The Best Compound Exercises for Gaining Muscle
by Evelyn Valdez·
When it comes to strength training to increase muscle mass or strength, most of your workout effort should be going to compound movements because that is what will get you maximal results. Although isolation exercises are great for targeting specific muscles, compound exercises utilize multiple joints which means more muscles are recruited to complete the move, in turn, this creates more stimulus for muscle growth. Essentially you are working out as much muscle as possible for multiple body parts efficiently. This is why if you want to build muscle and have sexy curves then a bulk of your workout routine should be composed of these types of exercises and a few isolation exercises to focus extensively on any given muscle group. Doing this will help push your workouts to the next level and towards more progress!
To help you make strides on your journey, we're going to tell you more about why you should include these moves in your routine and give you our favorite five compound lifts that will help you gain muscle in all the right places 😏
WHAT ARE COMPOUND EXERCISES AND WHY ARE THEY SO GREAT?
They are multi-joint exercises that work multiple muscles or muscle groups simultaneously. It's a pretty simple concept, that gives you maximum return for your effort! To further understand it, let's take a look at squats for example. It's one of the most popular exercises because it's a compound movement that works the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core muscles. Opposed to a leg isolation movement like leg extensions that mainly work the hamstring muscle. Both exercises are great, but you're getting more bang for your buck with the squat! This doesn't mean isolation exercises should be neglected, they should simply be second priority.
Aside from being miracle workers when it comes to building muscle, here are other benefits of compound exercises and what makes them so great...
- They’re efficient – If you have a busy schedule or simply want to spend less time at the gym then compound moves will save you time by working several areas at once... You can get a full-body workout within an hour!
- They allow you to lift heavier weights - When doing compound moves, you're relying on more than one muscle group which makes it easier for you to increase the weight and lift heavier than you normally would. Fortunately, this is exactly what you need to make progress!
- They burn massive amounts of calories - Since these movements require you to engage more muscle, specifically metabolically active tissue, they burn calories to a greater extent than isolation exercises. Especially since compound moves are typically done with heavier loads which means you use more of the glycogen stored up in your muscles.
- They get your heart rate up and help you break a sweat - Cardio isn't the only workout that helps you break a sweat! When done right, strength exercises can get your heart rate up just as much as cardio. That's because you're using several muscles to lift a heavy load, this naturally increases your exertion which in turn increases your heart rate.
- They help improve mobility and coordination - Compound movements are complex and take time to master because they require good technique and form in order to build muscle. To do them correctly you must have a good amount of joint mobility - Hips, shoulders, knees, ankles, and wrists. So not only will you be improving your strength, but you'll also improve your mobility and your coordination along the way since one of your focus points will be on your technique.
THE BEST COMPOUND EXERCISES AND VARIATIONS
There are 5 key exercises that you should be practicing consistently with a barbell or other free weights like kettlebells or dumbbells. We'll give you the info on why you should include these in your routine and give you instructions on how to do them with proper technique, plus give you a list of variations that can help you make even more progress.
Just to note, we will be focusing on barbell exercises, but feel free to choose a piece of equipment that fits your fitness level!
This is the number one compound lift that you should have in your training program's rotation. It's one of the best moves because it works various muscles, including your hamstrings, lower back, glutes, hip flexors, and core while still using your arms and shoulders!
As with all of these exercises, technique and form are of the utmost importance, especially when it comes to deadlifting. Not only to minimize the risk of injury but to make sure you're targeting the intended muscle group (lower body) and hitting weaker areas like the posterior chain. The key is to keep your back straight throughout the entire exercise, core engaged, and focus on lifting with your glutes and hamstrings, not your upper body.
Here's how to do it:
- Approach the barbell bar and stand in front of it centered and with feet hip-width apart. Bend at the hips to grab the bar and place your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Inhale deeply and extend the hips and knees to full extension, shins should be touching the bar.
- Begin to lift the bar by driving through the heels and keeping your chest up, back straight, and shoulders back. Once the bar passes your knees, pull it back so your hips drive forwards into the bar.
- Get back into the starting position by bending at the hips to lower the bar.
Note: Although this is an advanced move, it's one that new lifters should practice with dumbbells or long resistance bands to nail the movement and technique before moving on to the barbell. So if you're a beginner try doing this exercise with the piece of equipment or weight that fits your fitness level.
If you want to improve on your deadlifts or want to target specific muscle groups try another one of these variations:
- Romanian deadlifts: Also known as a stiff-legged deadlift, this exercise places a greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. You can do this exercise with a barbell, or work your way up by using a pair of dumbbells.
- Single-leg deadlift: This exercise works a single leg at a time to challenge your balance and stability. This is a great exercise to help you develop better core strength which can help you increase the weight on your deadlifts!
- Sumo deadlift: This deadlift variation involves having an extra-wide stance to switch the primary muscles used. It takes the focus off of your lower back and the hips so that the hamstrings and quads start doing the work!
Although everyone should be implementing deadlifts into their routines, most prefer to squat, that is why this one is the most popular compound exercise. The reason so many people love it for lower body gains is because it targets your quads, lower back, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and core. Another thing that makes this the most loved lower body exercise is because there are so many variations that make it easier and more challenging. So beginners can start by focusing on technique and getting deep by doing bodyweight squats, then move to resistance band squats, dumbbell squats, and more advanced variations.
But in terms of building muscle mass, nothing beats the good ole' barbell back squat. With good form, it'll help build your lower body and even improve your posture!
Here's how to do it:
- 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.
- Make sure you're standing upright and look at a spot on the floor slightly ahead of you, begin to sit back down.
- 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.
- Pause, then make sure the weight is on your heels as you drive back up.
Note: If you can't go through the full range of motion just go as deep as you can with correct form. Do not sacrifice your form to go deep. Instead, start working towards getting deeper by practicing with a lower weight or by using only your body weight.
We have an entire article dedicated to The Best Squat Variations to help change things up in your routine and drive better progress!
Many women think this exercise is only for men, but this lift is beneficial for everyone! Here's why it's a must-do upper body exercise, it works the following muscles - Pectoral, triceps, deltoids, rhomboid (back muscles), and core. Plus there are so many variations you can do to emphasize different muscles, like close grip, wide grip, inclined, declined, use dumbbells or a barbell. Each of these variations will work a different part of your pectoral muscles and supporting muscles, so be sure to switch up different variations in your workout to ensure you're hitting them all!
Here's how to do it:
- Lie on a flat bench, then hold the bar with an overhand grip and hands shoulder-width apart.
- Begin to lift the bar from the rack and hold it above your upper chest with your arms straight.
- Inhale and slowly lower the bar until it touches the middle of your chest. Your elbows will be bent slightly when the weight is down.
- Exhale and begin to push the bar upward using your chest muscles. At the top squeeze your chest and repeat.
Note: The barbell bench press is an advanced move, if you're a beginner work your way up to this move by using a long resistance band or dumbbells with a weight that fits your fitness levels. This will help you practice form and build up those chest muscles so they're able to lift heavier.
Variations to help you switch things up and train every single muscle:
- Incline bench press: Bench pressing at an angle will activate more muscles, especially in the middle and anterior deltoids. For beginners, use a pair of dumbbells and a slightly inclined bench.
- Close grip bench press: If you want to place a greater focus on your triceps, tighten your grip on your bench press. This will place a greater focus on the triceps than the chest muscles.
- Paused bench press: The simplest way to add some variation to your chest press is by increasing the time under tension. Pause mid-rep for a few seconds, this is good for hypertrophy and it eliminates momentum which means you're really testing your strength!
Standing Overhead Press
This exercise, also known as the shoulder press, gets your shoulders burning like crazy! That's because not only does it engage the shoulder muscles, it also engages your chest and arms to help you lift the weight over your head. To get more specific, it works the pectoral, triceps, deltoids, rhomboid, and core.
Here's how to do it:
- Stand with the bar on your front shoulders, grab it with an overhand grip, and hands placed shoulder-width apart. Lift the bar from the rack and walk back a few steps.
- Look straight ahead making sure your back is straight, not arched, and core muscles braced.
- Begin to press the bar directly overhead until it's balanced over your shoulders. Make sure not to tilt your hips forward during the movement.
- Begin to slowly go back to the starting position.
Note: Overhead presses might sound easy, but they are an advanced move. So be careful with your form when doing this exercise, the shoulder muscles are notorious for getting strained or injured easily. Also, pick a weight or piece of equipment that fits your fitness level. And in case you need it, here are some tips on how to work out your shoulders safely.
Variations to help you build shoulders like boulders:
- Landmine press: This is a great variation for anyone experiencing shoulder pain. The curing path and the neutral grip make it an easier variation than vertical presses.
- Kettlebell press: This is a single-arm variation that can fix muscle imbalances and also challenge your shoulders before you hit the barbell press. This movement is also gentle on the wrists and elbows!
- The clean press: This is an advanced bodybuilding exercise that involves your entire body, not only your shoulders. The clean part of the movement helps to target your hamstrings, glutes, and hips, while the press works your shoulders, back, arms, and chest.
If you're not doing pull-ups, then you at least have to be doing barbell rows, or dumbbell rows! This is one of the best exercises to help strengthen and build back muscles. It works the lats, traps, rhomboids, and lower back. But don't make common technique mistakes like standing up too straight (puts strain on the back) and bringing your elbows out sideways instead of bringing them straight. You want to ensure that your knees are slightly bent to help support your lower back and that your movements are slow and controlled, with no jerking or bouncing in order to get another rep in.
Here's how to do it:
- Grasp the bar with a wide overhand grip, begin to bend your knees slightly and bring your torso forward by bending it at about an 80-degree angle, keeping your back straight until it's almost parallel to the floor.
- Your head should be up and your arms hanging perpendicular to the floor and your torso. Begin to lift the bar towards your body keeping your elbows close to your sides.
- Once you're at the top of the movement, squeeze your back muscles and pause. Then inhale and slowly lower the bar.
Note: There are two places you can stop the movement to target more specific areas. Like you can either pull it to the belly button which will activate the lats more or closer to the chest to hit more of the middle/upper back. Also if you're a beginner, you can start this move by using dumbbells.
Train different back muscles with these variations:
- Dumbbell row: Training with dumbbells is just as effective as training with barbells, so don't neglect the classic dumbbell row! This exercise is beneficial because it isolates and trains one side of the body at once and it allows you to lift more weight with each arm than you can when rowing with the barbell.
- Chest supported row: This row variation prevents momentum so you can't cheat the weight up! This will help make sure that your back and upper arms are doing most of the work.
There you have it, the five best compound lifts that you should start doing ASAP! We aren't saying these are the only five, there are other great compound exercises like lunges, hip thrusts, push-ups, step-ups, and more that you should include in your routine. These are just the five main ones that you can use in any routine and workout your entire body!
Although these exercises are miracle workers, there is a catch. If you want to get maximal results, you have to give maximal effort! The best way to implement them into your routine is by using a heavy weight, keeping the reps low (5-8), proper form and technique, and long rests in between sets. Obviously, if you're new to weightlifting you won't be able to use the heaviest weight at the gym, instead use a weight that's heavy to you. You might be surprised to find that you are able to lift heavier with these exercises since they use almost your entire body. As you start to consistently perform these exercises, your body will start adapting to the movements and as you make progress you steadily increase the weight (think progressive overload). Start doing this and the gains will start slowly coming in!
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