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The 12 Best Compound Exercises for Beginners (How to Train Efficiently)

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It’s time to discover the best compound exercises for beginners!

Compound exercises are the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to working out, so I’m super excited you want to learn more about them!

In our 1-on-1 Online Coach Program, we prioritize compound exercises when building workout routines for our clients. We’ll explain why today.


Here’s what we’ll cover:

What are compound exercises? (How to train efficiently)
The 5 best compound exercises (bodyweight)
The 7 best compound exercises (barbell)
Start training with compound exercises (Next steps)

Also, if you’re in a hurry, we’ve compiled all our strength and weight training content into one handy guide called (appropriately): Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. 

Grab it for free when you join the Rebellion (that’s us!) below:

Alright, cue the music. Let’s do this thang.

What are Compound Exercises?

Let’s compare “compound exercises” to “isolation exercises”:

Compound exercises require more than one muscle group working together to complete the movement. This replicates the way your body naturally moves.
Isolation exercises more or less train one specific muscle group. For example, the leg extension machine focuses on your quads, so it “isolates” training that muscle.

Front squats would be an example of a compound exercise, because it engages your entire  lower body and core, and quite a bit of your upper body too, as you perform the movement:

As opposed to biceps curls, which more or less just trains your biceps:

As we explain in our Guide to Functional Fitness, whenever possible you want to focus on compound exercises.

Why?

Because in everyday life, you don’t use your muscles in isolation!

When you’re placing luggage in the overhead bin, hoisting a bag of dog food from the floor, or hauling your kid to bed, you’re using your muscle groups together. 

Just like you would with a compound exercise.

Plus, since you’re using multiple muscle groups at once, you’re taxing your body more when training. This can provide more efficient use of your time in the gym

In other words, why do three different exercises when you can just do one?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to working out.

The 5 Best Compound Exercises (Bodyweight)

1) The Push-up

The push-up is the best exercise you could ever do for yourself when it comes to using your bodyweight for “push muscles.”

Muscles trained with the push-up:

Pectoral 
Triceps
Deltoids
Abs

Here’s our video on how to do a proper push-up:

Easier Variation: Knee Push-up

Tougher Variation: Decline Push-up

2) The Bodyweight Squat

The squat exercise serves a dual purpose – it is the foundation for building strength AND helps build proper mobility. If you are going to ever do barbell squats, you need to work on hitting proper depth with a bodyweight squat first! 

Muscles trained with the squat:

Quads
Glutes
Hamstrings
Core muscles

Easier Variation: Assisted Bodyweight Squat

Tougher Variation: Goblet Squat

Here’s how to do a HEAVY goblet squat (should you want to try it):

3) The Inverted Bodyweight Row

Until you can get your first pull-up or chin-up, bodyweight rows are GREAT to start building your pull-muscle strength.

Muscles trained with the inverted row:

All of your back muscles (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius)
Biceps
Forearm muscles (dorsal, ventral)
Your grip

Easier Variation: Incline Inverted Row

Tougher Variation: Elevated Feet Inverted Row

4) The Pull-up and Chin-up

Once you can support your body’s weight above the bar, the world becomes your playground. No strength training routine should be without pull-up or chin-up work! (Can’t do a pull-up yet? We got you.)

Muscles trained with the pull-up:

All of your back muscles (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius)
Biceps
Latissimus dorsi (Lats)
Trapezius (Traps)
Abs
Your grip

Here’s how to perform a proper pull-up:

Easier Variation: Negative Pull-ups

Tougher Variation: Weighted Pull-ups

5) The Bodyweight Dip

As you start to get stronger with push-ups and need to find a way to increase the challenge, consider doing dips.

Warning: these are very advanced, but are incredible strength-building exercises. 

Muscles trained with the dips:

Pectoral 
Triceps
Deltoids
Rhomboid (Back muscles)
Abs

Easier Variation: Assisted Dips

Tougher Variation: Weighted Dips

These 5 compound exercises will propel you into the world of bodyweight training. 

For more ideas on how to train without a gym, check out The 42 Best Bodyweight Exercises (Work Out Anywhere).

Now, it’s barbell time![1]

The 7 Best Compound Exercises (Barbell)

After getting comfortable moving your own bodyweight around, it’s time to start training with barbells!

To up the difficulty with these compound exercises, simply add more weight. 

The fun thing about barbells: you can almost always add more weight (disclaimer: provided you do it safely). 

Here are The Best Barbell Compound Exercises: 

6) The Barbell Squat

A weighted squat is probably the best compound exercise when it comes to building strength and muscle throughout your whole body. 

Show me somebody who squats heavy and I’ll show you a great physique. This is a MUST.

Here’s how to perform the barbell back squat:

Muscles trained with the barbell squat:

Quads
Glutes
Hamstrings
Core muscles

7) The Barbell Deadlift

Ah, the deadlift…maybe the best exercise of all time. 

It’s certainly the most primal: “pick the weight up off the ground. Done.” 

Here’s how to perform the deadlift:

Muscles trained with the barbell deadlift:

Glutes
Erectors (Spinal muscle)
Hamstrings
Pretty much every muscle in your body

8) The Barbell Romanian Deadlift

Think of the Romania version as the top half of a conventional deadlift (imagine you’re a “drinking bird” bending over at the waist):

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the Romanian deadlift:

Muscles trained with the Romanian deadlift:

Hamstrings
Glutes
Erectors (Spinal muscle)
Rhomboid (Back muscles)

9) The Barbell Overhead Press

This exercise is simple: press a barbell above your head. 

Muscles trained with the overhead press:

Pectoral 
Triceps
Deltoids
Rhomboid (Back muscles)
Abs

All the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and arms are engaged in order for you to lift the weight over your head. As a bonus, you need to really flex and brace your core, which gets those muscles working too.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the overhead press:

10) The Barbell Bench Press

To do a bench press, just lie on a bench and lower a barbell until it almost touches your chest. Pause, and then press it back up towards the sky. 

Repeat! And get strong. 

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the bench press:

Muscles trained with the benchpress:

Pectoral 
Triceps
Deltoids
Rhomboid (Back muscles)
Abs
Pretty much every muscle in your upper-body

11) The Barbell Bent-Over Row

To do a bent-over row, bend your torso over and hoist a barbell up.

Muscles trained with the bent-over row:

All of your back muscles (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius)
Biceps
Forearm muscles (dorsal, ventral)
Your grip

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the bent-over row:

12) The Barbell Lunge

To do a weighted lunge, have the bar across your upper back and step out with your right leg. Lower your hips until your back leg’s knee almost touches the ground. Explode up and back by pushing off with your front leg. Repeat on your other side.

Muscles trained with the barbell lunge:

Quads
Glutes
Hamstrings
Your core (as you stabilize yourself and the weight)

Note: The above might be tough if gyms are closed around you. If that’s so, here’s how to build a gym at home (using household equipment).

Start Performing the Best Compound Exercises (Next Steps)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: commit to trying ONE of these compound movements in the next week. Use 20 seconds of courage, recruit a friend who has lifted or trained before, and try your best. 

We all start somewhere! 

Speaking of starting out…

Have you yet to do ANY of these compound exercises?

Always start out with bodyweight moves and make sure your form is correct!

If it’s a barbell movement, use a broomstick (or PVC Pipe). 

You can pretend you’re Harry Potter after:

When it comes to movements like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, bench press, etc. – your form is crucial.  Develop good habits with lighter weight and you will save yourself months of frustration later and will protect you from injury.

If you’re struggling with certain elements of a movement, don’t get frustrated! Just understand that you’ll have areas in which you can improve.

When I started, I really liked practicing all of the movements at home because I could watch a video online at the same time as I was watching myself do it in a mirror.

Film yourself and compare it to our videos, or post it to the form check section of the Nerd Fitness Forums.

Still uncomfortable with the movements after that? Look around at some local strength and conditioning gyms and see if you could hire a coach (here’s how to find a good trainer) for one or two sessions just to go over the basic movements (or consider working with an online coach).

No matter what path you take, the most important thing you can do: START NOW!

Don’t overthink it. Just pick a compound exercise and learn how to do it. We can add more exercises to your routine down the road.

Want a little help getting going? The perfect next step to start your strength training journey!

You got it. 

Here’s how Nerd Fitness can help you:

#1) If you want a coach in your pocket, who can do video form checks, provide feedback, and adjust your workouts based on your progress, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program

I’ve had an online coach since 2015 and it’s changed my life. You can learn more by clicking on the box below: 


#2) If you want a daily prompt for doing compound exercises at home, check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

Plus, you get to build an awesome superhero in the process!

Try your free trial right here:

#3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Sign-up below and receive our free guide Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. It includes step-by-step instructions for the Best Compound Exercises covered in today’s guide. 

Alright, enough from me. Your turn:

Do you agree with my list of best compound exercises?

Am I missing any?

Any tips or tricks for a newbie just getting started?

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Strength Training 101 series:

5 Best Strength Training Workout Routines For Beginners
How Much Weight Should I Be Lifting?
Finding the Right Gym

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GIF Source: Weighted Dips, Biceps Curl, Will Ferrell,

Photo Source: lightfieldstudios © 123RF.com, Workout, LEGO bench pressLance Cpl. Tayler P. Schwamb, 101, 102, 103

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