Most of us need the simplicity of compound exercises.
It’s easy to look to complex programs for gains, but truth be told some of the best exercises for muscle growth are compound exercises. Through compound/ multi-joint movements, we are able to lift some of the heaviest loads possible, activate multiple joint articulations, and stimulate a large amount of muscle. They are likely to increase anabolic response to exercise, which is necessary for building muscle.
Single joint exercises are definitely useful for muscle growth. Being able to target specific muscle groups like the biceps or calves is great for accessory work, but they can have their draw-backs. The time required for each individual exercise can be more than most gym-goers are willing to commit to in one workout. Some professionals even believe it’s not necessary to add single joint movements to get the equivalent results in terms of muscle activation, hypertrophy, and strength(6). With compound exercises it’s possible to build a program that develops solid muscle mass while working multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
Top 5 Compound Exercises
It can be tricky to measure which compound exercises specifically are best for muscle growth. There are few studies that measure the differences between exercise variations and their effects on lean muscle mass. Despite the limited data, there are a few other markers that can be help determine the capacity for muscle growth. Using electromyography during fitness studies reveal particular exercises that generate higher muscle activity than others, and when combined with proper hypertrophy guidelines can produce superior results.
With that in mind here is a list of the top 5 compound movements:
This compound movement tackles many different muscle groups: the forearms, lats, glutes, hamstrings, core stabilizers, upper, middle, and lower back. This exercise is so crucial because it literally hits the entire posterior chain.
As far as effectiveness goes there is a case for barbell deadlifts, though other variations have merit. When looking at the demands on muscle activity and joint kenetics, conventional deadlifts came out on top. Much greater normalized electromyographic values were recorded in the bicep femoris and gluteus maximus (58.57 ± 13.73 and 51.52 ± 6.08 %peak) favoring conventional deadlifts over Romanian deadlifts (25.26 ± 14.21 and 46.88 ± 7.39 %peak).
Regular deadlifts also had greater knee and joint kinetics, suggesting the exercise’s demand on muscle and joints are far higher(2).
Another study noted higher activation of the bicep femoris when comparing the standard barbell deadlift, hex bar deadlift, and hip thrusts(3).
I have to mention that hip thrusts did produce greater gluteus maximus activation than the other two exercises. While it may not be as effective for the entire posterior chain, hip thrust are still a great compound movement for glute muscle growth. They can also add variation to your hip extension exercises while helping to develop a well rounded physique.
There are many variations of the squat available, but sometimes you just can’t beat the basics. For example unilateral squats like lunges are a popular exercise, and for good reason, but underperform when compared to bilateral squats. Regular squats had a shorter lifting time and higher muscle activity in multiple muscle groups including the quadriceps, bicep femoris, and erector spinae(1).
I can imagine some people being underwhelmed seeing squats on this list. You may have expected a “secret” compound exercise that boosts muscle growth like nothing else, but honestly squats work fine.
The magic however is not so much the exercise itself but in the training variables that accompany it. If you focus on intensity (volume, reps, time under tension, load, etc.) in a way that suits hypertrophy (muscle building), I guarantee you’ll see drastic results.
Chin ups are another great posterior exercise. Working primary movers like the lats and secondary movers such as the rhomboids make it ideal for full back development. Strengthening the lats will provide better postural stabilization of the spine and lower pelvis because of its attachment points. The pull-up also trains grip, arms, shoulders, back, core and pelvic floor.
Using your own body weight to perform chin ups reduces the number of reps while increasing the intensity and difficulty. This will help stimulate greater muscle growth compared to machines with the option of reducing weight to ineffective levels. Remember: the key to muscle growth is progressive overload, without the difficulty that a movement like chin ups provide, the body won’t adapt.
Another great advantage of chin ups: they have some of the highest bicep brachii activation.
Think about it; compound movements generally prevent you from isolating specific muscle groups like the bicep. Chin ups will develop the back AND give you the opportunity to work your arms like few other exercises can.
Bench press is a staple exercise for developing the chest, shoulders and arms. The various bench positions lend themselves well to developing a balanced chest, targeting the upper, mid, and lower pectoral muscles.
Normally I would recommend a specific type of bench press for muscle growth, but honestly you should incorporate a variety of them.
In a study testing the effectiveness of bench press variations, 47 untrained men were randomly assigned into 3 groups: horizontal bench press group, incline bench press group, and a combination of both. After 8 weeks there was only one of three sites where muscle thickness differed between the two variations. There was also no isometric strength difference between the two either(5). This would suggest that using either flat bench, incline or a combination of both can create similar changes in muscle strength and size.
I would go even further and incorporate decline bench press as well. Even if one type of bench press stimulated more muscle growth, it’s important to develop all parts of the chest which requires incline, decline, and flat bench.
Power Ab Wheel
This is an unusual exercise, but it is one of the best core/abdominal moves in the game.
Before I get into the specifics, I’ve got to drive home the importance of core work. The core (lower back, abs, serratus anterior, and hips) literally serves as the bridge between the upper and lower body. All of the previous compound movements listed wouldn’t be possible without a powerful core to stabilize the weight.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Nearly every move you make on a day to day basis involuntarily activates your core. Functional movement and muscle growth depend on a firm abdominal foundation.
With that being said the power ab wheel is one of the best exercises for building a solid core and sculpting a 6 pack. The power wheel triggered the highest EMG activity in the lower/ upper rectus abdominis, internal oblique, and latissimus dorsi. Of all the ab exercise variations it also generated the most activity in the external obliques(4).
List of Compound Exercises
The previous exercises are what I consider the most effective compound movements for muscle growth. That doesn’t mean however other exercises shouldn’t find their way into your exercise programs. Here is a list of a few more compound exercises that will improve your workouts and grow your body.
- hanging knee ups with straps
- incline reverse crunch
- push ups
- dumbbell overhead press
- decline bench press
- incline bench press
- split squat
- Romanian deadlift
- sumo squat
- clean and press
Compound Movement Programming
During my early days of training, my seniors passed down programming knowledge I think would work perfectly for compound exercises.
The body was built for multi-joint movements, so in essence every move you make is compound to a certain degree. We’re taught that all activities of daily living can be broken down into 5 categories:
push, pull, hip hinge (deadlift), squat, and abdominal rotation
Everything we do is a combination of one or more of these actions. By building a program around these multi-joint movements we’re creating a well rounded full body program AND incorporating compound movements that develop mass for multiple groups. It’s a win-win all around!
You can’t go wrong with adding these 5 movements into your workout. The best part is you can us as few or as many exercises to target the specific muscle groups and build a massive, balanced physique. It can also be very time convenient.
Sample Compound Exercise Program
Below is a sample training split utilizing some of the best compound exercises for muscle growth. You can run through it once a week, or twice a week for 6 training days if you’re really ambitious. Regardless of how many days you train or what program you choose, I encourage you to add the necessary intensity and effort to make it all worth your while.