The 12 Best Compound Exercises for Beginners (How to Train Efficiently)

This LEGO has the right idea on the best strength training exercise.

It’s time to discover the best compound exercises for beginners!

Compound exercises are the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to working out, so I’m super excited you want to learn more about them!

In our 1-on-1 Online Coach Program, we prioritize compound exercises when building workout routines for our clients. We’ll explain why today.

Here’s what we’ll cover in our guide, The 12 Best Compound Exercises for Beginners:

Also, if you’re in a hurry, we’ve compiled all our strength and weight training content into one handy guide called (appropriately): Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know

Grab it for free when you join the Rebellion (that’s us!) below:

Alright, cue the music. Let’s do this thang.

What are Compound Exercises?

These LEGO characters are on a mission to grow some muscle.

Let’s compare “compound exercises” to “isolation exercises”:

  • Compound exercises require more than one muscle group working together to complete the movement. This replicates the way your body naturally moves.
  • Isolation exercises more or less train one specific muscle group. For example, the leg extension machine focuses on your quads, so it “isolates” training that muscle.

Front squats would be an example of a compound exercise, because it engages your entire  lower body and core, and quite a bit of your upper body too, as you perform the movement:

Coach Staci performing the barbell front squat

As opposed to biceps curls, which more or less just trains your biceps:

This would be an example of an isolation exercise.

As we explain in our Guide to Functional Fitness, whenever possible you want to focus on compound exercises.

Why?

Because in everyday life, you don’t use your muscles in isolation!

When you’re placing luggage in the overhead bin, hoisting a bag of dog food from the floor, or hauling your kid to bed, you’re using your muscle groups together. 

Just like you would with a compound exercise.

Plus, since you’re using multiple muscle groups at once, you’re taxing your body more when training. This can provide more efficient use of your time in the gym

In other words, why do three different exercises when you can just do one?

A classic scene from SNL

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Great. Let’s get to working out.

The 5 Best Compound Exercises (Bodyweight)

Actually, you probably shouldn't waste your time with sit-ups.

1) The Push-up: The best exercise you could ever do for yourself when it comes to using your bodyweight for “push muscles.”

Muscles trained with the push-up:

  • Pectoral 
  • Triceps
  • Deltoids
  • Abs

Here’s our video on how to do a proper push-up:

Easier Variation: Knee Push-up

Rebel Leader Steve doing knee push-ups

Tougher Variation: Decline Push-up

Decline push-ups like this are a great way to progress your bodyweight exercises.

2) The Bodyweight Squat: This exercise serves a dual purpose – it is the foundation for building strength AND helps build proper mobility. If you are going to ever do barbell squats, you need to work on hitting proper depth with a bodyweight squat first! 

Muscles trained with the squat:

Easier Variation: Assisted Bodyweight Squat

Coach Staci showing you the an assisted bodyweight squat

Tougher Variation: Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is a great way to build muscle for women.

3) The Inverted Bodyweight Row: Until you can get your first pull-up or chin-up, these exercises are GREAT to start building your pull-muscle strength.

As you get lower, like this, the row will be harder to do. Great way to progress into a pull-up.

Muscles trained with the inverted row:

  • All of your back muscles (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius)
  • Biceps
  • Forearm muscles (dorsal, ventral)
  • Your grip

Easier Variation: Incline Inverted Row

A bodyweight row like this is a great "pull" exercise you can while building up strength for pull-ups.

Tougher Variation: Elevated Feet Inverted Row

Raising your feet will make rows more challenging.

4) The Pull-up and Chin-up: Once you can support your bodyweight above the bar, the world becomes your playground. No strength training routine should be without pull-up or chin-up work! (Can’t do a pull-up yet? We got you.)

Muscles trained with the pull-up:

  • All of your back muscles (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius)
  • Biceps
  • Latissimus dorsi (Lats)
  • Trapezius (Traps)
  • Abs
  • Your grip

Here’s how to perform a proper pull-up:

Easier Variation: Negative Pull-ups

Staci jumping up to do a negative pull-up., a great movement until you can bring regular pull-ups into your circuit.

Tougher Variation: Weighted Pull-ups

A weighted pull-up is great for progressive overload on your muscles.

5) The Bodyweight Dip: As you start to get stronger with push-ups and need to find a way to increase the challenge, consider doing dips. Warning: these are very advanced, but are incredible strength-building exercises. 

Bodyweight dips are a great exercise to include in an strength training practice.

Muscles trained with the dips:

  • Pectoral 
  • Triceps
  • Deltoids
  • Rhomboid (Back muscles)
  • Abs

Easier Variation: Assisted Dips

A resistance band is a great way to get started with this bodyweight exercise.

Tougher Variation: Weighted Dips

My favorite method for doing weighted dips includes a special belt (shown here).

These 5 compound exercises will propel you into the world of bodyweight training. 

For more ideas on how to train without a gym, check out our guide The 42 Best Bodyweight Exercises (Work Out Anywhere).

Now, it’s barbell time![1]

The 7 Best Compound Exercises (Barbell)

These LEGOs are working the bench and doing some deadlifts. Nerd Fitness approves.

After getting comfortable moving your own bodyweight around, it’s time to start training with barbells!

To up the difficulty with these compound exercises, simply add more weight. 

The fun thing about barbells: you can almost always add more weight (disclaimer: provided you do it safely). 

Here are The Best Barbell Compound Exercises

6) The Barbell Squat: Probably the best compound exercise when it comes to building strength and muscle throughout your whole body. 

The back squat will help you transform into a superhero.

Show me somebody who squats heavy and I’ll show you a great physique. This is a MUST.

Here’s how to perform the barbell back squat:

Muscles trained with the barbell squat:

7) The Barbell Deadlift: Maybe the best exercise of all time. 

Rebel Leader Steve showing how to do a 420 lb deadlift at the gym.

It’s certainly the most primal: “pick the weight up off the ground. Done.” 

Here’s how to perform the deadlift:

Muscles trained with the barbell deadlift:

  • Glutes
  • Erectors (Spinal muscle)
  • Hamstrings
  • Pretty much every muscle in your body

9) The Barbell Romanian Deadlift: Think of this as the top half of a conventional deadlift (imagine you’re a “drinking bird” bending over at the waist):

Coach Staci showing the Romanian deadlift

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the Romanian deadlift:

Muscles trained with the Romanian deadlift:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Erectors (Spinal muscle)
  • Rhomboid (Back muscles)

10) The Barbell Overhead Press: Press a barbell above your head. 

Staci performing the overhead press.

Muscles trained with the overhead press:

  • Pectoral 
  • Triceps
  • Deltoids
  • Rhomboid (Back muscles)
  • Abs

All the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and arms are engaged in order for you to lift the weight over your head. As a bonus, you need to really flex and brace your core, which gets those muscles working too.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the overhead press:

11) The Barbell Bench Press: Lie on a bench, and lower a barbell until it almost touches your chest. Pause, and then press it back up towards the sky. 

As Staci shows here, keep your arms vertical (as much as you can).

Repeat! And get strong. 

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the bench press:

Muscles trained with the benchpress:

  • Pectoral 
  • Triceps
  • Deltoids
  • Rhomboid (Back muscles)
  • Abs
  • Pretty much every muscle in your upper-body

12) The Barbell Bent-Over Row: Bend your torso over and hoist a barbell up.

If you've been following along at home, it's now time for performing the row with a barbell!

Muscles trained with the bent-over row:

  • All of your back muscles (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius)
  • Biceps
  • Forearm muscles (dorsal, ventral)
  • Your grip

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to perform the bent-over row:

Start Performing the Best Compound Exercises (Next Steps)

A woman pressing as against a beautiful sky.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: commit to trying ONE of these compound movements in the next week. Use 20 seconds of courage, recruit a friend who has lifted or trained before, and try your best. 

We all start somewhere! 

Speaking of starting out…

Never done ANY of the compound exercises before?

Always start out with just your bodyweight and make sure your movement is correct!

If it’s a barbell movement, use a broomstick (or PVC Pipe). 

When it comes to movements like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, bench press, etc. – your form is crucial.  Develop good habits with lighter weight and you will save yourself months of frustration later and will protect you from injury.

If you’re struggling with certain elements of a movement, don’t get frustrated! Just understand that you’ll have areas in which you can improve.

When I started, I really liked practicing all of the movements at home because I could watch a video online at the same time as I was watching myself do it in a mirror.

Film yourself and compare it to our videos, or post it to the form check section of the Nerd Fitness Forums.

Still uncomfortable with the movements after that? Look around at some local strength and conditioning gyms and see if you could hire a coach (here’s how to find a good trainer) for one or two sessions just to go over the basic movements (or consider working with an NF Coach).

No matter what path you take, the most important thing you can do now is start.

If you wanna win a race, you need to start it!

Don’t overthink it. Just pick a compound exercise and learn how to do it. We can add more exercises to your routine down the road.

Want a little help getting going? The perfect next step to start your strength training journey!

You got it. 

Option #1) If you want a coach in your pocket, who can do video form checks, provide feedback, and adjust your workouts based on your progress, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program

I’ve had an online coach since 2015 and it’s changed my life. You can learn more by clicking on the box below: 

Option #2) Good at following instructions? Check out our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy.

The Academy has 20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles, meal plans, a questing system, and a supportive community.

 

Option #3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Sign-up below and receive our free guide Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. It includes step-by-step instructions for the Best Compound Exercises covered in today’s guide. 

Alright, enough from me. Your turn:

Do you agree with my list of best compound exercises?

Am I missing any?

Any tips or tricks for a newbie just getting started?

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Strength Training 101 series:

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GIF Source: Weighted Dips, Biceps Curl, Will Ferrell,

Photo Source: Workout, LEGO going to the gym, LEGO bench pressLance Cpl. Tayler P. Schwamb, 101, 102, 103

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