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3 Crucial Steps to Knowing All About Compound Exercises

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

You hear people talking about it all the time. Heck, we even say it all the time as well.

"Make sure you do your compound exercises."

"Compound exercises give you the best bang for your buck."

Compound exercises seem to be a very important part of strength training. However, many people do not actually understand the concept of compound exercises, and what the term means. What are they really?

If you asked the majority of lifters what a compound exercise is, chances are they'd get it wrong.

Or they'd tell you that the seated cable row is not a compound exercise, or that the seated dumbbell overhead press isolates the shoulders.

The truth is, most people don't actually know what the term: compound exercise means. They just know that they're important and that they need to be performing them.

In this post I'll be going over what a compound exercise really is, looking at the definition of it, giving you a list of the most common ones and taking a look at some other ideas surrounding this topic.

Strong and muscular man doing Olympic weightlifting compound movements

Table of Contents

First of All: What Defines a Compound Exercise?

By definition, a compound exercise is any exercise or movement that works more than one muscle group at a time. A compound exercise is going to involve more than one muscle group and more than one joint at the same time.

For example, the bench press is a compound exercise that primarily works the chest, shoulders and triceps all at once.

Since there are multiple muscle groups and multiple joints all working at the same time to complete the movement, the bench press fits the compound exercise category.

Bodyweight exercises can also be compound exercises. For example, the pull up is a compound exercise that works the muscles of the back and biceps primarily. Again, since multiple joints and muscles are working at once, the pull up is a compound exercise.

What Are the Main Compound Exercises?

There are 6 main and general movement patterns in strength training that are important for us to know if we're looking to build strength and muscle at an optimal rate. All of these movement patterns are compound movements, regardless of any variations that you choose to do.

We'll get into what these movement patterns are and what the primary barbell versions of each movement pattern are.

In no particular order:

  • Hip hinge

  • Horizontal push

  • Squat or knee extension

  • Vertical push

  • Horizontal pull

  • Vertical pull

The Hip Hinge

Woman doing hip hinge and building muscle in her posterior chain

This is a very functional movement that we go through in our everyday lives. From bending over to pick up our children to grabbing things that we've dropped on the floor, the hip hinge is one of the main movement patterns when it comes to strength training.

The main barbell version of this movement pattern would have to be the barbell conventional deadlift.

Hip hinges usually work the entire posterior chain to a large degree, especially the hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors.

Horizontal Push

The horizontal push is also a pretty common movement pattern in our everyday lives. It's one of the main movement patterns and is primarily going to involve the upper body pushing muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps.

The main barbell version of the horizontal pushing movement pattern is going to be the barbell bench press.

Squat or Knee Extension

Man doing squats and building muscle in his quads and glutes

The squat movement pattern is one of the primary patterns that works the quads, glutes and calves. You'll also get some activation in the hamstrings, but it's not that significant.

The barbell back squat is going to be your primary barbell exercise for this movement pattern, and is actually regarded to be the kind of all lower body exercises by many lifters all over the world.

Vertical Push

Man doing seated dumbbell shoulder press as a vertical push to build muscle in his shoulders

The vertical push refers to overhead pressing movements where you press weight up and above your head, as the name suggests.

Vertical pushing movements are primarily going to work the front and medial delts, with some assistance from the triceps and upper chest.

For this movement pattern your main barbell exercise is going to be the standing or seated military press.

Horizontal Pull

Man doing single arm row to build muscle in his back and biceps on a machine with very heavy weights

The horizontal pull is one of the primary movement patterns that works the muscles of the back and the biceps. It's another name for 'rowing' exercises such as seated rows or T-bar rows.

The primary barbell version of this movement pattern is the bent over barbell row, which again is great for building overall strength and muscle in the back, biceps and forearms.

Vertical Pull

Pull ups on an outdoor bar to build lots of strength and muscle in back and biceps both at the same time as a compound movements

The vertical pull refers to pulling weight vertically and bringing your arms down closer towards you from a stretched position.

This movement pattern really only consists of two exercises, with the main one being the pull up. This isn't a barbell exercise, but is going to be your primary vertical pulling compound exercise. The other one is the lat pulldown.

When used together, these 6 movement patterns are really all that you need to develop a strong and muscular looking physique.

Done with barbells, you'll be able to engage the stabilizing and core muscles heavily at the same time in conjunction with the target muscles, and really develop a well rounded physique.

Again, you can learn more about all of this here including how to perform all of these primary exercises at our blog post linked here.

Common Ideas/Notions Around Compound Exercises

Machine Exercises Aren't Compound Exercises

This is a very, very common misconception among beginner and even intermediate lifters when talking about the idea of utilizing compound exercises. Many people do not think of machine exercises or machine variations to the barbell exercises to be compound lifts.

For example, almost everybody would agree that the bent over barbell row is a compound movement.

However, many people would disagree and argue over whether or not the seated cable row is a compound exercise, or even the lat pulldown.

The truth is, if it's the same movement pattern, it's going to be a compound exercise. The seated cable row is still a horizontal pulling movement, and still engages the muscles of the back and the biceps in order to complete the movement.

You're still bringing the elbows back behind the body (one function of the back muscles), and you're still flexing at the elbow (function of the biceps). You still are working the exact same muscle groups, just some of them to a different degree.

Person doing seated cable row to build strength and muscle in the back and biceps

This is due to the fact that you don't have to stabilize the weight as much during a machine version of the exercise, which reduces core and stabilization muscle activation. This leads to slightly more isolation of the target muscles, but you will still be engaging the same muscles throughout the movement.

This was proven in a study conducted by Jennifer Hewit, along with many others.

Machine exercises do allow you to isolate your target muscles better, but they're still compound exercises and it's important that you understand that.

Oh, and the same goes for dumbbell exercises. For some reason, people tend to think that exercises such as the seated dumbbell shoulder press aren't compound exercises, but accept that the standing military press are.

As long as you're working more than one muscle group and involving more than one set of joints at a time, you're performing a compound movement.

Compound Exercises Give You More Bang for Your Buck

This is actually true. If we're talking about training with a minimalistic approach and picking just a handful of exercises to train with, you likely would want to stick to compound exercises only.

Compound exercises allow you to hit several muscle groups at once and also allow you to lift more weight, which is going to help with your ability to keep workouts at reasonable lengths, and not have them drag on forever.

For your time, compound exercises are going to give you more bang for your buck and allow you to hit more muscles with more weight.

If you were to pick just one or two exercises to do for the rest of your life, it wouldn't be too clever to pick a an isolation exercise.

Compound Exercises Have to Come First

This is completely up to you, although it is generally recommended that you follow this rule.

The reasoning behind this is that you're able to lift more weight on your compound exercises and can overload your muscles better as a result of this.

This is going to lead to a better ability to gain strength with compound exercises compared to isolation movements.

When it comes to building strength and muscle you need to be progressively overloading your workouts over time. This means adding to some element of your workout that's going to make it more difficult and force you to work harder.

Most of the time this means increasing the weight that you lift over time.

And if you want to get stronger, you have to lift heavy and often. By scheduling your compound exercises before isolation movements, you're giving yourself the best chance to lift as heavy as possible since you're the freshest at the beginning of the session.

And as you're able to overload your muscles better and gain more strength, the gains you get from your compound exercises are going to also be very beneficial to your isolation movements.

Getting stronger at the pull up or bent over row is going to help with getting stronger on the bicep curl.

Basically, since you get more out of your compound exercises, it makes sense to schedule them first or towards the beginning of your workout sessions, and do isolation movements afterwards.

You Absolutely HAVE to be Doing the Main Compound Movements

This is not true at all. You don't have to be doing the foundational barbell lifts that we mentioned above. You can build a very strong and well-developed physique by just using machines if you like.

As long as you continue to use these primary movement patterns, you're going to be able to build muscle whether you use dumbbells, barbells or machines.

Well, there aren't many other ways to train aside from these primary movement patterns anyways.

The barbell variations are just recommended because they require stability and coordination, which will help with overall athleticism and functionality of your body.

However if your main goal is to build muscle, training exclusively or primarily with machines is actually going to be the BETTER option.

Like we said earlier, lifting with machines allows you to isolate your target muscles better. This is going to allow you to stimulate more muscular hypertrophy and build more muscle.

However for most other lifting and training purposes, a mix of both free weights and machines is going to be optimal.

Compound Exercises Are More Dangerous

Man consulting physical therapist after suffering a lower back injury and needing help with recovery

This is true to a degree. All exercises, if performed incorrectly can become unsafe. Whether you're doing a bicep curl or a barbell back squat, all exercises can be unsafe.

The idea that compound exercises are more dangerous likely comes from the fact that they have you lifting more weight and generally place you under the load or in more vulnerable positions, whereas isolation movements use less weight and have you training in safer positions.

This is true for the most part.

For example, in a bench press, you're directly under the bar. And failure to execute the movement properly can lead to injury or even death in some extreme cases.

Compare this to a chest fly on the cable machine, where you can simply let go of the handle at any point. But you can still lift with bad form and cause shoulder injuries, or pain/discomfort in other areas if you perform the exercise incorrectly.

The same goes for something like a barbell front squat and a quad extension. There's much less room for error in the compound lift compared to the isolation movement. However, both exercises can still be unsafe if performed incorrectly.

That's also why isolation movements tend to go at the end of a workout, and compound exercises usually come first. You want to be in the freshest state possible when you come to lift heavy loads and place yourself in more vulnerable positions.

It's generally fine if form breaks down a little on your isolation movements every once in a while.

But even one mishap or slipup can cause very serious injury if you're under heavy loads performing a compound movement.

All exercises can become unsafe if performed incorrectly, but generally compound exercises are slightly more dangerous and have a higher chance of injury.

Wrapping It Up

Overall, compound exercises definitely aren't as confusing as some make it out to be.

It's important that you understand the concept of compound exercises, and really know what they are. They form a crucial part of your training no matter what your fitness goals are, and definitely shouldn't be neglected.

I hope you've enjoyed reading through this article and have found it helpful! If you did, remember to share it with your friends so that we can reach more people and help more reach their fitness goals!

And if you're looking for a headstart with your fitness or would like to boost your gains, consider upgrading to Gympulsive Pro to gain full access to the site and all of our training programs!


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