Compound Exercises for Strength and Muscle

Work multiple muscle groups at one time

Woman doing squats in a gym
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Compound exercises work multiple muscle groups such as the legs and butt with squats; the shoulders and arms with overhead presses; and a wide range of muscles and muscle groups with the deadlift exercise. Multiple joints are involved.

Alternatively, isolation exercises are weight training exercises that place emphasis on a limited number of muscle groups and usually a single joint; for example, the calves at the rear of the lower leg, the biceps of the upper arms, or the six-pack abdominals.

The following are examples of compound exercises.

The Squat (Quadraceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Back)

Squats can be performed with barbells, dumbbells, Smith machine, kettlebells, plates, and with different leg positions, with one or two legs, to the ground or half way, with bodyweight only, and with various schemes for sets and repetitions. Variety abounds! For example:

  • Barbell front squat (barbell in front)
  • Barbell back squat (barbell at rear on trapezius)
  • Dumbbell squat (at sides. chest or on shoulders)
  • Single leg squat
  • Split squat (one leg forward, one back)
  • One-leg split squat (leg resting on bench)
  • Hack squat machine
  • Hack squat (barbell)
  • Low to ground or only half way
  • Wide stance squat (Sumo)
  • Pistol squat

Points to Note

  • Don't round the back, going down or coming up. Keep it straight. A rounded back under weight can cause damage to the spine at the upper or lower end.
  • Keep the knees from going past the tips of the toes as much as possible. This is generally not good for the knee joint. Practice good form and don't get too concerned if this occurs occasionally. (Long femurs can make this problematic.)
  • Keep those heels planted firmly on the ground and the knees lined up with the feet and not splayed in or out.
  • Try not to look down -- look straight ahead -- or at least be aware that your back and butt are in the correct position: back straight, butt extended.

The Deadlift (Quads, Hamstrings, Abs, Arms, Back)

The deadlift is one of the best all-around compound exercises for general strength conditioning. It works multiple muscle groups.

  • Stabilize the abdominal muscles by bracing them. With feet shoulder wide, squat down, bending at the knees, and grasp the bar with overhand or mixed grip. 
  • 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 those hips down, butt out.
  • Lift the bar 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 the breath.
  • Don’t try to haul the bar up with the arms. The arms stay 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 bar should almost graze the shins and come to rest around thigh level as you reach full height. Pull the shoulders back as much as possible without bending backward.
  • Lower the bar to the floor with a reverse motion ensuring a straight back again. With a light weight, you can do repetitions in which you lower the bar to shin or even floor and then straighten again without releasing your grip on the bar.

    The Bench Press (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)

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

    You can do this exercise with barbells or dumbbells -- or with 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.