If you’re a beginner starting a strength training program it’s overwhelming with the amount of information out there for you to get started. From quick tips for beginners’ to 30 day quick start guides to lists of the top 10 exercises for weight loss and toning for beginners.
Here I’ll teach you how to design your own full body strength program without having to spend hours at the gym or hours on Google and YouTube trying to figure out. I believe that the strength training programs that give you the best results are the ones that you’ll be able to stick with for a long time. They are simple programs that are not too complex or require a large time commitment but will give you amazing results.
In this article I cover the 4 best compound exercises for beginners plus 1 bonus exercise that should be included in every strength training program and every workout that you do at the gym. Whether you want to get strong, get leaner, or build more muscle and lose the bellyfat if you're skinny fat focus on these compound exercises for beginners to reach your goals.
Why Should You Focus On Compound Exercises?
In college I worked as a cashier in Barnes and Nobles when the bookstore was still around and before Kindles existed. My 15 minute break times were spent flipping through fitness magazines such as Muscle and Fitness Hers, Oxygen, and Self.
Their headlines and bold promises drew me in like a moth to a light. With headlines such as ‘Sculpt Amazing Legs and a Killer Butt’ and ‘6 Moves That Crush Ab Flab’ I wanted a body like the cover models.
Every month I bought the magazines so I could find out their secrets of that cover model. I didn’t understand the logic behind the workouts except that I should be in the gym 5 days a week working on different muscle groups like the plans suggested. It was completely random to me and I looked at the pictures to follow along.
Back in those days I had the time between classes to do body part split workouts and every accessory exercise the magazine suggested. I trained train 4 to 5 times a week and spent up to 90 minutes in the gym just lifting weights and waiting for equipment to be available. It was during a period that I really got into strength training and started to develop confidence among the free weights.
These days instead of magazines we turn to Google to get started. If you Google ‘best strength training exercises for beginners’ Google will send you over 200 million results.
Talk about the overwhelm and confusion you must feel if you’re a beginner and you want to get started. Google provides endless answers to your questions to help you figure out what’s best for you, your fitness goals, and what you need to do to reach them. The problem now is that we’re also busier and stressed out more than ever thanks for technology and social media.
This is where compound exercises are great for you whether you’re a beginner or even if you’ve been lifting for a while because they are multi-functional and target multiple major muscle groups. Activating multiple large muscle groups burn more calories because it involves whole body stabilization which will spur on muscle growth.
Compound exercises also involve multiple joints while activating synergistic muscles, muscles that support the primary muscle worked, at the same time. For instance, if you’re doing a pullup the main muscle involved are your lats and the synergistic muscles involved are your arm muscles, biceps or triceps, depending on your grip.
By focusing your workouts on mastering compound movements your body’s appearance will start changing faster as you put on lean muscle mass and burn fat.
Let’s go over the 4 essential compound exercises for beginners.
Compound Exercise Movement #1 – Knee Dominant Exercise AKA Squat
Squats and lunges fall under this category of compound exercise because they are knee dominant. This category of exercises is knee dominant because it involves more of a knee bend than a hip bend.
There are many different variations which include bilateral (two legs) and unilateral (single) forms.
A prime example of a knee domain exercise is barbell squats.
There is a reason why everyone says the squat is king. It not only activates muscles in your quad, hamstrings, and glutes but it works on your adductors, abductors, abdominals, and lower back. It’s not just a leg exercise but an overall entire body exercise that strengthens your core.
For some barbell squats are intimidating especially to beginners but there are many variations that will work the same muscles. Add in different types of equipment dumbbells, kettebells, and even your own bodyweight, and you have an endless variety of exercises that are considered knee dominant exercises.
Below are examples of knee dominant exercises,
- Zercher squats – Instead of positioning the barbell on your back you hold the barbell in the crook of your arm. This is a great variation that will increase quad and glute activation as well as fire up your anterior core.
- Goblet squats – Hold the dumbbell on one end like a ‘goblet’ in front and make sure it’s in contact with your collarbone and sternum. This is a great beginner exercise that will turn on the core and upper body stabilizers. It will also clean up your squat patterns as well.
If you’re not sure which knee dominant exercise to include in your workout I’ve listed exercises in the order of difficulty starting with bodyweight low box squat as the easiest all the way to barbell box squat as the most advanced. Keep in mind this progression does not include every single knee dominant exercise available.
Compound Exercise Movement #2 – Hip Dominant Exercise AKA Deadlift
Hip dominant exercises are very different from knee dominant exercises. An exercise is hip dominant when it has more of a deep hip bend with minimal knee bending component instead of a knee bend component.
These types of exercises focus on the posterior chain or your backside that opens up hamstring flexibility and builds a better butt. When you’re doing this movement correctly you will feel a huge stretch in the back of your legs with little to minimal feeling in your lower back.
Like knee dominant exercises it’s a full body exercise that builds muscle in your entire back, glutes and hamstrings. This is a powerful movement that once mastered and performed correctly is the key to serious fat loss, generating explosive power, and improves athletic ability.
Think of kettlebell swings - this is the exact same compound movement pattern.
There are numerous exercise variations that will fall under hip dominant besides the standard barbell deadlift. Listed below are some fun variations to try out,
- Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift – Take a squat stance with toes pointing straight ahead. Bend at the hips with your back straight, butt going straight back, and chest up. Grab the kettlebell while squeezing your lats and low traps to pick it up.
- Stiff Leg Deadlifts – Take a pair of dumbbells and while keeping your knees stationary, bend at the hips to lower the dumbbells while keeping your back straight. You know you’re performing this movement correctly when you feel a big stretch on your hamstrings.
If you’re not sure which hip dominant exercise to include in your workout I’ve listed exercises in the order of difficulty starting with bodyweight hip hinge as the easiest all the way to barbell high rack pull deadlift as the most advanced. Again, the progression below does not include every single hip dominant exercise available.
Compound Exercise Movement #3 – Upper Body Pull AKA Pull Ups And Rows
One of the hallmarks of poor posture is the slumped position we take from spending endless hours sitting at our desk or being glued to our phones. As we get older the muscles in our back get weaker and we start to lose the strength to hold ourselves upright which is why you see most of the elderly tend to have a hunched over position.
We literally are losing muscle mass as we get older which is why the back muscles are one of the most important muscles to train. It’s a muscle group that I like to train twice as much as the mirror muscles or chest muscles.
The pulling motion covers two planes – horizontal and vertical. An example of a horizontal pull is a seated row while a vertical pull is a pull up. Both planes of motions are important and should be incorporated in every workout program.
Below are examples of upper body pull version exercises,
- Chin ups and pull ups – These are great exercises that teach you how to train for and maintain full body tension. Grab the bar shoulder width apart with either an overhand or underhand grip. Pull your shoulder blades down and back, focusing on the pulling the bar down rather than pulling yourself up. Remember to keep your glutes clenched and abs engaged and tight during the entire movement.
- Barbell inverted row – Starting with the same shoulder width overhand or underhand grip on the barbell, lie on the floor with your body under the barbell. Squeezing your glutes and abs, maintain a straight line from head to toe as you pull yourself up until the bar touches your chest. Lower your body back down in a controlled motion.
If you’re not sure on which exercises to do that suit your level or how you should progress with back exercises since they are quite challenging I’ve listed the exercises below in the order of difficulty. This list does not include every single exercise out there but gives you an overall basic list of compound pull exercises for beginners to start with,
Compound Movement #4 – Upper Body Push AKA Push Ups And Presses
This movement pattern is so popular that every Monday is dedicated to chest day and benching for men. While the push movement is important it tends to be over executed in gyms as you can tell by looking at men with over developed pecs.
Like compound movement #3 there are two planes of motion that are covered under the push pattern, horizontal and vertical. An example of a horizontal plane of motion is a push up and for a vertical plane of motion is an Arnold press.
Below is an example exercise covering each plane.
- Push ups – starting on the ground your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder width and your feet in a comfortable position. Your hands should be at an angle that is comfortable for your wrist. Maintaining a rigid torso position, push your body up as one unit as you straighten your arms at the top of a push up position.
- Military press standing with barbell – with the feet shoulder width apart, grip the bar at a width as if you were preparing to do a bench press position. Keeping a neutral back, tilt your head back slightly while maintaining a neutral neck as you push the bar overhead. Shift the torso forward as you simultaneously squeeze the glutes to lock out at the top position.
If you’re not sure on which exercises to do that suit your level or how you should progress I’ve listed the exercises below in the order of difficulty. Again, this list does not include every single exercise out there but gives you an overall basic list of compound pull exercises for beginners to start with,
Loaded Carries – Not A Compound Movement But Just As Important
Loaded carries are great for developing core stability and teaching your body to brace itself. It develops hip stability, core strength, and grip strength which is essential to perform all kinds of strength movements. Nothing is more functional than carrying a heavy load for distance.
Think about carrying groceries from your car to your apartment in one trip. That’s a loaded carry. Or carrying your toddler up a flight of stairs – loaded carry at it’s finest!
Below are examples of fun loaded carries you can start with,
- Suitcase carries – This where you pick up one dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand. This imbalance forces you to work harder to straighten up as you walk with the load.
- Farmer carries – Pick up a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell with both hands as you walk as far as you can.
Sample Workouts For Beginners
Below are a couple of sample workouts that include all the compound exercises for beginners. Each workout covers a squat, a hinge movement, a push, a pull, and a loaded carry.
Pull and push movements have 2 planes of movement – vertical and horizontal – which are covered in each workout. For Workout A I have the pull and push movements in the horizontal movement plane while for Workout B they are covered in the vertical movement plane.
This is a great 2-day a week strength training compound exercise workout for beginners who have busy schedules but want to get started. Alternate between Workout A and Workout B allowing at least 1 day of rest between workouts.
Especially for beginner lifters I like to cover the higher range of reps of at least 12 reps per movement because we learn movements through repetition and we build the mind body connection.
Focusing on the 12 range reps allows you to get a lot of practice in while still using a weight that is somewhat challenging and still gets your heart rate up. That’s why I recommend starting with 12 reps of 3 sets for beginners.
Incorporating one compound exercise from each category - knee dominant, hip dominant, upper pull, upper push, loaded carry- will ensure that you have a well-rounded training program that covers all of your important muscle groups in every workout.
Whatever your goals are - if you want to go from skinny fat to fit or want to be able to stay lean and strong - focus your workouts on these types of compound exercises to get there. This will create well rounded workouts that will help you to keep lifting for the rest of your life and prevent injuries.