Compound Exercises for Every Body Part
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.


Hack squat
Chris Lund


Similarly, overhead presses of various types focus on the front and medial deltoids but also involve the triceps, especially at the tops of reps. Upright rows with a shoulder-width or wider grip target the medial deltoids but also hit traps and biceps. Wide-grip rows hit rear delts along with upper back and biceps.


Narrow-grip upright rows work traps with assistance from medial delts and biceps. You can also focus deadlifts on your traps by doing only the top of the movement with the bar in a power rack and the supports set just above your knees. Power cleans are a compound and ballistic exercise that you should feel more in your traps than any of the many other muscles worked. 


Planks stress the abs along with much of the body. The same is true of such core exercises as the barbell rollout and the press situp.


A compound triceps routine will look similar to one for chest: presses and dips. To focus on the triceps, use a narrow grip on presses. Whether with a machine or parallel bars, stay upright when doing dips and locate the movement in your elbow joints. You can also do bench dips with your feet in front of you and hands behind your back.


Now we come to perhaps the most difficult body part to hit with an all- compound workout. All those curls you do are isolators. Perhaps the best compound biceps exercise is the chinup (underhand pullup). Do them rigidly strict to target the biceps more and back less. You can also do strict pulldowns with an underhand grip, focusing on the top half of the movement (when the elbows are coming down and not back). A third possibility is the cheat barbell curl, which involves the legs and lower back to swing a heavy weight up.


Reverse curls and hammer curls work the lower arms with the brachialis and biceps. Old-school grip exercises, like the farmer’s walk, target the hands and forearms along with other muscles.


Jay cutler cable row
Chris Lund


  • A compound exercise engages more than one body part. For example, an overhead press works the deltoids and triceps.
  • A primary body part is engaged. Secondary body parts assist and are worked less, sometimes only during part of the movement.
  • Compound exercises allow you to utilize the heaviest weights, better overloading the targeted muscles. But they also make it more difficult to hit those targets. 


  • More complex body parts, such as back, can be easily trained with only compound exercises.
  • Single-joint body parts, like biceps, are difficult to work with compound exercises.
  • Cheating can turn some isolation lifts into compounds. For example, adding leg and back motion to barbell curls distributes much of the work to secondary muscles. Usually not recommended, this can be effective if done sparingly.


  • Machine Dip | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Close-Grip Bench Press | SETS: 4 | REPS: 6-10
  • Bench Dip | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12
  • Chinup | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Cheat Barbell Curl | SETS: 4 | REPS: 6-10
  • Underhand Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12