Compound workouts can help you train many muscles with a few exercises. What are some compound exercises that focus a lot on your upper body muscles?
Compound exercises are movements that work out multiple muscles at the same time. Most of these exercises can be done with a wide variety of free weights, resistance bands, and gym machines.
1. Bench presses
The bench press is one of the most popular weight lifting exercises. For this exercise, you will need a weight bench a barbell, and a barbell rack.
Once you have these, take the following steps to do a barbell bench press:
- Load up the barbell in the rack with the desired weight.
- Lie down with your back on the weight bench and place your hands with an overhanded grip on the barbell at about shoulder width.
- Unrack the barbell and keep your arms slightly less than stretched and pointing up.
- Slowly lower the barbell to your chest. Your upper arms should be at an angle of about 45 degrees or less to your sides.
- Push the barbell back up in the position of step 3 in a controlled motion.
You can also change the angle of the weight bench to focus more on different parts of your chest muscles.
Putting the bench more incline, so your upper body higher than your lower body, engages your upper chest and shoulders more.
A barbell bench press with a more decline bench will focus more on your lower chest muscles.
It is also possible to do bench presses with free weights like dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, etc. and machines like the cable machine, smith machine, and chest press machine.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: chest, triceps, and front part of the deltoids (main shoulder muscle).
The pull-up is a classic upper body compound exercise you can do without weights. You do still need some type of bar to do the exercise on.
Luckily, something like a doorway pull-up bar is relatively inexpensive. Once you have the required gear, take the following steps to do a pull-up:
- Hang from the pull-up bar with your hands at about shoulder-width with your hand palms facing forward.
- Pull your body up slowly until your shoulders are the height of the bar.
- Lower your body again into starting position in a controlled motion.
If this exercise is too challenging yet there are plenty of pull-up alternatives that can help you work up to your first successful pull-up.
On the other hand, if pull-ups are currently too easy you can make them weighted with equipment like a dip belt, weighted vest, ankle weights, or a dumbbell between your feet.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: lats, biceps, core, rhomboids, and deltoids.
3. Bent-over rows
The walkthrough is with dumbbells but you can also use most free weights and gym machines like the cable machine and smith machine.
Take the following steps to do a bent-over row with dumbbells:
- Stand up straight with your feet at about shoulder width and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Slightly fold your knees and tilt your upper body forward until it is at about a 45-degree angle with the ground while keeping your back straight. Let your arms hang down to the ground for now.
- Bend your elbows until your hands reach your body. The goal is to mainly make your back muscles support this movement. Keep your arms close to your body, your body in a straight line, and your feet in the same position during the movement.
- Lower your hands again to the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, legs, and core.
The word deadlift is almost synonymous with the words compound exercise.
One downside of this exercise is that you likely need extra resistance like a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. to make the deadlift challenging enough.
As an example, take the following steps to do a deadlift with a barbell:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width in front of a barbell with or without weight plates.
- Slightly fold your knees and tilt your upper body forward to grab the barbell on the ground. Hold it with an overhanded grip, with your hand palms facing downward/backward.
- Stretch your knees and tilt back your upper body at the same time until your upper body and legs are stretched in one straight line. When doing a deadlift it is very important to keep your back in a straight line during the exercise.
- Slowly move back into the position of step 2.
Deadlifts are an exercise where suboptimal technique is relatively punishing. It may be a good idea to get used to the technique with light weights first.
After that, the deadlift is traditionally an exercise that is done with relatively heavy external weights.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: glute muscles, calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, erector spinae, and trapezius.
5. Lower chest dips
The dip exercise mainly helps you train your triceps if you keep your body straight, but also your lower chest if you tilt your upper body forward.
You will need dip bars or similar sturdy objects for this upper body compound exercise. With this, take the following steps to do lower chest dips:
- Place your hands on the dip bars. Start with your arms in an extended but not locked position. You will likely need to step-ups to get into this position. Your upper body should slightly tilt forward.
- Slowly lower your body by bending your elbows until these are at a 90-degree angle.
- Raise yourself back up again into starting position in a controlled motion.
For most people, regular dips are already more than challenging enough. Doing weighted dips with dumbbells, a dip belt, a weighted vest, or ankle weights is generally for individuals more experienced with resistance training.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: lower chest, triceps, shoulders, and back.
6. Overhead presses
The shoulder press with a barbell is a popular compound exercise for growing shoulder muscles. You preferably want a barbell rack at chest height for this exercise.
Take the following steps to do a shoulder press:
- Find a barbell rack and place the barbell at about chest height. Add the desired number of weight plates. If there are any safety bars you can adjust them to the right height.
- Grab the barbell with your hands at about shoulder width with your hand palms facing forward.
- Unrack the barbell and take a few steps back so that you have room to do the exercise. Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width. Hold the barbell at about shoulder height. Your elbows can point slightly more forward than just a horizontal line with your shoulders.
- Slowly move the barbell up until your arms are slightly less than stretched.
- Lower the barbell back into the position of step 3 in a controlled motion.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: front and middle shoulder muscles, triceps, and trapezius.
Pushups are an extremely popular bodyweight exercise that can help you train a variety of muscles without needing any equipment. Take the following steps to do a pushup:
- Get into the position where your face is facing the floor with your hand palms on the ground. Your arms are stretched and your knees are on the ground.
- Move your feet back until your body is in a straight line.
- Slowly fold your arms at your elbows until your face is close to the ground. Your arms should be at an angle of about 45 degrees to your sides. Another way to put it is if someone is looking down at you from above your arms should make an arrow, not a T.
- Stretch your arms again until you are back in a straight arm plank position.
For many people, bodyweight pushups are already challenging enough but you can also use extra weights like a weighted vest or weight plate to make them more challenging.
You can also do many pushup variations to focus on slightly different muscles.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: shoulders, core, chest, triceps, and lower back.
8. Ab wheel knee rollouts
The ab wheel is a small piece of fitness equipment that is a wheel with two handles. It may not look like much but ab wheel exercises can offer a great workout for your abs and other muscles.
Take the following steps to do an ab wheel knee roll-out:
- Start with your face facing the floor on your knees and with your hands on the ab wheel.
- Stretch your hips so that your body is in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
- Roll forward in a controlled motion, preferably until your stomach is right above the ground.
- Slowly roll back into the position of step 2.
If you are more of a beginner you can start with smaller distances instead of until your stomach is right above the ground.
The knee roll-out is only one option. If you like using the ab wheel there are many other exercises to choose from.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: abs, obliques, deltoids, forearms, and core muscles.
9. Side plank dips
You can do this next upper body exercise with more resistance by holding external weights on your hip. Take the following steps to do a side plank dip:
- Sit sideways on the ground leaning on one of your lower arms with the upper arm of that arm vertical to support your upper body.
- Walk away from your upper body with your feet until you can put your body in a straight side plank.
- Move your hips as far down as comfortable.
- Move your hips as far up as comfortable.
- Return your body into the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
- Repeat the same number of repetitions while leaning on your other arm.
If the ground stops you from bending down further you can consider doing side plank dips with your arm on an elevated object like for example a weight bench.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: abs, obliques, and shoulders.
10. Kettlebell swings
Kettlebells are versatile pieces of fitness equipment that can play a role in many workouts.
One example of a kettlebell compound exercise that engages a variety of other muscles is the kettlebell swing. Take the followings steps to do this movement:
- Stand up straight with your arms stretched and one kettlebell in your two hands.
- Bend through your knees and move the kettlebell backward a small amount to initiate the full swings. Keep your back and shoulders straight throughout the exercise.
- Swing the kettlebell forward until your arms are about horizontally at shoulder height. Stretch your legs throughout this swing.
- Swing the kettlebell downward and backward between your legs as far as you safely can.
- Alternate between the positions in steps 3 and 4.
Before increasing the weight of your kettlebell make sure you can do a swing with the right technique with lighter kettlebells.
Some of the muscles you engage with this upper body compound exercise include: lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, erector spinae, shoulders, and upper back.