There are basically two types of exercises in the fitness world: compound exercises and isolation exercises. Compound exercises are exercises where you move multiple joints (deadlift) while performing the movement. Isolation exercises are exercises where you only move one joint (tricep pushdown).
The reason why I’m writing this article is simple: I want you to train as effectively as possible so you can save time while working on building your best physique possible.
In this article, you’ll find the only compound exercises you need to build a fantastic physique most effectively.
P.S. There’s also a BONUS at the end!
Exercise #1: The Deadlift
To perform the deadlift, you have to use almost all your muscles (which is why the deadlift is called a “mass-builder”). This makes the exercise very useful (and hard). The major muscle groups you use to perform the deadlift include:
- The glutes (ass)
- Quadriceps (upper front legs)
- Hamstrings (upper back of the legs)
- Adductors (inner thighs)
- Lower back
- Upper & middle trapezius (neck and the middle of your upper back)
- Levator Scapulae (a muscle from your jaw to your shoulder)
- Rhomboids (inner upper back)
- Abs & obliques (side abs)
That’s a whole grocery shopping list of muscles.
If you’ve never done this exercise, I recommend you watch the video below made by the Buff Dudes before you perform the exercise.
Start without weight and increase the amount of weight little by little until you’re at the weight that you want to target. It’s okay to do sets of one rep when warming up, you don’t want to exhaust yourself.
It’s crucial that your form is correct with this exercise because if it’s not, you’ll injure yourself. This also applies to every other exercise from this list of compound exercises.
There are multiple variations on the deadlift. You can keep your legs straight or wide. Here’s one variation on the ‘normal’ deadlift which targets the hamstrings and hips more than the quadriceps, it’s called the sumo deadlift.
Tip: Make sure you have a straight back throughout the movement. If you’re not able to, drop the weight. Be very careful with your lower back. You might mess up your lower back discs if you’re not careful enough.
Exercise #2: The Squat
The squat is the best exercise overall and while everyone knows that, they don’t like to do it.
It’s the best exercise for the legs EVER.
Again, if you never performed this exercise, here’s a video:
It’s the same here as with the deadlift. The form is more important than weight.
The muscles you’re targeting with the squat are
- Abdominals (secondary)
- Back (secondary)
As with the deadlift, there are also variations on the ‘normal’ back squat which target the hamstrings and hips more. The front squat focuses more on the quadriceps. Here’s a video on how to do the front squat:
Tip: Ask someone to film or watch you because you never really see how you perform the exercise. If someone checks on you, you’re sure you’re doing the exercise well. This way you’ll prevent injuries from happening.
Exercise #3: The (Incline) Bench Press
The chest exercise all men like to do, the bench press. It’s one of the best chest exercises for overall chest development and one of the best compound exercises (which is why it made it to this list).
While this exercise targets the chest, it’s also one of the best tricep exercises.
This exercise targets
- The pectoral muscles (upper and lower chest)
- Front shoulders (secondary)
- Triceps (secondary)
As with all compound exercises I recommend you start with the bar without weight. If you’ve never performed this exercise, you should watch this video – again, from the Buff Dudes – on how to perform the bench press:
With the bench press, there are a lot of variations. Incline, flat and decline will target different portions of the chest.
When doing the incline bench press make sure you stay in the 15 – 45-degree angle with the bench. If you feel it too much in your shoulder, lower the bench.
Find your sweet spot.
For decline bench presses, -15 degree is more than enough, I don’t recommend you go below that.
If you feel like one side of your chest is bigger than the other (more than is normal), you should switch to dumbbells and train with those for a while.
Tip: When you’re doing three sets of bench press, make sure to do at least one sets of face pulls or another rear delt exercise. This will help you keep a healthy posture and prevent front shoulder injuries.
And believe me, you don’t want to screw up your shoulders.
I did, and guess why it happened. My ego got too big. I put on too much weight.
I didn’t perform the exercise with proper form.
Even now I feel them sometimes because they’re still very vulnerable.
Just making sure you don’t mess them up too. 😉
Exercise #4: The Pull-Up
The compound exercise all military personnel must do: the pull-up.
This is one of the best back exercises.
That’s why this exercise is called ‘The King Of Back Development.’
It’s about pulling your own weight up, lowering it and pulling it up again (excellent job explaining Marnix).
So, the muscles you’re targeting with this exercise are
- The back muscles
- The biceps
- The rear delt
This is the best exercise to grow your wings (lats) as it focuses on the latissimus dorsi.
The lats will create the V-shape in the back. Basically, it makes your upper back wider.
This exercise shouldn’t sound very complicated but to make sure you do it right, here’s a video to help you:
Also, when you’re doing the pull up for the first time, you may not even be able to do it.
That’s why, with this exercise, it might be best for you to start with an assisted pull up. You have machines for this, but you could also use a band to put your legs on.
The pull up is actually the first exercise I ever did. When I started working out as a 15-year-old little guy, I thought pull-ups would be the way to get big.
So, I started doing them every day.
First I could only do a couple. But after two months I was able to do one-arm pull-ups ten times in a row like it was nothing.
It felt great, but when you’re only doing pull-ups, only your back and bicep muscles grow. So, after two months, I looked like a little, partial Arnold Schwarzenegger…
Tip: Make sure your workout plan focuses on all muscles without neglecting any muscle. This way you’ll have a proportionate physique, and your legs won’t look like spaghetti.
Exercise #5: The Row
No, not rowing like rowing a canoe. Rowing with a barbell (or dumbbell) while you bent over the bar.
Yeah, clear instructions, right? Here’s a video on how to perform the row correctly:
This exercise targets
- The back muscles
- The biceps
- The rear delt
But there’s one crucial difference from the pull-up, and that’s the difference in the purpose of the exercise. These compound exercises together are the best back exercises to do for overall back development.
With the pull-up, you target the muscles (lats) that will make your back wider. With the row, you target the muscles (rhomboids) that will make your back thicker.
There are so many variations of the row. You could switch to dumbbells or cables instead of barbells. You can perform them lying down or on a machine.
See here are ALL the possible row variations:
Tip: Try to focus on pulling back your elbows instead of your hands. This way you’re making sure you really activate your back instead of your biceps and forearms.
Exercise #6: The Overhead Press
Last but not least, the overhead press. Another press movement but now for the shoulders.
This is the exercise you should be most careful with because, as I said earlier, your delts are a very sensitive group of muscles. And you don’t want to mess them up.
Here’s how to perform the movement with the correct form:
The overhead press targets
- The delts (primarily)
- The triceps (secondarily)
This is an essential exercise to do if you’re training for that V-shape from the back.
This exercise also has variations with cables or dumbbells. You can also choose between sitting down or standing up. Standing up requires a bit of stability and strength in the abdominals too.
To figure out which kind of shoulder press is best for you, watch this video of Jeff:
Tip: Don’t go too heavy on this exercise, your shoulders are a small muscle group like the biceps. They should be trained with a lot of caution. Again, I don’t want you to mess up your shoulders.
An Extra Benefit Of Compound Exercises
While these compound exercises all focus on specific muscle groups, they also target the abdominal muscles.
This is why I rarely train my abs separately.
So, don’t feel like you have to train your abs separately but if you still want to do it, here are the two best ab exercises:
The BONUS: The 3-Day Workout Routine
Since I wanted to give you something you could take action on, I decided to design a simple workout routine with these compound exercises for you.
Now, a little disclaimer here. I’m not a personal trainer, but I have designed a lot of workout routines for friends and for myself. In my five years of experience of trial and error with fitness & bodybuilding, I now feel like I know what works and what doesn’t.
I also know how to mess up your shoulders, that’s why I don’t want you to do it.
I designed a 3-day a week workout routine for you, so it’s not too big of a step, but you’re still getting the results you want. The most important things with this workout routine are the following three principles:
- Consistency, if you’re training 1 week and skip the next, you have to start all over again. So, even though you might miss a day, you may be able to do it the next day. Don’t give up when you fall down, get right back up!
- Patience, if you want results FAST, you need to use steroids. If you’re like me and you don’t want to use steroids, be patient, results will come. First focus on progression, the results will come later.
- Recovery, if you’re training seriously, you need a lot of recovery. This means taking at least 1 day off in between workouts (as you will see in the workout routine) and making sure you sleep well (7-9 hours a night).
Let’s get into it!
The Workout Routine
These are all guidelines, if you want to do a variation of an exercise or add an isolation exercise, feel free to do so. Experiment with it and do what feels best. This is just a straightforward and basic workout routine for those who want to try it out.
Depending on your goals you should do the following amount of sets and reps with matching rest times:
- Strength – 4-8 sets of 2-6 reps, taking 3-5 min of rest in between sets.
- Muscle building – 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps, taking 1-2 min of rest in between sets.
- Conditioning – 2-3 sets of 12-20 reps, taking 30-60 sec of rest in between sets.
*There’s one exception to this, for the deadlift 1 set is enough as it costs the most amount of energy and uses almost every muscle in your body.
Day 1: Monday
Barbell Back Squat
The (Incline) Bench Press
Day 2: Tuesday
Rest or cardio
Day 3: Wednesday
Day 4: Thursday
Rest or cardio
Day 5: Friday
Barbell Back Squat
The Overhead Press
Day 6 & 7: Saturday & Sunday
Rest or cardio
Before going into any exercise make sure to warm up your body by doing any light form of cardio for 5-10 min.
When performing heavy sets, don’t use your training weight immediately. Build up slowly by first using the bar without weights, then add weight little by little. Don’t count the reps while warming up, just focus on the form and getting the blood flowing through the muscles. You shouldn’t be tired after a warm-up set, so don’t go too hard.
If you can do all the sets on the high end of the rep range you’re aiming for, increase the weight with as little of an increase as possible.
Say, I deadlift 200 pounds, and I’m able to do that for 12 reps while my focus is building muscle. This means I should increase this amount with the littlest weight possible. If that’s with 5-pound plates, then I’ll have to do 210 pounds next time.
For those who failed math: When you’re using a barbell, both sides should have the same amount of weight, that’s why the 10 pounds increase.
Use the workout routine and go work out!