February 13th, 2024
Compound exercises are a fundamental component of our personal training programs, both in-home and online – and for good reason. “Not including compound exercises in your programme is on par with forgetting your headphones or not re-racking your weights. It’s a fitness faux pas that experts unanimously agree, should be avoided at all costs” (Men’s Health, 2023).
Compound exercises are movements that engage multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously; they are complex, coordinated, dynamic movements that recruit a range of muscles to work together, providing a comprehensive and highly effective approach to strength training.
We love using compound exercises because you can target primary muscle groups while challenging stabilization, which promotes balanced muscle development and functional strength. This leads to efficient time management in the gym while providing practical benefits for daily activities, as our everyday movements often mimic compound exercises. Here are a few of our favourite compound movements to incorporate into your next workout.
Our top 5 favourite compound exercises
Squats are an indispensable exercise in any fitness routine, and “in terms of building muscle mass, squats are vital as they hit so many areas at once” (Women’s Health, 2023). Though squats primarily target the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, when performed while holding weights they can strengthen the entire body! The effort to hold a weight in the proper position during squats further engages your arms, shoulders, and back. The engagement of your trunk during squats also promotes a strong and stable core, aiding in injury prevention and improving posture. While providing the added benefit of a more defined physique (always a bonus), squats contribute significantly to functional strength by enhancing your ability to perform daily activities such as sitting, standing, and lifting things from the floor.
There are plenty of squat variations available for different goals and fitness levels. From the classic back squat, to the front squat, overhead squat, and goblet squat, each variation places unique emphasis on different parts of the body. Back squats primarily target the posterior chain (back of the body), emphasizing the glutes and hamstrings, while front squats shift the focus to the quadriceps and core. The overhead squat challenges shoulder stability and mobility, contributing to more comprehensive upper body engagement. Goblet squats, with a weight held close to the chest, provide a user-friendly option that targets the entire lower body and encourages upright posture. Not to mention bodyweight squats and jump squats, which require no equipment! Another team favourite is the bench squat, which Nielsen Fitness trainers love to incorporate in the plans of older adults (it gets harder to stand up from a low point as we age, and it’s important to combat that decline), those with possible knee issues, or glute weakness.
Push ups pack a powerful punch in terms of upper body strength and overall fitness. The versatile exercise primarily targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps while also engaging the core and lower body for stability. Push ups promote functional strength by mimicking the pushing strength needed to catch yourself when falling forward, push yourself backward, or push yourself up off of the floor.
Push ups are simple in the sense that they require no equipment, but challenging in their total body nature. That said, like squats, there are plenty of push up variations to accommodate all levels. Wide grip push ups emphasize the outer chest muscles, while close grip or diamond push ups place greater emphasis on the triceps. Incline or decline push ups alter the angle of your body, shifting the focus to the upper or lower chest while also engaging the shoulders and core for added stability.
Plyometric (explosive) or clapping push ups enhance power and cardiovascular endurance by incorporating a dynamic jumping element. Alternating arm or one- arm push ups challenge stability and require increased core engagement. For those who are just beginning, we suggest wall push ups or incline push ups from a height that allows a full range of motion with proper form and core support. Negative push ups (which focus only on the lowering phase) or modified push ups are the next step before progressing to your toes. For more information, check out our previous blog on how to do a push up here.
Deadlifts form the backbone of many strength training routines. Targeting a multitude of muscle groups, including the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and core, deadlifts can be used for total strength development. Traditional deadlifts challenge you to lift a weight from the ground to a standing position, which supports the important function of lifting in a form slightly different from (but just as important as) the squat. Proper execution of the deadlift improves posture and reduces your risk of injury.
The conventional deadlift primarily emphasizes the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, while sumo deadlifts (with a wider stance) place greater stress on the inner thighs and quads. Romanian deadlifts, which focusing on the eccentric (lowering) phase, prioritize hamstring and glute engagement while providing an excellent stretch to the posterior chain. Single-leg deadlifts challenge balance and target each leg individually, promoting symmetrical strength development. Trap bar deadlifts offer a unique grip and body position, engaging the quadriceps and upper back to a greater extent.
It takes time and care to master proper deadlift form, and Nielsen Fitness trainers are always careful when first introducing the movement. Before beginning deadlifts, trainees must have properly mastered the hip-hinge and built sufficient core strength. That said, deadlifts are not always appropriate for those with lower back issues. Working with an in-home or virtual
personal trainer is a great way to ensure you’re executing safe and proper form within a level of challenge that’s right for you.
Mountain climbers are a bodyweight exercise that engages multiple muscle groups while promoting cardiovascular and muscular endurance. The exercise involves assuming a high (from the palms) plank position, then alternating the knees forward in a running motion, creating a continuous movement. The goal is to isolate all movement to the legs, which further challenges your core strength and overall stability. Mountain climbers target the core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexors, while also engaging the shoulders, chest, and arms. The leg movement elevates your heart rate, contributing to cardiovascular conditioning and calorie burn while improving coordination and agility. Mountain climbers can be incorporated into warm ups, high intensity interval training (HIIT), or full body workout routines.
Similarly to push ups, mountain climbers can be modified by starting with your hands at a higher vantage point. You can also slow down your pace or add a short rest between every few reps if needed. To increase the intensity, pick up your pace or incorporate other dynamic elements such as alternating plank jax. If you’re struggling with wrist pain, you can hold a set of dumbbells to allow the joints to sit in a less stressed position.
Farmer walks, also known as suitcase carries, are a simple yet highly effective strength and stability exercise that primarily target the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, and forearms. Farmer walks also build grip strength while supporting the overall function of walking, engaging the core and lower body for balance. The act of carrying heavy loads in each hand mimics everyday activities like carrying bags or luggage.
Farmer walks are fantastic in their versatility, as the exercise can be used with little to no weight to support base stability or with heavy lifters to build overall strength and endurance.
No matter your personal goals, compound exercises should be included in almost every exercise program. They are essential for complete strength, longevity, and stability, fostering an approach geared toward total body health and function. If you’re new to some of the movements and not sure where to start, our trainers are here to help! Book your first free workout to learn how compound exercises can transform your fitness.