Best Compound Exercises for Weight Loss and Muscle Building


The path to weight loss and muscle growth success is a tricky one with many hurdles and setbacks along the way.

However, when it comes to physical training, making smart choices can allow us to optimize our progress with both.

In this article, we will focus on the importance of exercise selection. We will discuss compound exercises and the role compounds play in weight loss and muscle building.

In addition, we will also provide eight essential compound exercises that will significantly contribute to both goals.

What Are Compound Exercises?

Exercises can be divided into one of two categories – compound or isolation.

Compound exercises involve movements that activate a range of muscle groups across a number of joints (1).

An excellent example of a compound exercise is a squat. Movement occurs around three joints – hips, knees, and ankles – and activates the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

Meanwhile, isolation exercises focus on activating one muscle group and movements through one joint (1).

An example of a popular isolation exercise is the bicep curl. Movement occurs only through the elbow joint and the demand is placed entirely on the biceps.

Whether the goal is weight loss or muscle building, our program should revolve around compound lifts (2).

This is primarily due to the array of benefits that these exercises have on the body.

Isolation exercises are useful and can facilitate weight loss and muscle gain, however, they are secondary to compounds.

Compound Exercises And Weight Loss

When it comes to weight loss, a negative energy balance must be established. This is simply where more energy is expended than taken in.

There are two main ways of creating this negative energy balance.

The first way is to restrict our energy intake by consuming fewer calories than usual. The second way is to increase our activity levels and burn calories.

Often, a combination of both calorie restriction and increased physical activity levels is most effective (3).

By establishing a negative energy balance, the body will begin to break down body fat. Providing this balance is maintained for a prolonged period; significant weight loss will occur.

It is possible to maximize the number of calories burned through exercise by utilizing highly taxing exercises.

Exercises that expend a large number of calories will make substantial contributions to creating this negative energy balance.

Because compound exercises engage a number of muscle groups, they burn a great number of calories. Therefore, regularly performing compounds can facilitate weight loss.

Compound Exercises And Muscle Building

If the goal is to build significant muscle size, strength training is a critical component.

There are three fundamental mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy (growth). They are mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage (4).

Strength training applies all three of these mechanisms and, therefore, can cause an increase in lean muscle mass.

Considering that compounds engage many muscle groups, a large amount of weight can be used for most compound exercises.

Lifting heavier loads will apply more mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage and cause more significant improvements in muscle size.

While isolations can be used for facilitating muscle growth, they do not allow for heavy lifting. This is simply down to the fact that only one muscle group is active during isolations.

Therefore, it is clear that compound exercises are of utmost importance for muscle hypertrophy, with isolation exercises being secondary (2).

Eight Key Compounds Exercises For Weight Loss And Muscle Building

As highlighted, specific compound exercises are associated with a high-calorie burn and great muscle activation.

In this section, we will cover eight compound exercises that make a significant contribution to weight loss and muscle growth.

1. Deadlifts

Compound Exercises - Deadlifts

The deadlift is an excellent full-body developing exercise that will burn a large number of calories.

The exercise places a high demand on the posterior chain. This is the chain of muscles that run up the back of the body – from the calves to the upper back.

It is renowned for specifically developing the glutes, hamstrings, back, and core.

The exercise involves tipping forward by hinging the hips and grasping a weight. From there, keep the spine neutral, drive the hips through, and straighten the knees to stand.

Although the deadlift is conventionally performed using a barbell, they can also be performed using kettlebells or dumbbells.

Deadlift Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Spinal Erectors


  1. Start with the feet directly under the hip and place the feet under the bar
  2. Keeping the chest up and shoulders back, push the hips backward to tip forward
  3. Grip the bar using an overhand, shoulder-width grip
  4. Engage the core and drive hard through the heels, keeping the bar close to the body
  5. Finish by squeezing the glutes to drive the hips to the bar before returning to the floor

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

 2. Squats

Compound Exercises - Squat

The squat is a prevalent compound exercise that is commonly used for achieving weight loss and muscle gain.

The deadlift is more of a hip-dominant exercise, whereas the squat is more knee-dominant. As a result, the exercise places a higher demand on the quads than the deadlift does.

To perform the squat, keep the chest lifted and core engaged before bending the knees and hinging the hips. Drop the backside down toward the floor before driving back up to standing.

The squat can be performed with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even just bodyweight.

There are a vast number of squat variations that can be performed. These include the back, front, overhead, and goblet squat, just to name a few.

Squat Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps
  • Adductors
  1. Start with the feet slightly wider than hip-width with the toes slightly turned out
  2. Drive the chest up, pull the shoulders back, and engage the core
  3. Hinge the hips and bend the knees to drop the backside down towards the floor
  4. Continue to drop until the thighs are approximately parallel to the floor
  5. Drive hard through the heels to return to standing

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

3. Lunges

Compound Exercises - Lunges

The lunge develops single leg-strength as well as proprioceptive skills such as balance and coordination.

The lunge engages similar muscles to the squat with the quads and the glutes being highly activated during the exercise.

For the lunge, start in a split stance with one foot out in front and one foot behind the body. Keeping the chest up, bend both knees to drop the back knee to the floor before driving up.

The lunge is most commonly performed with a barbell on the back or with dumbbells held by the sides.

Several effective lunge variations exist, including the forward, reverse, lateral, and curtsy lunge.

Lunge Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings


  1. Start with the feet directly under the hips with toes pointed forward
  2. Push the chest up, pull the shoulders back, and squeeze the core muscles
  3. Take a step forward and plant the foot on the floor
  4. Bend both knees simultaneously so that the rear knee drops to the floor
  5. Push hard through the front leg to drive the body back up to standing
  6. Alternate sides and repeat

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

4. Clean & Press

Compound Exercise - Clean and Press

The clean and press is undoubtedly one of the most technically challenging compound exercises that can be performed. However, the potential benefits are immense.

The process of lifting the bar from the floor and driving it overhead places great demand on many muscle groups.

To perform a clean, lift the bar from the floor and bring it up to the hips. Powerfully extend through the hips, pull the bar vertically upward, and catch it on the front of the shoulders.

From there, dip at the knees and hips before powerfully extending to drive the bar up and directly overhead.

While the clean and press is conventionally performed using a barbell, kettlebell and dumbbell variations can be utilized.

Clean & Press Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Deltoids


  1. Start with the feet slightly wider than hip-width with the toes slightly turned out
  2. Drop down to the bar, grasp it slightly wider than shoulder-width and engage the core
  3. Keeping the hips high, begin to lift the bar from the floor by extending the knees
  4. Once the bar reaches the mid-thigh, powerfully extend the hips and pull the bar up
  5. Rapid drop into a squat to catch the bar on the front of the shoulders and then stand
  6. Take a moment, dip the hips and knees and explosively press the bar overhead

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

5. Rows

Compound Exercises - Barbell Rows

The row is an upper-body resistance exercise that is a highly effective exercise for both weight loss and muscle gain.

The movement involved in the row engages the lats, which are the largest muscles of the back. In addition, the core muscles are also highly activated in order to stabilize movement.

For the row, start with the weight in both hands and tip forward by pushing the hips back. Pull the weight into the body, keeping the elbows tight to the ribs before returning to the start.

For this exercise, any type of free weight can be used. Additionally, there are several useful rowing variations, such as the single-arm, inverted, and seal row.

Row Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps


  1. Start with the feet under the hips and the weight in hand
  2. Engage the core and hinge the hips so that the trunk tips forward
  3. Keeping shoulders down and elbows tight to the body, pull the weight into the ribs
  4. Squeeze tightly between the shoulder blades before returning to the starting position

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

6. Pull-Up

Compound Exercises - Pull Ups

Another back-based resistance exercise that can contribute towards weight loss and muscle growth is the pull-up.

The pull-up also works the lats but in a different way to the row. The row is a horizontal pulling exercise, whereas the pull-up is a vertical pulling exercise.

Begin by grasping the pull-up bar and let the body hang. From there, powerfully pull the body up until the chest reaches the bar before extending back down to hanging.

The pull-up can be performed using just bodyweight, and often this will be challenging enough. However, an additional load can be added by using a dipping belt and weight plates.

Pull-Up Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps


  1. Start by gripping the bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width
  2. Keeping the legs straight, let the body entirely hang and engage the core muscles
  3. Powerfully pull the body upward until the chest is level with the bar
  4. Control the descent back to a full hang

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

7. Bench Press

Compound Exercises - Bench Press

The bench press is seen as a paramount strength exercise for weight loss and muscle development.

The exercise primarily works the pecs (chest) while also activating the deltoids (shoulders), triceps (arms), and core muscles.

To perform the bench press, lie back on the bench and hold the weight directly over the chest. Carefully lower the weight to the lower chest before powerfully driving it back up.

This exercise is most commonly performed using barbells and dumbbells. Once again, there are several effective benching variations, such as incline, decline, and close-grip bench.

Bench Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Pectorals
  • Deltoids
  • Triceps


  1. Start by lying flat on the bench and align the eyes directly under the bar
  2. Using a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, grasp the bar
  3. Pull the feet in towards the body, press the heels into the floor, and engage the core
  4. Lift the bar off and bring it directly over the lower chest
  5. Drop the bar to the lower chest and prevent the elbows from flaring out
  6. Powerfully drive the bar straight back up to the starting position

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

8. Overhead Press

Compound Exercises - Overhead Press

The final compound exercise for weight loss and muscle building is the overhead press.

Overhead pressing will place significant load on the deltoids, which are the muscles in the shoulders. In addition, the core must work hard to stabilize the bar in the overhead position.

Hold the weight by the shoulders and stand tall. Keeping the core tight, powerfully drive the weight directly up and overhead before lowering to the starting position.

While the exercise is typically done with a barbell, performing a dumbbell overhead press can be equally effective.

Overhead Press Breakdown

Primary Muscles Worked:

  • Deltoids
  • Pectorals
  • Triceps


  1. Begin with the feet under the hips and hold the weight by the shoulders
  2. Before lifting, engage the core and squeeze the glutes
  3. Keeping the bar close to the face, press the bar up and overhead
  4. In a controlled fashion, drop the bar back down to the shoulders

(video credit: Barbell Shrugged)

Training Volume

While these exercises are, without doubt, highly efficient exercises, how many sets and reps should be done of each?

This is dependent on the set training goal.

The traditional understanding of sets and reps is as follows (5):

Component of FitnessTraining Volume
Muscle Strength2-6 sets of 1-6 reps
Muscle Hypertrophy3-6 sets of 6-12 reps
Muscle Endurance / Definition3-6 sets of 12+ reps

For weight loss, performing a high number of sets and reps may be of most benefit. A greater volume of work may lead to a greater calorie burn.

For muscle growth, studies have established a link between high training volumes and increasing muscle size (6).

With that being said, high training volumes may not be suitable for all. Specifically, for those who are new to strength training, high volumes are not necessary.

Progressive Overload

When exposed to a new training stimulus, the body rapidly adapts. However, if the training stimulus remains unchanged, the body will become accustomed to it and fail to adapt further.

To ensure that the body is continuously adapting and improving, we must apply progressive overload.

Progressive overload is simply the process of increasing the intensity of training over time.

This is most commonly done by adding weight to each lift. However, it can also be done by adding sets and reps or by reducing rest times between sets.

While progressive overload is vital for all, it is particularly significant for those looking to increase muscle size and strength.


Compound exercises involve movements that work a range of muscle groups across more than one joint.

For fat loss, compounds allow us to burn a high number of calories and, therefore, contribute to a negative energy balance.

Whereas, for muscle gain, compounds place the highest demand on the muscles forcing them to increase in strength and size.

Whether our goal is to lose a few pounds or add size, compounds must be the foundation of our training.


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