You want to build muscle—and you want to build it fast!
There are hundreds of different workouts for each muscle group you could spend your valuable time doing, but not all of these exercises are going to maximize your muscle growth.
This handy-dandy list of compound exercises contains the 50 best muscle-building exercises to efficiently work each muscle group.
If you spend your time doing these workouts, you’ll see results much quicker than if you waste your time doing fad exercises.
BONUS: Download a free printable exercise checklist [PDF]. The list includes 50 compound exercises and 50 isolation exercises, all organized by muscle group.
Let’s dive in.
The Complete List of Compound Exercises
Compound Chest Exercises
Compound Back Exercises
Compound Ab Exercises
Compound Shoulder Exercises
Compound Leg Exercises
Compound Bicep Exercises
Compound Tricep Exercises
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
Exercises are categorized as either compound (involving more than one muscle group) or isolation (involving a single muscle group).
The difference is clear when you compare two exercises—take the squat and the calf raise, for example. When you do a squat, you’re engaging your core, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and even other small muscles. When you do a calf raise, you’re only engaging your calves.
This is why compound weight-lifting exercises are more efficient. Just 5-7 compound weight lifting exercises can stimulate all the major muscles in a single workout! With isolation exercises, you’d have to do 15-20 isolation exercises to stimulate the same muscles. So, if you have 3-4 hours to workout each day, by all means, do isolation exercises.
But isolation exercises aren’t all bad! They’re great for recovery, target toning, and correcting muscle imbalances. They have a rightful place in every workout!
Compound Exercises Definition | What Are Compound Exercises?
There’s a little more to “compound exercises” than involving multiple muscle groups. So what are compound exercises?
Compound Exercises Definition: An exercise engaging 2+ different joints to stimulate entire muscle groups and multiple muscles.
Besides giving you a more effective workout in less time, there are a ton of other benefits to compound exercises. Here are a few based on scientific research:
In addition, there are several more benefits you could assume based on reasonable logic:
- Decrease in injury due to greater strength
- Increase ability to perform functional movements
- Improve coordination and balance
Why These Muscle Building Exercises?
If you only have 45-60 minutes in the gym, don’t you want to spend that time doing the best exercises?
Forget the machines and most isolation exercises—they focus too much on a narrow range of motion and impractical strength.
The best compound exercises incorporate free weights. Dumbbell and barbells workouts allow your body the full range of motion it needs to naturally grow.
This produces practical strength.
What is Practical Strength?
The strength to lift yourself up, strength to lift boxes and furniture, strength to sit up, strength to perform everyday activities with ease.
Practical strength comes from free movement exercises.
Take the squat, for example.
During the barbell squat, you have to practice balance by using your leg muscles, your core, and even your back.
Switch to a smith machine or leg extension machine and now you’re going straight up and down—denying your body the chance to strengthen balancing muscles, core muscles, and other subsidiary muscles.
Don’t waste your time doing ineffective workouts!
This list of compound exercises gives you plenty variety if you like to frequently change things up.
The Best Overall Compound Weight-Lifting Exercises:
Remember: it’s not all about sweat and pain. Train smarter, not harder.
Compound Exercises with Dumbbells
Here’s a separate list for those who only have access to dumbbells.
Even if you do have a gym with a variety of equipment, there are still plenty of reasons to focus on compound exercises with dumbbells:
- Dumbbell exercises help to improve your balance and coordination. You have to activate more muscles (in different ways) to balance the separate weights.
- Dumbbells can help correct any muscle imbalances you have. Take your barbell bench press for example—if you’re feeling weak on your left side, just add an additional 1-2 reps to your left arm during your dumbbell press. After a few weeks, your left side should catch up.
- Safety first. You can go to failure on any set with dumbbells and just drop them when you’re finished—no getting stuck!
- Dumbbells are way more affordable when building a home gym.
- Even when the gym is crowded, you’ll likely still have access to dumbbells. The benches get taken pretty quickly, so you may have to do dumbbell floor press, but it’s better than nothing.
Compound Exercises with Dumbbells:
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Weighted Pull-ups
- Hanging Dumbbell Knee Raise
- Weighted Decline Sit-up
- Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press
- Arnold Shoulder Press
- Bent-Over Reverse Fly
- Lateral Raise
- Front Dumbbell Raise
- Seated Hammer Curl
- Zottman Curl
- Dumbbell Lunge
- Weighted Dips
- Dumbbell Kickback
- Seated Overhead Dumbbell Extension
A Little Assistance
Going heavy on these compound exercises sometimes requires a little assistance.
A spotter, wrist wraps, belt – you name it!
New PBs require new levels of effort, so don’t be afraid to invest.
Our team at The Fitness Tribe often collaborates together to produce content. When you see “TFT Team” this is because the content was not written by a single author, but rather a team effort.