Compound Exercises: How To, Benefits, Variations, & Common Mistakes

Compound Exercises: How To, Benefits, Variations, & Common Mistakes

Want to get stronger, bust through plateaus, and take your workouts to the next level? Add compound exercises into your fitness routine.

In this article, we discuss how to do compound exercises, the benefits they offer, the variations you can do, and the common mistakes to avoid so you can stay safe while getting fit.

What Are Compound Exercises?

A compound exercise is one that requires your body to use two or more muscle groups (and, often, two or more joints) at the same time.

A prime example of a compound exercise is the squat.

This basic movement requires you to bend at the knees and hips (two joints), and activates multiple muscle groups in your lower body (the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and glutes). On top of that, it also engages your lower back and core muscles for support.

As you can see, compound exercises give a lot of bang for their buck for one movement.

In comparison, the opposite of a compound exercise is an isolation exercise, which only requires one muscle group or joint to perform the movement.

An example of an isolation exercise is the biceps curl. In this exercise, only one joint is moving (the elbow) and only one muscle group is active (the biceps).

How To Perform Basic Compound Exercises

The vast majority of the movements you’re likely to perform during a workout are variations of the four basic compound exercises: press, pull, squat, hinge.

These exercises activate, engage, and work a large number of muscles at the same time and are extremely effective at helping you lose weight, gain strength, build muscle, and generally maintain your overall fitness.

Of course, there are other movements you might include as well — calf raises, leg extensions, leg curls, cable chest flies, lateral raises, and more — but these isolation exercises aren’t as effective at producing overall fitness as compound exercises.

Isolation exercises are great as a supplement to target weak spots in your body, but they’re not a replacement for the big lifts (unless you’re recovering from an injury).

Here’s how to perform the basic compound exercises.


The pressing movement involves extending your arms — up or perpendicular to your body — from your shoulders until your elbows are straight.

Pressing falls into two categories:

  • Horizontal presses (e.g., bench press and pushup)
  • Vertical presses (e.g., overhead or military press)

Horizontal presses are typically done lying down or in the prone position, while vertical presses are typically done standing up or seated on a bench.


Pulling compound exercises are the opposite of pressing exercises and involve contracting your arms — down toward your head or in toward your chest — until your elbows are fully bent.

Like the press, pulling falls into two categories:

  • Horizontal pulls (e.g., ring and barbell rows)
  • Vertical pulls (e.g., pullups and chinups)

Horizontal pulls are typically performed by bringing your arms in toward your body from out in front of your chest, while vertical pulls are done by bringing your arms down toward your shoulders from overhead.


To do a squat:

  • Set your feet about shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor
  • Push your hips back and lower them toward the floor (as if you’re sitting down in a chair)
  • Keep your chest up as you move down
  • Once your knees reach a 90-degree angle, push through your heels to stand back up

Keeping your body in the right position is crucial for avoiding injury (especially when you add weight), so be sure you’ve got your form down before varying the types of squats you’re doing. Correct form and safety should always come before adding weight.


The hinge (or hip hinge) is a fundamental human movement that engages the posterior chain — the back side of your body — to drive flexion and extension (bending and straightening) of the hips.

One of the most basic hinge exercises is the deadlift, but other variations exist as well. We’ll discuss these in the Variations section of this article.

But first, let’s look at how to perform a traditional deadlift. To perform this compound exercise, stand with your feet hip-width apart, bend your knees slightly, and push your hips back like you’re trying to close a car door.

Hinge forward, keeping your knees bent until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings and glutes. Then squeeze your glutes to bring your hips forward to return to a standing position.

Many variations of the hip hinge also require you to bend your knees to lower your hips down while your hips are traveling back (i.e. the deadlift starting position).

Benefits of Compound Exercises


Pressing movements work the shoulder muscles, chest, upper back, triceps, and core and are a great way to build strength and mobility in those areas.


Pulling compound exercises work a large majority of the muscles in your back, including:

  • Rhomboids
  • Teres minor
  • Teres major
  • Lats
  • Spinal erectors
  • Rear delts (shoulders)
  • Lower trapezius

Vertical pulls also engage the chest, biceps, and triceps and are one of the best ways to add muscle to these parts of your body.


While you may not do a lot of pushing and pulling outside of your workout, pretty much everyone squats in one way or another during everyday activities. In fact, the simple act of sitting down in a chair and standing up again is a squat.

Performing a squat works all of the muscles of your lower body and recruits many of the muscles in your core. Some variations of the squat even work parts of your chest, back, shoulders, and arms.

The benefits that squats can bring to your workout, your fitness, and your life in general include strength, mobility, balance, flexibility, coordination, power, improved cardiovascular capacity, increased bone density, stronger joints, and reduced risk of injury.

Including squats in your routine is really a no brainer!


Hinge movements like the deadlift work a surprising number of muscles in both the lower and upper body.

Many hinge compound exercises are hip and leg dominant, but some weighted variations also engage the core, back (both upper and lower), shoulders, and arms.

Because weighted movements, like the deadlift, work so many muscles, many consider them a full-body exercise — perfect for building strength, losing weight, protecting against injury, and improving overall fitness.

Compound Exercise Variations


Variations of the press include:

  • Standing military (or overhead) press
  • Seated military press
  • Bench press (dumbbell and barbell)
  • Push up
  • Incline press
  • Decline press
  • Dips


Variations of the pull include:

  • Pullups
  • Chinups
  • Lat pulldowns
  • Rows (dumbbell, barbell, and cable)
  • Rowing (on a machine or on the water)
  • Inverted rows

The deadlift can also be considered a pulling exercise (even though it’s leg-dominant) because of the number of back muscles required to stabilize the spine when performing the lift correctly.


Variations of the squat include:

  • Bodyweight squat (a.k.a. the air squat)
  • Back squat (barbell “racked” on the back of your shoulders)
  • Front squat (barbell “racked” on the front of your shoulders/top of your chest)
  • Lunge (bodyweight or weighted)
  • Overhead squat (with dumbbells or barbell)
  • Goblet squat
  • Box squat
  • Dumbbell squat
  • Pistol squat

With good training and plenty of practice, you can even add complicated squat variations, like the clean and the snatch, into your workout.


Hinge variations include:

  • Deadlift (barbell, kettlebell, hex bar, etc.)
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Goodmorning
  • Hip thrusts
  • Glute bridges

Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch also incorporate aspects of the hinge into their explosive movements.

Common Mistakes in Compound Exercises

Form and technique are crucial for avoiding injury and getting the most out of your workout when doing compound exercises — especially with weight. Here are common mistakes you’ll want to avoid for each type of compound exercise.


Common mistakes in the pressing compound exercises (like the bench press and overhead press) include:

  • Elbow flare (distance of your elbows from your body)
  • Incorrect grip width
  • A stacked or bent wrist position
  • Improper bar path
  • Poor core stabilization


Common mistakes in the pulling compound exercises include:

  • Not doing a full range of motion
  • Straining your neck
  • Hunching your back
  • Not controlling your movement
  • Not reaching full extension


Common mistakes in the squat include:

  • Angling your knees in
  • Moving your knees too far forward
  • Rounding your back
  • Not going low enough
  • Sacrificing form to lift more weight


Common mistakes in the hinge exercises include:

  • Rounding your shoulders
  • Locking your knees
  • Too much knee bend (turning the hinge into a squat)
  • Too wide a stance
  • Rounding your lower back
  • Pulling or curling with your arms

Master Compound Exercises with the Right Equipment

You can perform compound exercises with nothing but your bodyweight, but at some point, you’re likely going to want to add external weight to your routine to get stronger.

That’s where Titan Fitness comes in.

We’ve got the equipment you need to master compound exercises, including:

For tips on choosing equipment for compound exercises — and for taking your workouts to the next level — visit Titan.Fitness today.