What Is the Hardest Compound Exercise?

What Is the Hardest Compound Exercise??

There is no doubt that there are tons of hard exercises that target multiple joints and muscle groups and require higher levels of intermuscular coordination. 

Table of Contents

Many of those require substantial focus and energy for execution, but what is the hardest compound exercise?

The hardest compound exercise is the deadlift.

If you want to know why deadlifts are the hardest compound exercise, keep reading below. 

In addition, I compiled a list of other useful but hard compound exercises you may want to add to your workouts. In the end, you will find the section on making progress with compound exercises fast and efficiently. 

Let’s begin!

What Is the Hardest Compound Exercise?

Deadlift is the hardest compound exercise because its technique is hard to master, requires a lot of energy and muscle groups to work simultaneously, and has the biggest chance of injury. Squats and bench presses are the second and third hardest compound exercises since they also use multiple muscle groups and joints and require substantial focus and concentration to execute.

Quick Summary

  • The hardest compound exercise is the deadlift because it belongs to both lower and upper body exercises due to its complexity and requirement of muscle synergy of all body parts.
  • Other hard compound exercises include pull-ups, bench presses, military presses, barbell rows, squats, and exercises that target the entire core.
  • The best way to progress a hard exercise is to use periodization tactics coupled with the principle of progressive overload, which is (simplified) lifting a bigger percentage of heavy weight each following workout.

Why Is Deadlift One of the Hardest Exercises?

The deadlift is one of the hardest exercises because it simultaneously requires synergistic work from multiple joints and muscle groups. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The deadlift is one of the most complex compound exercises because it requires to be executed with the perfect technique for maximal performance and, of course, to avoid injuries.

The deadlift is primarily a posterior chain exercise, meaning the erector spinae, hamstrings, and glutes are the muscles working the most during the deadlifting movement. 

You must learn the perfect technique to lift the most significant amount of weight when deadlifting. 

This means maintaining the physiological curves (lordosis and kyphosis) during the lifting phase, firing the muscles in the correct sequence, and moving the body parts and joints appropriately.

If you want to learn about other complex, compound, and hard exercises to implement into your workouts, keep reading below.

15 Other Hard Compound Gym Exercises You Should Try

Now that we got the hardest compound exercise out of the way, it is time to present other hard exercise alternatives to implement into your workout and build a base of overall strength.

Let’s jump right into them.

But before that, remember to try these exercises with your body weight first if you are still a beginner or a novice weightlifter.

1. Squats

Squats (a leg press, too) is an excellent lower body exercise that will activate muscles such as your quads, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and adductors. 

Barbell back squats follow the knee-bend movement pattern and are the best exercise for building absolute lower body strength.

A woman performs barbell back squats in the gym.

How to Perform Squats

  1. Place the barbell in the squat rack and load it with the appropriate weight so you can perform 6 consecutive reps without rest.
  2. Enter the space below the barbell without unracking it and place it on your upper back muscles, such as the trapezius and rear deltoids.
  3. Take a pronated grip with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart, and keep your shoulder blades slightly retracted.
  4. Unrack the barbell and step back to have enough space to perform the exercise.
  5. Assume a standing position with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and point your toes outward.
  6. During the descending phase, ensure your knees follow the line of your toes.
  7. Slowly lower into the deep squat position by bending your hips, knees, and ankles.
  8. Hold that position for one second when your inner thighs become parallel to the ground.
  9. Reverse the motion by initiating the triple extension to return to the starting position.
  10. Repeat for 6 reps, 4 sets, and rest for 2-5 minutes between the sets.

2. Bench Press

A bench press is an excellent upper-body horizontal push exercise for increasing strength and building muscle. 

The chest muscle group, including the major and minor pectoralis, and shoulder muscles, such as the anterior deltoid, initiate the movement. 

The triceps brachii also helps the pushing motion by extending the elbow joint.

A man performs barbell bench press exercise in the gym.

How to Perform a Bench Press

  1. Place the barbell on the bench press rack and load it with the appropriate weight to perform rep ranges of 4-6.
  2. Lye on the flat bench under the barbell and take a pronated grip with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Unrack the barbell and place it above your upper chest with your elbows extended and your shoulder flexed for 90 degrees.
  4. Start the exercise by performing the eccentric phase of the lift. This is done by horizontally abducting your shoulders and flexing your elbows.
  5. When the bar reaches just above the surface of your chest, hold that position for one second.
  6. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position by horizontally adducting your shoulders and extending the elbows.
  7. Repeat for 6 reps, 4 sets, and rest up to 5 minutes before performing the following set.

3. Neutral Grip Pull-Ups

Pull-ups belong to the other big lifts that build strong back muscles, such as latissimus dorsi, trapezius muscles, and posterior deltoid. 

Neutral grip pull-ups will build strength and correct postural imbalances if you have a problem. 

Other lifts and pull-up variations include regular pronated grip pull-ups, supinated grip pull-ups, mixed grip pull-ups, and other alternatives.

A man perform pull-ups in neutral position, meaning there is no internal or external rotation in his shoulders.

How to Perform Neutral Grip Pull-Ups

  1. Assume a hanging position from a pull-up bar with your elbows locked and shoulders close to the maximally-abducted position.
  2. The grip should be shoulder-width apart or a little wider than that according to your morphology, personal preferences, or the structure of the pull-up bar itself.
  3. Start the exercise by pulling your chin above the bar without driving your hips forward. Keep them neutral and line with your spine during the whole exercise.
  4. Hold that position for one second when your chin reaches above the bar.
  5. Reverse the motion by lowering your body to the starting hanging position.
  6. Repeat for 5 reps, 4 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between each set.

4. Walking Lunges

Walking lunges are excellent unilateral lower-body exercise variations that will challenge the strength and endurance of your adductor muscles. 

Adductors act as dynamic stabilizers during the lunging motion, and since their anatomical structure is not meant for repetitive tasks, they will likely get sore rather quickly.

A man performs walking lunges with a pair of dumbbells.

How to Perform Walking Lunges

  1. Pick two dumbbells of appropriate weight so you can perform 6 lunges with each leg without resting.
  2. Assume a shoulder-width apart standing position and let the dumbbells hang from your hands freely near your body as in the anatomical position.
  3. Start the exercise by lunging forward with your right leg.
  4. When your left knee almost touches the ground, alternate the legs and lunge forward with the left foot.
  5. Repeat for 6 reps with each leg and rest as much as needed between the sets.

5. Bar Overhead Press

The overhead or military press is a compound exercise following the vertical push movement pattern. It activates muscles such as your medial and lateral deltoids, upper fibers of the pectoralis major, and triceps brachii.

A woman performs barbell overhead press exercise in the gym.

How to Perform Overhead Presses

  1. Place the barbell on the squat rack and load it with the appropriate weight so you can perform at least 6 consecutive reps without resting.
  2. Take a pronated grip about shoulder-width apart and unrack the barbell.
  3. Take a step back and keep the physiological curvature of your lumbar spine during the whole exercise.
  4. Start the exercise by pushing the barbell over your head, abducting/flexing your shoulder, and extending the elbow joint.
  5. When your elbows are fully locked, add the elevation in your shoulders for an extra movement upwards towards the ceiling.
  6. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for 6 reps, 3 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between each set.

6. Seated Row

The seated row is foundational for developing horizontal pulling strength in both regular people and athletes. 

It targets the posterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles. 

A man performs a seated cable rows exercise in the gym.

How to Perform a Seated Row

  1. Set the appropriate weight on the seated row machine so you can perform at least 8 reps without a pause.
  2. Grab the handle with the pronated grip a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Start the exercise by pulling the handle/bar towards the lower part of your stomach, close to your hips.
  4. When the bar touches your stomach, hold that position for one second.
  5. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for 8 reps, 4 sets, and rest for up to 5 minutes before starting the following set.

7. Elevated Single-Leg Squats

Elevated single-leg squats are excellent unilateral exercises that will build one-limb strength and allow for better strength diversification. 

Elevated single-leg squats effectively target both anterior and posterior chain muscles. 

These muscles include the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and adductors.

A man performs single-leg squats.

The plyo box is missing from the picture. Put your working leg on the plyo box and follow the instructions below.

How to Perform Elevated Single-Leg Squats

  1. Place a box at least the height of your hips in front of you on the floor.
  2. Pick a small kettlebell that will only serve as a counterbalance when initiating the descending phase of the elevated single-leg squat.
  3. Assume a standing position on the box with your right leg and let your left, left leg be free in the air.
  4. Place the kettlebell in front of you by holding it with both hands, with elbows fully extended and shoulders bent for 90 degrees.
  5. Start the exercise by lowering your body into the deep single squat position, similar to the deep pistol squat.
  6. Lower your body by flexing your hips, knees, and ankles simultaneously.
  7. Hold that position for one second when you reach the bottom position or when your thighs become parallel with the box.
  8. Reverse the motion by extending your ankles, knees, and hips to return to the starting position.
  9. Repeat for 6 reps, 4 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between the sets.

8. Pistol Squat

The pistol squat is a tremendous unilateral squat variation that is compound and will bulletproof your knees to avoid potential injuries. 

It is considered one of the hardest compound exercises.

A woman performs weighted pistol squats.

How to Perform a Pistol Squat

  1. Assume a standing position with your feet narrower than hip-width apart.
  2. Flex your shoulders for 90 degrees in front of you, and keep your elbows fully extended.
  3. Start the exercise by lowering your body to the ground using only your right leg.
  4. Keep the left leg extended in front of the body during descending.
  5. When you reach the bottom position in the deep squat, hold it for a split second.
  6. Reverse the motion by extending your hips, right knee, and right ankle to return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for 6 reps, 3 sets, and rest for at least two minutes between the sets.

9. Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats

Rear-foot elevated split squats are hard compound exercises focusing on unilateral limb strength and teaching dynamic body stabilization using adductors and gluteus medius. 

They are especially useful for athletes wanting to improve vertical jumps or running speed.

Two women perform bodyweight rear-foot elevated splits squats.

How to Perform Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats

  1. Place a box or a flat bench behind you to place your back leg during the lifting phase.
  2. Pick two dumbbells or kettlebells of appropriate size so you can perform 6 reps on each leg without resting.
  3. Place your back leg on the elevated surface, box, or flat bench, and your front foot forward to complete the split squat motion without making your knee pass too much over your toes.
  4. Hold the dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands on the sides of your body just like in the anatomical position.
  5. Start the exercise by squatting down on your front leg until your right leg’s thigh parallels the ground.
  6. When you reach the bottom position of the rear-foot elevated split squat, reverse the motion by extending the knee and hips to return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for 6 reps, 4 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between the sets.

10. Single-Arm Overhead Squat

The single-arm overhead squat will additionally build shoulder strength and stability due to the overhead position of kettlebells or dumbbells.

A man performs single-arm overhead squats with a dumbbell in his working hand.

How to Perform Single-Arm Overhead Squats

  1. Pick a kettlebell or dumbbell of appropriate weight to perform at least 8 reps without resting.
  2. Assume a standing stance a little wider than shoulder-width apart and slightly point your toes outward to achieve a deeper squat position easier.
  3. Keep your core engaged throughout the lifting phase and ensure your back is flat to avoid injuries.
  4. Place your equipment in the overhead position with your shoulder fully abducted/flexed and elbows locked.
  5. Start the exercise by entering the squat position by bending your hips, knees, and ankles.
  6. Hold that position for one second when your thighs become parallel to the ground.
  7. Reverse the motion by extending your ankles, knees, and hips to return to the beginning standing single-arm overhead position with the dumbbell or kettlebell.
  8. Repeat for 8 reps, 3 sets, and rest 2 minutes between the sets. 

11. Front Squats

Front squats are a variation of traditional back squats performed with a loaded barbell placed on the front of your shoulders in a flexed position. In addition, front squats are excellent for targeting quadriceps muscles due to unique weight placement and shift.

A woman performs barbell front squats.

How to Perform Front Squats

  1. Place the barbell on the squat rack and load it with sufficient weight so you can perform at least 8 consecutive reps without resting.
  2. Unrack the loaded barbell and place it on front of your shoulders in the beginning front squat position.
  3. Step back to have enough space to perform the entire exercise without interruption.
  4. Assume a standing position slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and slightly point the toes outward to achieve better squat depth.
  5. Start the exercise by lowering your body into a deep squat position by simultaneously bending your hips, knees, and ankles.
  6. Hold that position for one second when your thighs break the parallel position with the ground.
  7. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position by extending your ankles, knees, and hips.
  8. Repeat for 8 reps, 4 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between the sets.

12. Lateral Lunges

Lateral lunges are great for building strength in the frontal plane and strengthening your adductor and other stabilizer muscles.

A woman performs bodyweight lateral lunges.

How to Perform Lunges

  1. Take two dumbbells or kettlebells of appropriate weight to perform at least 6 lunges on each leg in the single set without resting.
  2. Assume a standing position is wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Start the exercise by lunging on one side by bending the leg on the side you want to start the exercise.
  4. When your inner thigh of the working leg reaches a parallel position with the floor, hold that position for one second.
  5. Reverse the motion to return to the standing position and switch the legs.
  6. Repeat for 6 reps on each leg, 4 sets, and rest for 90 seconds between the sets.

13. Turkish Get-up

The Turkish get-up is a complex whole-body exercise designed to help core development, especially the trunk stabilization component.

A woman performs a Turkish get-up exercise.

How to Perform Turkish Get-Ups

  1. Pick a kettlebell of appropriate weight so you can perform 3 reps of Turkish get-ups in a row without pausing.
  2. Lye on the floor on your back and hold the kettlebell in your right hand fully extended above you. The shoulder should be bent at 90 degrees and elbows fully locked so the kettlebell is placed directly in the projection of your shoulder, looking vertically.
  3. Bend your right leg so the heel is close to your butt.
  4. Start the exercise by pushing the kettlebell towards the ceiling by bending the right side of the torso.
  5. Get up on your left elbow as you reach maximum kettlebell extension.
  6. Slide your left leg between your left arm and right leg and assume a half-kneeling position with the kettlebell still placed over your head.
  7. Get up on both your feet and assume a standing overhead kettlebell position.
  8. Reverse the motion to return to the starting bottom position.
  9. Repeat for 3 reps, 3 sets, and rest as much as needed between the sets.

14. Nordic Hamstring Pull

Nordic hamstring pull is an extremely hard and demanding posterior chain exercise that will bulletproof your hamstrings. 

It is excellent for decreasing the chance of posterior chain injuries and enhancing performance in running sports.

A woman performs a Nordic hamstring or Nordic curl exercise.

How to Perform Nordic Hamstring Pulls

  1. Ask a partner to help you perform Nordic hamstring pulls by holding your feet.
  2. Kneel and tell your partner to lock your ankles from behind by holding them or sitting on them so they become immobile.
  3. Start the exercise by bending forward in your torso and lowering yourself toward the floor.
  4. When you reach the position where you can’t hold your body anymore, slowly let go and drop your body to the floor by amortizing it with your hands.
  5. Return to the starting position with the help of your hands and start again.
  6. Repeat for 6 reps, 3 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between the sets.

15. Barbell Hip Thrusts

Barbell hip thrusts are excellent for developing hip power and strength. They will build all three major glute muscles and additional posterior chain muscles such as hamstrings.

A woman performs barbell hip thrusts.

How to Perform Barbell Hip Thrusts

  1. Load the barbell with the appropriate weight on the floor and place the flat bench behind you.
  2. Pick the weight so you can perform at least 8 reps without resting.
  3. Lye on the floor and place your shoulder blades on the elevated surface while tucking your legs under the loaded barbell.
  4. Lift the barbell on your hips and drive your hips towards the ceiling while having your shoulder wings on the bench.
  5. Start the exercise by bending your hips by lowering the barbell towards the floor.
  6. When you reach the bottom position, quickly explode and drive the barbell upwards to the ceiling.
  7. When you reach maximum hip extension in the top position, hold it for one second and squeeze your glutes.
  8. Repeat for 8  reps, 4 sets, and rest for 3 minutes between the sets.

Benefits of Compound Exercises

The main benefits of compound exercises include training more muscle groups at once, seamlessly achieving the progressive overload, raising your testosterone and growth hormone, and burning more calories.

Here all these benefits are explained more deeply.

The image shows the benefits of compound exercises, which include training more muscle groups at once, progressive overload, burning more calories, and raising your testosterone and growth hormone levels.

Train More Muscle Groups at Once

One of the most important benefits of compound exercises is the ability to train multiple muscle groups and joints at once [1].

Compound exercises target large muscle groups and allow more joints to work coherently to produce the movement.

When you train more muscle groups at once, you force muscle hypertrophy, which elevates your resting metabolic rate because more muscles require more energy consumption.

Training more muscle groups at once is also useful because it is time efficient and allows more to be done in less time.

Easier to Progressive Overload

Compound exercises benefit from easily achieving progressive overload. 

Progressive overload is a programming and strength training principle that requires increasing the reps, sets, training volume, and overall intensity for each following workout session [2]. 

Compounding exercises make it easier to achieve progressive overload because they use more muscle groups, allowing for better and more harmonized movements and more strength production. 

More muscles can produce more force, meaning you will easily increase the weight for each following workout. 

Raise Testosterone and Growth Hormone

Elevating testosterone and growth hormone is one of the main benefits of regularly performing compound exercises [3].

Studies show a correlation between performing compound movements and raising testosterone and growth hormone [4].

The more weight you can lift without getting injured, the more testosterone and growth hormone will be produced to support the recovery process.

Burn More Calories

The last benefit of compound exercises includes burning more calories. 

Compound exercises burn more calories because they require multiple muscles to work simultaneously and multiple joints to work synergistically and are more taxing for the nervous system. 

In addition, you will build more muscles with compound exercises, meaning you will burn more calories just because your basal metabolic rate (BMR) will be increased.

Should You Only Do Compound Exercises?

No, you shouldn’t only do compound exercises. Every perfect workout program must contain a balance between compound and isolation exercises.

Sometimes, these are also referred to as multi and single-joint exercises. 

Compound exercises are essential for activating large muscle groups and developing the most significant amount of strength and hypertrophy.

Contrary to that, isolation exercises are perfect for negating muscle imbalances and building a more holistic and well-balanced body.

This is not true if you only do isolation exercises. 

That is the 100% sure way to build a non-functional body since single-joint isolation exercises have the least carryover to real-life and athletic situations.

How to Implement Compound Exercises Into Your Workouts?

To implement compound exercises into your workouts, you must always place them at the beginning of the workout.

You must always put compound exercises first and isolation exercises last.

This is because compound exercises require more concentration, energy, and focus to execute than isolation exercises.

In addition, this is a great way to avoid potential injuries and maximize athletic performance.

How to Quickly Progress With Compound Exercises?

To quickly progress with compound exercises, you must use advanced periodization methods and training cycles and incorporate the principle of progressive overload.

Here is how to progress with compound exercises below with these methods.

Use Periodization and Training Cycles

Periodization is the concept in sports that aims to prepare the athlete to achieve peak performance at the desired date in the future. The goal is to peak the athlete during the most important competitions so they can perform the best and have the largest chance of winning.

Training cycles are a part of the periodization process, including macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles.

Macrocycles represent the whole training regime for the entire year or duration before and during the competitive phase. They are built from mesocycles. Macrocycles always have clear goals set before the season, and they reveal the whole plan of how the athlete will achieve peak performance during the most crucial moments in the season.

Mesocycles are smaller parts of macrocycles. They represent training blocks and are built to improve motor abilities and skills such as strength, speed, endurance, precision, coordination, balance, and flexibility. Mesocycles last between 2 and 6 weeks. Mesocycles are built from microcycles.

Microcycles are the smallest part of the periodization methodology, ranging from 1 to 7 days. Macrocycles are focused on small goals, building blocks of mesocycles. Microcycles focus on specific training methods to develop particular motor abilities or skills for respective mesocycle.

Incorporate the Principle of Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the principle used in sports to increase overall performance and output across different motor skills, the most important being strength. 

The progressive overload is based on increasing the sets, reps, external resistance, or overall training volume for each following workout. 

Numerous athletic studies prove this concept is the best for increasing strength and muscle hypertrophy.

FAQs

What Is Considered the Hardest Exercise?

The deadlift is considered the hardest exercise. Deadlifts are whole-body movements requiring synergy from both lower and upper body muscles to execute the entire movement.

What Is the King of All Compound Exercises?

The king of all compound exercises is the squat. Squats are excellent lower-body exercises for hypertrophy, strength training, and building explosive power and strong limbs.

What Are the Top 5 Compound Exercises?

The top five compound movements include bench presses, pull-ups, military press, squats, and deadlifts. However, barbell rows and core strength exercises are also excellent for building a well-rounded and functional body.

Are 4 Compound Exercises Too Much?

It depends on your current fitness and goals if 4 compound exercises are too much. One to two compound exercises are enough for a single workout session since you need extra time to recover and perform the next exercise maximally.

What Compound Movement Works the Most Muscles?

Squats and deadlifts are compound movements that work the most muscles. Both are excellent for developing strength, but deadlifts will also build a good posture and enormous pulling absolute strength.

Can I Build Muscles at Home With Compound Exercises?

Yes, you can easily build muscles at home with compound exercises.

The easiest way to build muscles at home with compound exercises is to purchase a set of functional training weights such as kettlebells or dumbbells.

I suggest reading one of two following guides, depending on your personal preferences, to choose the equipment type that will suit you the most:

Let me know what is the hardest compound exercise according to you and why.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592763/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4215195/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7739287/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25162652/
Vanja Vukas

Vanja Vukas

Student at the Faculty of Sport and Physical Education and a hardcore functional training enthusiast. Heavily inspired by Michael Boyle, a strength & conditioning specialist, and by Adam Sinicki, the founder of Bioneer. Vanja believes that transitioning to a movement-based exercise program can drastically improve your fitness, balance out your muscles, and support your current lifestyle.

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