10 Best compound exercises for muscle growth and strength

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Kevin Mangelschots

Going to the gym is becoming ever so popular these days. Some people do so for their overall health, others to look good, and some to become stronger and/or bigger.

But whatever your goal is, compound exercises are the front-runners in regard to building muscular size and strength.

These are my 10 best compound exercises to gain size and force.

Best compound leg exercises

The following list consists of the best compound leg exercises to put on mass and strength.

  • Deadlifts

    A young woman deadlifting in the gym.

    The deadlift is perhaps the most important compound exercise there exists. It literally works the entire body because the upper body has to support the weight while the lower body has to lower and raise the barbell.

    The deadlift primarily trains the quadriceps and glutes, but the core and hamstrings are being trained as well.

  • Squats

    Image of a man performing a back squat with a barbell.
    Image of a man performing a back squat with a barbell.

    Squats are another great compound exercise. While they primarily train the quadriceps, adductors and glutes, they also train the abdominal muscles and the erector spinae isometrically.

    Not to mention that the legs are a big muscle group and thus, large amounts of weight can be moved. This will lead to more muscle and strength gains as well.

Best compound back exercises

On to the best compound back exercises, then to get bigger and stronger.

  • Pulldowns

    Woman wrong and right lat pulldown posture, illustration

    A pulldown is a machine exercise designed to develop the back muscles. More specifically, the latissimus dorsi. Not only that, but pull downs also work the trapezius, pectoralis minor, the biceps brachii, brachialis and the brachioradialis mucles of the elbow joint.

    The pulldown is an open-chain movement, which means that it uses external weights with a fixed body rather than a fixed bar and a moving body.

  • Pull-up

    Picture of a man performing a pull-up from a pull-up bar.

    Pull-ups are very similar to pull downs. The biggest difference is that pull ups make use of the own body as resistance and a fixed bar instead of an external weight and a fixed body like is the case with pull-downs.

    Furthermore, the pull-up is a closed-chain movement. This means that the exercise is performed where the hand or foot, depending on the exercise, is secured in location and cannot move. These exercises are usually weight-bearing exercises such as squats, push-ups, and pull-ups.

  • Bent over rows

    Picture of a woman performing bent over barbell rows in the gym.

    Bent-over-rows are another back training exercise. It is a popular exercise in both powerlifting and bodybuilding.

    It targets the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius and the posterior deltoids specifically. But the spinae erector, core muscles, biceps, forearms, hamstrings and glutes are being trained as well. Albeit as secondary muscles.

    Multiple different variations of bent over rows exist such as the T-bar row, rack row, inverted row, seal row, meadows row, the prone row and the isometric dumbbell row.

Best compound chest exercises

These are the best compound chest exercises that I’ve personally found to be effective for gaining strength and muscle mass.

  • Bench press

    Picture of a man lying down on a bench and in the starting position of a bench press with a man spotting him.

    Bench press is undisputedly the single best exercise to build a large chest. It is done by pressing a barbell, or dumbbells upwards while lying down on a weight training bench.

    Bench pressing is most often done with a barbell, but can also be performed with dumbbells. However, the weight one can stack on dumbbells is limited compared to a barbell.

    The bench press targets primarily the pectoralis major, deltoideus anterior and the Triceps and anconeus to extend the elbows. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t more muscles involved. The serratus anterior, trapezius and core are important stabilizers to a successful bench press with correct technique.

    Multiple variations of the regular flat bench press exist, such as the incline bench press and the decline bench press.

    Multiple grips of the bench press exist in order to make it more challenging or easier, like a narrow grip or a wide grip. Both focus on different muscle groups slightly.

  • Dips

    Image of a person performing dips between two parallel bars.

    Dips primarily target the chest, triceps and the anterior part of the deltoid.

    To do dips with the proper form, you’ll need two parallel bars. Grab both bars, jump up and straighten both your arms out. Next, lower your arms due to bending your arms while leaning forward to maintain balance. Drop down until your shoulders are below your elbows. Finally, straighten both arms again until you are in the starting position again and lock both elbows out.

  • Push-ups

    Illustration of a person performing push-ups.

    Push-ups are a great compound exercise for beginners. This exercise can be performed with just your body weight or, if you’re a more intermediate trainee, with added weight on your back for more resistance.

    Push-ups target primarily the pectorals (chest) but also hit the triceps and the deltoids (shoulder).

    Different variations of the regular push up exist such as the wide hands push-up, the strict military push up, the pike push up. Variations also exist to make the exercise easier, such as the knee push-up and the wall push-up.

Best compound shoulder exercises

And last but not least, the best compound shoulder exercises to complete the list.

  • Overhead press

    Illustration of a woman performing a dumbbell overhead shoulder press.

    On to the overhead press. The overhead press mainly targets the deltoids, pectorals, the triceps, and the trapezius. Furthermore, it requires a considerable amount of isometric muscle tension of the core to remain upright. This includes recruiting the abdominals and lower back.

    An overhead press is set up by taking a barbell or, alternatively, a dumbbell and putting it in a racking position. The barbell or dumbbells with the weights on it is then pressed overhead.

    The exercise can be performed standing or sitting down. Standing recruits more muscles due to having to balance standing up. But performing the exercise standing up also potentially leaves more chance and room to compensate using different muscle groups.

    Variations of the overhead press include the seated press, Arnold press, Olympic press, kettlebell press, behind the neck press, military press, dumbbell overhead press.

  • Arnold press

    Our last compound movement is the Arnold press.

    The Arnold press is named after, yes, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. It is basically an overhead press, but with an added rotation at the end of the lift.

    To perform an Arnold press, start with both palms facing your chest while holding two dumbbells. Make sure to hold the dumbbells close to your chest. Next, slowly push the dumbbells up while rotating slowly so that the palms of your hands are facing forward, away from your body at the end of the lift.

    The Arnold press targets the three heads of the deltoideus more effectively than the overhead press while also requiring a great amount of stabilization from your rotator cuff.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What are compound exercises?

Illustration of a man scratching their head while holding a yellow question mark.

A compound exercise, also commonly called compound movements, is a multijoint exercise that works several muscles at the same time. In other words: multiple joints and their respective muscles are being trained at the same time.

A good example which almost every person knows is the squat. The squat works the core and legs muscles all at once, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back and the core muscles.

The following study about compound vs isolation exercises found that compound lifts are great strength builders because they use multiple large muscle groups at the same time. That’s why they’re often used in the gym to gain a strong and solid foundation.

Conclusion

Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

This list are the 10 best compound exercises in my opinion to increase your strength and muscle mass.

Not just that, since compound movements recruit multiple muscle groups, they are often great functional exercises that possess considerable utility and carry over in real life. For example, the squat, deadlift and bent over row are great examples due to their similarities of picking something up from the ground with the correct technique and posture.

Whatever your goals are, compound exercises should make up the majority of your training program. That’s not to say that isolation exercises are bad, or that they don’t have their own specific benefits, of course.