An effective workout program is a program that has compound exercises at the forefront. Compound exercises should be the foundation of your training plan because they are what build the foundation of your overall strength and muscle mass. On that note, we've compiled the 8 best compound exercises that every strength and hypertrophy workout plan needs. These are your main compound exercises and lifts. The staples of your workouts.
We will also be covering the best assistance lifts and accessory exercises (isolation exercises) and when and how they should be included in your workouts.
A compound exercise is a multi-joint movement that works multiple muscle groups at the same time.
A compound lift has the same meaning, but it refers specifically to exercises done with free weights (typically barbells). The term compound exercise and compound lift is interchangeable when it comes to free weights.
To give you a better idea of what a compound exercise is let’s look at the squat. A squat targets your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and erector spinae, and it acts on your hip, knee and ankle joints. As described, it is a multi-joint movement that targets multiple muscle groups.
Now consider an exercise like a bicep curl. The bicep curl is a movement that occurs only at your elbow joint. As the name suggests, it targets your biceps. Thus, it is a single joint exercise, more commonly referred to as an isolation exercise.
While both compound exercises and isolation exercises have their place in a strength and hypertrophy program, compound exercises should always take precedence.
Some people who are new to fitness may think that isolation exercises suffice as long as each muscle group is targeted, but this is not a smart approach to building muscle and strength. An effective workout program is built around compound exercises, with isolation exercises being an accessory to those compound exercises. This applies to beginners right on up to the most elite athletes and weightlifters.
In fact, even though isolation exercises are easier and less taxing, healthy beginners should place even more importance on compound exercises than advanced athletes. Once a trainee has a solid foundation of strength and mass, then isolation exercises really start to have their advantages, even though compound exercises will always reign supreme. We will get more into this, but first let’s go over why compound exercises are so important:
All in all, compound exercises give you the best bang for you bucks for strength, size, endurance, fat loss, athleticism, and aesthetics. If you weren’t convinced before, we are sure you are now.
Although compound exercises are the most important and are ideal for most individuals, a workout program with only compound lifts is not usually the best way of programming for people with well-rounded fitness goals (i.e. hypertrophy, strength, fat loss, endurance).
Thus, isolation exercises most certainly have their place.
Here’s what we mean...
Certain muscles groups may not be effectively targeted with the compound movements because larger muscle groups are powering the gross movement patterning. It’s hard to address specific weaknesses and muscle imbalances with compound lifts because the stars of the show take over.
For example, you may be quad dominant during back squats and hamstring dominant during deadlifts so your glutes will need additional attention.
It’s also possible that certain muscles during compound lifts fatigue before other muscles being worked. For example, your low back muscles may fatigue before your legs do, in which case you’d want to isolate your low back with hyper extensions to get it stronger so that it doesn’t fatigue before your legs and glutes. You may also need to do more isolated leg movements like leg presses to hone in on your quads (note: there are assistance lifts too, which are essentially more isolated compound movements, but more on this later).
You may also find that certain muscles need more attention simply because the compound lifts aren’t challenging them enough for full development OR they aren’t moving the muscle through a full range of motion, which is essential for hypertrophy.
For example, you may find pull ups and bent over rows aren’t enough for your biceps, or bench press and overhead press aren’t enough for your triceps and side/rear delts. Isolation exercises for these small muscle groups are needed for aesthetics and muscle development. You can have strong shoulders from only doing overhead press, but that doesn’t mean you will have those good looking broad shoulders that pop, because it's mainly your anterior delts and upper chest powering the movement, thus leaving your side delts underdeveloped.
Another big reason why isolation exercises are useful is that you can target specific muscles without impacting other muscles that need rest. This will help you avoid underworking or overworking specific muscle groups. Moreover, it will allow you to get the right volume needed for each specific muscle group.
Finally, isolation exercises are important for those who are recovering from an injury. You can isolate a specific muscle and joint with an appropriate weight to help it regain its strength in a safe manner.
Compound exercises are the foundation of your program. They are done to directly train and overload your major muscle groups. They are what help you gain overall size and strength. The more isolated exercises are there to help you to further develop specific muscles or muscle groups that need more attention. They are there to help you with lagging muscles and overall aesthetics.
NOTE TO BEGINNERS:
In most cases, compound exercises are all you really need. They should make up like 80-90% of your training. As surprising as it may sound, isolation exercises are more important for those who are at an advanced stage of body training as they can help perfect the trainees aesthetics. Beginners will get incredible results in terms of both strength and aesthetics simply from compound exercises. It’s called newbie gains, and no gains are as fast and prominent as newbie gains.
Be that as it may, isolation exercises can still be employed to help target areas of the body that are overlooked by the big compound exercises, like biceps, triceps, side delts, rear delts, calves, etc.
While there are many effective compound exercises, certain compound exercises should take precedence in a strength and hypertrophy training program because they are bigger compound lifts that put dozens of muscles and multiple joints through a large range of motion. They are compound lifts that allow you to lift the heaviest weights, making them the most effective for building overall muscle and strength.
Most of these big compound lifts can also be done for 1 rep max without compromising from, as a way to build absolute strength. This is part of what separates them from other smaller compound lifts.
Consider these as your “main” compound exercises, where other compound exercises should be done to assist these main compound exercises.
Note: As these are your main compound lifts, you should be using a barbell. A barbell will allow you to lift the heaviest weight possible (of course, relative to your fitness level). Dumbbells and other equipment are best for assistance compound lifts and isolation exercises (or for beginners who aren't quite ready for barbell lifts).
Date shows these main lifts provide the most activation for their respective targeted muscle groups.
The barbell back squat is one of the kings of exercises. It gives you an incredible bang for your buck. With a barbell back squat, you will build serious muscle mass and strength in three of your biggest muscle groups, the quads, glutes, hamstrings. Barbell back squats also build lower back and core strength, body awareness and coordination, and injury resiliency through the strengthening of joints, ligaments and tendons around your knees and hips.
There are two types of barbell back squats. The high bar and low bar back squat. While both are important and have their advantages, the low bar back squat will allow you to lift heavier loads, so it takes the number one spot.
What about front squats? Front squats are great, but they won’t allow you to lift as heavy and they don’t put as much emphasis on the posterior side. Because of this, they are better used as an assistance lift rather than you main compound exercise for the legs.
Out of all the exercises you can do, the deadlift allows you to lift the heaviest weight. It should be your strongest lift, without question.
Deadlifts will build big time muscle mass and strength in both your lower body and upper body. It’s essentially a total body posterior chain exercise, but the main target is your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and back. Of course, it also builds powerful forearms and grip strength (as you have to hold onto the barbell) and stronger bones.
Like squats, deadlifts will produce the largest increases in anabolic hormones. Moreover, deadlifts create neurological strength adaptions that carry over to other upper and lower body compound lifts like barbell bench press and squats. The stronger your deadlift, the stronger every lift will become. It is the ultimate power builder.
Related: Benefits of Deadlifts
The barbell bench press is to your upper body what squats are to your lower body.
This will be your strongest upper body exercise.
As the barbell bench press is an horizontal pushing exercise, you will build mass and strength in your chest. With your chest being one of the largest muscle groups in your body, this is obviously a best-bang-for-your-buck kind of lift.
It will move your chest through a large range of motion, both strengthening and stretching your chest, which is essential for building muscle, as well as improving posture and the strength of your back as well!
Like all big compound lifts, the barbell bench press also works other muscles. It will build your anterior deltoids, triceps, and even your lats. It also strengthens your core.
It is an absolute strength builder, just like squats, deadlifts, and the next exercise on the list...
Related: Benefits of Bench Press
The military press is the last of what strength and powerlifters consider The Big Four. It is another exercise that you can do with heavy weight for 1 rep max lifts.
The military press is a vertical pushing exercise that builds boulder-like shoulders. It is one of the hardest exercise you will do.
Not only does it build serious mass and strength in your shoulders, but it develops your upper chest and triceps, and your biceps and lats to a degree. It is also very effective for core and glute strength, as these muscles will be working very hard to maintain stability when pushing the heavy load above your head from a standing position.
This is a very important exercise for athletes as it helps build an extreme amount of starting strength and power. It will give you the ability to generate force without momentum prior to the movement.
The military press is kind of like the deadlift in reverse. It is a total body exercise. And all the muscles missed by the deadlift are hit by the military press.
All in all, the military press is a very hard exercise and it ranks with equal importance as the barbell squat, deadlift, and bench press for building overall strength and muscle mass. With all 4, you have the complete strength training package.
That said, while the above 4 exercise are enough for powerlifters, there are other compound exercises that are a must for those who want to do a more well-rounded hypertrophy and strength training plan.
Related: Benefits of Overhead Press
The Big Four should really be The Big Five, because pull ups need to be included. Pull Ups are essential, no matter if you are a powerlifter, weightlifter, bodybuilder, Crossfitter, or a Mom with a full time job. In essence, without pull ups, you are missing an important piece of the puzzle, yet some powerlifters don’t bother with it because it doesn’t relate to absolute strength.
Pull ups are about relative strength, which is your ability to lift your own bodyweight.
Be that as it may, pull ups are hard and they build strength and muscle like no other bodyweight exercise (plus you can add weight to pull ups as a method of progressive overload).
Pull ups are must because they primarily target the lats and biceps, which are two muscles groups that have yet to be the primary target. And not only do they target them, pull ups (and the variations of pull ups, i.e. chin ups and neutral grip pull ups) are the most effective at it.
What’s more, like all of our main compound exercises, pull ups target more than just two muscle groups. Pull ups will also hit your deltoids, rhomboids, traps, and core.
Related: Pull Ups vs Chin Ups
Related: Pull Up Progression Plan
Now, for reference, so far we’ve got the best:
So what are we missing?
That’s right, a Horizontal Pulling Exercise...
The bent over barbell row is to your posterior upper body as bench press is to your anterior upper body. Like pressing, rowing (or pulling) is a foundational movement and the barbell bent over row is the best compound pulling lift there is.
The bent over barbell row is a mass and strength builder for your traps, lats, rhomboids, teres major, teres minor, rear delt and infraspinatus. It also works your spinal erectors, glutes and abdominals in an isometric fashion. Furthermore, as it is a pulling movement, your biceps will play an important role in powering the movement and your forearms are needed for grip strength.
A bent over barbell row and the bench press are direct opposites. Together, they create the balance you need for strength and good posture. Not to mention, good aesthetics.
Now, you might be wondering why such a powerful compound exercise is not part of the Big Four in powerlifting. So, let us answer this question as a lot of people who want to do a pure strength program like the 5/3/1 program don’t understand why this compound lift is not usually included.
Why are bent over rows part of the main lifts in powerlifting programs?
Bent over barbell rows aren’t programmed into powerlifting programs because of technique breakdown.
It’s very hard to row a true 1 rep max without cheating or compromising form.
For example, shortening the range of motion, standing up with the bar as you pull, or just using momentum and jerky movements would make the bent over row ineffective.
With squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead presses, this is not the case. You either get the lift up or you don’t. And while there can still be some slight issues with form, there really is no way to cheat.
All in all, it’s just hard to keep strict form and train for absolute strength with a row, and powerlifting’s main goal is absolute strength. As such, rows are simply considered an assistance lifts to help improve deadlifts, which is the real back movement in a powerlifting program.
All that said, if you are training for training for hypertrophy and strength, like the vast majority of people who go to gym, then the bent over row should be included as your main lift because it targets the mid-upper back with more focus and range of motion than a deadlift. It’s an especially important exercise for the development of your back muscles from an aesthetic standpoint.
Now we are getting into the territory of “is this a main lift or an assistance/accessory lift?” Nevertheless, we’d like to add the barbell hip thrust to this because it’s one of the best glute mass building exercise you can do, especially for those who feel their glutes aren’t getting enough attention with squats and deadlifts and for those who simply want a really nice, strong booty.
Another reason we’d like to add this as a main lift is it complements squats and deadlifts, not repeats them. It is a horizontal hip hinge, where deadlifts and squats involve a vertical hip hinge.
Furthermore, your gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your body and your gluteal muscles as a whole are one of the largest muscle groups, so an exercise that hones in on this area is essential for overall hypertrophy.
In terms of muscles worked, as it is a hip hinging movement, your hamstrings and gluteal muscles are the primary movements. Your core and quads will be working to a degree as well.
The reason the barbell hip thrust is so great for your glutes is because it provides the greatest degree of contraction tension. No other exercise can compare. The only downfall is that there is minimal stretching tension with a barbell hip thrust. So, while it is better for contraction tension than the squat, the squat is better for stretching tension. Thus, both are necessary movements and equally as effective for the glutes (which reminds us, if you want to get the most glute activation from your back squats, go deep!).
We don’t care what any other lists about the best compound exercises say, the plank is a must for everyone. It’s the best exercise you can do for core strength, and your core is the glue that holds your upper body and lower body together. We’d go as far as to say it should be includes as a main lift in powerlifting, thus making The Big Four (or wait The Big Five with pull ups), The Big Six.
Planks are like a “jack-of-all-trade” kind of exercise. It carries over into all of your big lifts and you can do them anywhere at anytime. Moreover, they are not just good for your abs! Planks work your entire core, which includes you abs, obliques, spinal erectors, glutes and all the deep muscles in your trunk. They also work your quads, shoulders, triceps and chest! All, of course, via isometric contraction, which means contraction without lengthening or shortening muscles.
So, for your typical strength training & bodybuilding program, planks are a must. They will make you stronger in your other lifts, they will make you more injury resilient, more stable, and they help promote good posture.
It’s simply one of the best bodyweight compound exercises there is.
By the way, don’t forget about side planks and all the plank variations! They are all great.
If all you want to do is bodyweight training and calisthenics, these will be your main compound exercises:
Note: If you are a beginner, you may need to start with some of these exercises even if you workout at the gym. For example, a lot of beginners will do best with push ups instead of bench press and bodyweight squats instead of back squats. Once you’ve developed good movement patterning and strength, you can move on to using barbells, or even dumbbells or kettlebells for exercises like goblet squats and dumbbell presses first, then barbells.
While exercises can be categorized simply by compound exercises and isolation exercises, a more strategic approach to weightlifting will break exercises down into three categories: Main Exercises, Assistance Exercises, and Accessory Exercises.
What are main compound exercises?
The main exercises are the staple compound exercises in your program. These are the exercises that you are going to do each and every week, without fail. They are your big strength and mass builders.
Examples of main exercises/lifts are back squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, barbell rows, and pull ups or chin ups.
What are assistance exercises?
Assistance exercises are kind of like the middle ground between big compound lifts and isolation exercises. They are compound exercises that take a more narrow approach, meaning they target specific muscle groups. You should use assistance exercises to hone in on each muscle group to further develop the muscles. Assistance exercises are important for hypertrophy and strength training as they will allow you to build up muscle and strength for muscles that need more attention, they can fix muscle imbalances, and improve movement skills.
Note: In powerlifting, assistance exercises are used specifically to help improve the main lifts, whereas with a typical hypertrophy and strength training program, they are more for aesthetics and specific strength.
For hypertrophy training, certain assistance exercises may be done each week, while others you mix in to keep things fresh. It really depends on your program. Typically, you will have a few assistance exercises for each muscle group that you do each week for a training cycle, then you switch things up on the next training cycle (i.e. every 8-12 weeks).
Examples of assistance exercises are RDLs, Dumbbell Incline Bench, Shrugs, Arnold Presses, and Lunges.
What are accessory exercises?
Accessory exercises are your isolation exercises, used to target specific muscles, usually smaller muscles, that aren’t being developed well enough with both your main exercises and assistance exercises. These are important for aesthetic purposes, as you can be strong without accessory exercises. That said, in some cases, accessory exercises will improve your compound exercises. For example, targeting your lower back with an isometric exercise can help your low back not fatigue as quickly during squats or deadlifts.
Examples of accessory exercises are dumbbell lateral raises, bicep curls, tricep extensions, sit ups, hyperextensions, leg curls, and leg extensions.
Here is a list of the best assistance and accessory exercises (no need for main compound exercises as we’ve given you the 8 best ones above).
Related: 30 best bodyweight core exercises
Your workouts should go in this order:
After you warm up, you want to start with your main lifts. This is because you will have the highest strength and energy levels, which are need for these big compound movements.
Note: Always warm up to your working weight with warm up sets. Your warm up sets should gradual work up to the first set’s working weight and they should not be high repetition or bring you anywhere near failure.
When you finish your main lifts, you will do your assistance lifts. Then, depending on the workout, you can do isolation exercises. Some days you may not even do isolation exercises, or you may just do one or two. It depends on the muscle group and your split. For example, if you do lower body workouts and you feel your legs are being worked enough, you may not do isolation exercises, or maybe you do just isolation calf exercises because you calves need work. Again, it depends, mostly on your goals.
Here are the rep ranges, weight load, and total volume that will give you the best results.
Main Compound Exercises:
First of all, it should be noted that with big compound lifts, you can build pure size in any rep range. Yes, even 1 rep. The point is, if your sets bring you to near failure, then you will build muscle.
The best rep range for your main compound lifts will be low. 1-8 reps is ideal. With that, you need an appropriate weight load. For 1-8 reps to be effective, you need the weight load to be around 80-90% of your 1RM.
Now, you might be thinking this is more of a strength training rep scheme, but we promise with the above, you will build muscle mass, big time. This is especially true when you are also doing assistance lifts...
Rest time between sets: 90-120+ seconds
Note: Women will do better in the 6-10 rep range.
For your assistance exercises, you are going to be increasing the reps and dropping the weight load a little.
For your assistance exercises, you will do best with 6-15 reps using a weight load of 60-85%. Perform exercises with a wide rep range as it will help you build strength, size, and endurance in the specific muscle groups you are targeting. To do this, you can do higher reps one workout and lower reps on another, or your can decrease the reps and increase the weight with each working set. In any case, you will have a good crossover of both strength and hypertrophy with any reps between 6-15. Again, you can build muscle in any rep range if the weight load is appropriate, and you will have strength improvements as your muscles grow. Overall, the goal is to work in the 6-15 rep range with a weight load that brings you to near failure (meaning you have one or two reps left in the tank) each set (this means your reps may decrease with each set).
As for total volume, aim to do 60-180 sets per major muscle group per week. This can be included with your main lifts.
Rest time between sets: 60-90 seconds.
With most isolation exercises, it will be hard to lift heavy and a 1RM max kind of becomes irrelevant. The goal is to work in a 8-20 rep range with a load that bring you to near failure. This may take some testing, but you will figure it out quickly enough.
The total volume will depend on your goals and how fatigued you are. Once you reach full exhaustion for your muscles, there’s no need to do more that workout.
This will be an example of a push pull leg split.
There are many ways to structure a push pull leg split. For example, a push pull legs split can be organized by 3, 5, or 6 workouts per week.
Here are some common examples....
Beginner to Intermediate (3 day split):
Day 1: Push
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Pull
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Legs
Day 6 & 7: Rest
Rest days can be used for cardio or HIIT if you have the energy.
Intermediate to Advanced (5 day split):
Day 1: Push
Day 2: Pull
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Push
Day 5: Pull
Day 6 & 7: Rest
Day 8: Legs
...and so on and so forth
Intermediate to Advanced (6 day split):
Day 1: Push
Day 2: Pull
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Push
Day 6: Pull
Day 7: Legs
Day 8 Rest
...and repeat (resting once every fourth day).
A training plan like this should last 8-12 week before you take a rest for a week then switch things up. So, for the 8-12 week training cycle, you push, pull, and leg workout will look the same each session. As such, it doesn’t matter if you choose 3, 5, or 6 days for this scenario, the workouts to follow will be the same.
Note: If you find that doing deadlifts too close to back squats is effecting you lift, then do a Pull, Push, Leg structure rather than a Push Pull Legs.
After you 8-12 weeks, you can change up your routine. This doesn’t mean you have to change the split (although you can), but you can change up the order of your exercises (i.e. do military press then bench press) and you can change up your assistance lifts and accessory lifts. You can also alter the reps and sets.
Besides eating right, sleeping right, and hydrating, the two ways to continue progressing over time are periodization and progressive overload.
We’ve already discussed periodization. This basically just means you make a training cycle, stick with it for 8-12 weeks (although it can be as little as 4 weeks) then take a rest week or two and start up again, altering your plan if you’d like or feel you need. Be sure to measure your progress as this will help you see where you need improvement and what’s working. It will also help you spot plateaus.
As for progressive overload, each training cycle, focus on increasing weight load, increasing reps, and potentially decreasing rest time. Also, work on optimizing your range of motion. Stick to your progressive overload over the course of your training cycle. The progress will be gradual, but that’s all it takes to build muscle and strength.
After your training cycle, you can progressive overload by adding volume to your next training cycle and even progression exercises (for example, if you are a beginner and you have been doing goblet squats rather than back squats, maybe its time to start doing barbell back squats). When your new training cycle begins, stick with increasing weight load, increasing reps, and if possible, decreasing rest time.
Related: Progressive Overload Guide
Maximizing range of motion > increasing reps > increasing weight load.
Before you increase your reps, make sure you are moving through a full range of motion. After that, you can progress by increasing your reps. For example, if your plan calls for 6-10 reps, once you get up to 10 reps and it’s not bringing you near failure, increase the weight load a little, then you most likely will drop down in reps and can progress with that weight load by increasing reps again.
If you have any questions about compound exercises and lifts or programming workout plans, please feel free to reach out to us. We are always happy to help.
We’e already created full training splits that you can follow here:
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