain a medium stance with your feet under the bar. Keeping your palms down and a medium grip, bend over and grab the bar. Unlock your knees, keeping the hips high. Lift your chest and straighten your back, then pull the bar against your lower chest. Return the bar to the floor, breathe and repeat. Again, it’s imperative to keep a neutral lower back to avoid injury. If you round your back, you risk squeezing your spinal discs.
Overhead presses develop the shoulders, upper and triceps while also working the abs. To do an overhead press correctly, Stand with the bar on your front shoulders and your hands next to your shoulders. Press the bar over your head. Once the bar is balanced, lock your elbows at the top and shrug your shoulders to the ceiling. Hold the bar for a second at the top, then lower back to your front shoulders. Repeat, remembering to keep your legs straight. To avoid shoulder pain, use a narrow grip so your elbows do not flare out and shrug your shoulders at the top. Press the bar over your head, lock your elbows and shrug your shoulders towards the ceiling to engage your traps and prevent painful pressure on the shoulders.
The “Big Five” compound exercises described above use a barbell, but compound exercises can also be done with dumbbells. You can do squat presses by holding dumbbells close to the shoulders at shoulder height. Keeping your hips slightly wider than hip-width apart, squat down and push your hips back with a straight spine. Pause, then return to standing while pressing your dumbbells overhead. Return the dumbbells to shoulder height, then repeat.
Note: Your dumbbells should be a comfortable but still challenging weight. To stay safe, test these moves with lighter weights before moving onto heavier weights.
For another compound exercise with dumbbells, you can do lunge presses. Grab your dumbbells and hold them close to the shoulders. With your feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees slightly and lunge forward (but keep knees behind the toes). As you lunge, press the weights directly over your shoulders. Breathe. Your back should stay straight. As you push back to standing, return the dumbbells to the starting position. Keep repeating, alternating legs. You can also do a lateral lunge with dumbbells, which serves as both a compound dumbbell exercise and a frontal plane exercise. Begin by standing feet hip-width apart with dumbbells at your sides. Your knees should be pointing in the same direction as your foot. Take a large step to the right, still keeping the dumbbells at your sides. Push back and lower your hips until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Using your glutes and hamstring, return to the starting position. Repeat, continually switching sides.
Another great compound exercise with dumbbells is the renegade row, which targets the core along with the back and biceps. Get into a pushup position with your hands gripping the dumbbells. Engaging your core, slowly row one arm up just slightly higher than your torso. Make sure your chest stays parallel to the floor. Lower that arm and repeat, alternating arms.
If you don’t have weights on-hand, you can do compound exercises using just your bodyweight.
Start out with a basic push-up. Get into a plank position with your arms and legs straight and your shoulders above your wrists. Bend your elbows out to the sides and lower your chest toward the ground until your shoulders are in line with your elbows. Stop for a breath, then straighten your arms to move back into the original position. If this is too difficult, you can adjust by keeping your knees on the floor.
To do a basic lunge, stand in a split stance with the right foot forward and the left foot back, with your feet about a yard apart. Keeping your back straight, bend the knees and lower the body down until the back knee is a few inches from the floor. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. The front thigh should be parallel to the floor with your front knee at a 90-degree angle, and the back knee should point toward the floor. Breathe, then push back up, keeping the weight in the heel of the front foot. Repeat for all reps, then switch sides.
You can also do an air squat. Stand with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. Bend your knees and lower your hips, keeping weight in the back of your heels. Take a breath, then rise back up. As you straighten your legs, squeeze your glutes. Repeat until you’ve completed your set.
You can finish off your equipment-free compound exercise routine with burpees. To do a burpee, lower into a crouching squat with your hands on the floor. Jump your feet back into a plank position, then do one basic push-up. Jump the feed forward to the hands and return to squat position before jumping straight up into the air. The goal is to get as much height as you can, then keep repeating this sequence of moves.
There’s also the pull-up, which doesn’t require weights but does require one simple piece of equipment: a bar. To do a pull-up, grip the bar with both hands, shoulder width apart. Your palms should face away from you. (For chin-ups, you grip the bar with your palms facing you.) Hang, then pull yourself up, aiming to get your chin over the bar. Make sure your neck is relaxed and your core is engaged. Lower yourself slowly and controlled until your arms are fully extended and straight again.
To make the most out of your compound exercises, consider incorporating a protein powder into your fitness regimen. Supplementing with protein powder is an excellent way to support muscle growth and repair, as protein is one of the most crucial nutrients for building muscle and fat loss. Your body naturally breaks down protein during your workout, so a protein supplement can help make up for the protein that your body loses.
Timing is key for maximizing the benefits of bundling protein powder with compound exercises. You’ll want to get your protein within 30 minutes of your workout. (Either before your warm-up or after your workout is fine. A 2017 study published in PeerJ found that pre-exercise protein intake and post-exercise protein intake have similar effects on muscular adaptations. You just want to make sure your protein is consumed within that 30 minute window.)
With Gainful, it’s possible to get personalized protein that fully aligns with your goals. Take Gainful’s quiz and answer our questions about your dietary preferences, fitness level and overall wellness goals. The nutrition experts at Gainful will create a protein powder that’s custom made for your body and your workout routine. Once your blend has been created, we’ll send you everything you need in the perfect amounts each month, making sure you're getting enough protein to achieve your goals and fuel your body before or after your workout.
Customized protein powder can help you build muscle and get the most out of your compound exercises.
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