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The Ultimate Guide to Compound Movements

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Matthew Smith

Staff Writer


Introduction

A compound movement is any exercise or movement that requires the use of more than one muscle group. In resistance training there are compound movements and isolation movements (exercises which focus on just one muscle group). Most people think that there are only a few compound movements, but actually, almost all exercises are compound movements, with very few isolation movements.

In this guide we are going to be looking at a wide selection of the best compound movements that are available for each muscle group. We will also take a look at the benefits of compound movements.

Compound Movement Library

In this section we are going to take a look at the different compound movements that are available to you. We have split them up into leg dominant, chest dominant, back dominant, and shoulder dominant, but remember that a lot of these exercises work multiple muscle groups and could technically fit into different groups. The deadlift for example could fit into the leg dominant group, but also the back-dominant group.

Each exercise that we mention will contain a link to a YouTube video and an exercise description so that you know how to perform it. This is not an exhaustive list, just a few examples.

Deadlift

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Stand on a flat surface with a barbell in front of you and some weighted plates on either side, if you are not strong enough to have weighted plates on the bar then consider performing a rack pull or kettlebell deadlift instead. Walk forward so that the barbell is directly over the middle of your feet. This point is where you would tie your laces.

Your feet should be about shoulder width apart with your toes pointed out slightly. Grab the bar using either an overhand or mixed grip, with your hands just outside of your knees. At this point your posture will be looking terrible.

Push your chest out and bring your shoulders back, this will straighten your back. Take a deep breath and hold it, then pull the bar upwards, pushing your hips forward as you do. Breathe out as you straighten up, pause at the top of the movement with glutes squeezed. Lower the bar back to the ground by pushing your hips backwards and maintaining that flat back. When the barbell touches the ground pause and then repeat the movement.

Variations include Sumo deadlifts, kettlebell deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, rack-pulls, wide grip deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, single-legged Romanian deadlifts

Barbell Squat

Stand on a flat surface, ideally in a squat rack. If in the squat rack walk underneath the barbell and place it on your upper back so that it is resting on your trapezius muscle. Grab the bar tightly using an overhand grip. Walk the bar backwards out of the rack and stand still with it resting on your traps.

Your feet should be shoulder width apart or slightly wider with toes pointed outwards. Take a deep breath and then slowly lower your glutes as if you were about to sit down on a very low chair. Keep your chest pushed out throughout the movement. Once your thighs are parallel (or lower) to the ground pause and then rise back upwards to the starting position. Keep your heels flat on the floor throughout.

Variations include bodyweight squats, sumo squats, hack squats, goblet squats.

Lunges

Stand upright with chest pushed out, shoulders back, and feet together. Take a large step forward and raise your back heel off the ground, drop your back knee down towards the ground until your front thigh is parallel to the ground and then take a large step forward with your other leg. Repeat the movement again and again until you have performed enough reps. These are walking lunges.

Variations include barbell walking lunges, dumbbell walking lunges, static lunges, step ups.

Bench Press

Lie on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand, have both dumbbells touching with your arms above your chest and arms almost locked out. Lower the weights down to your chest by bringing your arms down by your sides in an arc with elbows flared out. Once the weights have reached chest height push the dumbbells back upwards and, in an arc, until they are touching again.

Variations include barbell bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, close-grip bench press, wide-grip bench press.

Push Ups

Place both hands on the floor so that they are in line with your shoulders, your thumbs should be just touching your armpit and your body should be in a straight line with toes touching the ground. With elbows flared out push yourself off the floor until your arms are straight. Pause, and then slowly lower yourself down until your chest is almost touching the ground, pause and then push back up again.

Variations include diamond push ups, wide push ups, close push ups, plyometric push ups, clapping push ups, box push ups.

Pull Up

Grab hold of a pull up bar using a shoulder-width grip (overhand). Push your chest out so you are at a very slight angle and then use your lats and biceps to pull yourself up until your sternum is in line with the pull up bar. Pause, and then very slowly lower your body back down until you reach the starting position.

Variations include chin ups, wide-grip pull ups, close-grip pull ups, inverted rows.

Bent Over Row

Grab a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and get into position, your chest should be pushed out and shoulders back, then you need to bend forward at the waist until your chest is almost parallel to the floor with the barbell directly below your chest. Now you want to pull the bar towards the center of your ribcage, elbows flared out. Pause when the bar is touching your torso, and then slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.

Variations include dumbbell bent over row, seated cable row, T-bar row, single-arm dumbbell row.

Standing Barbell Shoulder Press

Stand upright with a barbell resting on your collarbone, your grip should be just outside shoulder-width apart (overhand) and your arms should be supporting the weight of the barbell. Bend your knees very slightly (this will help prevent your back from arching) and then push the bar directly over your head.

The arc of the bar should lead to the bar finishing directly over your head, don’t lock your arms but they should be almost straight. Pause at the top and then slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position.

Variations include dumbbell standing shoulder press and seated shoulder press.

The 10 Main Benefits of Compound Movements

There are many benefits of incorporating compound movements into your training routine (in fact it would be almost impossible to completely avoid them) here are ten benefits:

1. Compound Movements Save Time

Because compound movements work multiple muscle groups, they can help you to save time in the gym. Compare how long it would take to perform three sets of dumbbell chest flyes (a chest isolation movement), three sets of tricep pushdowns, and three sets of shoulder press, to three sets of dumbbell bench press. A bench press will work the chest, triceps, and shoulders.

The same thing applies to barbell squats which work the same muscles as leg extensions, glute raises, and leg curls but all combined into one movement. You could get a full body workout from performing barbell squats, the bench press, and some pull ups.

2. Compound Movements Burn More Calories

Because compound movements require more muscles to perform, they also require more calories. This means that a 30-minute workout that contains nothing, but compound movements would burn more calories than a workout that contained nothing but isolation movements. If you are planning on trying to burn as many calories as you can for fat-loss purposes, then a high ratio of compound movements to isolation should be chosen.

3. Compound Movements Increase Testosterone and Growth Hormone Production

Strongman training is one of the most difficult forms of training out there, it involves multiple compound movements. Studies have shown that strongman training can increase testosterone production post-workout by 136% [1].

A 2013 study looked at the effect of exercises on growth hormone release [2]. The study found that larger muscle-group exercises led to the largest spike in growth hormone release. The more muscles you work during an exercise, the more growth hormone is released.

Increasing your testosterone and growth hormone production through exercise selection is very important as both hormones are required for muscle growth, increased fat loss, and improved body composition. There are many other benefits associated with higher levels of these two hormones. They can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The process which allows muscle to increase in size and strength after exercise.

4. Compound Movements Improve Core Strength

Because compound movements use different muscle groups, they require greater core stability and balance. This means that the muscles that make up the core (abdominals, obliques, lower back muscles etc.) will be strengthened and your core will therefore become more stable. A stronger core has been associated with improved health, reduced risk of injury, improved posture, and increased freedom as you age.

5. Compound Movements Improve Coordination

As with the increased core stability and strength, compound movements will also help to improve coordination. This is because the movements require multiple muscles to work together at the same time, while other muscles stabilize the movement.

When you are deadlifting 200lb you are not just standing up holding a weight. You are balancing, you are contracting muscles and lengthening other muscles, and you are keeping yourself as stable as possible throughout.

Performing difficult exercises requires a high level of coordination, and the more you perform these exercises, the more coordinated you will become.

6. Compound Movements Can Help Reduce Risk of Injury

To be clear, performing compound movements correctly will help reduce the risk of injury. Performing them with bad form will massively increase your risk of injury! There are two ways that compound movements can help to reduce the risk of injury.

Firstly, adding more compound movements to your routine will strengthen your muscles and teach them how to work well together. Lifting heavy weights can increase bone density, and can strengthen joints, as well as muscles. This reduces frailty and improves balance and stability. Therefore, lowering your risk of injury.

Secondly, and we will cover this more in the next point. Compound movements often teach us how to perform movements correctly. For example, the deadlift will teach you how to lift up heavy items off the floor safely.

7.Compound Movements Are More Functional

For a few years the term “functional” was seriously abused, you’d have trainers banning their clients from any exercise that wasn’t seen as functional. We don’t support this belief, any exercise has its uses and can be classed as functional, so when we say that compound movements are more functional, we mean something else.

Compound movements are more functional because they recreate real life situations, the deadlift is perhaps the best example of this, and it is why we mentioned it above. Learning how to deadlift correctly will teach you how to lift heavy items safely. This has a functional purpose outside of the gym.

Other compound movements are less obviously functional, how often do you need to bench press your way out of a difficult spot? But it is a pushing movement, that could serve you well in a number of tasks. Pull ups could help you pull yourself up from the side of a cliff (we never said that the function had to be realistic).

8. Compound Movements Help Smaller Muscles Take On Greater Loads

When performing a single-armed bicep curl you are only going to be able to lift up a small amount of weight, even if you are really strong. Let’s say that your bicep can manage to curl 45lb. When performing a chin up you are effectively curling your bodyweight, maybe 180lb?

Now your bicep is not pulling this weight alone, it is doing so alongside your back muscles, but you will find that your bicep is curling more than that 45lb, and it is doing it in a safer way. If your biceps begin to tire, then your upper back can takeover.

If you’re reading this with an incredulous expression on your face, then try this next time you’re in the gym. Exhaust your bicep muscles in the gym performing as many isolation movements as you can. The next day go to perform some chin ups. You should be able to feel that strain throughout your biceps and you’ll see how big a part of a chin up your biceps are.

9. Compound Movements Allow Greater Variation In Your Programs

One advantage of compound movements is how many variations each exercise can have. Let’s take the bench press for example. You have dumbbell and barbell, you have incline, flat, and decline. You have close grip, neutral grip, and wide grip. Start combining these and you’ll have even more variations: Close grip barbell flat bench press, incline wide grip barbell bench press, decline dumbbell bench press.

Same with squats, same with lunges, same with pull ups (chin ups, neutral grip, wide grip, inverted rows). The variations available are basically limitless.

10. Compound Movements Can Help Correct Muscular Imbalances

Unless you are genetically gifted, you will probably have a dominant side. Are you right or left-handed? This is known as a muscular imbalance, where one side is stronger than the other. Other muscular imbalances can be the result of training. If you spend hours each week building your pectorals but neglect your delts or triceps, then you will have created a muscular imbalance where one set of muscles is overly large compared to others.

While isolation work can help to fix imbalances it usually has the opposite effect, exacerbating the situation as one side can lift more than the other. When performed with good form, compound movements can help to address muscular imbalances. Remember, only when the exercise is performed with perfect form will this work.

Let’s take the bench press, if your triceps are the weak point then you will only be able to bench until they tire out. So, bench pressing will help to build up your triceps. Same thing happens if it is your deltoids that are the issue or if your chest is the issue. Of course, there are ways to put focus on these muscles, you can exclusively perform close grip bench presses if you want to target the triceps more, or wide grip bench presses if you want to target them less.

Final Thoughts – Resistance Machine v Free Weights

It is important to note that resistance machine exercises are also mostly compound movements. A leg press for example works just as many major muscle groups as a barbell squat (though the squat will work muscles like the lower back, abdominals, and traps more than a leg press would).

The reason for this is 1) brevity, if we mentioned every single compound movement that exists, we’d be creating a guide that is as long and impenetrable as War & Peace. 2) When comparing the two, free weights are more effective than resistance machine exercises for building muscle and burning calories.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning by Shaner et al compared the effects of a free weight exercise (barbell squat) and a resistance machine equivalent (leg press) [3]. The study found that the free weight exercise activated more muscle fibers as well as increasing testosterone production.

What this means is that when you compare a free weight exercise to its equivalent resistance machine exercise the free weight version will increase muscle fiber activation as well as testosterone release. This means more muscle growth as the more fibers that are activated, the more the muscle will grow. Also, the more testosterone your release, the more protein synthesis can occur.

This doesn’t mean that all resistance machine exercises are worthless, this is a common mistake made. Just because the leg press isn’t quite as good at activating muscle fibers, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have many other benefits. It’s easier to perform, the risk of injury is less, and by taking balance and coordination out of the picture, you can concentrate on the major muscles more.

But out of the two, always try to go for the free weight exercise, unless there is a good reason not to (i.e. the squat rack is busy).

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