The Best Bodyweight and Barbell Compounds for Beginners

The Best Bodyweight and Barbell Compounds for Beginners

When it comes to taxing your muscles as efficiently as possible, nothing beats compound exercises. They’re the driving force behind most effective training routines, allowing you to gain as much strength and muscle mass as humanly possible!

If you’re a gym beginner, you may have gone to town with isolation exercises (I know I did!). The belief is that they target specific muscle groups, better “sculpting” or “toning” the muscle. Unfortunately, you’re missing a large chunk of the muscular development pie by just focusing on isolation movements.

In this guide, we’ll explain why compound exercises provide the best bang for your buck and share 12 of our favorite bodyweight and barbell exercises for gym beginners.

  1. What are compound movements, and you should incorporate them
  2. Six bodyweight compound movements
  3. Six barbell and dumbbell compound movements

What are Compound Movements?

Compound movements: These exercises recruit multiple muscle groups and joints. They’re often referred to as ‘big lifts’, requiring a lot of energy output.

Isolation movements – Oppositely, these only train a single muscle group. For example, the seated bicep curl is an isolation exercise that only trains your biceps.

Compound exercises better mimic our movements in everyday life. Whether lifting furniture or pushing a grocery cart, you need to use multiple muscles and joints. As such, incorporating compound exercises can make us functionally strong.

And in terms of building muscle, they’re more efficient since you’re hitting multiple muscle groups with each exercise. This stimulates more protein synthesis and muscular hypertrophy across our entire body than isolation exercises.

Let’s compare the Bench Press and Cable Fly

The bench press is a compound exercise that builds your chest, front delts, and triceps, while the cable fly isolates your pectorals. If you had to pick one of these exercises for your Monday workout, the bench press is a no-brainer.

Why?

While the cable fly will recruit your pecs, you’re leaving out your triceps and anterior deltoids during the movement. Additionally, it’s easier to gradually add weight to the barbell week by week rather than the cable machine.

This is why you’re getting the most bang for your buck from compound movements.

Now that we know the importance of compound exercises, let’s explore which ones are best for beginners.

Six Bodyweight Compound Movements for Beginners

  • Bodyweight Squats

The Squat is often referred to as the king of all exercises for a reason.

When you perform a bodyweight squat, you’re stimulating your body’s largest muscle groups – your quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, and calves!

Bodyweight squats lay the foundation for the loaded squat variations we all love (or dread!). It builds mobility and teaches you the correct form. Just by doing them, you’ll quickly notice strength and muscle gains in your legs. 

Let’s go through a few variations:

  • Standard Squat

1) Stand straight and keep your feet slightly wider than hip-width.

2) Point your toes slightly outward.

3) Keep your chest and head up and arch your lower back slightly. Your eyes should be looking ahead.

4) Lower yourself down by pushing your hips. Finish when your thighs are parallel to the ground.

5) Pause for a second, and then drive up with your heels. 

Assisted Squat – An Easier Variation 

1) Hold on to a pole or bar, whether it’s attached to a wall or in a power rack.

2) Maintain a straight back, and squat down. This reduces much of the weight off as you squat.

3) Maintain the same hand position throughout the movement

4) Pause for a second, and then drive up with your legs.

Goblet Squat – A Harder Variation

1) Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell against your chest with both hands. 

2) Push your hips back and perform a regular squat.

3) During the movement, keep your elbows tucked in as you hold the weight.

Pistol Squat – The Big Boss of Bodyweight Squats

1) Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips, and extend one leg in front of you.

2) Maintain a straight back, and squat down. Your hips should be lower than your knees, and your back will naturally lean forward.

3) Drive up to your starting position and repeat. 

Like an assisted squat, you can hold onto a pole to take the pressure off and make it easier.

  • Bodyweight Push Up

The push-up trains your push muscles, which are your chest, shoulders, and triceps. It will also strengthen your core and lower back as they stabilize your body throughout the motion.

1) Start with your body in a plank position. However, keep your palms pressed against the floor.

2) Keep your elbows tucked in, and bend them until your body lowers to the ground. 

3) Once your chest is an inch or two from the ground, pause and push back up. 

4) Your body should be straight from head to toe throughout the movement.

Knee Push-Up – An easier variation

1) Start as you would doing a standard push up, but keep your knees on the ground.

2) Stabilize your core, keep your back straight, and perform a regular push up. 

Weighted Push-Up – When you’re ready for more of a challenge

Perform a regular push up with an external weight on your back. While most use standard weight plates, we recommend a weighted vest for safety. You don’t want barbell plates sliding off your back mid-exercise!

Inverted Bodyweight Row

If you cannot execute a single pull-up, you’re not alone. The truth is chin-ups, and pull-ups are hard. However, you can incorporate easier variations that lay the foundation for the standard pull-up. 

The inverted bodyweight row is one of them. It helps engage your back and biceps, which are responsible for pulling yourself up.

1) Set yourself by placing a bar firmly in position in a power rack, Smith machine, or even in a doorway.

2) Hang from the bar,and extend and place your feet on the ground. Your back should be hanging against the ground. 

3) Pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar.

4) Slowly lower yourself back down, and repeat the movement. 

If possible, avoid jerking your body up and down. You want to activate and stimulate your back muscles, not use momentum to pull yourself up!

Incline Inverted Row – an easier variation

An inverted incline row is identical to the regular inverted row, except the bar is placed at a higher level. This reduces the amount of body weight you’re lifting, making it easier to do.

To perform this exercise, simply set the bar to a higher level and do the same motion.

Inverted Row with Elevated Feet – Back pumps galore

This variation requires you to elevate your feet during the movement, forcing you to carry almost all of your body weight. 

1) Place a box or bench in front of the bar you’re using.

2) Rest your feet on top of the box/bench.

3) Hang from the bar, and pull yourself up until your chest nearly hits the bar.

4) Gradually lower yourself and repeat. 

5) Keep your core tight to avoid any lower back pain.

  • Pull-ups or Chin-ups

If you’ve built the necessary strength from the exercises above, try the pull-up or chin-up. Even if you can do a few reps, stay patient and trust the process. As long as you’re making steady strength progression, you’re on the right track! 

Pull-ups

1) Start by gripping the bar with an overhand grip. Most gyms should have a bar with a slight angle to help you grab the bar.

2) Hang with your arms stretched out and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar.

4) Pause for a second, lower yourself, and repeat.

Like with inverted rows, avoid jerking your body up and down. The goal is to stimulate hypertrophy in your back and biceps muscles, not to do a kipping pull-up.

Chin-ups

1) Start by gripping the bar with an underhand grip at shoulder width.

2) Like the pull-up, hang until your arms are fully extended.

3) Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar and lower yourself back down. 

Both pull-ups and push-ups can be done with easier and harder variations.

The easier variation is the negative pull-up or chin-up, where you start from the top and slowly lower yourself down. This part of the movement is referred to as the “negative” or ‘eccentric’, and helps build strength. 

A more challenging variation is the weighted pull-up. You’ll need a dip belt to attach weights to your body beforehand. Just ensure to start light and gradually increase the weight overtime.

  • The Bodyweight Dip

The bodyweight dip is like the push-up’s tougher, scarier brother. It builds your triceps and chest muscles and can be adjusted to emphasize one of the two. If the push-up has become easy, add dips to bring up your strength game.

1) Start by gripping the dip bar, with your arms slightly wider than your shoulders. 

2) Bend your arms until your elbows are roughly at a 90-degree angle.

4) Your nipple line should be at the same level as the bars.

5) Drive yourself back up and repeat.

Tricep Bench Dips – An easier variation

1) Sit on a bench with your feet flat on the ground.

2) Place your hands right behind you, wider than shoulder width.

3) Press your body up by extending your arms and bring your glutes off the bench. 

4) Bend your arms until they are at a 90-degree angle and press yourself back up.

Extend your legs fully and place weighted plates on your lap to increase this exercise’s difficulty.

Weighted Dips – Only for the Strong!

Weighted dips allow unlimited weight progression and should only be performed by fairly experienced lifters. It’s the same the regular dip, except you’ll need a belt or vest to attach the weight.

It’s best to err on the side of caution and start lighter than you think. Triceps Tendonitis is a painful condition that can be caused by overuse and overexerting yourself with weighted dips. Remember, it’s niggling injuries like these that slow down your progress!

Now that you’ve got a taste of bodyweight compound movements, it’s time to incorporate barbells and dumbbells! Let’s go with our best picks.

Six Barbell Compound Movements for Beginners

Once you’re capable of shifting your body weight, it’s time to get the barbells and dumbbells out.

Without being too sensationalistic, barbells are the backbone of any strength and hypertrophy program. If you want to get brutally strong and attain a superhero physique, give barbells a go.

  • Barbell Squat: The King of All Exercises!

If the bodyweight squat was the prince, then the barbell squat is the king! There is no more efficient movement to build lower body strength and power. Here, you’ll be targeting the quads, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and core.

The Deadlift is a reasonably technical exercise, so it pays to learn proper form from the get-go. If not, you will have to relearn it if you’ve developed bad habits or suffered an injury.

1) In the squat or power rack, place the bar at chest level.

2) Place the bar firmly on your traps and shoulder blades. You should feel the bar behind your neck, not on it.

3) Take a few steps back and stand with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. 

4) Angle your toes slightly outwards and press your hips back into a squat position.

5) Make sure your chest is up, and drive yourself back up with your heels.

  • Deadlift: The Best All-Round Strength Exercise

When it comes to the sheer number of muscles targeted, only the Squat comes close to the Deadlift. It primarily targets your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, but also hits your core and parts of your upper body. 

Unfortunately, it’s an exercise that people typically get wrong. It may look as simple as picking something off the ground, but injuries will occur if you don’t do it properly.

1) Start with the barbell on the floor in front of you

2) Place your midfoot under the bar with your heels hip-width apart. Your shins shouldn’t be touching at this point.

3) Point your toes out at a 15-degree angle.

4) Slowly bend over and grip the bar at shoulder-width. Don’t bend your legs as you do this.

5) Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar and drive your hips back

6) Drive through the heels and pull the bar towards your upper thighs.

7) Keep your back straight by raising your chest and ensure the bar remains at the mid-foot level.

8) Extend your hips and stand up straight.

Other deadlift variations you can incorporate instead of the deadlift: 

Sumo Deadlift – activates your quads more

Trap Bar Deadlift – reduces the load on your lower back

Romanian Deadlift – targets your hamstrings

Snatch Grip Deadlift – A greater emphasis on the upper back and hamstrings. Try these for bigger traps.

Stiff Leg Deadlift – The main focus is on the hamstrings

Romanian Deadlift – Involves less knee movement and greater hip extension. Expect your hamstrings to be fried after a few sets.

  • Bent-Over Rows:

 

Bent-Over rows are a personal favorite of mine. There’s nothing like rowing some heavy barbells and feeling those lats contract.

Like pull-ups which require a pulling motion, you’ll want to incorporate a rowing move into your routine. Rows stimulate the spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings, too, giving you more bang for your buck for overall body strength

1) Stand with a barbell on the floor in front of you.

2) Grip the barbell with an overhand grip and lift it as you would a

 deadlift.

3) Slightly bend your knees and lean forward from the waist.

4) Keep your chest up with your back straight, and pull the barbell towards your lower chest.

5) Keep your elbows tucked in throughout the motion.

6) Maintain your body position and lower the barbell down. The bar should be slightly below your knee.

7) Repeat for desired reps or sets and enjoy the pump!

  • Barbell Overhead Press

Want to look like a complete badass in the weight room? Throw a barbell over your head and start pressing! You’ll get women and men alike swooning over you in no time!

 

No, but seriously, the overhead press is fantastic for developing your shoulder girdle and your core and triceps. If an aesthetic body with broad shoulders is your goal, these muscles will provide upper body width and give you that ‘3D’ look.

1) Standing in a power rack, place the barbell at chest level or slightly above. 

2) Hold the bar using a neutral grip and place it on your upper chest

3) Push up the bar from your chest and press it upwards. Avoid using leg drive to get the bar up.

4) Keep your core tight and maintain a good posture throughout.

5) Keep your elbow close to your body to avoid flaring them out.

6) Tilt your head slightly backward as you press to avoid hitting your face with the bar.

As overhead pressing is pretty technical and requires core stability, you’ll want to start light and work on form first. Alternatively, you can substitute it with the following:

 

The Push Press: uses your leg’s power to thrust the barbell up. This is ideal for athletes due to its explosive nature.

The Seated Shoulder Press – allows you to focus solely on the press motion. Your core will not be engaged during the lift, letting you lift more weight.

Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press – Similar to the barbell shoulder press, only with a pair of dumbbells. This exercise engages your medial deltoid more, giving you that 3D shoulder look.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23096062/

  • The Bench Press

Although we could have easily mentioned the decline or incline bench press, the flat bench press comes out on top.

The incline bench press emphasizes your front delts and upper chest, while the decline bench press hits your lower chest. But the flat bench press has a unique combination of both, hitting all parts of the chest evenly. It’s also easy to learn, making it an ideal exercise for beginners.

1) Lie on a flat bench with feet planted firmly on the floor.

2) Grip the barbell with arms just outside your shoulders. You may choose to slightly arch your back if you want to maximize the weight you can lift.

3) Take a deep breath, engage your core, and un-rack the barbell.

4) Lower it to your chest, around the nipple level or slightly below. Your elbows should be at 45 degrees to your body.

5) Press the barbell up, extending your arms fully and exhaling when you reach the top.

 

Even if you can only lift the barbell initially, don’t worry – you’ll get stronger over time!

  • Dumbbell Lunges

Dumbbell lunges don’t get the praise they deserve. When incorporated with the squat or other compound movements, you’ll feel a burn like no other. Not only do they hit your quads and glutes, but also your core and stabilizers.

Just a word of warning – this exercise will make you sweat, so grab a towel and prepare to be sore the next day!

1) Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells.

2) Step forward with one foot, lunging downwards until your rear knee almost touches the floor.

3) Push off your front heel to come back up to your starting position.

4) Proceed to do the same with your opposite leg.

The barbell works just as well for lunges, but it can be awkward to balance it on your back throughout the movement. Dumbells can help you perfect your technique and avoid any potential injuries.

Conclusion

Despite some compound movements having extravagant reputations as the end all be all of the exercises, they can be substituted for other compound movements. For example, will you get similar leg development by just doing front squats instead of back squats? Absolutely. Will the seated shoulder press help you reach that 3D look just as much as the overhead press? Over the long haul, most probably.

The trick is to find a combination of compound movements that work for you! Everyone has different preferences, abilities, and goals – so use this article as a guide to determine what you like. That way, you can look forward to your workouts and make the most out of them. Good luck!

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