Compound exercises such as squats, chest presses and lat pulldowns get more than one joint moving at a time. While that might not sound like a big deal, doing compound movements lets you do more work in less time — and that translates to more benefits for the same time investment. Many compound movements have the added benefit of closely mimicking — and thus preparing you for — motions you might perform in the real world.
If you're just starting out, aim for one to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions of any compound exercises you perform.
1. Pressing Compound Exercises
Most exercises that involve a pressing or pushing motion will be compound movements that work your chest, deltoids and triceps together to some degree.
Move 1: Chest Press
- Lie on a flat weight bench and take a barbell or set of dumbbells in an overhand grip.
- Extend both arms straight over your chest.
- Bend your elbows and bring them down to shoulder level. If you're using dumbbells, the weights should stay above your elbows; this means they'll be closer together at the top of the motion and farther apart at the bottom of the motion.
- Press the weights back up to complete the repetition.
Move 2: Overhead Press
- Sit on a firm, stable surface.
- Hold two dumbbells or a barbell with an overhand grip.
- Rack the dumbbells or barbell at shoulder level, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press the weights straight up overhead. If you're using dumbbells they'll naturally come together at the top of the movement.
- Lower the weights to shoulder level, keeping them as close to the front of your body as you can while still safely clearing your face. This completes one repetition.
- Keep your core muscles tight to stabilize your spine throughout this movement. If you struggle with maintaining a stable core, a weight bench with a padded back support can help.
Move 3: Bench Dips
A variation on triceps dips, bench dips let you use your legs to help out. As you get stronger, you can straighten your legs in front of you, keeping your heels on the ground, to make the exercise harder. Eventually, you'll be able to transition into doing full dips.
- Sit on a weight bench. Sometimes a sturdy chair works well.
- Place your hands on either side of your hips, palms down and fingers facing forward over the edge of your bench.
- Walk your feet forward a bit, keeping them flat on the floor as you scoot your hips off the bench, taking the weight of your body on your arms and feet.
- Bend your arms and lower your torso, keeping it close to the bench. Limit yourself to a pain-free range of motion. For many people, that means stopping when your shoulders are about level with your elbows.
- Press with your arms, helping out with your feet as necessary, to lift your torso back up to the starting position, hips just in front of the bench. This completes one repetition.
Even though this isn't actually called a press, it still uses a pressing motion, which is more properly described as a combination of shoulder flexion and elbow extension.
2. Pulling Compound Exercises
When you engage in a compound pulling motion, your lats, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major/minor and even your pectoralis minor all engage to power the motion and stabilize your shoulder girdle, while the pulling muscles in your arms add an assist.
Move 1: Rows
You can do rows using a wide variety of exercise equipment, but they all employ the same basic movement, described here using a mid-level pulley on a cable machine.
- Straddle a weight bench with your chest facing the cable pulley. Some purpose-built benches will have footplates you can place your feet on to help keep your body steady.
- Hold the cable pulley handle in both hands. Although you can use a wide variety of handles for doing cable rows, a double-D handle — with one D-shaped grip for each hand — is a common choice.
- Squeeze your core to keep your torso steady as you pull the handle back toward your body. Unless you're deliberately doing wide rows, keep your elbows tucked against your body and your core engaged to stabilize your torso.
- Complete the repetition by releasing the handle back to the starting position in a steady, controlled motion.
As with many exercises, the range of motion for rows depends on your shoulder stability and fitness goals. A typical conservative range of motion is stopping when your elbows break the plane of your back.
Move 2: Pull-ups
Although you can use an array of weight equipment to build strength and stamina, you can use your own body weight as resistance, too. The pull-up is the classic bodyweight back exercise and can be done with a variety of different hand positions.
- Stand facing the pull-up bar and grasp it in an underhand grip (chin-ups), an overhand grip a little wider than your shoulders (pull-ups) or a palms-in grip (parallel grip or narrow grip).
- Pull your chest up to the bar, using your core to keep your hips from swaying too far forward. It might help to think of "zipping" the muscles of your back closed as you engage them, starting with your shoulder blades, then your back muscles, the backs of your shoulders and your arms.
- Lower yourself back to the start in a smooth, controlled motion.
Can't do full pull-ups? No problem. You can use pull-up assist bands, a low pull-up bar that allows you to take some of the weight up with your legs, or other pulling exercises to build up enough back, shoulder and arm strength to do pull-ups.
Move 3: Lat Pulldowns
The lat pulldown is essentially a pull-up in which you bring the bar down to you, instead of bringing your body up to the bar. In most cases, a lat pulldown machine will have downward-facing pads to hold your knees in place, although you can also do this exercise with a high cable pulley.
- Grasp the pulldown handle in an overhand grip. (Some lat pulldown machines also have appropriate handles for underhand or parallel grips.)
- Sit on a bench facing the pulldown machine and slip your knees underneath the pads.
- Squeeze your core muscles to keep your torso steady as you pull the bar down toward your chest. It might help to think "chest open, belly button to my spine," or to imagine "zipping" your ab muscles together in front of you to hold your torso steady.
- Keep your knees under the pads and your backside on the bench as you extend your arms to complete the repetition.
Don't pull the bar behind your head unless you're training for a sport or other activity that specifically requires this range of motion. For most people, this places your shoulders in an unnecessarily unstable position.
3. Compound Movements for Your Legs
Compound movements like squats, lunges and deadlifts work all the major muscles of your lower body to varying degrees and move three joints at once: Your hips, your knees and, to a lesser degree, your ankles.
Move 1: Squats
- Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
- Sink down into a squat, as if you were sitting in a chair just behind you. Squeeze your abs to keep your back straight throughout the motion.
- Drive through your feet and squeeze your glutes as you stand back up.
Pay close attention to these elements of squat form: First, your knees and toes should point the same direction throughout the exercise. Keep your weight centered on your feet — don't rock onto your toes or heels — and check in a mirror to make sure your shoulders move straight up and down over your feet. Finally, although the ideal range of motion is a subject of some controversy, a conservative place to stop is when your hips break the plane of your knees.
Move 2: Deadlifts
Like squats, doing deadlifts works every major muscle in your lower body — but they place particular emphasis on the muscles of your back, hamstrings, glutes and abs. These directions are given using a barbell, but you can also do deadlifts with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Stand facing the barbell, feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Squat down and hinge forward from the hips enough to grasp the bar, hands just outside the width of your thighs. Many lifters prefer using a mixed grip (one palm facing forward, the other back) for this exercise, although you can also do it with an overhand grip (both palms facing back toward you).
- Squeeze your core muscles to stabilize your back; think "chest up and out, shoulders back and down" and maintain this posture throughout the lift.
- Drive through your heels to begin the lift. Keep the bar close to your body as you lift it up — it should rise more or less straight up like an elevator at the same rate as your hips. Squeeze your glutes to finish the motion.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weight and complete the repetition. Lower your hips and the bar at the same rate, allowing your hips to hinge back so the bar moves straight down in front of you like an elevator. Remember to keep your chest up and open, shoulders back and down, back flat and core engaged until you return the weight to its starting position on the floor.
Proper form is particularly important with this exercise. Start with a light weight until you're comfortable with the form. If you're in any doubt at all, it's well worth it to invest in a brief training session to make sure your form is correct.
Move 3: Lunges
Like squats and deadlifts, lunges work every major muscle in your lower body. But they might just challenge your sense of balance, especially at first.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. If you want some extra help with balance, stand next to a wall or between two sturdy chairs.
- Take a large step forward with your right foot and bend both knees. Your weight should be evenly balanced between both feet.
- Check your positioning — a mirror or workout buddy is helpful for this. Both knees should be bent at about 90 degrees, with your front knee over the ankle of that foot and your back knee beneath your hips. Adjust the length of your step if necessary until you have the proper form.
- Press off with your front foot to return to a standing position.
- Repeat the lunge on the other side, leading with your left foot. When you press off and return to the starting position again, this completes one repetition.