Best Compound Exercises to Add to Your Training Regime
Compound exercises are the multi-joint moves with more benefit. Mastering them lets you hit the spot multiple times in one go – and then some.
Calling to arms a collective of muscle groups challenges your cardio. It also allows you to move more weight, crush considerable calories, and complete a full-body workout in record time. When it comes to comparing exercise efficiency, compounds always come up on top.
But what are the best ones to add to your training regime? Do you need the deadlift or barbell front squat to see the most success? If you want to take your training to the next level, this article is for you. Here are the best compound exercises to add to your training regime.
What are compound exercises?
Compound exercises are the exact opposite of stereotypical isolation movements.
Instead of zoning in on one solitary muscle group, you call upon a bunch. A compound itself actually means something that’s made from a combination – say a mixture of elements.
Think of the barbell deadlift. You’ve got glutes, hamstrings, traps, lower back, and more in action, all fighting to pull that weight off the floor. Just this staple strength move itself is almost a full body workout!
Compare it to the bodybuilder’s favorite, an old-school bicep curl. Flexing the elbow to curl a dumbbell isolates the bicep, making it the sole star of the show. This move isn’t a mixture of multiple joints all moving at the same time. The elbow is in isolation hence, it’s considered an isolation exercise.
Unless, of course, it’s actively transformed into a compound exercise. Say you combined the bicep curl with another exercise simultaneously. Suddenly, you’re training multiple muscle groups at exactly the same time.
Why compound exercises?
Unless you’re on the shelf with injury, the real question is why not? They’re more efficient for a start.
Picture the scene, two people walk into the gym at the same time – you and a friend. Your gym-buddy heads off to hit four sets of lying hamstring curls, a classic isolation exercise for the back of the legs. You, being a savvy lifter, sets up the rack for four sets of heavy squats instead.
Now, imagine both of you work out for the exact same number of reps. While your friend has been hammering his hams, you’ve targeted so much more. Thanks to your choice of compounds you’ve hit your own hamstrings, but added your back, core, and more to the mix too.
Simply put, you’ve got more done in the exact same session. So, if you’re the sort of time-strapped lifter who has their eye on the clock, compounds are for you.
Fat loss is another, more goal orientated reason to go multi-joint. Compounding could help you get leaner, quicker.
Studies show that compounds can be far superior for scorching calories than single-joint moves. Use them to rack up more of a burn each session and increase your chances of finally tapping into that belly fat.
Compound lifts are phenomenal for building muscle and strength too. And because muscle requires more energy than fat to function, stacking on the lean stuff also speeds up your metabolism. So, not only can compounds contribute to getting you lean, but they’ll keep you trim too.
Best compound exercises to add to your training regime
By now you’re convinced that compounds come up with the goods. Here are the best ones to add to your training regime.
Hex bar deadlift
Nothing says moving with the times more than a hex bar deadlift. Originally created by powerlifter Al Gerard for training the traps, his hex bar – aka trap bar – invention is accidentally-engineered for deadlifts.
Rather than place the weight in a compromising position in front like a straight bar lift, it’s distributed evenly at the sides. Hex bar deadlifts create a space for a natural, standing up motion with less pull on the lower back. Research suggests you might be able to lift more with one too.
Here is how to do hex bar deadlift:
- Stand in the middle of the hex bar with feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge your hips and bend your knees with your arms straight by your side. Grab both sides of the bar (flip and hold the handles if you’re tall).
- Let your hips sit back as you bring your chest up to flatten your back. Now, pack your shoulders by pulling them back and down, brace your core, and tuck your chin until your neck is lined up neutral. You’ll notice your knees are a lot more bent and your chest higher than a straight bar deadlift.
- Breathe in and brace your core for spinal support. Come up slightly to take the tension out of the bar.
- Now, drive up through your mid-foot in and stand in a straight line. Keep your back flat through the entire movement and squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Lock out your hips and then lower the bar under control. End of rep.
Barbell back squat
We’re going back to the barbell for this one – back squats.
You really get a bang for your buck with back squats, especially for your lower body. Each rep hits every major muscle group, and when you add extra weight to the bar, you give your core a tough workout too. Everything about squats are set up for muscle building – not to mention full body fat loss.
Mastering the barbell back squat is as much an art as a science. Proper parallel squatting requires more mobility than you’d think and nailing unbreakable form can take years to crack. So, while we’ll outline the basics here, hire a coach if you want to squat serious numbers.
Here’s how to do barbell back squat:
- Un-rack the bar onto the top of your tense traps and avoid resting it on your spine. Keep your grip close to your shoulders and point your elbows downward. A narrower grip should help you to push up your traps to make a shelf.
- Drive through your heels with a braced core to powerfully lift the bar out of the rack. Take a few short and steady steps backward until you’re clear.
- Set a shoulder-width stance with toes pointing slightly out.
- Take a deep breath and feel your lower back become supported by your braced core. This is what’s known as the Valsalva technique. Don’t breathe out until you’ve completed the full rep!
- Descend down into the squat for around 1-2 seconds. Imagine you’re sitting straight down into a low chair, keeping your weight over your midfoot and heel. Fix your eyes on a spot around six feet in front of you and focus through the movement. Go as low as feels comfortable without breaking form.
- Once you’re at the bottom – aka in the hole – drive back up through your heels. Don’t hang around here because every second spent in the hole drains you of energy you need to get out. Keep your back and neck straight on the ascent.
- Stood up straight again? End of rep.
Bent over row (Pendlay row)
The bent over Pendlay row is built for back development. It’s one of the most popular upper body moves on the gym floor and a perfect addition to your regime.
The Pendlay row is a strict, parallel variation of the barbell row, that’s great for back and hamstring work. A lot of lifters simply call it the barbell row, but given the amount of rowing angles out there, we’ll stick with specifics.
Here’s how to do bent over row:
- Set yourself up with a stance that’s a little wider than shoulder width. Place your mid-foot directly under the bar.
- Bend over and grab the bar with a medium grip.
- Extend your knees to bring your hips up. Now, set your back to its flat and parallel to the floor – brace your core.
- Pull the bar straight up until it touches your chest.
- Lower the bar under control until it hits the floor. End of rep.
Barbell bench press
The bench press. The final big three lift on our list and the only one dedicated to upper body development. When it comes to filling in the gaps squats and deadlifts don’t hit, there’s nothing else like it. The bench press triggers critical chest, triceps, traps, and front delt activation.
Chances are you have your own love hate relationship with the bench press too. It’s the number one go-to move for gym newbies and usually the first we plateau on.
After all, benching well is a tactical pursuit. There’s much more to the perfect bench press than meets the eye and it’s easily underestimated. Take time to iron out the intricacies so you can start pushing those big numbers.
If you’re going to add one compound to your upper body regime, make it the bench press.
Here’s how to do barbell bench press:
- Place your back flat against the bench with a slight arch. Align yourself so your eyes are directly under the bar.
- Now, bring your feet slightly behind your hips and put them flat on the floor. A solid base is key to a bigger lift.
- Now, reach up and grab the bar at around one and a half shoulder width. Research suggests this is the optimal set-up for pectoral (chest muscle) activation. Retract your scapula and press them back into the bench.
- Grip the bar tightly and imagine you’re trying to bend it. Doing this pulls the shoulders back and down, compacting them ready for action.
- Drive the bar out of the rack and hold it with fully extended arms. Don’t move the bar over your face and neck with bent arms for obvious reasons.
- Now you’re ready to lift, pull your shoulder blades in a touch. This will help you arch your lower back and put your shoulders into a safer position.
- Descend the bar under control in a straight line to your chest. Drive your chest up to meet it.
- At the bottom your elbows should be pointing down. Raising your chest, getting a proper grip, and packing your shoulders should allow you the mobility to do this safely.
- Wait a second before driving the bar up in a straight line. Imagine you’re pressing yourself back into the bench too to improve stability.
- Lock out up top. End of rep.
Barbell lunge (forward)
Looking for more lower body focus? If so, let the barbell lunge get to work.
Lunges are usually used as a quad exercise. But they’re ideal for hitting the hamstrings and glutes too, plus the calves and core when a bar is loaded.
A well-executed lunge takes just as much balance and coordination as strength. So, start out light and work your way up the ranks as your form improves.
Here’s how to do them:
- Place the barbell across your upper back. Just like you set up for a high-squat position.
- Keep your back straight and breathe in to brace your core.
- Step forward and squat down through your hips. Your front knee should now be flexed to around 90-degrees, with your back leg flexed in a similar angle (your back knee should hover above the floor). Maintain a straight back and upright torso throughout this movement.
- Now, once you’re at the bottom, drive through your front heel to reverse step 3. Again, make sure to keep a straight back and braced core. End of rep.
Pullups are the final essential compound to include in your regime. It’s the toughest bodyweight exercise out there and the one you can hit anywhere.
Anybody who’s tried to pull their entire body weight knows what a challenge it can be. After a set or two your arms feel on fire and the strength can sap entirely from your back and shoulders. Maybe we’re not quite selling them here, but remember, you can always start low rep.
While it might look like your arms are taking all the strain, it’s mainly your back that’s doing the business. Your arms come in close second, followed up by that all-important core.
Performing perfect pullups is no easy feat. So, if you’re struggling to complete a set, don’t stress. Take a step back and adjust to a negative pullup. Simply jump up, grab the bar, and lower your body slowly under control. You’ll still train the eccentric portion of the exercise, which should help you muster up the strength for the full thing.
Here’s how to do a full pullup:
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip just wider than shoulder width apart. You might need to jump up to reach it.
- Pull your shoulders back and down, then brace your core to stop any swinging. Let your arms fully extend until you’re performing a dead hang.
- Pull up! Concentrate on isolating your upper body only. Swinging and kicking can make things easier, but they reduce muscle activation and rep quality.
- Keep ascending until your chin passes the bar or your chest touches it. Now, lower yourself back down slowly under control. Every rep starts and ends with your arms fully extended.
Compound vs. Isolation exercises
No war rages quite like the compound vs isolation debate. But while both teams are bickering over which is best, the rest of us are just looking at the facts. Spoiler alert: compounds come out on top when they suit your goals.
Compound exercises are the most time efficient of the two. They’re also ideal for building full-body muscle all in the same workout. You can quite literally train more than one thing at once.
Another call for the compound cause is that most focus on basic movement patterns. They’re unrivalled for enhancing functional strength and coordination. Let’s face it, you’re much more likely to press a box or lift a trailer than triceps kickback a can of beans.
But, and this is a big but, they’re not the be-all and end-all. Isolation exercises can sometimes hit the spot in just the right way.
Physiotherapists find isolation exercises for rehabbing injuries. It gives them a chance to home in and build strength in certain areas.
You could say a split-routine following bodybuilder can do the same too. Using isolation exercises allows them to attack muscles from all angles and concentrate on attention needing details. While a squat is set up for a full lower session, calf raises could help lagging lower legs catch up to bulging hamstrings.
Bottom line – make compounds the bulk of your workout. Add in isolation exercises to fine tune.
The Final Word
Compound exercises could raise the returns on your workout regime. Master the best movements today and get the most bang from your buck, every session.