What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises are exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. For example, a squat is a compound exercise that works the quadriceps, glutes, and calves.

You can also do compound exercises that combine two exercises into one move to target even more muscles (for example, a lunge with a bicep curl).

Compound exercises differ from isolation exercises. Those work a single muscle group at a time. A traditional bicep curl is an isolation exercise meant to strengthen the biceps, for example.

Isolation exercises are sometimes beneficial in physical therapy to strengthen certain muscles or rehabilitate them after injury.

Read on to learn about the benefits of compound exercises with examples, ways to add them into your workout routine, and tips to keep you safe.

The biggest benefit of compound exercises may be that they are an efficient use of your time. If you only have a limited amount of time to exercise, you’ll work more muscles and build more strength by focusing on compound exercises.

Other benefits include:

1. Deadlift

Equipment needed: barbell (optional; can add weights to barbell for additional challenge)

Muscles targeted: forearms, lats, glutes, hamstrings, core, upper-, mid-, and lower back

  1. Stand with barbell on floor, feet hip-width apart, toes under bar.
  2. Drive your hips back, keeping your core tight and your spine neutral as you squat down. Your back should remain flat, not curved.
  3. Grasp the bar with your hands. Your hands should be placed on the bar slightly wider than your thighs.
  4. Keep knees soft and push through your heels as you start to lift.
  5. Pull the bar up so your hips and the bar rise at the same time, keeping bar close to your body as you lift.
  6. Finish in a tall stance with a glute squeeze at the top.
  7. Slowly lower the bar to the ground while hinging at the hips.
  8. Perform 10 to 12 reps and rest for at least 30 to 60 seconds between sets. Work up to 3 sets.

2. Reverse lunge to balance with bicep curl

Equipment needed: set of dumbbells

Muscles targeted: glutes, hamstrings, abs, hips, biceps

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your arms should be extended down with your palms facing the body.
  2. Step backward with right foot and lower hips and legs into a lunge position.
  3. Anchor your left foot into the ground and bring your right foot forward to return to standing. At the top, stay balanced on the left foot, and don’t let the right foot touch the ground.
  4. Perform a bicep curl with both arms at the same time.
  5. Return right leg into lunge position, bringing arms back down and dumbbells parallel to the body.
  6. Repeat 6 to 8 reps on the right leg before switching to the left.
  7. Rest 60 to 90 seconds after completing the left side. Complete 2 to 3 sets.

3. Squat

Equipment needed: none

Muscles targeted: quadriceps, glutes, and calves

  1. Start with feet slightly wider than hip-width, toes turned slightly out.
  2. Keep your chest up and out, engage your abdominals, and shift your weight back into your heels as you push your hip back.
  3. Lower yourself into a squat until your thighs are parallel or almost parallel to the floor. Your knees should remain aligned over your second toe.
  4. Keep your chest out and core tight as you push through your heels to stand back up to your starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
  5. Perform 10 to 15 reps. Work up to 3 sets.

4. Front lunge with twist

Equipment needed: none

Muscles targeted: glutes, hamstrings, abs, hips

  1. Stand up tall with feet shoulder-width apart and with your arms outstretched in front of you.
  2. Step the right foot forward into a lunge position, keeping your arms outstretched. Your front leg should form a 90-degree angle and your knee should not extend beyond your toes. Your back leg will also form a 90-degree angle.
  3. In the lunge position, twist your upper body to the right, then twist back to the center.
  4. Return right leg to starting position and lunge forward to repeat movement with the left leg.
  5. Perform 8 to 10 lunges on each leg. Work up to 3 sets.

5. Dumbbell shoulder press on exercise ball

Equipment needed: set of dumbbells, ab or exercise ball

Muscles targeted: abs, deltoids, pectoralis major, triceps brachii

  1. Begin seated on an exercise ball with your core engaged. Hold one dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Place dumbbells on your thighs to start and then use your thighs to help you propel dumbbells up to shoulder height, at a 90-degree angle with elbows to the sides and dumbbells facing forward.
  3. Press dumbbells straight up until your arms are straight overhead.
  4. Slowly return your arms to a 90-degree angle, with your elbow in the shoulder height position. Don’t go lower than this or you’ll put pressure on your shoulder joint.
  5. Perform 12 to 15 reps. Work up to 3 sets.

6. High plank T-spine rotation

Equipment needed: none

Muscles worked: abs, shoulders

  1. Start in a push-up position, arms under shoulders, with your core engaged. Legs should be about hip-width distance apart for this exercise.
  2. Squeeze thighs and glutes while anchoring right hand straight into the floor.
  3. Lift left arm up and twist your hips and shoulders toward the left, pressing them up toward the ceiling.
  4. Bring left arm down to the ground and “anchor” left hand straight into the floor.
  5. Alternate and twist so the right arm is in the air.
  6. Perform 8 to 10 reps on each side. Work up to 3 sets.

If you’re a healthy adult, you should be able to safely perform compound exercises two to three days each week:

  • Focus on multiple muscle groups each day. Wait at least 48 hours between strength training sessions to allow muscles to rest.
  • Or you can alternate between upper body-focused compound exercises on one day and lower body-focused ones at your next training session.

You can also add cardio days to your weekly workout schedule to get your heart rate up, burn fat, and reduce calories. You can do cardio on the days you are resting from strength training.

Compound exercises, like deadlifts, require a specific technique to help you stay safe and avoid injury.

Work with a trainer or fitness professional when performing these exercises, especially if you’ve never performed the move before. They can observe you to make sure your technique is OK.

Eventually, you may be able to safely do the moves on your own. Still, it’s always a good idea to bring a workout buddy who can spot you.

If you’re a beginner, talk to a trainer or fitness professional at your gym. They can help you figure out which weights to start with. A good rule of thumb is to start with a light weight that you can comfortably do 10 to 15 repetitions with for one set.

If you feel stable and comfortable, increase the weight for the second and third set. You should “feel the burn” during the last few repetitions but never feel unstable.

Drink water between sets and stop the workout if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or unwell.

Compound exercises are an efficient and effective way to maximize your time in the gym. Try to mix up your workout routine every few weeks and add new compound exercises.

The variety will help you work more muscle groups, prevent plateauing, and prevent boredom.

If you aren’t sure how to properly perform a compound exercise, ask a trainer or fitness professional at your gym. They can show you the right technique so you avoid injury.

Before starting a new exercise routine, see your doctor. They can recommend a safe workout schedule for your fitness level.