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Compound exercises that work several muscles at once are an excellent way to stay in shape because they mimic movements that people perform in everyday life. Building strength in these motions helps ensure effective functioning for the future.

The right compound exercises can achieve a full-body workout in less time than focusing on specific muscles individually. They often keep the heart rate up, too, offering more cardiovascular benefits for a well-rounded fitness experience.

Pushups

The classic pushup builds both upper body and core strength.

The abdominal muscles hold the body stable, so this exercise strengthens the rectus abdominis and obliques. The deltoids, pectoral muscles, triceps and biceps, and erector spinae in the upper body all work to bring the torso down and up. The National Library of Medicine recommends doing 12 to 15 pushups per workout.

There are lots of modifications for people who are working toward a "full" pushup or have to adjust their workout for other reasons. Pushing up from the knees rather than the toes takes much of the core work out of the exercise and focuses on the arms. For more similar benefits to a full pushup, try an incline pushup. Lean forward onto a bench or the wall and push up and down from this angle instead.

woman doing push ups from her couch

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Squats

Squats build lower body strength by using the quadriceps and glutes. They also increase the stability and strength of the trunk and upper body. Most professional athletes include squats in their strength training programs.

Beginners can do a partial squat until they feel comfortable with the full squat. It is important to use caution with this exercise, as it can injure the knees if done improperly. Using a wider stance can decrease the stress on the knees. Make sure the knees are going out over the toes, not falling in or out.

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Pullups and Chinups

Pullups and chinups are not for beginners and take a lot of work to achieve correctly. They are excellent for building spine strength and working multiple muscles. All the back muscles, as well as the biceps, muscles of the forearms, lats and traps, and abs are at work during this exercise. They also improve grip strength.

A bodyweight row is a good exercise to work up to full pullups. Place a barbell a few feet off the ground and lie or hang below it, pulling the chest up to the bar and lowering back down. Once proficient with this method, the person may move on to full pullups. This modified version can also work with a TRX.

man doing pullups at the gym

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Lunges

Any compound, functional fitness routine should include lunges. This multi-purpose exercise works the hip, thigh, abdominal, and lower leg muscles. It increases the heart rate and improves balance.

Forward lunges are the most familiar and can improve gait and encourage better balance. They can be easier on the knees than squats, but still put pressure on this joint. A reverse lunge or split squat is less of a challenge to balance and causes less stress to joints. This makes it a good alternative for people with knee problems.

woman doing lunges with weights

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Lateral raises

Lateral raises work mainly the deltoid muscle of the shoulder, but they benefit the upper arms and core as well, improving posture. Together, working these muscles helps to prevent shoulder injuries and makes the shoulder more stable.

Raises are an easy exercise for anyone because the weight can be increased as the muscles get stronger. Start with no weights or soup cans, and work your way up. Take care not to raise the hands above the shoulders at the top of the exercise, and don't shrug the shoulders up to the ears at any point.

woman doing lateral raises with light dumbbells

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Crunches

Crunches are designed to strengthen the core. Traditional crunches work mainly the rectus abdominis. Adding a side crunch strengthens the obliques as well. The reverse crunch makes the lower back, hips, and spine stronger, encouraging good posture and flexibility.

Take care not to let the head sag back or stretch forward during this move — keep the neck in line with the spine. You can make the exercise harder by bringing the fingers up to the ears or easier by crossing the arms on the chest.

woman doing crunches on a bench at the gym

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Planks

The plank, much like the pushup, is a great core exercise. It is more effective than crunches because it involves not only the core muscles but the arms and legs as well.

Planks can improve posture and flexibility. They are easily modified: to work more on side abdominal muscles, try a side plank or dropping the hips side to side. To improve balance, do shoulder touches at the high point of planks. To double the effect on hamstrings and quadriceps, alternate touching the knees to the ground.

woman holding a plank position

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Wall Sits

The wall sit is easily overlooked because it is so simple, but it has many benefits and best of all, it requires no equipment — just a couple feet of open wall. It works the entire lower body, improving muscular endurance in the hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps. Isometric or long-hold exercises are great for both strength and endurance.

athletic woman doing a wall sit exercise

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Leg Raises

Leg raises are a good addition to the workout routine but must be done properly to be of benefit. The deep core muscles should be strong before doing leg raises — if you need to put your hands under your seat, you're removing much of the benefit of the exercise, so it's best to try something else.

It is imperative to maintain good technique, with the lower back flat on the ground and upper body not straining, to ensure that the abdominals are the main muscles employed. Otherwise, the hip flexors — which need stretching, not strengthening on most people — do most of the work.

woman in park doing leg lifts on yoga mat

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Bench Step Ups

Another exercise that's great for multiple muscle groups and only requires a basic piece of equipment is a step up. It is performed simply by stepping up onto a stair, bench, or chair. Make sure whatever you step onto is secured so it doesn't tip.

Start at a lower height and work your way up — the higher the step, the more you'll be challenging, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Add weight to make the exercise harder and test your stability.

woman doing step ups on a ledge outside

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.