Compound exercises: four pillars of movement


There are many reasons why people go to the gym, especially at the beginning of a New Year. The reasons can include fat loss, lean muscular development or building strength. Yet as each of these goals is quite general in its nature, a full body development workout can benefit them all. The object should be to train to nurture your body, working to bring it into alignment. Compound movements, movements involving more than one joint, form the basis of a workout that will deliver the goods, be time efficient and rescue underutilised muscles from wasting away.

By placing compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses and rows at the heart of your program, mobility and flexibility will increase, developing your body in the gym as well as feeling the benefits in your wider pursuits as they transfer to all your daily activities.

By combining muscles to initiate movement, you will develop:

  • more muscle
  • more strength
  • more endurance
  • better overall movement patterns

Compound exercises explained

Compound movements are exercises that involve multiple joints and muscles. They are vitally important because they also contribute to developing core strength as well as the obvious muscles they relate to – and the core is critical for stability and protection of our vital organs. As a result, these exercises should be the foundation of any fitness routine.


The Squat

No matter the different limb lengths we may have as individuals, all humans are designed to be able to hold the same shapes. These may look slightly different from person to person, depending on limb and torso length, but the shapes serve fundamentally the same purpose. The ‘squat’ is one of these shapes. Unfortunately, in the developed world we have largely lost our natural ability to squat, but this turns it into a good test.

The importance of the squat

Incidences of lower back or hip problems are common health issues in the west. Back pain is one of the most common causes of absence from work and 80 per cent of the population will suffer with back pain at some point in their lives. Yet most of these problems wouldn’t exist if we could hold a squat. Note that in countries with toilets sunk into the floor, or where people sleep on the ground, lower back or hip problems are virtually unknown.

Can you squat and hold the position?

When developing the correct technique, it’s not about how much weight you can lift, but whether you can hold your body in a shape you were designed to be able to make. If you can, it means that you have healthy mobility and flexibility of your lower body from your ankles to your lumbar spine.

Make this your priority. If you find that a particular area of the lower body is tight, then it means you need to spend time stretching and improving its flexibility.

For people with joint issues, if you can’t squat, the primary focus should be developing the range of movement in each of the joints from the ankle to the hip. No matter your weight, you can improve flexibility and mobility, however, this will take time.

Regarding the position of the toes, they may follow the knees, but not in all cases. The optimal position is to maintain straight feet and knees out. This creates the most torque in your musculature and the external rotation of the hip, by placing your knees out, will tilt your pelvis forward and keep your torso upright. This will put less pressure on your lumbar spine.

A 10-15 degrees angle of the toe is okay, but this is not optimal for 2 reasons.

If the feet are pointed out and the individual lacks both internal and external rotation of hip this can lead to the knee remaining straight and a valgus joint, which has been the cause of numerous ACL tears in the knees of many athletes.

If the feet are pointed out and the knees are pointed out the individual cannot generate maximum torque in their musculature.

The Deadlift

The deadlift is one of the foundations for building strength. It can be viewed as the most ‘caveman’ of the lifts, as it is simply how much weight you can lift from the ground. However, there are many good reasons to perform it:

  • building maximal strength, as you can use a good amount of weight
  • it builds leg, back and core strength
  • good for building movement patterns
  • As a full body movement, it is one of the most ‘bang for your buck’ exercises

Of course, all the potential benefits can be undone if the movement is performed incorrectly, with the risk of back injury.

To perform the movement in the most efficient and safe manner focus on the following:

  1. establish your feet distance. Make a little jump – the position your feet land in is a good starting point.
  2. Approach the bar, with the bar ‘cutting-off’ your toes. Then grab the ground with your feet and twist out; you should feel your legs start to tense up as you start creating torsion.
  3. Sit your bottom back, keeping your knees soft; bend the knees so the shins are touching the bar. Once there grab the bar, with your grip outside of your legs.
  4. Then, with your hands, try and break the bar, and bring your chin and chest up, still keeping your shoulders over the bar. Take a big breath in and try to push your stomach against your upper thighs.
  5. Once you are braced and feeling tight, drive your feet through the ground and stand up, bringing the bar to your hips. Then lower back down to the ground, maintaining a neutral spine.

The deadlift is a fantastic move when done correctly, and a must for anyone looking to improve athletic performance. Initially focus on technique, once that is built-in, aim to add weight and maximise strength.


Whether using a barbell, dumbbell or cable, the row/pull movement should be consistent, measured and smooth. The most important aspect is to make sure you are engaging your back muscles. Too often these muscles, especially the lats, are neglected or not properly engaged in the movement, with many individuals yanking the weight with their arms instead.

Focus on:

  1. Retract your shoulder blades back and squeeze them together, so your traps, rhomboids and lats are engaged
  2. Pull through your shoulder and elbow, maintaining all the tension through your back muscles. Bring your elbow as far back as you can, maintaining tension on the upper back

Focus on the muscles the exercise is designed to work. Your aim must be to pull through your traps, rhomboids and lats, with your arms acting as a secondary draw. On the return, make sure your shoulder blades remain tight together, extending the arm out first before then disengaging the shoulder blades to achieve a full stretch.

If initially you don’t have a very wide range of movement, improve this before trying to add weight. To help improve technique, focus on how you pull in your daily life. For example, when opening a door, engage your back muscles first rather than just yanking with your arm or shoulder. Resetting your body’s default movement pattern for all pulling will both accelerate improvement in training as well as reduce the chance of a shoulder injury.


The horizontal/chest press is a classic compound movement. Whether you are using a barbell, dumbbells or a machine chest-press, the basis for the movement is essentially the same – a push is a push.

The secret is to only push when your shoulder is in a strong position. This is achieved when you create a slight tension in the upper back by bringing your shoulder blades together. Then, rather than just pushing your arms forward, aim to bring your elbows across your body in a slight arc, trying to get them to touch. On the way back down, make sure you sink your shoulders back to maintain tension in your upper back muscles. By creating tension in your musculature your muscles take the stress of the movement, not your ligaments.

Whether using dumb bells, barbells or machines this is the correct technique of a horizontal push, though of course the arc movement can be most extreme in the case of dumb bells.

When executing a chest press it is vital to ensure your shoulder is correctly positioned. A common mistake is to have the shoulder in “a soft position”. This can lead to pushing primarily through the shoulder tendons, rather than using the muscles, which longer term will lead to shoulder injuries and other impingements, all of which are avoidable and pose unnecessary risks.

Not just for men

Women tend to avoid the chest press, fearing it may develop too much of a masculine physique. This isn’t the case. The chest push should be an integral part of everyone’s training regimen, whether male or female, young or not so young, because this is a fundamental compound movement, part of the very nature of natural movement. Everyone should be able to execute it correctly.

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