Compound Exercises to Build Strength and Muscle

Work multiple muscle groups at one time

Woman doing squats in a gym
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Weight training workouts include two main categories of exercises. Isolation exercises are those that work a limited number of muscle groups and usually a single joint—for example, the calves and ankles during calf raises, or the biceps and elbows during bicep curls. Compound exercises, on the other hand, work multiple muscle groups at once and include squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

Compound exercises are generally more strenuous than isolation exercises, but they also offer more bang for the buck. Here, three classic compound exercises and how to do them properly:

The Squat

Squats build the hamstring and quadricep muscles in the legs, as well as the glutes and muscles in the back. Here's how to do them:

  • Stand up tall and place your feet on the ground shoulder-width apart
  • Lower your body as far as you can by pushing your hips back and bending your knees
  • Push yourself back to the starting position while squeezing your glutes

There are many variations on the basic squat, which can be performed without weights, or using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, plates, or a Smith machine (a machine used for weight training that consists of a barbell fixed within steel rails, allowing only vertical or near-vertical movements). Squats can be done using one or both legs and in different positions. Common variations on the classic squat include:

  • Barbell front squat: Hold a barbell straight out in front of your while squatting
  • Barbell back squat: Hold barbell and rest in on the trapezius—the broad muscle between the shoulders—while squatting
  • Dumbbell squat: Hold dumbbells straight out in front of you while squatting
  • Split squat: Bend one leg in front of you and one behind you
  • Half squat: Lower only half-way down
  • Wide-stance (or sumo) squat: Open legs wide with feet facing outward

Tips for proper form:

  • Don't round the back when going down or coming up—keep it straight. Rounding the back, especially when using weights, can damage the spine.
  • Keep the knees from going past the tips of the toes as much as possible to avoid damage to the knee joint
  • Keep your heels planted firmly on the ground and the knees lined up with the feet, not splayed in or out
  • Look straight ahead, not down

The Deadlift

Deadlifts work the quadriceps, abs, arms, and back. Here's how to do them:

  • Grab dumbbells or a barbell with an overhand grip, and hold them/it close to the front of your thighs with knees slightly bent
  • Keep your arms straight and lower them toward the floor while simultaneously bending at the hips until your torso is almost parallel to the floor
  • Pause, then return to the starting position. The barbell or dumbells should almost graze the shins and come to rest around thigh level as you return to standing. Pull the shoulders back as much as possible without bending backward.

A variation is the single-leg deadlift. Here's how to do it:

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and hold them close to your thighs with knees slightly bent
  • Keep your arms straight and lower them downward while simultaneously bending at the hips and raising one leg straight out behind you
  • Pause, return to the starting position, and repeat, lifting your other leg

Tips for proper form:

  • Lift the weights by pushing upward with the legs from the knees. Be careful not to raise the hips first so that the trunk moves forward and the back becomes rounded. Don’t hold your breath.
  • If you are using a barbell, grasp the bar outside the line of the knees. Toes should be just under the line of the bar. Keep the back straight with no rounding at the shoulders and spine. Keep hips down, butt out.
  • Don’t try to haul the weights with the arms. The arms should remain extended under tension while gripping the bar as the legs push up. Think of the legs and shoulders moving upward in unison with the hips the balancing point.

The Bench Press

The bench press builds the muscles of the chest as well as the triceps and the front deltoid shoulder muscles.

You can do this exercise with barbells or dumbbells, or using a Smith machine, which constrains the path of the barbell and makes the exercise a little easier. Other variations include inclining or declining the bench to emphasize the upper or lower chest muscles. Here's how to do it:

  • Lie flat on the bench with a slight bend in the spine. Feet should be flat on the floor and relatively wide apart.
  • Grasp the barbell or dumbbells with your thumbs on the outside of your closed fist, overhand grip, with arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The angle of the upper arms should be at about 45 degrees to the body.
  • Raise the bar to above the chest with arms extended, exhaling while you push upward and aiming consistently at the same spot on the ceiling. Don't watch the bar; focus on the ceiling.
  • Return the bar to just above the chest and repeat

Tips for proper form:

  • Bench pressing can be dangerous. Make sure the path of the bar is not low over the mouth and neck region when unracking or racking a barbell. If you are lifting a lot of weight, you may want to ask someone to spot you.
  • Your grip on the weights should be wide enough so that the elbow joints are at least at right angles and the forearms in a perpendicular plane. If you're more experienced, you might want to use a slightly wider or narrower grip.
  • It's ok to "lock-out" your elbows, just make sure you don't lock them out suddenly or explosively
  • Don't push your head into the bench to assist the lift; use the neck muscles instead.
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