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November 09, 2020 10 min read

For most of us, gains are the name of the game. Whether you’re aiming for strength or hypertrophy, big muscles are going to be part of the process—so it’s good to know that you’re not leaving any gains on the table.

And while diet and recovery are most important, it also comes down to what you do in the gym. And specifically, what lifts you choose to do.

Exercises come in all different shapes and sizes, and some are better suited to getting you that hulking physique. We’ll be looking at 5 of these lifts; all of them a sure way to turbocharge your workout routine.

Why Compound Lifts?

Exercises can be subdivided into two separate categories.

Isolation exercises only use a single joint and target only one muscle group. Biceps curls are an example since it’s the elbow that’s bending and the bicep that’s being worked.

On the other hand, compound lifts are those that use multiple muscle groups or joints at the same time. These are usually the bigger lifts that allow you to move more weight. There are several benefits to compound lifts. 

For one, they’re much more efficient. In some cases, you’re utilizing nearly every muscle in your body to make the lift happen, so you’re getting a huge bang-for-your-buck workout in a relatively shorter amount of time. This also lends itself to elevating your heart rate and burning more calories. And since you’ll be using different muscle groups together, you’ll also be improving your intramuscular coordination.

And for our purposes here, compound lifts are also the lifts you want to be doing if you’re looking for gains. 

The greater muscle utilization allows you to move heavier loads, and heavy loads mean your muscles are challenged to a greater degree. While this is important for bodybuilders, it’s even more so for those who are strength training. If the goal is to build strength, lower rep ranges and heavy weights are important. 

The last part of the puzzle is the barbell. While dumbbells are extremely useful and they have their place in your workout, a barbell will allow you to “compound” the benefits of compound exercises. Additionally, bodyweight exercises (such as push-ups, chin-ups, pull-ups, or lunges) aren’t as efficient at offering the heavier weights necessary for bodybuilding muscle gains.

This is because both sides of your body will be working together to move the weight. With both of your hands fixed to the barbell, you can only take a certain path throughout the lift. This will limit the number of stabilizers needed and will effectively allow you to train at your max strength—a key ingredient for maximizing gains in the strength and mass department.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the compound movements for a full-body workout.

A man doing barbell squats in a gym.

The Best Compound Exercises for Muscle Building 

1. Barbell Squats 

There’s no way we could’ve done a top-5 compound exercise list without including the top three behemoths: squats, deadlifts, and the bench press. First, let’s take a look at the squat.

The standard barbell back squat activates several muscle groups both in the lower and upper body. It’s an extremely functional exercise since walking, bending, carrying things, and climbing stairs all benefit from the squat.

The squat primarily works the glutes, quadriceps, adductors, hamstrings, hip flexors, and calves—when it comes to the lower body. For the core, your rectus abdominis, obliques, erector spinae, and transverse abdominis are all worked. And if you’re doing the back squat, you can also expect some activation in your arms, shoulders, back, and chest. It’s not difficult to see why the squat has earned the title of the “king of leg exercises”.

And since you’re going to be using a large part of your body, you’re also going to be burning quite a bit of calories at the same time. There are very few reasons why you shouldn’t include this lift into your training routine—if you haven’t already.

In order to perform a barbell back squat, rest a bar and the desired weights on a rack. Rest it on your back shoulder muscles and take a couple of steps back. Plant your feet firmly about shoulder-width apart with toes pointed outward. Keep your spine straight and look straight ahead at a spot about 5 feet in front of you. Keeping your chest high, hinge at the hips and bend the knees as you go back into a sitting position. Continue the movement until your upper leg is at least parallel to the floor. Reverse the movement by driving through your heels. 

The squat is also a good move to have in your repertoire since there are so many variations of it, all hitting your muscles at different angles and to varying degrees. For example, a front squat will put a greater emphasis on your quads while also forcing you to keep your chest upright. The Bulgarian split squat is another popular variation. It also places a greater focus on the quads while making sure that you’re working each leg evenly.

A strong man doing a deadlift in a gym.

2. Deadlift

When it comes to a lift that truly works the entire body, you really can’t get much better than the deadlift. As one of the three core lifts, the deadlift is an absolute must in anyone’s training program. 

This exercise is especially beneficial for strengthening your posterior chain, challenging your core stability, and developing your grip strength. There’s a lot going on with this movement and a heavy deadlift will find any weak spots you might have. It’s therefore also important that one takes the time to learn perfect form and applies it with every single rep.

The deadlift is especially useful for those who might be putting too much attention into the muscles that look the best. Your posterior chain needs to be developed along with the rest of your body in order to maintain a healthy, full-body strength—a factor that’s necessary if you want to avoid injuries and consolidate your gains.

Lastly, the deadlift is a beast of a functional movement. Especially for those who play any sports, the mechanics of the deadlift will result in the development of your explosive strength. Not only is this important for sports that necessitate a lot of power, fast, but also sports that rely on endurance to some degree. 

Begin by walking up to the barbell on the ground; your mid-foot should be underneath the bar and your feet should be planted hip-width apart. Do not touch the bar with your shins and point your toes out slightly. Without bending your knees, bend over and grab the bar at about shoulder-width apart. Ensure that your arms are vertical.

Bending your knees, your shins should end up touching the bar. However, make sure that the bar doesn’t move away from your midfoot. Puff up your chest and lift it up—your back should follow and straighten. Pull up explosively, the bar running along your legs as it goes up. Complete the movement by locking out at the top, and then reversing. 

3. Bench Press

Everyone—whether they’ve been to the gym a million times or have just seen pictures—knows about the bench press. Tell people that you lift, and one of the first questions you’ll be asked is how much you can bench.

It’s the lift to do if you’re looking to beef up your chest, and it’ll also do well in hitting your front shoulders and triceps. When it comes to building your upper body, the barbell bench press is a necessary tool at your disposal. 

While primarily an upper-body exercise, a successful bench press should engage most of your muscles to some degree. You need a tight core and glutes in order to maintain stability and full-body tension. It’s a complex movement that can potentially be dangerous, so it’s important to keep in mind proper form throughout the lift. 

Good form begins with the feet. While not as important as with the prior two lifts, it’s still important to keep your feet firmly grounded. It will help to bring them back towards your butt while still keeping them flat on the floor. Position yourself on the bench in a place where you’ll be able to easily unrack the bar without hitting the pegs. Your shoulder blades should be pulled back and pinched—imagine yourself holding a pencil in between them.

Grab the bar very tightly, and set the grip according to your goals and body type. However, it’s generally recommended to grip the bar around the rings that are etched in it. Make sure that your thumbs are wrapped around it. Straighten your arms to unrack the bar, bracing your abdominals and glutes. Slowly lower the bar down to your chest without flaring your elbows out too much. Flaring out the elbows may cause shoulder pain. Touch your chest and then press up, completing the lift once you lock out with your elbows.

The bench press can also be done on a decline or incline, depending on your goals. The incline is the more popular choice and it works your upper pecs, while the decline works the lower.

While benching all the time can be tempting, make sure you’re giving equal attention to the back muscles, even if they’re not as much of a showstopper. This will prevent your shoulders from rounding, which brings us to….

4. Bent-Over Rows

The barbell bent-over row is an excellent back exercise, and a strong back is an excellent thing to have. While not a glamorous muscle group per se, it’s absolutely essential for the well-rounded development of your body. Especially in this day and age of desk-bound workers, the back is becoming an increasingly prominent problem point for many people. 

Our sitting positions tend to lead to a weakened lower back, which can cause lower back pain and risks injury. Furthermore, chest day might only serve to exacerbate the problem. This is why you need the bent-over row in your routine.

Not only will your overall health improve, but so will your posture and therefore, your aesthetics. This lift will engage your traps, lats, rhomboids, and rotator cuffs—while also necessitating a significant activation of your core. And if you’re super into the bench press, the bent-over row is a really good thing to have in your training regime. Not only will it develop the necessary opposing muscles, but training with the bent-over row is also a sure way to increase your bench press, deadlift, and squat. The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to form, is controlled movements. It’s easy to cheat with the row.

With your bar loaded with weight, stand with your feet at about shoulder-width apart. The bar should be under your midfoot. Begin by bending your knees and hinging at the hips—ensure that your back remains straight and your neck is in line. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, your hands just over shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be vertical.

Engage your core and pull back your shoulders, pulling the barbell up. Let it touch your sternum before lowering it back down in a controlled manner.

As with most of the other lifts on this list, there’s a world of rows out there just waiting for you to explore it. 

5. Military Press 

If you’re a lifter, there’s pretty much no way you can over-develop your shoulders. It’s a law of the universe—and proportionality.

The military press is an often-overlooked movement, but the benefits it imparts are numerous. Outside of the aesthetic benefits of bigger shoulders framing your chest, the military press also hits a number of different muscles in the rest of the upper body. The deltoids, upper chest, triceps, and traps, for instance. Done correctly, it’ll also engage your biceps, lower back, lats, glutes, and abdominals. 

In order to perform the military press, place a bar on a squat rack at shoulder height. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, at around shoulder-width apart—the bar should be directly over your midfoot.

Step in and bring your shoulders up to the bar, resting the barbell on the front delts and the upper chest. Look directly forward and lift the bar off of the rack. Take a couple of small steps back, planting your feet shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and glutes, and then press the bar up towards the ceiling until your elbows lockout. Keep in mind, once it clears your head you should move forward so as to keep the bar directly above you. 

The overhead press works similarly but requires a different stance.

A man doing a military press workout.

Supporting Your Weight Lifting

The five lifts above will make sure that you’re challenging your body in the right ways to fast track your development. However, the correct movements are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes down to consolidating your gains.

As always, diet is the most important aspect when working towards any goal. It’s often said that you can’t out-train a bad diet, and that’s especially true when you’re looking for muscle growth. Furthermore, you’re going to need to be eating a lot in order to back up the work you put into the heavy, compound lifts that we’ve talked about above. So, what does a good diet look like?

Whole, healthy foods are a must. Unless you’re on a specific diet, your body needs a good source of complex carbs in order to properly repair itself and give you energy. You also want to be eating healthy fats, such as those found in fish or avocado. 

The key ingredient, as you’ve probably guessed, is protein. Muscle growth necessitates protein, so you need to ensure that you’re getting not only enough of it, but high quality, lean protein as well. The dirty bulk might be fun, but you’re going to have to work your way out of that hole at some point. And the best way to stay on track is to make sure that what you’re putting into your body is in line with your long-term goals.

The Supplements for Muscle Mass

Drawing on the previous point, if you’re having trouble getting enough protein throughout the day, making yourself a protein shake with whey powder is an excellent way to up your protein intake. It’s something you can take with you and casually drink without having to worry about cooking.

And what if you’re looking for that extra edge? Taking a workout supplement, such as creatine, is a good and healthy way to put on some extra mass if that’s what you’re looking for. Just always make sure that you’re getting a high-end product and backing it up with the necessary hard work and diet plan.

Build Muscle with Recovery

A big thing a lot of people forget (especially when they’re getting into working out) is that there needs to be time for recovery between workouts. This will depend on your workout routine, but if you’re doing a lot of heavy, compound lifts (like the ones above) throughout the week, your muscles are going to need time to recover. 

Muscle growth happens when the micro-tears in muscle fibers are healed after some form of exertion. If you don’t give yourself ample time for this, you might plateau your growth and at worst, it could lead to injuries—and there’s no better way to stunt muscle growth than an injury preventing you from working out.

Put together the right workout routine, mix in a bit of cardio, stick to a wholesome diet plan, and get enough rest, and you’ll be making gains like no one’s business.