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New to Bodybuilding? Here's 6 Essential Muscle-Building Movements

The key to building muscle is a robust workout plan that allows you to get in and out of the gym with efficiency. These 6 essential movements comprise such a plan.
New to Bodybuilding? Here's 6 Essential Muscle-Building Movements
Photo by Victor Freitas / Unsplash

What if I told you it was possible to spend only 45 minutes to an hour in the gym and see major strength results? You probably wouldn't believe me.

Gym culture perpetuates the idea that as much volume and variety as possible is the way to go. I'd like to offer an alternate school of thought.

Less is more.

Rather than spending two or three hours in the gym every single day, workouts can be condensed into hour-long sessions four or five times a week.

Not only does this reduce the time you have to spend in the gym, but it provides you more time for proper recovery as well as leisure time to spend with loved ones or enjoy whatever else it is you like to do.

The key? Choosing the right exercises.

The Benefits of Compound Exercises

Exercises you perform at the gym can be classified into two different categories: compound lifts and accessory exercises.

Compound movements are exercises that involve multiple joints and multiple muscle groups, whereas accessories are exercises that isolate one muscle group.

An example of a compound movement is the squat; this movement uses your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and abdominal muscles. Conversely, an accessory like bicep curls works your biceps and nothing else.

Compound movements are superior to accessory exercises because they make for time-efficient workouts, burn lots of calories, and substantially increase strength.

Efficient workouts

While single vs. multi-joint exercises have been found to build approximately the same amount of muscle, compound exercises are far more efficient.

Because compound exercises use multiple muscle groups to perform one exercise, lifters can perform one compound exercise rather than two or three isolated accessory exercises.

Take for example the deadlift. This testosterone-boosting compound lift works the entire posterior chain: your hamstrings, glutes, back, and even grip strength.

To work all of these muscle groups with accessories would take forever! You'd have to do hamstring curls, Romanian deadlifts, back extensions, etc.

By performing compound movements, your workout can be effectively cut in half.

Great for fat loss

Compound exercises promote greater fat loss than accessory exercises. For those looking to drop body fat and build muscle, compound movements are the answer.

Compound exercises induce fat loss for two reasons. Firstly, they elevate the heart rate, promoting the burning of substantial amounts of calories. On top of that, performing compound lifts raises metabolism by building muscle.

Compound exercises knock out two birds with one stone: they burn lots of calories and raise your metabolism over time.

When performed, compound exercises burn calories by elevating your heart rate. Compared to accessories, compound lifts increase the heart rate by a greater amount, subsequently burning more calories than accessory lifts.

Compounds also promote burning additional calories over a longer period. Mayo Clinic has proven that individuals with more muscle mass burn more calories, even at rest, than those who do not. So, by building more muscle through compounds, lifters can increase their metabolism as well.

Progressive Overload

A key to continual strength gains is the utilization of progressive overload.

Compound movements are easy to progressively overload, yielding substantial increases in strength over time.

Progressive overload is simply the concept that every workout should be slightly more challenging than the one before. There are multiple avenues through which to improve resistance: adding weight, increasing volume, or even decreasing rest times.

Every workout must be following the model of progressive overload (unless you've programmed a deload). Using compound movements makes it super-duper easy to progressive overload compared to accessories.

Summary: Weightlifters should consider compound exercises as the key to their progress and development. Compound exercises are superior to accessory lifts because they are efficient, help with fat loss through burning calories and increasing metabolism, and allow lifters to progressively overload for strength gains.

What are the 6 main compound movements?

Okay, now that I've drilled the idea of compound movements into your head, what are the key compound lifts for building muscle?

There are 6 of them, each with a specific purpose for a specific muscle group. Chances are you've heard of the exercises before, but you've never realized the functional movement that they strengthen.

Make these 6 movements the center-stone of your workout routine and you won't need much more:

  • Squat
  • Hip Hinge
  • Vertical Press
  • Vertical Pull
  • Horizontal Press
  • Horizontal Pull

A word of warning before you dive deep into these movements: perform them all. If you pick and choose only a couple of the compound movements, you'll likely develop muscle imbalances and suffer from subsequent injuries.


If there's a single movement you need to be performing, it's squatting. The squat should be the backbone of your training program as it compromises a full-body workout and supercharges your testosterone production.

The squat movement works your quads, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, and calves.

Squats work the entire lower body, as well as the torso of the upper body. While the abdominal muscles may not seem engaged, they must be rock hard to brace against the compression of heavy weight.

The other huge benefit of squats is the functional aspect. I preach functional movement not only because it builds massive strength, but because it's useful!

Think about all of the times you squat throughout the day: sitting down on the couch, getting on or off the toilet, or even picking something up off the floor. The list is endless.

The best exercise for this movement pattern is the barbell squat, hands down.

Hip Hinge

The counterbalance to squatting is the hip hinge. While the squat movement is pushing for the legs, the hip hinge is pulling.

The muscles worked by the hip hinge movement pattern include the entire posterior chain: the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and abdominal muscles.

The hip hinge is great for bulletproofing your backside. Performed properly, it can add massive strength to your back and your legs.

To hip hinge, lifters must lock out their back and hinge at the hips. Note that this is different from bending your lower back! I recommend checking out How to Hip Hinge by Solving Pain With Strength.

Deadlift is the most popular, and in my opinion preferable, hip hinge exercise. From this launching point, many variations can be performed such as RDLs, single-leg deadlifts, or RDLs, etc.

Vertical Press

The vertical press, I find, is the most neglected functional movement pattern of all.

The vertical press movement works the delts, traps, and triceps. Some variations also require an ample amount of core strength.

If you want to sculpt some boulder shoulders, you have to make sure you're performing some form of vertical press within your workout routine. The vertical press is the functional movement we use to build overhead strength, consequently adding shoulder muscle to your frame.

Once again, the vertical press is a useful movement to have in your repertoire, especially in everyday life. Movements like grabbing an item off of a high shelf or lifting your kids call on shoulder strength and stability.

The superior vertical press exercise is the barbell overhead press. Variations can be done with dumbbells, whereas pike push-ups will suffice for a bodyweight vertical press.

Vertical Pull

Balancing out the vertical press is the vertical pull. Without the two balancing each other, lifters can either over or under-develop their anterior or posterior muscles. In most cases, this results in poor posture and nagging shoulder pain.

Vertical pull exercises work your back muscles (lats and traps), as well as your biceps and rear delts.

If you want to develop a nice, tapered back, vertical pull movements are a must.

Mainly, this movement builds considerable lat strength and size through a full range of motion and solid contractions.

The best exercises for the vertical pull movement are pull-ups and lat pull-downs.

Unfortunately, the vertical pull can be a difficult movement pattern to integrate into your routine. We recommend using some sort of progression to eventually reach pull-ups.

Horizontal Press

The horizontal press is a popular movement, arguably the king of upper-body movements.

The horizontal press movement works your pecs (chest), front delts, and triceps.

The horizontal press is a key ingredient in the recipe for building a big, defined chest. By moving resistance perpendicular to your chest muscles, they are properly stimulated to induce growth.

Chances are you've heard of all the best horizontal press exercises; they are a staple amongst nearly all bodybuilding and weightlifting programs.

The best horizontal press movements are bench press and push-ups.

Horizontal Pull

Last but certainly not least is the horizontal pull. The horizontal pull is a great upper-body exercise that recruits more muscle groups than you might think.

Horizontal pulling exercises work your mid-back, including your lats, lower traps, and rhomboids. The biceps are also recruited to help carry the load.

To avoid shoulder injuries, gym-goers should work a horizontal pull into their routine to balance their pressing movements.

Horizontal pulls are important because they play into the other functional movement patterns. For example, squatting requires significant back strength to create a "shelf" for the barbell.

Developing your mid-back muscles also helps your posture. Given that we spend all day hunched over at a desk or looking down at our phones, we sure could use it!

Horizontal pulling movements are nearly always performed as rows. Barbell rows, as well as single-arm dumbbell rows, are our top choices for developing great pull strength.

Summary: There are 6 compound movement patterns that are crucial to building muscle. The movement patterns are squat, hip hinge, vertical press, vertical pull, horizontal press, and horizontal pull. In workout form, you would perform the following exercises: squat, deadlift, overhead press, pull-ups, bench press, and rows.