Best Compound Multi-Joint Exercises for Building Muscle


When deciding on a weight training workout for overall mass and size, it is important to put your exercise selection under a fair bit of scrutiny to avoid filling your routine with exercises that aren’t going to have maximum effectiveness. Some exercises are decent for building muscle, while other movements are fantastic for building muscle. This will also change from person-to-person, and movements you’re comfortable doing will often become your best lifts where you can make the most progress. Some lifters are very natural squatters and some deadlift like it’s second nature.

When judging an exercise by its effectiveness, a compound, multi-joint exercise will almost always be the most effective way to pack on mass. Compound, multi-joint exercises are pretty much what they sound like: you’re using more than one joint and more than one muscle group (“compound” refers to recruiting more than one muscle group). This type of exercise allows you to use more resistance, since you have more muscle to push/pull it, and it stresses the muscle more, which results in growth. These exercises should be the meat and potatoes of every workout routine, with other lifts used as accessories to help burn out the muscle to its limit and focus on certain areas to spark even more growth.

There are a huge number of compound, multi-joint exercises out there that can be used to build muscle; however, they do vary in effectiveness. It can be difficult to discern the awesome from the not-so-awesome exercises without implementing them into your workout, so we’ve made a list of super effective exercises to help get you started. Here’s what we came up with:

Barbell Squat
Although squats are primarily a leg exercise, they are a bodybuilder’s bread and butter for putting on mass all over the body. Squats recruit the quadriceps as the prime mover, with stabilization and accessory recruitment of the hamstrings, core, upper back, lower back and hip flexors. The joints involved in the barbell squat are the ankles, the knees and the hips. There are several varieties of squat, and all of them target the legs slightly differently, but most of them are just as effective in terms of muscle recruitment as the traditional barbell squat. If you’re a novice lifter, getting strong on squats will help you add weight to your other lifts, due to all of the cues and form intricacies you have to master to lift heavy, such as bracing, breath control and very strict attention to form.

Conventional Deadlift
Barbell deadlifts are the barbell squat’s main rival for the title of “king of all exercises”, and the pros and cons of each are consistently and hotly debated in the fitness community. Deadlifts are a one-two punch for your posterior chain, recruiting every muscle that has the purpose of pulling. Hamstrings, glutes and the lower back are the prime movers in this exercise, with accessory recruitment of the calves, mid back, upper back, biceps, forearms, lats and core, making this an ultra-effective exercise. The joints involved in the deadlift are pretty similar to the squat: ankles, knees and hips – just with more lower back recruitment. Like the squat, there are several variations of deadlift, and as long as the hip-hinge movement is taking place with a straight back and the knees aren’t drifting off to the side during the exercise, they’re all great for posterior chain development.

Dumbbell Bench Press
Usually the first exercise people learn when they step into a gym is the barbell bench press, and it seems to be the most commonly measured lift within the fitness community. If you’ve never been asked, “what do you bench?”, you’re one of the very few who haven’t. The barbell bench press is a fantastic exercise, but the range of motion is a little bit limited when compared to dumbbell bench press, which allows you to get a bit more of a stretch at the bottom of the range of motion due to not being restricted by a big bar across your chest. The dumbbell bench press is primarily a chest movement, but it also recruits your shoulders, core, triceps and lats as stabilizer muscles and accessory movers. The joints involved in the dumbbell bench press are the shoulders and elbows. This exercise can be performed on a flat, decline or on an incline bench to target different areas of the chest and achieve a fuller aesthetic.

Barbell Overhead Press
One of the most notoriously underworked muscles on the body is the shoulders. Many lifters partially hit them with bench press, do a few sets of lateral raises and call it day. However, shoulders are more complex and deserve more attention. One of the best exercises for your shoulders is the barbell overhead press. The form can take a bit of time to get down correctly, but once you get it down, your weight will shoot up and so will the growth rate of your shoulders. When you get stronger at overhead press, it will also make you much stronger on bench press, due to the shoulders’ recruitment. The barbell overhead press works the shoulders as the primary mover, with accessory recruitment of the triceps, core, upper chest and upper back. The joints involved are the shoulder, elbow and wrist as a stabilizing joint (since your wrists won’t be completely straight for this exercise). This is one of those movements that just simply makes you strong in your upper body, and performing them is a great way to spark some serious muscle growth.

Single-Arm Bent Over Dumbbell Row
Row, row, row some dumbbells so that your lats and mid-back will get huge. Rows are an essential back-building movement, and every variety hits the back differently and to a different degree. Since the back responds well to high-resistance training, it’s good to pick an exercise you can ramp the weight up on. Single-arm bent over dumbbell rows are a great exercise not only because you are using one side of your body, which recruits pretty much every stabilizer muscle you have, but because you can really squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement for a deep stretch and a large range of motion (which equals growth when added to resistance). Also, once you get the form down, you can really start using heavy weights on this, with some people using over 100 pound dumbbells. The muscles actively recruited as movers are your back muscles: your traps, your lats and your spinal erectors. The accessory muscles are your biceps as a secondary mover, and every other muscle in your body as a stabilizer (especially at higher poundage).

Final Thoughts
That’s it! It seems like a short list, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is, these are the most effective exercises for sparking growth in your various muscles, and a routine comprised only of these exercises would be totally fine. Accessory lifts should be added where possible to isolate the muscle and increase the time under tension while getting a pump, but if you’re looking for a bare-bones muscle building workout to add serious size, look no further than the list of exercises above!

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Cole Matthews

My name is Cole Matthews and I'm a certified personal trainer who's a major health and fitness geek with a huge passion for writing. See my profile page for more information!


  1. Avatar
    Anwar Qureshi on

    EXCELLENT demonstration and refresher of various multi-joints exercises! Some can be used for warming up before regular workouts. These demos make our lives active and strong. I would appreciate if you can clarify the difference between the Overhead Barbell Press versus the Military Press. Thanks and I appreciate all the efforts of ShapeFit. Your organization is my COACH and serves my purpose very well. Thanks again 🙂

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Anwar – There is a small difference between the two exercises. With the Military Press, you will slightly bend your knees during the top potion of the movement. This will occur just before the full extension of your arms when you bring the weight above your head. With the Overhead Barbell Press, there will be no movement of the lower body (no bending of the knees). You will simply press the barbell over your head while keeping your lower body quiet. This results in a much more strict movement with the Overhead Barbell Press and less weight will be used when compared to the Military Press due to the inclusion of effort used with the lower body.

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