What are compound exercises?

What are compound exercises? They’re great movements to target several body parts, but here’s how else you can benefit from them

Man squatting with a kettlbell
(Image credit: Getty)

What are compound exercises? You have probably heard that they are good for adding to your workout regime but what exactly are compound exercises?

Essentially, they’re movements that target several muscle groups at once. They’re useful to include in your regime as they’re efficient and they help to improve strength in several areas of the body. These moves are great for those who are time poor and don’t have hours to spend targeting several muscle groups individually. 

Whilst you can do compound exercises without equipment - performing the bodyweight versions - one of the best kettlebells, or a set of the best adjustable dumbbells, or a barbell is an ideal way of making compound exercises work a little harder. 

Compound exercises can be done at home or in the gym. They can be worked into HIIT workouts, Crossfit-style workouts, and any form of gym-based workout. In fact, you might already be including compound exercises into your workouts without even realizing it.

Not sure what’s what when it comes to compound exercises? We spoke to Chelsea Labadini, Personal Trainer and Founder of Chelsea Labadini’s Online Coaching (opens in new tab)

Chelsea Labadini
Chelsea Labadini

Chelsea Labadini is a qualified Personal Trainer with a Level 2 & 3 personal training diploma. She educates women about results-based fitness and helps get their body confidence back without fad diets and excessive exercise regimes.
Chelsea is passionate about dispelling the fitness myths which have shaped the mindset and training regimes of so many women, often with unrealistic goals and restrictive diets that take the fun out of life.

What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises offer serious bang for your buck as they work multiple muscle groups. So the main thing to note is that any movement which requires you to use more than one muscle group at a time is classed as a compound exercise. Take the deadlift for example; this move works the hamstrings, back, core, upper body, and glutes. 

“Compound exercises are some of the most widely used exercises, and the sort that you may have been performing without realizing,” says Chelsea. They include squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and bench presses, to name just a few. 

Chelsea adds that compound exercises are different from isolation exercises such as sit-ups or bicep curls. Isolation exercises focus on a specific muscle group, with little input from other muscles. In fact, these isolation exercises do exactly what they say on the tin; they isolate a muscle group.

Man performing a barbell deadlift

(Image credit: Getty)

The benefits of compound exercises

“Compound exercises offer a number of benefits, but the first and foremost is that they work multiple muscles at a time, making them more efficient,” explains Chelsea.

“Squats are a compound exercise in that they are working several muscles including the quads, hamstrings and glutes.”

So rather than individual movements that target these muscles, you can hit them all with one movement. This saves on time; ideal for busy people.

Chelsea also says that engaging multiple muscle groups also makes burning calories more efficient and allows you to lift a heavier load, which can accelerate strength gains. 

“The beauty of compound exercises is they work for everyone,” adds Chelsea.

“As you get stronger and more confident with your form you can progress the exercise by increasing the weight or the amount of reps. It’s certainly a more rewarding way to train instead of merely exercising to burn calories.”

Plus, compound exercises help to build useful everyday strength as many of the movement patterns elicit those of everyday life, such as squats. This is a movement that many of us do every day when we squat down to pick something off the floor.

“Compound exercises are often functional movement patterns that can improve our day-to-day lives,” says Chelsea. 

Added to this, there’s the cardio benefits of doing compound exercises. As these movements target multiple muscle groups, they elevate the heart rate, which can also work the cardiovascular system.

There have also been studies done on the benefits of single vs multiple joint exercises with regards to muscle strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth). Research has found that both single joint (such as a bicep curl) and multiple joint (such as the lat pulldown) exercises are both equally effective for promoting an increase in muscle strength. However, it’s important to note that this focused solely on the upper body.  

Man lunging while carrying two kettlebells

(Image credit: Getty)

Do you need weight to perform compound exercises?

Put simply, no, you don’t necessarily have to use weights when performing compound exercises. 

“If you are a beginner or have no access to equipment, then you can use your own body weight as resistance for compound exercises. This includes squats, lunges, split squats, press ups and pull ups,” says Chelsea. 

To make the bodyweight compound exercises a little tougher, Chelsea recommends doing as many reps as you can until the last few are hard as this is when you are recruiting the most muscle fibers.

Then rest and repeat so you have done at least three sets.

Five beginner compound exercises

“Perfect these beginner compound exercises, and you are good to go,” says Chelsea.

“These exercises are the foundation movement patterns in a good workout program no matter how experienced the person is.”

Squat  

Chelsea Labadini performing a squat

(Image credit: Chelsea Labadini)

Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and have a slight turn out of your toes. Take a breath in and brace your core and sit your bum back as your knees bend. As you come back up to standing, imagine pushing your feet through the floor. Exhale when you get back to standing.

You can use dumbbells or a barbell across your back for this move.

Press up

Chelsea Labadini performing a press up

(Image credit: Getty)

Start in a high plank position with your hands flat on the floor. Don’t forget to also engage your glutes and your core. Bend your elbows and lower your chest down towards the floor. Exhale as you push up and imagine pushing the floor away from you through your hands! 

Lunge  

Chelsea Labadini performing a lunge

(Image credit: Chelsea Labadini)

Start with feet about hip-width apart. With lunges, you want most of the weight in the working leg (the one that stays static). Bring one leg back keeping your core tight and shoulder blades together. Your knee should hover just off the ground before pushing up through your front heel and returning to the start position. 

Again, you can add dumbbells or a barbell for this move.

Bent over row 

Chelsea Labadini performing a bent over row

(Image credit: Chelsea Labadini)

Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing each other. Hinge your bum back whilst keeping your shoulder blades together and bring your torso so it’s roughly parallel to the floor or slightly above. Keep your spine neutral and drive your elbows back. Imagine putting the weight into your pocket as the elbows drive back then return to the starting position slowly.  

Romanian deadlift  

Chelsea Labadini performing a Romanian deadlift

(Image credit: Chelsea Labadini)

Probably the hardest one to master but practice makes perfect! Start in a standing position with soft knees. Have your feet hip width apart. Hinge your bum back and lead the movement with your bum. Imagine pushing your bum to the back of the room. As your bum goes back, keep your back engaged and spine neutral. imagine painting your legs with dumbbells (don’t let them swing away from you). The weights should stop about mid-shin height. Drive through your feet (imagine pushing into your heels) to extend the hips and knees to return to standing.

Still looking for more answers to your fitness questions? Read on to find out what is a bench press? Or perhaps you want to know what is the core muscle, and start building up strength and muscle there.