Full Body Compound Exercises [The Big 5]

..Full body compound exercises are a central tenet of full body training, incorporating multiple muscle groups to complete a set movement. They are great for beginners and intermediates and rely mostly on free weights making it easier and more affordable to set up a home gym or avoid interrupting your workout if training in a public gym when the machines are all taken.

In the following article we’re going to take a closer look at the 5 most important primary compound movements you should consider including in your program if new to full body training, the muscle groups targeted and how to perform each exercise correctly.

Take Care with Compounds

Working out is considered a safe sport. But it is still important to take precautions when training full body as compound movements involve using much heavier weights than if using machines. For example an isolation movement performed on a cable machine such as the leg extension for an inexperienced lifter may require between 80 – 100lbs of resistance. A similar strength level in the standard squat for an inexperienced lifter may  involve between 160 – 200LB of free weight loaded on the barbell. When using this kind of weight, you need to ensure you have good form and have a spotter available if required.

Teaching correct form for each lift is beyond the scope of this article. The following information should be considered a guide only. Inexperienced lifters should learn correct form before adding weight to the bar, especially when learning how to squat and deadlift. A coach or experienced lifter should assess your technique and provide feedback before any weight is added to the bar. Failure to do so can result in scaling up an existing problem, increasing the risk of injury and preventing gains.

Exercise Variations

Exercise variations are based on the primary exercise but might be different in hand position or foot position or require you to sit instead of stand or use dumbbells instead of a barbell. For example, if performing a variation of the standard deadlift e.g. the sumo deadlift the foot position is much wider, however the same muscle groups are mostly targeted.

The reason you might consider variation movements is to increase the load on specific muscle groups. For instance the sumo deadlift emphasises greater loading on the quadriceps in theory due to the wider foot position requiring greater knee flexion (bending of the knee).

Valsalva Maneuver

You might hear the term ‘Valsalva Maneuver’ mentioned in conjunction with compound exercises. The Valsalva Maneuver is a method of breathing that helps stabilise the core due to the action of breathing out against your closed airway, creating internal pressure. This breathing method helps protect the spine and the additional rigidity assists with lifting heavier weight.

How to Perform the Valsalva Maneuver

  1. Take a deep breath. Visualise breathing into your belly as opposed to the chest
  2. Close the windpipe (Glottis) and attempt to exhale against it. As the glottis is closed, air is unable to escape and internal pressure is created.
  3. Begin the first part of the movement e.g. when bench pressing lower the bar to the chest while maintaining pressure on the Glottis.
  4. Complete the second part of the movement and exhale.

You might already be performing the Valsalva Maneuver and not know it. In many cases lifters use this method of breathing often and don’t need to be taught how to perform it correctly

5 Full Body Compound Exercises for Hypertrophy and Strength Gains

If your goal is to add lean muscle mass to your frame, full body training is one of the most effective methods of training available, due to the higher frequency of training it incorporates. Compound exercises are key to training full body but to really get maximum benefit each move must be performed with correct form, which requires technique to come before weight.

The Bench Press

Bench Press - Full body compound movement 1

The bench press is a great compound exercise that not only develops the muscles of the chest, but also the triceps, back and shoulders.

Muscles Groups Targeted

The bench press develops the muscles of the chest (pectoralis major and pectoralis minor). However the bench press also recruits the triceps, anterior deltoids (shoulders) and back muscles.

Primary Muscle Groups TargetedSecondary Muscle Groups Targeted
  • Pectoralis major
  • Pectoralis minor
  • Triceps brachii (Triceps)
  • Anterior deltoids (Shoulders)
  • Latissimus dorsi (Back)

How to Bench Press

  1. Position yourself on the bench.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades together as if trying to hold a pencil between the scapula. (Doing so minimises the load on the shoulder joint and facilitates a stable spine through the movement.)
  3. Grip the bar with palms facing directly upward with the bar placement being nearest the palms.
  4. Keep your feet flat on the floor in line with the knees and a little wider than standard shoulder width. You can also move your feet back toward your upper body to ensure core stability throughout the lift. Both methods are fine, the important thing to remember is to keep your feet flat on the floor.
  5. Ensure the bar is positioned at eye level and slowly lift the bar of the j hooks (or better yet utilise a spotter)
  6. Lower the bar to perform the eccentric stage of the lift while utilising the ‘Valsalva Maneuver’.
  7. Lower the bar to just above the middle line of the chest and avoiding flanging the elbows too widely.
  8. Pause. Arch the back slightly, squeeze the glutes, flare out the lats, tighten the core and maintain head position flat on the bench, never being raised to ensure spinal stability.
  9. Straighten the arms and raise the bar.

Exercise Variations:

  • Close Grip Bench Press
    The basic set up is much the same, with the major difference being a narrower hand position. If using a closer grip on the barbell the triceps and inner pecs receive more of the load.
  • Incline Bench Press
    When introducing an incline (the bench is positioned on an angle of 30 degrees typically) greater emphasis is placed on the upper chest (pectoralis minor) and shoulders (deltoids).
  • Decline Bench Press
    When introducing a decline (the bench is positioned on an angle -30 degrees typically) greater emphasis is placed on the lower chest with less load on the shoulders.
  • Dumbbell Bench Press
    Using dumbbells instead of the standard barbell targets the same muscle groups but allows for greater range of motion as the arm position can finish beneath the level of the chest increasing the overall stretch.

Important Points to remember:

  • The bar path shouldn’t be straight up and down (unlike smith machines when performing this exercise) and is in more of a j curve e.g. the bar starts directly above the middle line of the chest and ends up in line with the shoulders.
  • Protect your shoulders by ensuring you pull your shoulder blades close together to minimise load on the shoulder joint.

The Deadlift

The Deadlift

The deadlift is a great example of a compound exercise because it recruits a number of large group of muscles to complete the movement. In fact, it works almost the entire body, with a primary focus on the posterior chain.

The deadlift is a demanding exercise and places great strain on the central nervous system when lifting at full or near-full capacity. As a result this exercise should only be performed 1-2 times per week if inexperienced to promote recovery.

Muscles Groups Targeted:

The deadlift recruits the muscles of the posterior chain primarily e.g. (hamstrings, gluteus maximus, trapezius and lower back muscles).

Primary Muscle Groups TargetedSecondary Muscle Groups Targeted
  • Gluteus Maximus (Buttocks)
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Trapezius
  • Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
  • Latisimus Dorsi (Upper Back)
  • Almost the entire body

How to Deadlift

  1. Approach the bar and stand shoulder width apart. Feet can either be angled slightly outward or straight ahead if preferred.
  2. Bend down and position your hands on the bar at shoulder width. You can use either an alternated grip, which is a combination of a supinated grip on the right hand and a pronated grip on the left or a pronated grip. Using a pronated grip will reduce the risk of a tearing a bicep, a common deadlift injury.
  3. Arms should be straight as tension is applied to the bar. Maintain head position, looking directly ahead.
  4. Before lifting the bar pull your body toward the bar while maintaining tension. Your back should be straight as you push my pelvis forward into a hip hinge position. Body weight should be distributed toward the heels.
  5. Perform the concentric stage of the movement. Utilise the Valsalva Maneuver to assist with core stability. While straightening the legs ensure the hips follow almost immediately after. Utilise the glutes for a large percentage of the lift and maintain a straight back and head position.

Exercise Variations

Sumo Deadlift
A common variation of the deadlift. Feet are placed much wider apart (20 – 25% wider than shoulder width). The hands grip from inside the legs. The sumo deadlift fires the quadriceps more than the conventional deadlift, taking some load from the hamstrings due to greater knee flexion.

Trap Bar Deadlift
When using a hex bar instead of a standard barbell less load is placed on the back and hamstrings with more on the quadriceps. A hex bar also allows for a semi-pronated grip.

Deficit Deadlift
This variation of the deadlift requires the lifter to stand on a raised surface e.g. a weight plate with the barbell at ground level. This exercise is often used to improve the first stage of the standard deadlift. Greater activation of the hips and legs are achieved due to greater joint flexion.

Important Points to remember:

  • It is critical that you maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift and do not bend your arms.
  • Wear shoes with a thin, flat sole. Wearing joggers can increase the risk of rolling your ankle as they provide less stability. Specialist deadlift shoes are available but Chuck Taylors are also a good, inexpensive option.
  • Perform the deadlift early in your workout as it is likely to be the most physically demanding exercise.
  • The deadlift demands correct form, be careful to avoid rounding the back on the initial stage of the lift.

The Squat

Squat - Full Body Compound Exercise 3

As per the deadlift, squatting is physically demanding due to the large amount of muscle fibers recruited to complete the movement. This means the legs may potentially take longer to recover but being large muscles tend to result in more calories burned per workout.

Muscles Groups Targeted

The squat is predominantly used for training the quadriceps (thigh muscles). The squat, however also works the gluteus maximus, calf muscles and core.

Primary Muscle Groups TargetedSecondary Muscle Groups Targeted
  • Gluteus Maximus (Buttocks)
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Gastrocnemius and soleus muscles (calf muscles)
  • Erector Spinae
  • Core Muscles e.g. (Internal obliques, external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, transversus abdominis, multifidus)

How to Squat

  1. Duck under the bar so it is positioned to the back of the torso below the neck, resting on your trapezius. The bar should be positioned at a height that it should lift above the J hooks when standing upright at full height.
  2. Grip the bar tightly at shoulder width while maintaining head position so you are looking directly ahead.
  3. Stand at full height lifting the bar from the j hooks and take 2-3 small steps backward.
  4. Position the feet to be slightly wider than shoulder width and on a slight outward angle.
  5. Bend at the hips (bending slightly forward) lowering the body with the bar maintaining its position on the trapezius while utilising the Valsalva Maneuver.
  6. Pause once the thigh is parallel to the floor.
  7. Straighten the legs and hips until standing straight and repeat the movement.

Exercise Variations

Front Squat
This squat variation requires the bar to be positioned at the front of the upper chest. The front squat recruits muscles from the anterior chain, while the back squat better targets the posterior chain. Don’t expect to lift as much weight when front squatting compared to back squatting.

Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is usually performed with a kettlebell or free weight plate. The plate or kettlebell should be held at chest height with elbows out as you perform a standard squat movement. This can be a useful exercise for beginners to learn the fundamentals of squatting e.g. maintaining a straight back and driving through the heels, before advancing to the back squat.

Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is a body weight exercise utilising the squat movement, only on one leg at a time. Balance is critical as you will need to maintain your position on one leg at the bottom of the movement before pushing upward. This movement requires a decent amount of leg strength, balance and core activation. Many people will be unable to complete a pistol squat unassisted initially. If so, use a bench or similar object to stabilise your body and assist with the movement.

Important Points to remember:

  • Ensure you squat to the full depth. Partial range movements tend to contribute to injury over time, as the body becomes accustomed to the smaller range of movement and is therefore unaccustomed to full range of movement. Squatting to depth also creates a larger muscle stretch and activates the muscles more effectively.
  • Don’t allow your knees to track inward as you straighten. Your knees should be above the toes.
  • Drive through the heels as you lift the weight to prevent the spine rolling forward.
  • Be careful not to round your lower back as this puts undue pressure on your spine..

Overhead Press

Overhead Press

Another great full body combination exercise. The overhead press recruits more muscle groups than other pressing exercises such as the bench press and activates the muscles of the core more effectively. As a result it can also help to increase your bench press.

Muscles Groups Targeted

The overhead press recruits the muscles of the shoulder (side, front and rear deltoids). The chest, triceps, trapezius and core muscles also engaged.

Primary Muscle Groups TargetedSecondary Muscle Groups Targeted
  • Deltoids
  • Pectoralis minor
  • Triceps brachii (Triceps)
  • Trapezius
  • Core Muscles e.g. (Internal obliques, external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, transversus abdominis, multifidus)

How to Overhead Press

  1. Approach and grip the bar using a standard shoulder width grip with palms facing outward and slightly upward. (As you lift the bar the grip will adjust so that the palms are facing toward the ceiling).
  2. Ensure your feet are close together, flanged outward in a V shape at approximately 45 degrees or at shoulder width if you prefer.
  3. Squeeze the glutes and stabilise your core before lifting the bar of the rack and settling the bar on the upper chest just beneath your collar bones.
  4. Maintain a rigid lower body as you raise the bar and maintain head position so that you are looking directly ahead. Maintain this position throughout the movement.
  5. Lower the bar to the starting position on the upper chest and repeat.

Exercise Variations

Strict Press / Military Press
Mostly referred to as the strict press or military press. This exercise differs from the overhead press only in that you should not use the lower body in any capacity to assist. This provides more activation of the shoulder and chest muscles. Avoid hip or knee flexion.

Seated Press
This exercise is performed with dumb bells when seated. The reason being, when performing overhead press when seated allows greater range of motion on the eccentric portion of the lift. Using dumbbells also allows greater variation of hand position as you can start in a semi-pronated (hammer grip position) if preferred.

The Arnold Press
To perform the Arnold Press you must rotate your palms forward as you lift the weight. This allows for greater recruitment of the lateral and posterior heads of the deltoid which are  often neglected in other pressing exercises. Neglecting the lateral and posterior heads of the deltoids can result in imbalances occurring that may lead to shoulder injury and impingement.

Important Points to remember:

  • Keeping a rigid lower body reduces loss of energy that would otherwise be utilised during the concentric stage of the lift.
  • Maximise core stability and reduce potential bending of the spine which pose a risk of injury to the lower back.
  • Position your head to be looking directly ahead. Many inexperienced lifters will adjust their head position to be looking toward the ceiling when performing the concentric stage of the overhead press. This results in too much force being applied to the neck and forces the back to bend, creating a higher risk of injury to the lower back.

Weighted Pullups

Weighted Pullups - Full Body Compound Exercise 5

Pull ups are another extremely effective upper body movement predominantly recruiting the muscles of the the back but also stimulating the biceps, shoulders and chest. By adding weight (utilising a weight belt) the level of resistance is increased, resulting in higher intensity and the potential for mass and strength gains.

Muscles Groups Targeted

Primary Muscle Groups TargetedSecondary Muscle Groups Targeted
  • Latissimus dorsi (Back)
  • Biceps
  • Trapezius
  • Deltoids
  • Pectoralis muscles
  • Teres major, infraspinatus & teres minor

How to do Weighted Pullups

  1. Load the weight belt with a weight you can perform at least 6 or more pullups.
  2. Approach the bar, raise your arms and grip the bar using a pronated or semi-pronated grip (hammer grip – palms are facing each other).
  3. Lift yourself evenly until the top of the head is in line with the bar.
  4. Lower yourself smoothly until the arms are straight. Maintain stillness throughout the body.
  5. You may need to reduce the weight for each set.

Exercise Variations

Chin ups are essentially the same movement, the only difference being hand position. Changing to a supinated grip (palms facing toward you) more emphasis is placed on the biceps.

Wide Grip Pull Ups
Placing your hands at a greater than shoulder width position isolates the lats more effectively and helps develop a wider back.

Close Grip Pull Ups
The muscles of the chest and trapezius are recruited more directly if the grip is narrower than standard shoulder width. This typically results in thicker back development.

Important Points to remember:

  • Do not bounce the movement in any way, (kipping.)
    *If unable to perform weighted chin ups simply perform the exercise without weight. If unable to perform a pull up, you can also utilise a lat pulldown machine until you have gained sufficient strength to complete a pullup.
  • Aim to maximise the range of movement by hanging with straight arms after lowering yourself. As previously discussed limited range of motion can increase the risk of injury.


Always remember to focus on correct form as opposed to the amount you are lifting when performing any type of movement in the gym. This will reduce the risk of injury and maximise potential gains. Be careful to structure your training to ensure you are not performing the deadlift or squat more than twice per week. Doing so will reduce central nervous system fatigue and allow you to train at a higher intensity over the long-term.

There are plenty of additional exercises considered full body compound movements. This includes the olympic lifts e.g. the clean and press. For the most part however, the exercises listed above are a great starting point for inexperienced lifters looking to maximise their efforts by incorporating full body compound exercises into their training.

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