A compound exercise is any strength movement that targets multiple muscle groups at the same time. It’s the opposite of an isolation exercise, which targets only one muscle group.

Compound exercises may also be called compound workouts or compound lifts, because they often involve basic gym equipment.

Here, we answer the question “What are some good compound exercises, and can they help me nail faster fitness gains?”

Be warned: The answers might seriously impress you.

So, why work out multiple muscle groups at once? Well, it turns out compound exercises pack some serious upsides.

For one thing, they burn more calories. Isolation exercises might be good for developing precise motion, but it stands to reason that working more than one group at a time helps you torch calories.

They also have a cardio benefit. Engaging multiple muscle groups forces your heart to work faster, thus keeping your muscles supplied with oxygen.

Build these exercises into your compound movement workout and see how quickly you start stacking gains.

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Active Body Creative Mind

Focuses on: quads, hamstrings, lower back, traps, and forearms

You’ll need: barbell with enough weight to present a reasonable challenge

This so-called king of lifts is elegant in its simplicity while targeting a host of key muscle groups. Correct form is everything, though, so here’s how to do the perfect deadlift:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and the bar on the floor in front of you.
  • Grip the bar with hands a bit wider apart than your legs.
  • Brace your abs, keeping your head in a neutral position.
  • Keep a flat back and lift by driving your hips forward.
  • Hold for a moment.
  • Lower the bar back to the floor while keeping it under control — don’t drop it.
  • Repeat for 4 sets of 6 reps.
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Active Body Creative Mind

Focuses on: quads, hamstrings, and glutes

You’ll need: reasonably weighted barbell

Squats using barbells are a versatile compound exercise. If you’re training for leg strength, aim for 1–5 reps per set with a slightly heavier bar. If you’re trying to bulk out, 6–12 reps per set with your regular weight will do the trick.

Either way, here’s how to do it:

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart — a wider stance deepens the squat.
  • Hold the barbell across your upper back in an overhand grip. Don’t let the weight rest on your neck.
  • Engage your upper back muscles by hugging the bar into your traps.
  • Keep your back straight and head neutral, and stick out your butt.
  • Slowly lower into the squat until hips are aligned with knees and legs are bent at 90 degrees.
  • Hold for a moment.
  • Push yourself back up into your starting position by driving heels into the floor.

Focuses on: lats, traps, and rhomboids

You’ll need: pull-up bar

The pull-up is another highly adaptable compound exercise. Experiment with different grip widths to work different areas of your back. Same goes for pulling up to your upper, middle and lower chest before holding.

Whatever works best for you, do it like this:

  • Grip the bar with hands at shoulder width, palms facing away from you.
  • Push out your chest and let your back curve a bit.
  • Using your back muscles, pull yourself up as you exhale.
  • Hold for a moment.
  • Maintaining control, gently lower back to your starting position as you inhale.
  • Repeat for 15–20 reps.
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Active Body Creative Mind

Focuses on: chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps

You’ll need: barbell and weight bench

This classic compound exercise is carried out daily at more or less every gym on Earth. Don’t confuse its omnipresence with a low difficulty level, though. This is another one you need to do correctly or risk injury.

  • Lie back on the bench.
  • Grab the bar with hands a little wider than shoulder width.
  • Inhale as you lift, lowering the bar to your chest.
  • As you reach the lowest point of the press, your hands should be aligned above your elbows.
  • Hold for a moment.
  • Exhale and push back up, keeping your eyes focused on the same point on the ceiling.
  • Repeat for 6–12 reps per set.
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Gifs by Dima Bazak

Focuses on: glutes, hamstrings, and quads

You’ll need: barbell and bench or exercise ball (Instead of a barbell, you can use dumbbells, kettlebells, or no additional weight.)

Hip raises can help you build strength while prepping your body for cardio exercises like running. That is, of course, if you nail your form like this:

  • Sit on the floor with your back against the bench or exercise ball.
  • Rest the weight or your hands in the crease of your hips.
  • Lift hips off the floor, keeping upper back braced against the bench/exercise ball.
  • As you lift, engage your lats by rotating your shoulders, and keep feet braced evenly against the floor.
  • Raise and engage your glutes as hips reach their full extension.
  • Hold for a moment.
  • Return to your starting position and repeat for 3 sets of 6–12 reps.

Focuses on: abs, shoulders, pecs, glutes, quads, hips, hamstrings, and low back extensors

You’ll need: kettlebell

This explosive compound exercise doesn’t just target a plethora of muscle groups — it also torches fat fast. Here’s how to make it work at peak effectiveness:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with the kettlebell on the floor in front of you.
  • Bend down from your knees and grip the kettlebell with both hands.
  • Move the kettlebell back between your legs.
  • Engage your hips, push them forward, and straighten your back as you start to lift.
  • Swing the kettlebell up to shoulder height while keeping it fully under control.
  • Let it fall back between your legs, controlled by your body, as you return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 3 sets of 10 reps.
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Image by Dima Bazak

Focuses on: glutes, quads, traps, deltoids, abs, and obliques

You’ll need: 2 dumbbells or kettlebells

We’re finishing off with another compound lift that’s great for your whole upper body. You can use a barbell in place of the dumbbells or kettlebells if needed — the form is the same.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Raise the weights over your head, arms straight.
  • Lock your elbows so your arms are vertical.
  • Engage your core and lower your shoulders.
  • Lunge forward with every step for 15–20 seconds.
  • Steadily lower the weights to return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 2–4 sets.

These adaptable, easy-to-pick-up exercises can form the basis of an effective fitness program. But, as with any workout involving equipment, you need to focus on safety and form at the beginning to ensure lasting benefits.