Five Best Alternative Compound Exercises
As much as everyone loves a good bicep curl and seated calf raise, the best exercises for building strength and increasing hypertrophy are compound exercises.
Compound exercises activate multiple muscle groups at once. They are the best way to optimise progressive overload in your workouts as they tend to be your heaviest lifts. The most common compound lifts are called the ‘big five’ comprised of:
- Barbell Squats
- Bench Press
- Barbell Rows
- Barbell Shoulder Press
However, the big five can become boring after a while, especially for intermediate and advanced lifters, and can make workouts feel like a monotonous chore.
Introducing new lifts and movements is one of the best ways to keep your workouts feeling fresh and exciting. Adding in alternative compound exercises can also improve your results with the big five, providing additional training to muscles and movements used in the main compound lifts. Here are five alternative compound lifts to add into your workouts to build strength and muscle, and keep your training exciting.
Alternative Compound Lift 1: Sandbag Atlas Lifts
Muscles Worked: Thighs, Glutes, Hamstrings, Back, Biceps.
We recommend 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps (depending on weight).
An absolute killer on leg day. If you thought squats were hard, wait until you’ve done 3 sets of these.
An underutilised piece of equipment in the gym, sandbags are a great way to build strength and muscle, commonly used by power-based athletes including strongmen, powerlifters, and even MMA fighters. Not only can they be used for larger rep ranges to increase time under tension, but they can also be used for heavy, low-rep sets, with some as heavy as 150kg/330lbs.
Much like the deadlift is known as the king of the conventional lifts, the Atlas Lift is the king of sandbag exercises.
It's a combination of multiple conventional movements, including the deadlift, the squat, and the Romanian deadlift. Starting with the sandbag on the floor, squat down and clasp your fingers around the far side of the sandbag. Hoist the sandbag up onto your legs, allowing you to get a tighter clasp around the bag. From there, keep your arms tight around the sandbag, clamping it to your chest, and press through your heels to drive the weight up, completing the squat.
Here's a video of Martins Licis (World's Strongest Man winner in 2019) training with sandbags.
Alternative Compound Lift 2: Turkish Get-Ups
Muscles Worked: Everything
We Recommend 3 sets of 5 reps each side.
A favourite of the kettlebell cult, the Turkish Get-Up is the all-in-one exercise, great for your core, shoulders, back, hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings.
To get the most benefits from this exercise focus on time under tension and the mind-muscle connection over heavy weight and volume.
You can find videos to give you an idea of how it's done, but here's a break-down of the steps:
- Starting on your back, hold a kettlebell in one hand and press it straight into the air.
- Holding it up, extend the opposite arm to the side and extend the opposite leg out straight.
- Sit up towards the straight leg, posting on the empty hand.
- Raise your knees and hips off the floor and bring the opposite leg behind you until you're on one knee in a lunge
- Bringing the back foot up to the front foot until you are standing straight
Finally, reverse the movements until you are laying on your back again:
Drop to a lunge, post out the empty hand and step the back foot through to the front, keeping your hips and knees in the air, then drop to your bum and slowly lay back until your shoulders are flat.
That is one rep. Oh, and did I mention you’re holding the kettlebell straight in the air the entire time. Make sure you’re doing equal reps on each side.
While it may sound complicated, the athletic and aesthetic benefits of this exercise come quick and fast. By utilising pretty much every muscle group, not only is this extra work for your favourite show muscles, but it also works the under-employed areas. This helps to create an equal and aesthetically pleasing physique and prevents injuries.
Alternative Compound Lift 3: Man Makers
Muscles Worked: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps, Legs
We recommend 3 sets of 10 reps.
Perfect for push days, this advanced burpee primarily targets the chest and shoulders, but like any good exercise, your biceps get a good bit of work after 10 reps of these.
I know the word burpee might scare off a lot of people, but I promise these are far better than the ones your evil P.E teacher gave you in your teens. I love to use these as my finisher on push days to get as much of a pump as possible. Side note, Ben Affleck used these to get in superhero shape for Batman vs Superman.
Far simpler than the Turkish Get-Up, start standing with a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand by your side. Drop and do a press up, then jump back up to the standing position (completing the burpee motion). Then curl the dumbbells up and perform a shoulder press. Finally, drop them down to your hips and go again.
Alternative Compound Lift 4: Plank With Pull-Through
Muscles Worked: Core, Back, Biceps, Shoulders, Hamstrings
We recommend 3 sets of 12-20 reps.
A great exercise that can be snuck into the ab section of your pull/back day.
The Plank with Pull-Through is as simple as it sounds, but very effective and efficient for those time-sensitive workouts where every minute matters. The secret formula to this exercise comes from the combination of the isometric contraction and weights.
Start in a plank position with a kettlebell (or dumbbell, or plate, or any weighted object) to one side of your arms. Reach through with the furthest arm, grab the kettlebell, and pull it beneath you and through to the other side. Easy as that.
Be warned though, performing this exercise is far harder than reading it. Everyone knows that a minute in a plank is the longest minute of your life. Add to it the constant movement which only challenges the core further, and the motion of constantly pulling a reasonably heavy weight, you’ll feel these the next morning.
Alternative Compound Lift 5: Farmer’s Walk
Muscles Worked: Everything
We recommend 3 sets of 40 metres/130ft
The granddaddy of functional fitness, Farmer’s Walks are the forgotten gem of compound exercises.
This challenging exercise targets and works every major muscle in the body. Your legs and calves carrying you forward. Your shoulders, traps, chest, back and arms holding the weight, and your core keeping everything stable and strong as you go.
In short, to perform this exercise, grab two very heavy dumbbells and walk. You will be performing smaller strides than your normal walking pace. Make sure to keep your back straight and upright, don’t hunch with the weight, and don’t let yourself fall forward with the weight. While you should be walking at a moderately quick pace, every step needs to be controlled to prevent losing balance or stepping incorrectly and causing injury.
Here's a video of Mitchell Hopper (World's Strongest Man winner in 2023) doing the farmer's walk.
Farmer’s Walks are excellent for targeting lacking muscle groups, building a symmetrical physique, and keeping strength even on each side. They are also excellent for building and improving your strength base, being an exercise that should be performed with very heavy dumbbells for the best results.
Archie Fenn is a Freelance Health & Fitness Writer from London. Training and competing in martial arts from the age of 6. Archie has been a long-time fitness fanatic, currently training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and preparing for a half-marathon. You can learn more about Archie on his website, www.archiefenn.com