The fitness industry is absolutely packed with jargon. Some of which can be pretty easy to understand, even for a newcomer. After all, it’s easy enough to know what someone is getting at when they say they’re trying to “get ripped.”
Terms couched in science and biomechanics aren’t always as intuitive. You may have heard of compound exercises before, but the name doesn’t really get at the heart of what they are or whether you need them to reach your goals.
Luckily, compound movements are easy enough to wrap your head around, even if they’re no walk in the park to perform. Here’s everything you need to know about what compounds are, why they work, and how to use them properly.
Compound Exercises Explained
- What Are Compound Exercises
- Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
- Benefits of Compound Exercises
- Best Compound Exercises
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What Are Compound Exercises?
Just about every movement you perform (whether with weights or just your own body) falls into one of two categories as either a compound or isolation exercise.
Compound exercises are movements that involve motion and (usually) load across more than one joint at a time. Note that this isn’t necessarily the same thing as engaging multiple muscles or muscle groups simultaneously (though they do tend to go hand-in-hand).
For example, the squat exercise involves loaded movement at three joints. Your ankle, knee, and hip all flex and extend against resistance. The muscles that control those joints are taxed as well.
Conversely, it’s perfectly possible for an exercise to involve motion at only one joint while working several different muscles. When you perform a pullover, the only joint in motion is your shoulder — but pullovers work your lats, pectorals, and even triceps all at once.
Understanding how exercises are classified can help you determine which movements are appropriate for your goals and capabilities in the gym.
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
While neither compound nor isolation movements are strictly superior to one another, you should be cognizant of their differences if you’re building yourself a workout routine. A broad understanding of biomechanics and physics can help you make more informed choices about how you train.
Broad vs. Specific Loading
Since there are multiple joints, or levers, involved in a compound exercise, you’ll find that the resistance of whatever implement you’re working with is spread out across those joints.
This doesn’t mean that your hips and knees share tension equally in an exercise like the deadlift — hinge movements challenge your hip extensors to a far higher degree — but it does mean that the burden of lifting a heavy weight doesn’t fall solely on one joint or muscle.
On the other hand, isolation exercises put all the stress on a single joint. This isn’t inherently “bad” or dangerous, but it’s something to be aware of.
Posture and Stability
Large compound exercises involving multiple muscle groups tend to be more technically complex than most isolation exercises. After all, there are simply more moving parts to a deadlift than a calf raise.
As a result, compound exercises generally have a steeper learning curve. They also often challenge your posture and core control to a greater degree than their single-joint counterparts, since you’re often asked to lift something while standing upright or from a bent-over position.
Isolation lifts, on the other hand, are fairly grab-and-go. When you train your biceps by curling your elbow, there aren’t really many opportunities for things to go south. Most compound lifts provide systemic, top-to-bottom muscular stimulation, which amps up the difficulty.
Benefits of Compound Exercises
Whether you train for strength, size, health, endurance, or anything in between, you’ll probably find that your workouts lean hard on compound movements more often than not. There’s a good reason for that — they give you a lot of bang for your buck.
More Muscle Activation
Compound exercises generally recruit more total-body musculature than isolation work. Although some research indicates that compound lifting pales in comparison to single-joint resistance training for targeting specific muscles, (1) this disparity may be offset by the fact that compound movements allow you to work with heavier loads most of the time.
Regardless, this makes compound lifting highly efficient if you want to get a total-body stimulus. Although the load isn’t shared equally, you’d still walk away from a set of deadlifts having worked your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, abdominals, quadriceps, and forearms.
Higher Loading Potential
Engaging more than one joint or muscle group allows you to disperse a given load across your body. In turn, compound lifting enables you to work with heavier weights than you otherwise would.
For instance, the cable kickback is a great exercise to isolate the gluteal muscles. However, as a single-joint movement, it can be difficult to progressively overload by adding more weight.
By contrast, the hip thrust lets you load your glutes up with much more weight and progress that way for a longer period of time, since a portion of the resistance is taken up by your hamstrings and lower back as well.
Heavier lifting is considered more effective for strength gain than low-resistance protocols, making compound lifts invaluable when it comes to getting strong. (2)
The broad-spectrum muscle recruitment of compound lifting is also a huge asset if you’re playing for time in the weight room. As such, compounds should be the bread and butter of your routine if you don’t have all day to spend in the gym.
For example, your upper back contains dozens of different muscles that work synergistically. You could choose an isolation movement to specifically target your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rear deltoid, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major, and so on.
Or, you could perform a two-handed row and hit all those muscles at once (to varying degrees). Compounds may not induce the highest level of targeted muscular tension, but they’re extremely logistically efficient.
Best Compound Exercises
Compound movements are your meat and potatoes — the lifts that make up the bulk of your workout plan most of the time. While there are many, many options out there for you to experiment with, you should also be familiar with the “big five” of compound training.
A compound lift must involve at least two of the following joints: ankle, knee, hip, neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, or spine.
Most compound lifts you’d perform in the weight room are also derivative of these five exercises, but note that that doesn’t make them the universal best choices in all contexts.
Squatting is the leg exercise — but not the only leg exercise. While there’s certainly a great deal of reverence around the barbell back squat (partly due to it being one of the three competitive lifts in the sport of powerlifting), all squats are valid compound exercises.
Squats of all shapes and sizes require you to flex at the knee, hip, and ankle. Moving those joints under load calls your quads, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and abdominals into action.
Just as you have your own unique anatomical structure, so too are squats surprisingly customizable. If you don’t enjoy squatting heavy weights with a barbell, you can probably find a variation that works well, is enjoyable, and hits every muscle in your leg along the way.
Bench pressing is your cornerstone “push” pattern. Any motion that involves driving a weight away from the front of your body with your arms will work your pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps, since those muscles act on your shoulder and elbow joints.
There are certainly other interpretations of this motion that qualify — both the push-up and medicine ball slam work your muscles in a similar manner — but the bench press is the de facto horizontal compound press. Whether you use a barbell, dumbbells, or cables, the effect is the same.
When you bend over at the waist to pick something up off the ground, you perform a hip hinge. Add some type of load to this motion and you’ve got a deadlift.
If you measure the merit of a compound exercise by how many muscles it engages, deadlifts (in one form or another) probably come out on top.
Not only do your knee and hip extensors have to work to return you to a standing position, but the muscles along your spine must also contract to stabilize your torso.
Your forearms and traps also work overtime to keep the weight in your hands and your shoulders firmly in their sockets, even if the corresponding joints aren’t in motion.
Pressing a weight over your head is quite similar to performing a bench press, at least insofar that it engages your arms. However, adjusting the orientation of the movement also affects what muscles you use, even if the joints in action (that’s your shoulder and elbow) remain the same.
Overhead presses largely remove your chest from the equation and place more stress onto your shoulders. They also demand much of your upper back, but largely for the purposes of isometric, or non-moving, stabilization.
It’s also possible to involve your legs dynamically during an overhead press. For instance, the push press begins with bending and extending your knees and hips to help drive the weight up, making it a full-body movement.
You can think of rowing as the biomechanical inverse of pressing. Both patterns involve motion at the shoulder and elbow, but by two very distinct mechanisms. When you press, your shoulder and elbow flexors contract. When you row, those same tissues must relax and lengthen.
As such, all good rows will work the opposing musculature on your backside. Where the bench or overhead press taxes your triceps, rows work your biceps. The same idea holds true for your pecs and lats.
Calisthenics exercises like the pull-up or chin-up aren’t technically rows, but the nomenclature isn’t all that important. They work the same muscles in a similar fashion, depending on factors like your grip of choice or the angle of your torso.
Almost all exercises can be sorted into one of two categories: Isolation lifts that involve only one joint and its accompanying muscles, or compound movements that work multiple joints and muscles simultaneously.
- Compound lifts aren’t intrinsically better than isolation exercises; their merit is contextual to your needs.
- Compounds allow you to move heavier weights, challenge your posture and stability, and save time by engaging multiple muscle groups at once.
- Many, but not all, compound exercises are considered some form of bench press, row, overhead press, deadlift, or squat. This distinction isn’t affected by the equipment you use or what goals you’re using the movement to reach.
Practically speaking, compound movements are great for building total-body strength, teaching good postural control and spatial awareness, and hitting a lot of muscle groups quickly. Most workout routines are built around compound exercises to varying degrees.
Compound Your Gains
If you want to reach your fitness goals (whatever they may be), you need the right tools to get the job done. Some tasks require a delicate touch and a deft hand — there’s a reason that many of the best arms in bodybuilding history were built with plenty of curls.
However, compound lifting is the backbone of just about all resistance training. It’s how you develop broad, functional, long-lasting strength both on the competition platform and in your day-to-day life. If you want big gains, don’t shy away from the big lifts.
1. Alkner, B. A., & Bring, D. K. (2019). Muscle Activation During Gravity-Independent Resistance Exercise Compared to Common Exercises. Aerospace medicine and human performance, 90(6), 506–512.
2. Carvalho, L., Junior, R. M., Barreira, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., & Barroso, R. (2022). Muscle hypertrophy and strength gains after resistance training with different volume-matched loads: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 47(4), 357–368.
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