10 Best Compound Exercises for Muscle and Strength

If you’re just starting your strength-building journey, you’ve probably stumbled across the term compound exercises, Usually you should in the context of doing something like eating broccoli or watching a PBS documentary.

Exercise experts disagree on many things, but almost all agree that compound exercise is a strength-and-fitness seeker’s best friend.

“Most people’s workouts should consist of compound exercises,” says Beachbody Senior Director of Fitness and Nutrition Content Trevor Thiem, CSCS.

The sooner you learn these classic gym moves, the sooner you’ll start taking serious steps toward your goals.

What is compound exercise?

People doing overhead presses  Compound exercises

“Compound exercises are moves that involve multiple joints and work multiple muscles or muscle groups together,” says Thiem.

Consider the overhead press – where you stand and push a weight straight up above you from shoulder level.

As you lift and lower the weight, your elbow and shoulder joints are significantly more pronounced, making this an ideal example. multi-joint, or compound, exercise.

In contrast, consider a lateral raise, where you hold two dumbbells in front of your feet and raise them to your sides.

A science type might tell you that other joints move too—the whole “foot bone connects to ankle bone” concept—but, primarily, the movement happens in your shoulder joints.

That makes it a single joint, or separate exercise

So the bench press, push-up, squat, row, and lunge are all compound movements, while the bicep curl, dumbbell fly, and triceps extension are isolation exercises.

Why is compound exercise important?

Why should you focus primarily on compound exercises in your workouts?

After all, isolation moves are more targeted, demand less coordination, and usually require less weight to be lifted.

So why not just build an entire fitness routine around them?

A few reasons…

1. They work more muscles

Back to our lateral raise-overhead press comparison: The focus of the lateral raise is a single muscle, specifically the medial (middle) head or shoulder muscles of your deltoid.

Conversely, the overhead press works not only the three heads of the deltoids, but also the triceps and (to a lesser extent) the upper pectorals.

If you’re short on time, you can get a lot more done using compound movements.

2. They are more useful

“Muscles rarely work in isolation in the real world,” Thieme said. “So training them to work together is a more effective way to build functional strength.”

Functional strength exercises, he explains, build real-world strength and are often similar to daily walking.

Squats are similar to standing up from a seated position, while isolation moves like leg extensions are similar, well, you don’t usually want to do them anywhere but the gym.

Both exercises build muscle — but compound exercises are more transferable to real-world activities.

3. They burn more calories

Because compound movements engage more muscle (aka “metabolically active tissue”) than isolation exercises, they burn more calories.

Consequently, a routine that includes push-ups, pull-ups, deadlifts, and lunges will ultimately burn more fat, along with chest flies, straight arm rows, hamstring curls, and leg extensions.

4. They make you strong

Because compound exercises engage more muscles than isolation exercises, they can be used to move heavy loads.

“This leads to greater ‘mechanical tension,’ which is a key growth stimulus,” says Thieme. “And the reason is that it creates more micro-damage in the muscles, which the body repairs and strengthens, making you stronger.”

10 Best Compound Exercises

Assuming you have no major injuries or movement limitations, compound exercises should form the basis of your strength training workouts. Here are 10 that can help you grow muscles from head to toe.

1. Dumbbell bench press

  • Lie on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells directly above your chest with your palms facing forward.
  • With your feet flat on the floor, your core engaged and your lower back pressed into the bench, slowly lower the weight to the sides of your chest, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body (not flared).
  • Pause, and then push the weights back to the starting position.


Incline bench press: Doing this exercise on a bench set at a 30-degree angle emphasizes the upper pecs.

Barbell Bench Press: Swapping dumbbells for barbells increases stability, allows you to press more weight, but slightly reduces overall muscle recruitment.

2. Pull up

  • Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s shoulder-width apart. Hang at arm’s length with your arms straight (a position known as a dead hang) and your ankles crossed behind you.
  • Without rocking or keeping (using momentum to propel you upward), squeeze your shoulder blades together (or at least over your chin) as you pull your chest into the bar.
  • Pause, and then give yourself a dead hang.


Chin-up: Perform the move with an underhand grip.

Mixed-grip pull-ups: Use an underhand grip with one hand and an overhand grip with the other. Mixing up your grip forces your back, shoulders and core to work harder to prevent you from spinning.

Negative pull-up: Position a chair, box, or bench so that when you stand on it and grab the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip, your arms are slightly bent. Simultaneously jump up and pull your upper chest into the bar with your feet pointed slightly in front of you. Pause, and then slowly lower yourself into a dead hang (try to take five seconds to do so). Return to the chair, box, or step and repeat.

3. Dumbbell Deadlift

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them in front of your thighs, palms facing back. This position begins.
  • With your back flat, chest up and core braced, push your hips back and lower the weights to mid-shin level, keeping them close to your body (your hips will be higher than your knees).
  • Pause, and then return to the starting position.


Romanian Deadlift: Perform the same movement with your legs mostly straight with a slight bend in your knees.

4. Dive

Tricep dip  Compound exercises

  • Grab the handles of a dip station and jump or rise to the starting position: arms straight, chest up, back flat, feet off the floor, and heels behind you. This position begins.
  • Keeping your head neutral and arms close to your sides, bend your elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, and then return to the starting position.


Incline Dip: Instead of crossing your ankles behind you, extend your thighs in front of you, so that both your knees and hips form a 90-degree angle. Hold your leg in that position for the duration of the exercise.

5. Dumbbell overhead press

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart (step a little behind you for stability if needed), holding two dumbbells in front of your shoulders, palms facing each other.
  • Keeping your back straight and core engaged, press the dumbbells directly over your shoulders until your arms are straight and your biceps are near your ears.
  • Pause, and then return to the starting position.

6. Carrying loads

Carrying loads  Compound exercises

  • Stand with two heavy dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing up Brace your core (as if someone is about to punch you in the gut), and draw your shoulder blades back and down.
  • Walk for 20 to 30 seconds to complete a “set.”


Suitcase Carry: Perform the exercise by carrying a single dumbbell in one hand. Each set alternates sides.

Overhead carry: Press two dumbbells above your shoulders with your arms straight and your biceps close to your ears (be sure to keep your back flat and core engaged). Hold that position while walking.

7. Lunge

  • Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides, palms up, with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Keeping your chest up, looking forward, engaging the back plane and core, take a big step with your right leg and lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the floor and your left knee is bent 90 degrees.
  • Pause, and then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat, this time stepping forward with the left leg. Continue alternating sides with each rep.


Reverse Lunge: Instead of stepping forward, step backward into a lunge position, alternating sides for each rep.

Side Lunge: Instead of going forward or backward, step sideways with your right leg, keep your left leg straight, and lower your body until your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Alternate sides with each rep.

8. Push ups

  • Get on all fours with your feet together, body straight from head to heels, and hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Squeeze your glutes and close your core to lock your body into position.
  • With your elbows toward your body and your head in line with your spine, lower your body until your chest is a few inches off the floor.
  • Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.


Incline push-ups: Instead of placing your hands on the floor, place them on a stable, elevated surface (eg, bench or low wall). On the upper surface, exercise becomes easier.

Avoid push-ups: Place your feet on a stable, elevated surface instead of on the floor. On the upper surface, the exercise becomes more difficult.

9. Dumbbell row

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Close your core, hinge at your waist by pushing your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Keep your glutes engaged to protect your lower back.
  • Let the dumbbells hang at arm’s length with your palms facing each other. Engage your shoulder blades to keep your shoulders pulled back (ie, don’t hunch). This position begins.
  • Without moving your torso, and keeping your elbows tucked and back flat, row the weights to your sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Pause, and then lower the weight back to the starting position.

10. Dumbbell squat

  • Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing up, feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed forward. This position begins.
  • Keeping your back flat, chest up and core engaged, push your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.

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