9 Best Compound Upper Body Exercises That Can Help Build Your Muscles

Why spend ages on isolation exercises when these compound upper body exercises can help you target and tone the area much more efficiently and quickly.

man doing seated cable row exercises

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What are compound upper body exercises?

Compound upper body exercises engage multiple muscle groups and joints in the upper body simultaneously.

These exercises are highly potent for building strength, enhancing functional fitness, and increasing muscle mass.

Unlike isolation exercises that focus on a single muscle, compound exercises involve complex movements that recruit multiple muscle groups at once, allowing you to work more efficiently

compound upper body exercises - woman doing pull-ups image-02

Best Compound Upper Body Exercises that can help sculpt your physique

Bench Press

bench press vs. push ups - bench press - inner chest exercises and compound upper body exercises

The Bench Press is one of the best compound upper body exercises.

It is one of the most popular and widely used exercises for targeting the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

The primary movement of the Bench Press involves pushing a weighted barbell away from the chest while lying on a bench, engaging multiple muscles to execute the lift.

Target Muscles: Pectoralis major (chest), anterior deltoids (front shoulders), triceps.
Required equipment: Weight bench, barbell, weight plates, power rack or squat rack (optional)

Steps to follow to do bench press


Strength training exercises - man doing pull-ups compound upper body exercises

Pull-ups and Chin-ups are highly effective compound upper body exercises.

They are bodyweight exercises that target multiple muscle groups in the upper body and provide numerous benefits for strength and muscle development.

Pull-ups and chin-ups target the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and other upper back muscles for improved back strength and muscle development.

Chin-Ups, in particular, provide excellent bicep activation due to the supinated grip. Both exercises engage the forearm muscles, helping to improve grip strength.

The main difference between pull-ups and chin-ups lies in the grip.


You grab the bar with a pronated grip or your palms facing away from you in pull-ups.

The grip position allows you to target the back muscles, particularly the latissimus dorsi or lats, which are the large muscles on the sides of the back.


The palms face towards you or in a supinated grip in chin-ups.

The grip position emphasizes the biceps and engages the lats and other upper body muscles.

Target Muscles: Latissimus dorsi (back), biceps, rhomboids (upper back), rear deltoids (rear shoulders), forearms.
Required equipment: Pull-up bar, Pull-up assistance bands (optional)

Steps to do pull-ups/chin-ups

You can modify both pull-ups and chin-ups to suit your fitness level.
Novices may find assisted variations that use pull-up assisted bands or machines handy. They can then gradually progress to bodyweight versions and add weights for more resistance.


push ups

Push-ups are excellent compound upper body exercises that are staples in bodyweight training.

Push-ups engage the chest, shoulders, and triceps and recruit other muscles for stabilization and support.

The effectiveness of push-ups lies in their versatility, accessibility, and ability to modify the exercises to suit various fitness levels.

They are bodyweight exercises that require no equipment. You can perform the compound upper body exercises anywhere and whenever you want, making them highly accessible.

You can also modify push-ups to accommodate different fitness levels. Novices can start with incline push-ups, while advanced athletes can challenge themselves with variations like diamond Push-Ups or explosive Plyometric Push-Ups.

Targeted muscles: Pectoralis major (chest), anterior deltoids (front shoulders), triceps, core

Steps to follow to perform push-ups with proper form

Cable Rows

back fat exercises - seated cable row compound back exercises

Cable rows are effective compound upper body exercises, making them valuable for building strength and muscle development.

The exercise engages the back muscles. It also recruits other muscles to support the movement.

Cable rows are some of the best compound upper body exercises for developing strength and improving back muscle function and aesthetics.

Targeted Muscles: Rhomboids, trapezius, latissimus dorsi (lats), posterior deltoids, biceps, forearms
Required equipment: Cable machine

  • The exercise involves sitting or standing facing a cable machine.
  • Grasp the handle with an overhand grip, ensuring your palms are at shoulder-width.
  • Retract your shoulders and pull the handle toward your torso while keeping your elbows close to your body.
  • Ensure you squeeze your back muscles at the top of the movement and slowly return the handle to its starting position.

Steps to follow to perform cable rows

Overhead Press

barbell shoulder exercises - overhead press

The Overhead Press, aka Shoulder Press or Military Press, targets multiple muscle groups in the upper body, primarily focusing on the shoulders and triceps. It is a fundamental strength-training movement that offers various benefits for upper body development and functional fitness.

The Overhead Press places a significant load on the deltoid muscles, helping to build strength and size in the shoulders.

It also engages the triceps as you press the weight overhead to extend the elbows, providing an effective tricep workout.

Overhead presses are some of the best compound upper body exercises that can help improve posture and shoulder stability.

You can perform the exercise with various equipment, such as barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells, and it allows for progressive overload to continue challenging your upper body strength as you advance.

Target muscles: Deltoids, triceps, trapezius

Steps to follow to do the overhead press

Tricep Dips

tricep dips

Tricep Dips, or Dips for short, are bodyweight exercises performed using parallel bars or dip stations.

The movement targets the triceps and chest muscles, helping to increase arm and chest strength.

They also engage the anterior deltoids or front shoulder muscles, contributing to overall shoulder strength.

Dips mimic pushing movements in everyday activities, making them functional for real-life tasks.

Dip bars or dip stations are ideal for performing dips, but you can also do the exercises using parallel bars at a playground or between two sturdy chairs at home.

You can modify dips to suit different fitness levels. Novices can start with assisted variations using resistance bands or machines, while experienced athletes can add weights to make the exercise more challenging.

Steps to follow

  • Grip the parallel bars or handles with your palms facing down and arms fully extended.
  • Keep your torso upright, chest out, and shoulders back.
  • Bend your elbows to lower your body until your upper arms and the floor are parallel.
  • Avoid letting your elbows flare out excessively. Instead, keep them pointing back at about a 45-degree angle from your body.
  • Extend your arms to press your body back up to your starting position.
  • Maintain control throughout the movement, and avoid swinging or using momentum.

Clean and Press

The Clean and Press is a dynamic and challenging movement that combines elements of both weightlifting and full-body functional exercises.

The clean and press are one of the best compound upper body exercises that engage the shoulders, upper back, traps, triceps, and core, but it also involves the lower body, including the hips, glutes, and quads.

The clean and press involves a “clean” phase when you lift the barbell from the floor to the shoulders. This phase engages the upper back and trapezius muscles as part of the pulling motion.

The Pressing phase engages the triceps to help extend the elbows during the upward movement. That portion targets the deltoids (shoulder muscles), helping to build strength and size in the shoulders.

The Clean and Press requires powerful hip extension and lower body drive to lift the barbell from the floor to the shoulders. The core helps to stabilize the body throughout the movement.

It involves lifting a barbell from the floor to the shoulders (clean) and then pressing it overhead. It targets the shoulders, upper back, traps, and triceps. It includes a quick and explosive lifting phase, which helps develop power and speed.

The clean and press are also some of the best compound upper body exercises that can help improve cardiovascular conditioning and calorie burning.

The Clean and Press is one of the best compound upper body exercises that mimics real-life movements involving lifting objects from the ground and pressing them overhead.

Explosive Power: The Clean and Press involves a quick and explosive lifting phase, which helps develop power and speed.

Target Muscles: Shoulder, triceps, traps, upper back, legs (during the clean portion).
Required equipment: Barbell, bumper plates

Steps to follow

The Clean and Press is a technical exercise that may require practice to perform with proficiency.

  • Place the loaded barbell on the floor, feet at shoulder-width, and toes under the barbell.
  • Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, palms slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Extend your hips and knees, and explosively lift the barbell. Keep your back flat and your chest up. That is the “clean” phase.
  • Pull your body under the bar as it rises and catch it at shoulder level with your elbows pointing forward.
  • Extend your arms to press the barbell overhead from the shoulder level. That is the “press” phase.
  • Lower the barbell back to the shoulders and then to the floor with control.
  • Ensure you engage your core and keep your back straight throughout the movement.

Arnold Press

seated arnold press - best dumbbell compound exercises

The Arnold Press is a variation of the traditional shoulder press popularized by bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, hence the name “Arnold Press.”

It is a dynamic movement that engages the deltoid muscles, triceps, and upper chest.

The Arnold Press is a comprehensive shoulder engagement movement that helps to build overall shoulder strength and size.

The pressing motion of the Arnold Press engages the triceps muscles, contributing to improved arm strength.

The upper chest muscles are activated as you press the dumbbells overhead, aiding in upper chest development.

The Arnold Press incorporates a rotating motion during the pressing phase, which allows for a broader range of motion than traditional shoulder press exercises.

The rotation of the shoulder joints promotes balanced development of the deltoid muscles and reduces the risk of muscle imbalances.

Target muscles: Deltoids, triceps, upper chest.
Required equipment: Dumbbells

Steps to follow to perform the Arnold Press

Renegade Rows

dumbbell plank to alternating row - renegade row - best dumbbell back exercises

Renegade Rows combine a plank and a rowing exercise to target multiple upper-body, core, and lower-body muscles. They are challenging and dynamic movements that offer numerous benefits for strength, stability, and coordination.

Renegade Rows require strong core activation to maintain a stable plank position while performing the rowing motion, helping to improve core strength and stability.

The rowing phase engages the upper back muscles to pull the dumbbell or kettlebell upward. Additionally, the biceps and forearms activate during the pulling motion.

The movement also engages the shoulders and chest muscles to support the body and provide stability.

Renegade rows are one of the best compound upper back exercises that encourage proper scapular control and stabilization to help boost shoulder health.

Including renegade rows in your training regimen can help build upper body strength in the arms, shoulders, and back.

Steps to follow for the renegade row exercises

Benefits of compound upper body exercises

compound upper body exercises - woman exercising with a barbell

Compound upper body exercises offer a wide range of benefits for your fitness and strength development.

Efficient use of time

Compound upper body exercises work multiple muscle groups simultaneously, allowing you to target several areas in one movement.

The efficiency can benefit exercisers with busy schedules as it reduces the time required for a comprehensive upper body workout.

Increasing strength

Compound upper body exercises can help build functional strength that can translate to everyday activities and sports performance.

Burning more calories

Due to their multi-muscle engagement, compound exercises can burn more calories than isolation exercises.

They also have an after-burn effect known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). That can keep your metabolism elevated even after your workout.

Enhancing muscle coordination

Performing complex movements in compound upper body exercises can help improve neuromuscular coordination. That can help your muscles to work together more efficiently.

Promoting muscle balance

Compound upper body exercises can help create a more balanced physique. That can help reduce the risk of muscle imbalances and other related injuries.

Boosting functional fitness

Most compound upper body exercises mimic everyday movements, making them more practical for real-life activities.

Thus, incorporating such exercises into your training regimen can help improve your functional fitness.

Increasing hormone release

Compound upper body exercises can stimulate the release of hormones like testosterone. These are essential for muscle growth and repair.

Improving core stability

Many compound exercises require significant core engagement to stabilize the body. That can help improve core strength and stability.

Supporting cardiovascular health

The higher intensity and demand on multiple muscle groups in compound upper body exercises can provide cardiovascular benefits, improving heart health and conditioning.

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Limitations of compound upper body exercises

While compound upper body exercises offer numerous benefits, they also have some limitations that exercisers should be aware of

Overemphasis on some muscle groups

While compound exercises engage multiple muscle groups, they may still place a heavier load on some muscles.

That can lead to potential imbalances if not balanced with appropriate accessory exercises.

Technical complexity

Some compound upper body exercises are complicated to perform, requiring proper technique and form.

Novices might find these movements challenging to perform correctly, increasing the risk of injury.

Compound exercises may not provide a targeted focus on specific muscle groups or weak areas that require isolated training.

Not ideal for isolation

That can make it challenging for optimal development.

Exercisers with aesthetic goals or who want to focus on individual muscles may have to incorporate isolation exercises into their training schedules.

Equipment requirements

Some compound upper body exercises require access to specific equipment like barbells, dumbbells, and pull-up bars.

These may not be readily available in home gyms. Thus, you may have to take an expensive gym membership or incur extra costs before doing those exercises.

Fatigue during workouts

Compound exercises can be physically demanding and may lead to faster muscle fatigue during a workout.

Thus, you may find it challenging to perform a high volume of those exercises consecutively.

Safety concerns

Exercisers with pre-existing injuries or conditions may find some compound upper exercises unsuitable or risky.

It is essential to consult a healthcare professional or fitness expert before attempting new exercises, especially if you have concerns about your safety or suitability for a particular movement.

Not suitable for all goals

If your primary goal is muscle hypertrophy or size gain in specific muscle groups, compound upper body exercises alone might not be sufficient.

Incorporating some isolation exercises could be beneficial in such cases.

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