The 5 best compound exercises (and how to perform them)

Author: Joep Rooijmans, 15 jun. 2019                          Updated: 03 jan. 2020


This is why you should include compound exercises in your workout plan!

Every workout plan should include compound exercises. Compound exercises are ideal if you want to gain strength and develop extra muscle mass.

 

In this article you read everything you need to know about the 5 best compound exercises. The following topics will be discussed, including the 5 best compound exercises (and how to perform them):


1. What is a compound exercise?

2. What is the difference between compound and isolation exercises?

3. Why are compound exercises so effective?

4. How do you ensure enough recovery time?

5. The 5 best compound exercises!

 

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THE 5 BEST COMPOUND EXERCISES

1. What is a compound exercise?

Compound exercises are fitness exercises that target multiple muscles or muscle groups during the performance of one exercise. 

 

Compound exercises engage two or more different joints to fully stimulate multiple muscles or complete muscle groups.

 

Just to be clear: a compound exercise doesn't have to target 2 or more muscle groups. If a specific exercise targets only one muscle group but within that muscle group targets more than one muscle it's also defined as a compound exercise.

 

A good example for the situation described above is the leg press. The leg press only targets the leg muscles. But it does target almost every muscle in the leg muscle group: quads, glutes, hamstrings and even calves (partially). 

 

This makes the leg press without a doubt a compound exercise!

 

Compound exercises are mainly performed with free weights such as dumbbells and barbells. The movement of free weight exercises requires you to balance and compensate with other muscles during the performance.

 

Therefore, the nature of free weight exercises stimulates you to use more than just one muscle or muscle groups.

 

But there are also some machine exercises that allow you to train more than 1 muscle at the same time. The cable row exercise for your back is an example of a machine compound exercise. It targets multiple back muscles and even part of your biceps.

 

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2. What is the difference between compound and isolation exercises

The opposite of compound exercises are isolation exercises. When performing an isolation exercise you  ‘only’ target 1 specific muscle.

 

Isolation exercises differ from compound exercises in that they work only one muscle or muscle group and only one joint at a time. Isolation exercises are perfect if you want to target just one muscle.

 

An example of an isolation exercise is the bicep dumbbell curl. This exercise focuses solely on the central bicep muscle and does not target any other muscles or muscle groups.

 

The upside of targeting just one muscle is that you can focus all your energy. Your effort is completely focused on the muscle that you want to target and none of your energy goes to targeting other muscles.

 

A question that is often raised is: what type of exercise is the best, compound or isolation exercises? In general you can say that performing compound exercises will give you better and faster results compared to performing only isolation exercises.

 

But isolation exercises are very effective when your goal is to focus on just one muscle. 

 

Here is an overview of the most effective isolation exercises per muscle group:

 

Legs

-       Machine leg curls: hamstring

-       Machine leg extensions: quadriceps

-       Standing calf raises: calves

 

Chest

-       Dumbbell fly: middle chest muscle

-       Dumbbell press flat: central chest muscle

-       Dumbbell press incline: upper chest muscle

-       Dumbbell press decline: lower chest muscle

 

Back

-       Lower back extension: lower back

 

Biceps

-       Standing dumbbell curl: central biceps muscle

-       Standing hammer curl: top (head) biceps muscle

 

Triceps

-       Cable bar pushdown: long central triceps muscle

-       Lying triceps extension: small triceps muscle

 

Shoulders

-       Dumbbell side raise: side shoulder muscle

-       Dumbbell front raise: front shoulder muscle

 

Abs

-       Crunch: front upper abs

-       Ankle tip crunch: side abs

-       Leg raises: front lower abs

 

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3. Why are compound exercises so effective?

Compound exercises are so effective because they push your body to work as hard as possible during the exercise. The increase of stress on the body leads to creating a bigger hormonal response. And more hormones lead to more muscle mass and strength.

 

During your workout you damage the muscle fibers. Your body signals that damage has been made to the muscles and it will start the recovery process. This process kicks in after your workout. The body releases growth factors like hormones and testosterone.

 

This helps to repair the damaged muscles and leads to an increase of muscle strength and mass.

 

Because a compound exercise targets multiple muscles at once, your body releases more growth hormones and testosterone than when you only perform isolation exercises. And therefore you gain more muscle strength and mass.

 

The graph below shows how much stress compound exercises and isolation exercises put on your body. The more stress the body experiences during your workout, the better it will develop. 

 

As you can see, compound exercises put almost twice as much stress on your body. 

 

Compound execises isolation exercise body stress

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Besides improving your strength and gaining muscle mass, there are more reasons to include compound exercises in your workout plan. Other advantages are:

 

-       Allows you to lift heavier weights

-       Burn more calories

-       Improves coordination

-       Improves flexibility

-       Allows you to get a full body workout faster

-       Decreases injuries during your workout

 


4. How do you ensure enough recovery time?

When you perform compound exercises you train more muscles at once. You have already read in this article why this has so many advantages.

 

But there are also factors that you have to take in to account that may harm your workout. 

 

The most important one is your recovery time. You might target a specific muscle group too often which leads to insufficient recovery time.

 

Your muscles need 48 hours to fully recover from a workout. If, for example, you train the same muscle two days in a row the muscle doesn’t have enough time to recover.

 

After 1 day the muscle is only recovered for +/- 50%.

 

Targeting the same muscle too soon proves to be ineffective. It's not ready to endure another heavy workout, it doesn’t have the strength to fully operate and you are blocking the recovery process.

 

This means that you are not developing muscle strength and mass, which is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve.

 

The graph below clearly shows that it takes a muscle 48 hours to recover 100%.

 

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Muscle recovery time after workout compound exercises 2 day rest

 

If you train your chest on Monday and decide to perform the compound exercise bench press you mainly target the chest muscle. But you will also hit your triceps, because it's the secodary muscle.

 

If you then decide to train your triceps the very next day you don’t give the triceps muscle enough time to recover.

 

That’s why it’s important to realise which other muscles you train besides the focus muscle of the compound exercise. Make sure that you get enough recovery time for all your muscle.

 

I either train my back and biceps on the same day or I make sure that there's at least 48 hours in between training both muscle groups.

 

The same applies to my chest, shoulder and triceps muscles; either I train them on the same day or with at least 48 hours in between.

 

 


5. The 5 best compound exercises (and how to perform them)

You now know how important it is to include compound exercises in your workout. It’s now time to perform these exercises yourself.

 

These are the 5 best compound exercises:

 

1. Squat

2. Deadlift

3. Bench press

4. Cable row

5. Dips

 


Squat

squat
  • Place your legs at hip width. Let the barbell rest on your upper back.
  • Tilt your pelvis and lower your buttocks as you bend your knees.
  • Keep your back straight and squat as deep as possible.
  • Stretch your legs and come back to starting position.

Target muscles: hamstring, quadriceps, calves & glutes (legs). Lower back.

 


deadlift

  • Place your feet at hip width, grab the bar via an underhand grip and stretch to an upright position.
  • Bring your hips and buttocks backwards and bend your knees.
  • Your back remains straight during the exercise.
  • Bring the bar down, when it (almost) touches the ground you stretch out from your legs and back to bring yourself back to starting position.

Target muscles: upper, side, central & lower back muscle (back). Hamstring, quadriceps & glutes (legs).

 


bench press

chest exercise bench press
  • Put the bench in a horizontal position. Lay on your back, arch your back during the exercise and put your feet flat and firmly on the ground.
  • Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width and unrack.
  • Lower the bar towards your sternum.
  • Let the barbell touch your chest and press out. Make sure that when you press out you don’t lock your elbows. Ensure constant tension on the chest muscle by always keeping your elbows slightly bent when performing the press.

Target muscles: central chest muscle (chest). Long triceps muscle (triceps).

 

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cable row

  • Sit down and place your feet on the platform in front of you.
  • Grab the cable and pull it towards your navel. 
  • Your back remains straight and you push your chest out.
  • Your elbows move as close to you body as possible.
  • Slowly bring the cable back to starting position.

Target muscles: upper, side and central muscle (back). Central biceps muscle (biceps).

 


dips

dips
  • You perform this exercise at a dipping station. Grab both bars and push yourself up.
  • Lower yourself by bending your elbows. Don’t bring your elbows out, keep them as close to your body as possible.
  • When your upper arm and forearm form a 90 degree angle you push yourself up back to starting position.

Target muscles: long triceps muscle (triceps). Upper chest muscle (chest). Front shoulder muscle (shoulder).

 


Conclusion

Compound exercises

Compound exercises are fitness exercises that target multiple muscles or muscle groups at one time. It are all exercises that engages two or more different joints to fully stimulate multiple muscles or complete muscle groups.

 

Isolation exercises

The opposite of compound exercises are isolation exercises. When performing an isolation exercise you target ‘only’ 1 specific muscle. An example of an isolation exercise is the bicep dumbbell curl. This exercise focuses solely on the central bicep muscle and does not target any other muscles or muscle groups.

 

The upside of targeting just one muscle is that you can focus all your energy. Your effort is completely focused on the muscle that you want to target and none of your energy goes to targeting other muscles.

 

Effectiveness

Compound exercises are so effective because they make your body work very hard during the exercise. The increase of stress on the body leads to creating a bigger hormonal response. And more hormones lead to more muscle mass and strength.

 

During your workout you damage the muscle fibers. Your body signals that damage has been made to the muscles and it will start the recovery process. This process kicks in after your workout.

 

The body releases growth factors like hormones and testosterone. This helps to repair the damaged muscles and leads to an increase of muscle strength and mass.

 

Recovery time

When you perform compound exercises you train more muscles at once. You have already read in this article why this has so many advantages. But there are also factors that you have to take in to account that may harm your workout. 

 

The most important factor is your recovery time. You might target a specific muscle group too often and as a result of which there is not enough recovery time.

 

Your muscles need 48 hours to fully recover from a workout. If, for example, you train the same muscle two days in a row the muscle doesn’t have enough time to recover. 

 

The 5 best compound exercises:

 

1. Squat

2. Deadlift

3. Bench press

4. Cable row

5. Dips

 

 

Comments: 1
  • #1

    Ezra (Thursday, 02 January 2020 13:04)

    Hi,

    I don't like to perform deadlift, with what can I substitute it?

    Grts!