Strength & Conditioning

Compound Exercises List : 5 Effective Upper And Lower Body Movements

compound exercises list

The importance of strength training, no matter what your age, has already been scientifically proven.

For many, building muscle is about attaining a good physique, but the benefits far exceed just this.

Strength training can have a positive impact on a person’s bone density and connective tissues.

Furthermore, this can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain metabolic disorders, as well as helping to improve mental health issues by reducing stress and alleviating anxiety.

Recommended Reading – Discover The 5 Differences Between Compound vs Isolation Exercises

What Is Strength Training?

In a nutshell, strength training is to perform an exercise against resistance.

This can be by way of using freeweights, such as dumbbells or barbells, or machines found at your local gym.

Resistance based exercises can be further broken down into two other categories: isolation and compound. Both categories will aid with increasing skeletal muscle tissue.

An isolation exercise will activate a single muscle group only, an example being a dumbbell bicep curl.


Conversely, a compound exercise will activate multiple muscle groups such as the barbell bench press.

For a well-balanced workout routine, incorporating both compound and isolation exercises would be beneficial.

Compound movements are harder work as they expend much more energy, but isolation movements can help to increase muscle volume and improve definition to specific muscles that you feel require some extra attention, such as the calf muscles or the biceps.

In this article we’ll consider the benefits of compound exercises and suggest some compound lifts that you can add into your training program.

What Is A Compound Exercise?

A compound exercise is a resistance based multi-joint movement. During such exercises multiple muscle groups work together, such as a barbell back squat.

Typically, a compound exercise is more technical when it comes to execution and proper form takes some practice.

Benefits of Compound Exercises

Better Variety

There are significantly more exercises you can perform with dumbbells, barbells, and weight plates.

When you consider machines found in your gym, these are typically very limiting allowing for isolation to specific muscle groups.

If you have some dumbbells, a barbell, and plates along with a squat rack or power rack, you can easily and effectively work each and every muscle of the entire body.

If you’re thinking about setting up a home gym, this is really all you need for a fully-body workout.

Shorter Training Duration

As compound exercises hit multiple muscle groups at once, this means you need to do less to achieve the same results than if you were to just perform isolation movements.

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Furthermore, compound movements expend significantly more energy meaning that your training volume is decreased.

So instead of performing, what feels like, endless reps and sets you can achieve an efficient workout with just 3 or 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps.

This essentially means you’ll spend less time in the gym.

Burn More Bodyfat

You’ll burn much more bodyfat performing compound exercises than you would with isolation movements.

This is because there is a much greater demand on the body when executing movements that activate multiple muscle groups.

Aside from burning these extra calories during your workout, you’ll also be increasing muscle mass.

When there is an increase in skeletal muscle, this speeds up a person’s metabolic rate.

The body utilizes more energy to maintain this additional muscle, so you’ll be burning more calories even when you’re at rest.

Improvement to Stability

When compared to isolation movements that are performed on a machine, compound freeweight exercises are significantly better at helping to improve stability.

This is because you’ll be activating the abdominals and lower back to help stabilize your body during the exercise.

When you have strong core muscles this can help to keep injuries at bay whilst making activities of everyday life easier to perform, whether this be walking up the stairs or carrying your groceries.

Increased Levels of Testosterone

More testosterone is released into the body when performing compound movements due to the involvement of multiple muscle groups.

Both sexes can benefit from naturally increasing their testosterone levels as this contributes to bone density, brain function and energy levels.

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is to gradually increase the weight load or number of repetitions or sets you perform during your strength training.

Whilst you can increase the weight load on machines, you are somewhat limited by the weight of the stack.

Attaining progressive overload is far easier with freeweights during compound lifts.

Improve Bone Density

By undertaking compound exercises on a regular basis can increase bone mineral density and content.

This in turn can reduce the risk of conditions such as osteoporosis (the weakening of bones).

Best Compound Exercises List

Now that we’ve taken a look at some of the benefits from incorporating compound exercises into your workout, let’s look at some of the best exercises you can focus on to work multiple muscle groups.

Compound Exercises List for the Lower Body

Barbell Back Squat

The barbell squat is a highly technical, posterior chain exercise that will activate the adductors, glutes, and quadriceps.

Secondary muscles worked include the hamstrings, spinal erectors, and core muscles.

It’s important to engage your core during this movement to provide stability and limit stress to your lower back.


There are a couple of variations of the barbell back squat; those being the high bar squat or the low bar squat.

The fundamental difference being where the bar is held.

The high bar squat involves positioning the barbell along the trapezius and, when compared to a low bar squat, limits stress to the elbow joints and shoulders.

Recommended Reading – How Deep Should I Squat – 4 Reasons For Poor Squat Depth

Conversely, a low bar squat involves positioning the barbell along the upper back and shoulders.

The low bar squat is typically favored by powerlifters as weight load is slightly closer to the center of gravity making it easier to squat heavier loads.

Another option to consider, especially if you have any pre-existing shoulder injuries or find that back squats are a little too taxing on the lower back, is the barbell front squat.

This version involves holding the barbell across the top of your shoulders and shifts the weight load from your lower back to your upper back.

Dumbbell Stationary Lunge

The lunge exercise is a great way of targeting the quadriceps and glutes.

You’ll also engage several muscles in the upper body as you work to stabilise yourself during the exercise.

These include the abdominals, upper back, arms and shoulders. To work both legs evenly you would alternate the legs.

It’s common to take either too small or too large a step when lunging.

This can limit full range of motion and possibly cause injury so it’s a good idea to practice form before incorporating dumbbells to add resistance.

If you want to make the movement more challenging, you could move over to walking lunges with dumbbells.

Barbell Glute Bridge

The barbell glute bridge, often referred to as hip thrusts, primarily targets the glutes without loading the spine.

Secondary muscles are the adductors, hamstrings and calf muscles which come into play to provide stabilisation.

Throughout range of motion the shoulders and arms work to keep the weight load in position.


If you want to make this exercise more challenging, you could train unilaterally and perform the single leg glute bridge.

This will increase the load to the working leg making it a good option to address any muscle weakness or imbalances.

Barbell Deadlift

The regular deadlift is a great exercise to work pretty much all the muscles within the lower body whilst also challenging several muscles in the lower body.

As with the barbell squat, the deadlift is a technical exercise that requires mechanically sound form to prevent injury.

A common mistake is to forget to engage the core muscles potentially leading to a rounding of the lower back.

There are several variations of the traditional deadlift and if you don’t have access to a barbell and plates, you could make use of a resistance band to perform banded deadlifts.

Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is a variation of the traditional back squat.

This is a great option for home gyms where you may not have access to a barbell and weight plates.

You will however need a kettlebell or dumbbell heavy enough to effectively work the muscles of your lower body.

For this exercise you’ll be working the quadriceps and glutes along with your abdominals for stability.


Compound Exercises List for the Upper Body

The following compound exercises may help you build and strengthen your chest, triceps, shoulders, or pushing muscles.

However, you should combine them with pulling exercises to avoid the risk of muscle imbalances.

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press is a classic powerlifting movement but also a great exercise for working the chest muscles.

Secondary muscles engaged include the triceps, shoulders, forearms, and serratus anterior.

As with other powerlifting exercises, this is a technical movement that requires excellent form to prevent injury.


It’s important to prevent your elbows from flaring out and to keep them in alignment with the wrists throughout the movement.

By varying your grip width on the bar, you can better activate different muscles.

For example, if you hold the barbell at just inside shoulder width you can place more emphasis on the triceps.

Arnold Shoulder Press

Named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Arnold press allows you to add rotation to the conventional shoulder press.

Performing this exercise, you would rotate your hands allowing you to activate all three heads of the deltoids.

Aside from working the deltoids, it will also add tension to the traps, pectorals, and triceps.

Barbell Overhead Shoulder Press

The overhead press trains the muscles of the shoulders and triceps whilst engaging the core and upper back.

It can be performed either seated or standing.


If you perform the exercise seated, this does take away some core engagement but also limits any momentum making it slightly more difficult.

If you find that you tend to round your lower back during this exercise, decrease the weight load as proper form is vital to prevent injury.

Hanging Knee Raise

The hanging knee raise is a bodyweight exercise that effectively targets the rectus abdominis and hip flexors whilst the muscles of the back, arms and shoulders come into play helping you to maintain your position.

As you’re required to hold your bodyweight it’s a great way of improving grip strength.

Chin Ups

Chin ups, sometimes called pull ups, is an exercise involving your own bodyweight.

You can undertake this movement with either a pronated grip or supinated grip.

Depending on which you choose will influence which muscles are isolated to a greater degree.


If you perform a pull up with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you), you’ll activate more of the upper trapezius and rhomboids.

Whereas, if you utilize a supinated grip (palms facing towards you), you’ll work the upper back, lats and biceps more.

Tips to Perform Compound Exercises Safely

Whether you’re new to exercise or a regular at your local gym, strength training is a very safe and effective way of stimulating muscle growth and improving your body composition.

However, as with any form of exercise it can carry some risks.

Below we suggest some tips to keep you on track and help limit any chance of injury.

Warm Up

It’s easy to take 10 to 15 minutes to properly warm up the muscles and increase your heart rate before you dive straight into lifting weight.

There are many different variations of warm up exercises and these vary from bodyweight squats to star jumps.

If you don’t warm up properly you run the risk of injuries such as sprains, muscle pulls and cramp.

Be Consistent

Consistency when performing compound exercises is the key to building and retaining muscle.

When you take time to implement a proper strength-based training regime you can allow your body to progress and properly adapt to the exercises.

Correct Form

When you first start strength training it’s likely your movements will be somewhat uncoordinated.

However, as your nervous system adapts, you’ll quickly find that your form when performing exercises gets better.

Always take the time to understand what muscles you’ll be working with each compound exercise so that if anything feels a little off, you can address this and be sure to execute each movement properly.


Post training be sure to set aside some time for stretching the muscles that you’ve worked.

This can help to alleviate any tension and improve flexibility by removing accumulated lactate from your muscles.

It can also help to limit delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and helps to prevent injury.


Isolation exercises certainly have their place in training and can help you to increase volume to specific muscles whilst improving definition.

However, compound movements will ultimately allow you to build superior strength and endurance to your whole body.

So, whilst we would recommend doing a combination of both for best results.

If you were to choose one over the other, compound exercises would be our choice.

However, you should always start practicing these exercises under the supervision of a professional to avoid unexpected injuries.

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