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What is a Compound Exercise?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A compound exercise is an activity designed to work multiple joints and muscles, in contrast with an isolation exercise, which focuses on a single muscle group and joint. Compound exercises contribute to overall health and fitness, build muscle mass, and usually offer cardiovascular benefits. They are used in weight training to help athletes develop the strength and stamina to compete, and they can also be used as a standalone tool for developing musculature and greater joint stability. People can do compound exercises at home or in a gym.

In a compound exercise, the person works across multiple muscles and joints to develop an overall area of the body. The squat is an example of a compound exercise. In squats, people engage their knees, ankles, and hips, along with all of the muscle groups in this area. Squats famously increase the tone of the buttons, but they also develop strength through the quadriceps muscles in the thighs and down the legs. Pullups and leg presses are also examples of compound exercises, and there are numerous other exercises to work additional areas of the body.

While doing compound exercises, people go through multiple repetitions or “reps.” People in poor physical condition may start out with just a few reps, adding more as they get stronger. In addition, beginners may do these exercises without weights to start developing their muscles and stamina. Over time, weights can be added and slowly increased. Weights are used to increase the intensity of the workout and must be adjusted with care to minimize injuries while also preventing people from hitting fitness plateaus.

For general musculature development, compound exercises are a method of choice for many athletes. If people identify specific muscle groups that are inhibiting their performance, they can do isolation exercises to focus on developing those muscle groups. In isolations, a single joint or muscle group is worked. Once the muscle group is stronger and more flexible, compound exercises and athletic activities will be easier.

Athletes are not the only people who use the compound exercise to increase strength and muscle development. It is also used in physical therapy to help people recovering from injuries. Joint stability is often a concern for people in physical therapy, and working multiple joints and muscle groups will enhance overall flexibility and strength. This will get people back to regular activities more quickly, in addition to preventing further injuries by addressing common causes of injury like pulled and strained joints. A physical therapist will develop a compound exercise routine appropriate for a patient's level of fitness and needs.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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