What happens to your physique if you only do compound exercises?
Updated September 18th 2022
Can you get big by only doing compound exercises?
Do you need to do isolation exercises to build a muscular body?
You can definitely make massive gains by doing only compound exercises. In fact, that is one of the theories behind many linear progression programs. You focus on compound movements because they are both effective and efficient. While including isolation exercises is beneficial, you can still build a muscular body with only compound exercises.
Greyskull LP is a great way to have a program that focuses heavily on compound exercises.
What are the advantages of compound exercises?
There seems to be a misunderstanding about compound exercises.
Lifters across all ages and races underestimate the value of compound exercises.
I can see that happening.
You see these models online.
They are repping out some dumbbell curls.
You see videos online.
They are shredded and they advocate doing bodybuilding-style programming.
Magazines and forums preach the glory days of bodybuilding and isolation exercises.
Why not, right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case at all.
Compound exercises are incredible for gaining muscle and losing fat.
They train multiple muscle groups at once.
They are efficient.
As a result, you are working more muscle groups and gaining more overall muscle.
You can see it here as I take on a new challenge to deadlift 50 days straight; I have a video below showing what happens if you do train compound exercises (deadlifts) daily:
You can lift heavier weights
You can train better when you are able to progressively overload compound exercises.
This is mandatory if you ever want to maintain progress at the gym.
The next time you need to decide on whether or not to do your lat pulldown heavy or light, you will be confident that it should be heavier than the previous workout.
You save time
Imagine this. You have a bodybuilding style workout.
You have over eight exercises to do for the day, but you have at least five sets to do for each exericse.
This is not even including the decision on which exercises to pick.
For example, good mornings versus Romanian deadlifts for bodybuilding.
This is over 40 sets of exercises you need to do, which would account for at least one hour. AT LEAST.
Now, imagine the opposite.
You have two or three compound exercises that target multiple body parts and can get you a sick pump.
IN A SHORTER PERIOD OF TIME. You can get this workout done within the hour.
If this does not scream efficiency and money (time saved is money earned), then I do not know what else would.
You make progress quicker
This should be a no-brainer.
If you train multiple muscle groups at once, your body will be forced to recoup and recover from that stress.
This will result in you making faster progress in a shorter amount of time.
Can you get abs from compound lifts?
Yes, you can get abs from compound lifts since you are stimulating muscle hypertrophy when lifting compound exercises. The definition of your abs will also vary, depending on your diet, genetics, age, natural body type, and workout program.
Are Isolation Exercises bad?
Heavens no! Isolation exercises have their place in our workout programs.
They are a great way—
- To work on weaknesses
- To target particular muscle groups
- To correct muscular imbalances
- To get a sick pump in
In fact, this is still a very popular style of programming with the rise of Instagram models out there.
You, the lifter, need to figure out your goals and what is the best way to achieve them.
If you have 1-hour leftover in the day to dedicate to working out, by all means, go for it.
Try it out.
It is not a bad option.
But realistically speaking, for many individuals, spending 2-3 hours in the gym is just not a viable option due to any controllable and uncontrollable circumstances.
But regardless, if you do decide to do isolation exercises, do not come crying back to me if you are not making any gains for the past year and you have only been curling in the squat rack and doing 2+ hours worth of workouts.
Get yourself out of the gym.
Go eat and sleep some more.
Another key point is to not put yourself down either if you are also working out on 5 hours of sleep.
Compound exercise definition
What is a compound exercise?
Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that utilize several muscle groups at one time.
For example, a deadlift or a squat are two perfect examples of compound exercises that utilize much of your lower body, back, and core.
Be aware that while the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press are great, there are some muscle groups that the big 4 lifts do not address.
Compound exercises for arms
There are a ton of exercises to do but do they all work?
I am sure that for the most part, the exercises you are doing will get you results.
But we do not want to waste time.
We do not want to be in doubt.
This is why I am here.
I’ll share with you some of the BEST compound exercises for your arms that I found worked for me.
- Bench Press (any variations) - I found that doing any form of bench pressing, whether with a barbell or dumbbells, will get your bigger arms.
- Overhead Press
- Farmer’s Carries - A typical farmer's carry will have the weights on your sides. You can also have your arms in front, holding weights in an L-shaped fashion, and recruit arm stability.
Compound exercises for back
Same with the compound exercises for your arms, here are a couple of exercises that I would highly suggest you include in your programming.
- Rows - Whether your rows are done with the barbell, dumbbells, or a machine, they pack a punch.
- Deadlifts - The king of all compound exercises
Compound exercises for chest
You may find that some of the exercises repeat. They are supposed to! When you train compound exercises, you will focus on more than one muscle group, while will overlap.
- Bench Press
Compound exercises in a circuit
Compound exercises that target your weaknesses are a powerful way to both get stronger and build more muscle.
Try this upper body circuit. It consists of 3 exercises.
Do them for 25 reps each, for 4 cycles, with no rest—
3 day compound exercise routine
A powerlifting-style/general strength program focuses heavily on a 3 day compound exercise routine. In 3 months of being on a powerlifting-style program, your squat can increase 180lbs, bench press and overhead press increase by 90lbs, and deadlift increase by 60lbs.
It is 3x a week, with one rest day in between workout days.
This is a typical program suited for beginners that want a 3 day compound routine.
It is successful at achieving results:
- By only focusing on exercises that use multiple muscle groups
- By allowing you to maximize your efforts under any time constraints
- By allowing you to get both bigger and stronger
I ran this exact program as a beginner 2 times and once as an intermediate lifter.
I loved getting stronger each workout, each week, each month.
I want you to have a great training experience as well.
So, if you could make a 3 day compound exercise routine, what would you do? What is the best?
Let’s clarify some misconceptions.
Is there a best 3 day exercise routine?
Let us answer the elephant in the room first!
No, there is no “best” exercise program.
But there are always exercise programs that work. Here is what I mean by that.
There is no magic formula or group of secret exercises that will automatically work for you.
There are no hidden rest times or rep ranges that will instantly get you 10 pounds of muscle.
There are strategies that will help create and figure out a great workout program; this is one of the reasons why strength training is so difficult.
BUT! You can avoid that by learning about what mistakes to not make.
So, what do I do?
From 2018-2020, I have been only doing compound exercises for my workout.
I go about 3 times a week and do only the best exercises to help me get closer to my goal, which is to get stronger.
So, I go on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays.
On Mondays, I do bench press and deadlift.
On Tuesdays, I do squats and bench press.
On Fridays, I do squats, bench presses, and deadlifts.
I do pull-ups and dumbbell rows for my accessories on all three days.
And I guess the most important question remains, have I been making gains?
The answer is a definite yes. So, I will be sticking to this.
It is great to just go in and do a few sets and be done with the day.
I used to remember going into the gym for over two-plus hours to finish a workout with a lot of accessories.
In my opinion, it was just not an efficient use of my time especially since that training style does not currently align with my goals.
Could I maybe do something similar and do non-compound exercises in the future?
My opinions are open.
Let’s just focus on the present and hit our short term goals first.
What does this mean for you?
You can choose any sort of exercise and do them on any single day.
This is one of the beauties of strength training.
At the same time, you need to have some sort of structure and stability in your program.
If you went wild and do any exercise, you will find yourself ungrounded and not making effective progress.
This is one reason why I recommend linear progression programs like Starting Strength.
It provides beginners with previous programs that have worked for decades of lifters.
These strength training concepts will not change. You just need to put in the work to figure it out.
Can you do compound exercises every day?
If you are a beginner, performing barbell compound exercises 3 times a week is the most average advice you can get. People can probably do low-intensity compound movements every day but they will not have significant results in strength or size.
This is because as a beginner, you make progress and gains outside of the gym, not inside.
Inside the gym, you provide your body with physical training stress to adapt from.
For example, if your goal is to build strength, one equation to build strength is to become neuromuscularly efficient. If you want to bench press more, you need to start to replicate your bench press sets and reps the same way over and over again. With increasing weight.
But you cannot do this every day since your body needs 24-48 hours rest in between workouts to recover from accumulated fatigue. As a beginner of course.
As you get more experienced in the gym and you find that certain training variables are not working for you, you may want to increase or decrease different compound exercises you are using.
There are just hundreds of variables to manipulate that it would take an entire article to address...
Overall, most people would find it beneficial to train 2-4 times a week with compound exercises only, no matter how vague their goals are.
But the sooner the athlete can identify their goals, the faster and more direct the approach can be to achieve them.
Can you build muscle with just compound exercises?
For thousands of years, people have been building muscles with just the heavy rocks and tools found in their environment. It is possible to build a very impressive physique with just compound exercises.
The problem is that people will show different weaknesses and training responses that slow down or stagnate growth.
There are several limitations here:
- People train and do not respond well.
- People train and respond partially.
- People train and respond average.
- People train and respond beyond average.
I am holding sleep and nutrition constant since this can also be another article to dissect.
People train and do not respond well.
This is a rare group and they will need to exert more effort than all the other 3 groups.
Most of your "hard gainers" will fall into this group even though I dislike that term.
To be blunt, you will need to work hard for every single pound on the bar for your personal record.
Find a training methodology that works (compound exercises only are a good one to start with).
And dissect every aspect of training - you will need to be meticulous in order to continue growing.
People train and respond partially.
Another rare group but not as rare as the not responding group.
This has a much easier solution in that this group can begin to manipulate 1 or 2 training variables to continue steady progress.
Weaknesses, individual differences and growth will be shown in this group and they can begin to adapt their training to their bodies.
People train and respond average.
Most people will fall under this group.
They can continue to train with compound exercises only.
If they begin to notice weakness or lagging body parts, they can also supplement their workout programs with supplemental exercises.
People train and respond beyond average.
This is a rare group.
People that just deadlift 405lbs in their first deadlift session.
Or a natural 30" vertical jump, no running start.
They can really do whatever they want and will grow to become elite.
But under proper guidance, they can excel and dominate for centuries without their records being touched.
Below, we will list all the various compound exercises you can include in your program so that you are on top of your exercise selection:
Compound exercises with dumbbells for mass
If you made it this far into the article, you can probably guess which compound exercises using dumbbells are the best for gaining muscle. Ready?
- Dumbbell chest presses
- Dumbbell lunges
- Dumbbell rows
- Dumbbell shoulder presses
- Goblet squats
- Dumbbell deadlifts
- Rear delt flies
Not too surprising right?
Focusing your exercises around the pressing, rowing, and squatting movements can never go wrong.
In fact, you may notice how similar all exercises really are.
Just moving at a different angle with a different posture can completely change a movement.
This changes the levers in your body, varying the stress levels.
For example, goblet squats and dumbbell lunges may feel like they are working the same muscle groups (they are).
You are just doing different functional movements so that you can work your muscles and prevent boredom.
List of compound exercises
- Barbell bench press
- Incline bench press
- Dumbbell bench press
- Decline bench press
- Weighted dips
- Bodyweight dips
- Chest flies
- Floor press
- Barbell deadlifts
- Weighted Pull-ups
- Bodyweight pull-ups
- Wide grip pull-ups
- Barbell rows
- Dumbbell rows
- T-bar rows
- Seated cable rows
- Wide grip cable pulldowns
- Close grip cable pulldowns
- Neutral grip pull-ups
- Dumbbell pullovers
- Plate pullovers
- Scapula pull-ups
- 45 degree back extensions
- Arnold Press
- Handstand push-ups
- Standing barbell overhead press
- Seated barbell overhead press
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Barbell squats
- Dumbbell squats
- Goblet squats
- Leg Press
- Hack Squat
- Reverse hypers
- Glute-Ham Raise (GHR)
- Belt squats
Compound exercises for hypertrophy
Picking compound exercises that target the biggest muscles in your body will help you get towards your hypertrophy goals faster.
Specifically, most of the biggest muscles in your body are in your lower body.
But this does not mean you should ignore smaller muscles.
In fact, depending on their fiber structure and genetics, building muscle could be easy.
This involves type 1 versus type 2 muscle fibers.
And exercises are just one part of the equation as well.
Making sure you have adequate volume and intensity is another part of the battle.
But I'll leave that for another article.
Let us dive into some of the major compound exercises for hypertrophy:
Compound exercises for the chest and back
- Incline bench presses
- Weighted Chin-ups
- Wide-grip bench over rows
- Dumbbell Flies
- Machine Pullovers
- Cable Flies
- Seated cable rows
Compound exercises for legs/thighs
- Leg extensions
- Belt squats
- Front squats
- Leg curls
- Hack squats
- Straight-leg deadlifts
- Reverse hypers
- Glute ham raise
These exercises are just a sample of what you could be running.
I acquired these exercises from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.
Just having these exercises alone is not enough to do his valuable experience justice.
More information about training, philosophy, recovery, everything is detailed in the book.
Compound exercises only
With just compound exercises, you can make exponential strength and hypertrophy gains.
How do I know?
I have been strength training for over 9 years and my strength and physique have made incredible amounts of progress.
Of course, training is just part of the battle.
There is so much to lifting that just meets the eye.
For starters, rest and recovery are so incredibly undervalued.
Let us think about it for a second:
If you cannot train, you cannot make progress.
If you cannot make progress, you regress.
So, in order to avoid this one pitfall in strength training, you should aim to be healthy and work your way up, both in strength and in muscle mass.
What is the hardest compound lift?
The bench press was the hardest compound lift for me, due to injuries. Many Olympic lifters will also say the snatch is difficult due to the high demand for shoulder mobility and stability.
Many people will dislike squats because no one enjoys doing legs but squats are not that bad, viewing your lifting journey from a bigger picture.
I have figured out how to avoid bench press injuries:
- Make the bench press an arm-based exercise, not a chest-based exercise
- Narrow your grip so that your hands are inside the rings
- Develop your upper back and shoulder stabilizers
- Develop your lats
Following these four strategies for just 6 weeks allowed me to completely eliminate anterior shoulder bench press pain.
And remember, those who lift the longest will be able to stay competitive enough to break records.
Compound only workout
A compound only workout can be accomplished 6 times a week, with a push, pull, legs format. One rest day will be taken before repeating the push, pull, leg format again.
Bench press 5x5
Overhead press 5x5
Floor press 3x10
Rear delt flies 3x10
Barbell rows 5x5
Good mornings 5x5
Pull ups 2x8
Lat pulldowns 3x10
Reverse hyper 3x10
Bulgarian split squats 3x10
Thursday - rest
Friday - repeat Monday
Saturday - repeat Tuesday
Sunday - repeat Wednesday.
Monday - rest
You get the pattern.
You can do compound exercises every day like this.
For a 3 day split with only compound exercises, first day would be:
- Bench press
- Overhead press
- Floor press
- Rear delt flies
My second day would be:
- Barbell rows
- Good mornings
- Pull ups
- Lat pulldowns
My 3rd day would be:
- Reverse hyper
- Bulgarian split squats
Keep your workouts under 70 minutes.
If you find yourself working out longer than that, remove one of the main compound lifts in the beginning and focus on developing your weaknesses.
Every single training program will have some similarities.
Powerlifting, Strongman, bodybuilding, even Crossfit are compound only regimens.
Even if you add in accessories, most of these public programs are compound lifts focused.
Because every strength coach knows that it is the true way to make progress in the weight room.
Not by doing bodyweight or Calisthenics
Not by doing yoga or working out at the park.
These programs all start off as linear progression and are tailored as the lifter becomes more sophisticated.
That begs the question, does linear progression have a limit?
If you want to be efficient, be strong, and be powerful, you need to get on a barbell program.
Currently, I am running 5/3/1 Forever (Check Amazon for current prices).
What I enjoy about it right now is that there is a focus on long-term growth, not just short-term 6-month gains.
We are talking about years and decades into the future.