Compound exercises use multiple joints and muscles groups simultaneously for a multitude of benefits. As well as the obvious, they raise the heart rate to provide a cardiovascular benefit, burn more calories than isolation moves, and can help improve the balance and co-ordination of your body.
If you want to pack a stack of multi-muscle moves into your next workout, this guide to the best compound exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced gym-goers from Daine Finch, master trainer at health club chain The Bannatyne Group, will help.
Beginner Compound Exercises
For these exercises, Finch recommends doing three sets of ten to 12 reps, with 45-60 seconds of rest between sets.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. Step forwards with one leg, flexing your knees to lower your hips. Descend until your rear knee nearly touches the ground. Your posture should remain upright and your front knee should stay above the front foot. Drive through the heel of your lead foot and extend both knees to raise yourself again. Step forwards with your rear foot to repeat the lunge on the other leg so you walk forwards.
Wide lat pull-down
Sit down on a pull-down machine with a wide bar attached to the top pulley. Adjust the knee pad of the machine to fit your height to prevent your body from being raised by the resistance attached to the bar. Grab the bar with your palms facing forwards and hands wider than shoulder-width apart. As you breathe out, bring the bar down until it touches your upper chest by drawing your shoulders and upper arms down and back – your forearms shouldn’t be doing any of the work. Your upper torso should remain stationary and only your arms should move. Pause for a second at the contracted position and squeeze your back muscles, then, while inhaling, slowly raise the bar back to the starting position.
Dumbbell goblet squat
In a standing position hold the head of a dumbbell close to your chest with both hands. You should be looking straight forwards, with your shoulders back, your spine straight and your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart. Descend into a squat, flexing the hips and knees to lower your body. Maintain the angle of your torso, paying close attention to the spine. As you descend, push your knees outwards and keep your weight on your heels. Descend until you either reach the full squat position with your hamstrings on your calves or until your back starts to round. At the bottom of the motion pause briefly, then return to the starting position by driving through your heels, and extending your knees and hips.
Intermediate Compound Exercises
For these exercises Finch recommends doing four sets of eight to ten reps, with 60 seconds of rest between sets.
Barbell bent-over row
Hold a barbell with a pronated grip (palms facing down), bend your knees slightly and bring your torso forwards by bending at the waist while keeping your back straight until it is almost parallel to the floor. Make sure to keep your head up. Your arms should hang perpendicular to the floor and your torso. While keeping your torso stationary, breathe out and lift the barbell towards your body, keeping your elbows close to your sides. At the top contracted position, squeeze your back muscles and pause briefly, then inhale and slowly lower the barbell back to the starting position.
Approach the bar so that it is centred over your feet, which should be hip-width apart. Bend at the hips to grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Take a big breath and then lower your hips and flex your knees until your shins touch the bar. Keep your head looking forwards, your chest up and your back arched, and drive through the heels to raise the weight. After the bar passes your knees, aggressively pull the bar back, pulling your shoulder blades together as you drive your hips forwards into the bar. Lower the bar by bending at the hips and guiding it to the floor.
Try this tweak: Take a snatch grip, where your hands are double shoulder-width apart, will aid grip strength. Grip is usually the weak link on a conventional deadlift so giving it extra attention will help you in the main version.
This exercise is best performed inside a squat rack for safety purposes. To begin, first place a flat bench or a box behind you. This is used to teach you to set your hips back and to hit the right depth. Then set the bar on a rack that best matches your height. Step under the bar and position it across the back of your shoulders, slightly below the neck. Hold the bar with both hands and lift it off the rack by pushing with your legs and straightening your torso.
Step away from the rack and stand with your legs shoulder-width apart with your toes slightly pointed out. Keep your head up at all times. While inhaling, slowly lower by bending the knees and sitting your hips back. Continue down until you touch the bench behind you. The front of your knees should make straight lines with your toes. If your knees are past your toes then you are placing undue stress on the knee.
Rise by pushing the floor with the heels of your fee to straighten your legs and extend your hips to go back to the starting position, exhaling as you go.
Try this tweak: Spread your knees at the bottom. As you near the end of the lowering phase of the move, push your knees outwards slightly. This will help you to recruit your glutes as you bring your knees back in when you stand up.
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Advanced Compound Exercises
For these exercises Finch recommends doing four sets of eight to ten reps, with 60-90 seconds of rest between sets.
Position a bar in a rack at about waist height. You can also use a Smith machine. Hold the bar with your hands wider than shoulder-apart and position yourself so you’re hanging underneath it. Your body should be straight with your heels on the ground and your arms fully extended. Begin by flexing your elbows and pulling your chest towards the bar. Retract your shoulder blades as you perform the movement. Pause at the top of the motion, then return to the starting position.
Barbell clean and press
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell approximately 5cm away from your shins. Push your hips back and grab the barbell so your palms are facing your body and your hands are shoulder-width apart. Keep your hips down, chest up, eyes forwards and arms extended. Keep your core very tight and drive through your heels to pull the bar quickly up to your chest, just in front of your collarbone. Be explosive in your movement as you pull the bar, keeping it as close to your body as you can. As soon as the bar reaches your chest, drive through your heels again, press the bar directly overhead and straighten your arms and legs. Return to the start under control.
Lie on a flat bench. Holding the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, lift the bar from the rack and hold it above your chest with your arms straight and locked. From this starting position, breathe in and bring the bar down slowly until it touches the middle of your chest. Pause briefly, then push the bar back to the starting position as you breathe out. Focus on pushing the bar using your chest muscles. Lock your arms and squeeze your chest in the contracted position at the top of the motion, hold for a second and then start coming down slowly again. Ideally, lowering the weight should take about twice as long as raising it.
More Compound Exercises
The press-up is primarily a chest-builder, but it also recruits your triceps, shoulders and – as long as you keep your body ramrod-straight – core. Start with your hands and toes on the floor, hands directly underneath your shoulders, and your arms and legs extended. Your body should form a straight line from your neck to your heels. Brace your core to keep your body rigid, then bend your elbows to lower your chest slowly. Once your chest is almost on the ground, press back up.
This kettlebell classic is a great exercise for working a serious number of muscles, hitting your glutes, hips, hamstrings, back and shoulders and even challenging your grip strength. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a kettlebell in two hands and letting it hang in front of you. Bend at the knees and hips to move the kettlebell backwards through your legs. Drive your hips forwards and straighten up, swinging the kettlebell up to shoulder height. Control the swing back down and go straight into the next rep.
This full-body monster of a move should be a go-to for anyone who regularly works out without any equipment. The burpee works muscles all over your body and ramps up your heart rate so you get cardio benefits as well. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then drop and place your hands either side of your feet. Jump your feet back so you end up in a high plank position. At this point you can do a press-up if you’re feeling feisty, or jump your feet forwards again and then leap straight up, bringing your hands above your head. Land softly and go straight into the next rep.
This move is an outstanding way to work your entire upper body, but it really excels at developing your back and core. Bear in mind, though, that lifting your bodyweight is hard, so don’t worry if you’re unable to manage more than a couple of reps to begin with. Hang in there, so to speak, and consider using resistance bands at first to give you an extra boost. Grip a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from you. Pull your shoulders back and engage your core, then pull yourself up until your chin reaches the bar, pause, then lower under control until your arms are fully outstretched.
This combination of two compound exercises – the front squat and overhead press – is only equalled by the burpee as a true total-body exercise. Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a barbell by your chest with your elbows bent and pointing forwards (you can also perform the move holding dumbbells by your shoulders or kettlebells in the rack position). Sit your hips back to lower into a squat, then push back up explosively through your heels, using the momentum generated to push the barbell above your head until your arms are extended. Lower the barbell under control to your chest.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.