Eight Alternatives to Conventional Compound Exercises

UK Fitness Pro
UK Fitness Pro
· 10 min read
Women performing compound exercises.

As much as everyone loves a good bicep curl and seated calf raise, compound exercises are the best exercises for building strength (Paoli). 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

  • Barbell squats (e.g., back squats, front squats)
  • Barbell bench press
  • Barbell row (aka bent-over rows)
  • Barbell shoulder press (aka overhead press)
  • Conventional deadlift (i.e., barbell deadlift)

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 fresh and exciting. Adding alternative compound movements can also improve your results with the big five, providing additional training to the muscles and movements used in the main compound lifts. 

Here are eight alternative compound lifts to add to your workouts to build strength and muscle while keeping your training exciting.

1. Sandbag Atlas Lifts

Muscles Worked: Thighs, glutes, hamstrings, back, biceps

We recommend; 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps (depending on weight)

This is an absolute killer on leg day. 

If you thought squats were hard, wait until you’ve done three sets of these. An underutilised piece of gym equipment, sandbags are a great way to build strength and muscle. They are 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/330 lbs.

A sandbag atlas lift

Much like the deadlift is known as the king of conventional lifts, the Atlas Lift is the king of sandbag exercises

It combines multiple conventional movements, including the deadlift and squat. Starting with the sandbag on the floor, squat down and clasp your fingers around the far side of the sandbag. Hoist the sandbag 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. 

2. Turkish Get-Ups

Muscles Worked: Everything

We recommend: 3 sets of 5 reps on each side

A Turkish get up

A favourite of the kettlebell cult, the Turkish Get-Up is an 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 lying 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 quickly and fast. By utilising almost 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.

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 workout after 10 reps. 

I know the word burpee might scare off many people, but I promise man makers are far better than the burpees 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.

A man maker

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.

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 is very effective and efficient for those time-sensitive workouts where every minute matters. The secret formula to this exercise comes from the combination of 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 underneath your body with the furthest arm, grab the kettlebell, and pull it beneath you and through to the other side. 

A plank with pull through

Be warned, though, that 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, and you’ll feel these the next morning.

5. Farmer’s Walk

Muscles Worked: Glutes, quads, calf muscles, traps, forearms, core

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 carry you forward while your shoulders, traps, chest, back, and arms hold the weight. 

Your core keeps everything stable and strong as you go.

A farmer's walk

In short, to perform this exercise, grab two very heavy dumbbells and walk. 

You will be performing smaller strides than your normal walking pace. 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 misstepping 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 weights for the best results.

6. Bulgarian Split Squats

Muscles Worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, core

We recommend: 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps per leg

A cornerstone in lower body strengthening, Bulgarian split squats are a standout exercise, blending balance, flexibility, and power into every movement. 

This compound movement, often performed with just body weight or light weights, offers a remarkable alternative to traditional lower body and isolation exercises, promoting muscle growth and overall strength. Initiate this exercise by positioning yourself in a lunge stance with your rear foot elevated on a flat bench or similar platform. This starting position, crucial for targeting the squat's specific muscle groups, emphasises the importance of proper form to maximise gains and minimise the risk of injury. 

As a unilateral exercise, it requires focusing on the alignment of the knee, hip, and shoulder, ensuring a straight line that effectively engages the core muscles and posterior chain.

Kind of like this, but the rear foot should be elevated, normally on a bench. 

Bulgarian split squats are not just beneficial for the lower body; they engage the entire body, demanding stability from the upper back and core. 

This exercise is a great way to build muscle in the legs and glutes while ensuring the back remains in a neutral position, safeguarding the lower back and enhancing postural support. Incorporating Bulgarian split squats into your workout routine can significantly improve your balance, functional strength, and muscular endurance. They serve as a great alternative to heavy squats and deadlifts, allowing for a focus on muscular imbalances and a reduced load on the spine. 

Whether you're looking to diversify your strength training regimen or focus on specific fitness goals, Bulgarian split squats are a versatile, effective exercise that challenges the body in a productive, rewarding manner.

Tip: If you're stronger in your right leg, start with your left leg, then match the number of reps when doing your right leg. If you start with your right leg, you might be unable to match the number of reps with your left leg, which could exacerbate the strength imbalance. 

7. Romanian Deadlift

Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, glutes, lower back, core, upper back

We recommend: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps

Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are a pivotal exercise in any strength training regimen, prized for their ability to comprehensively engage the posterior chain. Unlike traditional deadlifts that start from the floor, RDLs begin from a standing position, emphasising the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift. This technique targets the hamstrings and glutes while strengthening the lower, upper back, and core.

A Romanian deadlift

To perform an RDL, stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells or a barbell with an overhand grip. Keeping a slight bend in the knees, hinge at the hips to lower the weights down the front of your legs, keeping the shoulder blades retracted and the back straight. The movement should be felt in the hamstrings as you maintain a neutral spine, highlighting the importance of proper form to avoid injury.

RDLs not only build muscle but also enhance balance and stability throughout the body. They serve as an excellent complement to squat variations and other compound movements and can significantly contribute to overall strength, muscular endurance, and a symmetrical physique. Whether you're working with heavier weights in the squat rack or focusing on technique with lighter loads, the RDL stands out as one of the best compound exercises for a good reason.

8. Inverted Rows

Muscles Worked: Upper back, rear delts, biceps, core

We recommend: 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps

A dynamic staple in upper body conditioning, inverted rows stand out for their versatility and efficacy. 

Performed using a barbell like a pull-up bar, this exercise represents a prime multi-joint movement that engages the whole body, with a specific focus on strengthening the upper back, rear delts, and biceps. Initiating this movement involves positioning yourself horizontally under a bar and grabbing it with an overhand or underhand grip at shoulder level. This setup, akin to a reversed bench press, demands a tight core and proper shoulder joint alignment, enhancing postural stability and muscle coordination. 

The legs can be extended out in front (right foot and left foot alternately for varying difficulty) or bent at the knees to modify the intensity.

An inverted row.

People with amazing core strength can do inverted rows like in the image above, but they're usually done with your feet on the ground. 

Inverted rows not only offer a comprehensive workout for major muscle groups but also introduce an effective way to improve grip strength and shoulder health. 

They serve as an excellent complement to a full pull-up, a lat pulldown, and dumbbell rows, enriching any workout routine aimed at building muscle and upper body strength. Incorporating inverted rows into your regimen can significantly bolster functional strength, muscular endurance, and balance. They allow for different variations to challenge the body uniquely. 

Whether executed with an underhand grip to emphasise the biceps or adjusted for hip width to target the back more intensely, inverted rows are a potent alternative to conventional lifts, ensuring a balanced and effective upper-body workout.

The Benefits of Compound Exercises

The allure of compound exercises lies in their efficiency and effectiveness, making them a cornerstone of any strength training regimen. These multi-joint movements engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, offering a comprehensive workout that maximises muscle gain in less time. Unlike isolation movements that target a single muscle group (e.g. leg extension), compound exercises, such as the dumbbell deadlift, kettlebell swings, leg press, and various squat variations, can provide a full-body workout when combined. This approach not only accelerates muscle mass development but also enhances functional strength, crucial for everyday life. 

Employing a mix of heavy and lighter weights can further amplify the benefits. Performing exercises like squats and deadlifts with heavy weights can challenge major muscle groups, including the back muscles, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae. Such exercises not only build muscle but also elevate the heart rate, offering a dual benefit of strength and cardiovascular training. Conversely, lighter weights can improve muscle endurance and are ideal for beginners or those focusing on recovery.

In essence, compound exercises are an effective way to enhance muscle strength, improve overall fitness, and optimise your workout routine. Whether you're using resistance bands, completing leg presses, or performing full pull-ups, integrating these advanced exercises into your routine is a good idea for anyone looking to achieve their fitness goals efficiently.

Want Help?

If you'd like help with hitting your squat targets, increasing strength in a particular major muscle group, or developing your upper chest, you could reach out to a qualified, UK-based personal trainer for assistance. 

Author Bio:

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


Paoli, A., Gentil, P., Moro, T., Marcolin, G., & Bianco, A. (2017). Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Frontiers in physiology, 8, 1105. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.01105