The Best Compound Exercises to Train Efficiently

To build a better, well-rounded strength training program you have to prioritize compound exercises. Chances are you've heard and done these exercises in the past, some of them are popular in fitness classes and HIIT workouts. There's a good reason these exercises are a part of nearly every type of training program - regardless of fitness goals.

Compound exercises are multi-joint movements, meaning they work multiple muscle groups at once. Opposed to isolation exercises which work one joint and one muscle group (ex. bicep curls). Both should be a part of a workout plan, but compound lifts should be prioritized due to their undeniable benefits.

The sooner you get to know these exercises, the faster you'll be making progress on your strength training journey! To help you start making strides, we've put together 8 of the best compound exercises you should implement in your workout routine – we've also included accessory lifts for beginners to work their way up to heavier compound movements!

Why do compound exercises build more muscle?

One of the biggest benefits of compound exercises is their ability to build muscle efficiently. As we mentioned, isolation exercises only work one muscle group at a time. This is great to further strengthen a muscle, but when you’re short on time or can only work out three times a week, compound exercises should be your bread in butter.

These exercises work multiple muscle groups at once, meaning you can target muscles in your upper body and lower body all in one exercise – like the deadlift! Compound training can save you time by working several areas at once, you can basically get a full-body workout done within an hour. This also gives them the added benefits of allowing you to lift heavier weights. Since you’re engaging multiple muscles at once you’re able to easily increase weight and lift heavier than you would if you’re doing an isolation exercise, like leg extensions. This in turn helps you make progress faster.

Those with goals of maximizing muscle growth aren’t the only people who can benefit from these exercises. Other benefits of compound exercises include…

  • Helping improve mobility and coordination: You should have good mobility to begin with, but consistently practicing compound movements can help improve it even further. These exercises must be done correctly, and when you’re practicing technique and form, you’re also working your mobility on important joints like the hips, shoulders, knees, ankles, and wrists. They will also help improve your coordination! 
  • Accelerating the amount of calories burned: Muscle is metabolically active tissue so when you’re engaging more muscles you burn more calories compared to only working one muscle. Also, since you’re lifting heavier than usual you’re using up the glycogen stores in your body for energy!
  • Increasing heart rate: We all know that cardio is the best for improving cardiovascular health by increasing your heart rate, but heavy compound lifts also increase your heart rate and help you break a swear! This happens because you’re exerting more effort to lift the heavy weight. If you have a heart rate monitor while working out you’ll be able to notice the difference in your heart rate when performing a compound exercise as opposed to an isolation exercise.

Best compound movements for all fitness levels

As you can see, these types of exercises are essential for pretty much any type of training program! So, if you want to start training efficiently implement the compound exercises listed below.

We’ve included directions on how to do them, plus if you’re a beginner, we’ve included accessory lifts that will help you work your way up and improve on those heavy barbell lifts! 

Barbell deadlift

The barbell deadlift is known as the king of lifts – and its for a good reason! The deadlift works your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and core. Your upper arms and shoulders also help during the movements!

Technique and form are very important when deadlifting, as it is with any exercise! But deadlifting wrong can lead to a serious neck or back injury. Those new to deadlifting should practice accessory exercises before attempting the barbell deadlift.

How to do it:

  1. Carefully remove the barbell off the squat rack and place it on the floor so that its front and centered in front of you.
  2. Stand close to the bar with feet hip-width apart. Begin to bend at the hips and place your hands shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip (best for beginners). This is your starting position.
  3. To get into a proper deadlift position, begin to hinge your hips back until your shins are touching the bar. Before lifting the bar, press your chest up to help you naturally flatten your back. Keep your head and neck aligned with your back, don’t look up when lifting! Make sure your back and core are engaged and tight.
  4. Inhale deeply, and using your glutes and hamstrings straighten your hips to pull the bar up towards your waist.
  5. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, and then slowly bend at the hips to bring the bar down. Move slow and controlled (don’t drop the bar) and keep the bar close to your thighs.

Form and technique tips: Focus on pulling your shoulders back and tightening your back and lats to avoid hunching over. Your spine should remain in a neutral position. Also, don't hyperextend at the top of the movement, your spine should always remain neutral. So, don't completely lock out your knees at the top of the movement, instead stop once you're standing up straight.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Banded hip thrusts
  • Dumbbell deadlifts
  • Lat pulldowns
  • Dumbbell (or barbell) Romanian deadlifts
  • Rack pulls

Barbell rows

The barbell row is one of the best upper body compound movements because it works various major muscle groups in the upper body, while also working some lower body muscles. Barbell rows mainly work the lats (spans the width of your back), traps (upper and middle back), and biceps, but it also works the rear delts (the back of the shoulder), and your hamstring and core.

How to do it:

  1. Place the bar on the floor, or set it a hip level on the rack. Stand in front of the barbell with feet slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip, begin to bend your knees slightly, and bring your torso forward so it's at nearly an 80-degree angle. Make sure that your back is straight and your spine is neutral, and avoid looking up.
  3. Begin to lift the bar towards your body, making sure you're primarily using your hamstring and quads. Keep your elbows close to your sides.
  4. Squeeze your shoulders and back as you row the bar up, and at the top of the movement squeeze your shoulder blades for a second or two.
  5. Hinge at the hips to bring the bar back down a few inches away from the floor before moving on to the next rep.

Form and technique tips: Avoid bouncing the bar up. You want to move slow and controlled, but oftentimes, when the weight is too heavy, lifters bounce the bar up. To avoid doing this, lift the appropriate weight for your fitness level, focus on keeping your torso motionless and use your upper back and supporting muscles to pull the bar.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Cable rows
  • Reverse flyes
  • Single-arm dumbbell row
  • Inverted rows

Barbell squats

We can't have a list of the best compound exercises without including squats! Everyone knows and loves the squats because it's challenging, works multiple muscles, and there are so many variations to choose from. It's also a functional movement that we use in everyday life, so improving on your squat can improve daily life activities!

Barbell squats are also the easiest exercise for beginners to work up to because they can simply start by doing bodyweight squats! However, adding a barbell will achieve greater activation in your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors, while also improving knee and ankle mobility and strengthening your core.

How to do it: 

  1. Get beneath the bar to take it out of the rack, make sure it's comfortable resting on your rear shoulder muscles. Take two steps back and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing slightly out. 
  2. Make sure you're standing upright and look at a spot on the floor slightly ahead of you, begin to sit back down into a squat position.
  3. Keep your chest up and descend until your hip crease is below your knee. Try to go through the full range of motion, meaning drop the thighs just below parallel to the ground - however, those new to the barbell squat should work their way up to this!
  4. Pause, then make sure the weight is on your heels as you drive back up.

Form and technique tips: The squat is one of the easiest exercises to perform, but it's also the one many fail at when it comes to form. To avoid bad squat form, make sure that you're not hyperextending your back! Keep your chest up and shoulders back, and let the glutes naturally squeeze at the top, do not thrust hip forwards. There should only be a slight pelvic tilt. And make sure that your knees are tracking laterally above your feet. If they're too far out, they will collapse inward and put stress on your lower back.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Dumbbell squats
  • Dumbbell farmer walks
  • Split squats
  • Paused squats
  • Box squats

Dumbbell shoulder press

This compound lift is also known as the overhead press because of the movement. Although the barbell shoulder press is an excellent movement, it can be quite heavy for the shoulders. A dumbbell shoulder press is just as effective as engaging the muscles in your shoulders, while also working your chest, triceps, deltoids, rhomboid, and core.

How to do it: 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight while holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. To get into the starting position, lift the dumbbells to your shoulders with your arms open at your sides, so that the palms of your hands are facing forward while holding the weights.
  3. Begin the movement by pressing the dumbbells upward, until your hands are over your head and your arms are at full extension.
  4. Squeeze at the top, then go back and repeat.

Form and technique tips: The shoulder is one of the most delicate muscle groups because it's used in various everyday movements. To avoid a strain or injury, make sure to not overwork your shoulders and ensure that your core is engaged and activated throughout the movement. A strong core and back muscles will help prevent hyperextension of your back.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Lateral raises
  • Front plant raises
  • Seated Arnold press

Inclined bench press

The barbell bench press is a staple in many weightlifters training programs, as it should be. But it can put greater stress on your rotator cuff and the front deltoids. The inclined bench press is just as good and places a great focus on the upper pectoral muscles, and less of a stress on the rotator cuff. Essentially it puts the shoulders in a better position for pressing. Aside from working your upper chest and shoulders safely, it also targets your triceps.

How to do it: 

  1. Find an incline bench and adjust the seat to around 30 degrees, enough to have an incline but to so much that you fully leave the work to your shoulder muscles. Place it appropriately under the barbell, and grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Place your hands shoulder-width apart at a comfortable position.
  2. Take the bar off the rack and begin the movement by lifting it away from you until your arms are fully extended. Remember to lift in a straight line, without swinging the weight forward or backward.
  3. Pause for a moment, then lower the bar until it’s close to your chest, and repeat.

Form and technique tips: Keep your elbows at a 50-65 degree angle when the bar is close to your chest. So, don't flare your arms out, but don't keep them tucked in too close to your torso. A 90-degree angle will be too hard on your shoulders and take less of the press on your upper chest, which is the point of the exercise.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Incline chest press with resistance bands
  • Alternate front raises
  • Dumbbell pullovers
  • Chest flyes
  • Inclined dumbbell press


Aside from the push-up, planks are one of the best compound movements that only requires your body weight. Despite not requiring additional resistance, it's an extremely challenging exercise that works primarily your core - and if you didn't know, core strength is extremely important for your heavy lifts! It also works abdominals, lower back, glutes, shoulders, and upper arms. Pretty much your entire body! Not only that, it challenges your balance and coordination.

How to do it:

  1. Start on all fours making sure that your hands are below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Get into a push-up position by straightening your legs behind you, feet hip-width apart.
  2. Make sure your core is tight, and squeeze your glutes to help stabilize your body so that your hips aren't sagging down towards the floor. Your head should be in line with your back, so make sure to neutralize your neck and spine by looking at a spot on the floor slightly ahead of your hands.
  3. Hold that pose for about 30 seconds. The more you practice, the longer you will be able to maintain that pose.

Form and technique tips: If you're still struggling with your hips sagging towards the floor, walk your feet out a little bit to help stabilize yourself. Unnecessary shrugging is another common mistake people make, to avoid it make sure that your shoulders are wide and palms also wide on the floor. Broadening your shoulders takes some of the press off of your upper body and places a greater focus on working the core muscles.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Elbow plank
  • Table top plank
  • Incline plank
  • Side plank

Tricep dips

This is another great exercise that requires no additional weight to feel the burn! As you can already tell, tricep dips primarily work your tricep muscles (all three heads), but it also engages your shoulders, core, and abs.

How to do it: 

  1. Find a bench or a chair and sit on it with your hands just outside of your hips and your knees bent, or you can extend your legs in front of you to make the exercise more challenging.
  2. Lift your body with your hands, bend your elbows while bringing your hips forward, and begin to lower your body towards the floor.
  3. Make sure to keep your shoulders down, your abs engaged, and your elbows pointing back until they’re at about 50-90 degrees and your glutes are almost touching the floor.
  4. Pause for a moment, then push back to the starting position and repeat.

Form and technique tips: Avoid locking your elbows when moving back up to the starting position. Instead, keep them slightly soft to maintain the tension on your chest. Try not to lean too forward, this will work your chest instead of the triceps.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

Walking lunges

Although squats and deadlift exercises are the compound movements lifters prioritize, don't neglect walking lunges! Walking lunges are one of the most challenging exercises because it requires balance while walking since you have to shift your weight as you move forward. It's a killer leg exercise that works your quads, hamstrings, calves, and core. But adding dumbbells, a kettlebell, or even a barbell can increase the resistance and also work areas in your upper body.

How to do it: 

  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart, this will be your starting position.
  2. Begin by stepping your right leg forward, bent into your knee, and lower down until your rear knee is nearly touching the ground. Avoid leaning your torso forward from your hips.
  3. Begin pushing through the heel of your front foot, stand back up to take a step forward with your opposite leg, and repeat the movement.
  4. Continue walking forward, alternating your legs into a lunge position.

Form and technique tips: Pay attention to your foot placement when moving forward. You don't want them too close together or else you'll lose your balance. Keep feet roughly hip-distance apart or slightly wider. Alignment of the front knee is another common mistake people make. The knee should remain in alignment with the toes throughout the exercise. Avoid the knees from caving inward by moving slow and controlled and engaging the hips ad glutes. This will help make sure the knee is aligned with your toes.

Accessory exercises for beginners:

  • Farmer walks
  • Split squats
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Stationary front lunge

    Implementing these compound exercises will make a huge difference in your strength training program. Just remember, if you're new to using barbells, work on strengthening and building muscle with the listed accessory exercises before moving on to heavier weights!

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    The Best Compound Exercises to Train Efficiently