Compound Exercises for Every Body Part

The collective power of compound exercises.



Kevin Horton / M+F Magazine

By incorporating more than one body part in a team effort, you can use more weight than when a muscle goes alone. Generally, the more complex a body part, the easier it is to work with compound lifts. On the other hand, simpler body parts, like calves and biceps, are stressed best with isolation exercises. However, we’ve provided a guide that allows you to make every body-part routine a team effort.


Other than leg extensions and leg adduction and abduction, every quad exercise is compound. Squats, hack squats, Smith machine squats, and leg presses, and all their variations (one leg, front, etc.) involve the glutes and hamstrings as well as quad muscles. The lower back and calves may also chip in. It’s easy to do all-compound quad workouts.


Stiff-leg or Romanian deadlifts target the hams with other lower-body muscles. Likewise, though most bodybuilders think of lunges as a quad and glute exercise, they actually work hams (and glutes) more than quads.


Due to the complex landscape of your back, with multiple muscles working together and the fact that most lat lifts involve two pairs of joints (elbow and shoulder), you have to work hard to come up with upper-back exercises, like pullovers and stiff-arm pulldowns, that aren’t compound. Because the many types of pullups, pulldowns, and rows are all compound, it’s likely you’re already doing an all-compound back routine.


Deadlifts target the spinal erectors along with a panoply of lower- and upper-body muscles, and good mornings work the spinal erectors with the hamstrings.


Because all the common calf exercises isolate lower legs, you need something unique to hit your lower legs with your thighs. An exercise we recommend is the walking calf raise. While holding dumbbells, rise as high as possible on each stride. For an extra stretch (without dumbbells), try doing these on stairs, maximizing ranges of motion by landing the balls of your feet on the edges of risers as you climb.


Like upper back, chest is easy to work all-compound. Because they incorporate two sets of joints (shoulder and elbow), chest presses hit the pectorals with assistance from the front deltoids and triceps. The same is true of dips, though you should lean into them to hit the pecs more and triceps less. In contrast, any flying motion (whether with dumbbells, cables, or machines) is an isolator.


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