7 Compound Leg Exercises That Should Be In Every Program

7 compound leg exercises that should be in every program

Compound exercises are great for developing leg muscle mass, strength, and explosive power. They allow you to load multiple leg muscle groups simultaneously and provide mobility and coordination benefits, which are transferable to many sports.

Here are the 7 best compound leg exercises:

  1. High Bar Back Squat
  2. Trap Bar Deadlift
  3. Bulgarian Split Squat
  4. Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlift
  5. Wall Reference Romanian Deadlift
  6. Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge
  7. Heel Elevated Goblet Squat

In this article, I will go through everything you need to know about these valuable compound leg exercises including how to do them, how to implement them, and why they are so good.

What Is a Compound Exercise?

A compound exercise is an exercise that activates multiple muscle groups and moves through more than one joint in the body. Whereas an isolation exercise is an exercise that targets one muscle group and only requires movement at one joint.

Bicep curls, for example, are an isolation exercise because they only work the biceps and only require movement at the elbow.

Compound exercises can be performed with just your body weight, machine exercise equipment, and free weights. They can also be either bilateral or unilateral. Bilateral means you activate both sides of your body: the left and the right. Unilateral means that you focus on training one side of your body at a time.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Benefits of a Compound Exercise

There are many benefits of compound exercises:

  • More time-efficient way of training
  • Increase in muscular strength
  • Increase in muscle mass
  • Improve coordination
  • More efficient at burning calories

More Time-Efficient Way of Training 

Training with compound exercises can be a more time-efficient way of training for muscular strength and/or muscle mass. When you train with compound exercises, you are targeting multiple muscle groups within a given set as opposed to just one when you perform isolations.

Research also suggests that this may make training adherence better for the general population and serve as a useful tool for rehabilitation and strength training for sports.

Increase in Muscular Strength

Trap Bar Deadlifts

Research has shown that training with compound exercises can be more efficient at increasing muscular strength when compared to training with only single-joint isolation exercises.

This is because you can also lift more weight and expose your body to heavier loads as you are recruiting more muscle groups to perform each movement.

Increase in Muscle Mass

Research has shown that training long-term with only compound exercises can effectively increase muscle mass and produce similar levels of muscle growth when compared to isolation exercises.

The only major difference is the amount of time spent during training as I discussed above.

Improve Coordination

When you perform compound exercises, you are also managing your own bodyweight on top of the added load with the exercise.

This will help challenge you to manage your center of gravity and ultimately improve your ability to coordinate your entire body during exercise and everyday activities.

More Efficient at Burning Calories

By training multiple muscle groups at the same time and needing to coordinate your body more in a compound exercise, you burn more calories in a given time frame when compared to training single muscle groups in isolation exercises

This makes training with compound exercises more efficient for burning calories, which is beneficial if you’re trying to lose weight. 

Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.

What Makes a Good Compound Leg Exercise?

Now that we understand that compound exercises can be better than isolation exercises in a number of ways, we need to look at what may make one compound exercise better than another. 

Here are some qualities that make a good compound leg exercise:

  • Can maximize load on the body
  • Can maximize range of motion through a joint

Can Maximize Load on the Body

Romanian Deadlift

A good compound leg exercise should be able to maximize the amount of weight you can expose your body to. For example, you should be able to lift more weight with a squat than you can with a leg extension.

This feature makes compound exercise superior for increasing leg strength.

Can Maximize Range of Motion

Compared to an isolation leg exercise, a good compound leg exercise allows you to move through a maximum range of motion.

A good example of this is a leg extension, which is an isolation exercise, versus a deep squat, which is a compound exercise. The squat puts the quads through a larger range of motion, which research has shown is superior for building muscle mass.

Best Compound Leg Exercises

1. High Bar Back Squat

The high bar back squat is one of the most utilized leg exercises across different populations. Powerlifters, weightlifters, CrossFitters, and sports athletes use it to build leg strength. Bodybuilders and general gym-goers use it to develop muscle mass in their quadriceps.

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the high bar back squat are:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Glutes

Why You Should Do The High Bar Back Squat

  • It allows you to leverage high-intensity loads. The high bar back squat is one of the best exercises to move the highest amount of loads, particularly on your leg and hip muscles, while moving through a large range of motion. This is useful if you want to increase maximum strength and be able to deal with high loads.
  • It does not require as much shoulder mobility. Most people have the shoulder mobility needed to do a high bar back squat. You can take a narrower grip if you have better mobility or a wider grip if you have poorer mobility. It is not as demanding on the shoulders when compared to a low bar back squat where the barbell is lower down your back or a front squat where you have to keep your elbows high and rest the barbell on the front of your shoulders.

How To Do It

  • Set up a barbell on a squat rack with the J hook set to armpit height and load the desired weight on your barbell with clips secured tightly on each end.
  • Grab the barbell with a grip that will be as close to your shoulders as possible while still being comfortable. The narrower the grip, the tighter your upper back will be, which will be beneficial for stability. You do not want to go so narrow that you feel pain and discomfort in your elbows.
  • Walk underneath the barbell and position your traps (the muscles at the base of your neck and top of your upper back) underneath the middle with your feet and hips directly underneath it.
  • Stand the barbell up and take 2 to 3 steps back and out of the rack with your feet set in a shoulder-width stance and pointed out ever so slightly between 10 to 20 degrees.
  • Take a deep breath into your core and brace hard with the Valsalva maneuver. To perform the Valsalva maneuver, simultaneously attempt to forcefully exhale while keeping airways closed.
  • Break at your hips and knees and sit down until your hip crease is below the top of your knees or as deep as you can go with your back staying flat.
  • Forcefully stand back up until your knees and hips are extended and exhale.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Wondering what the differences are between high bar back squats and low bar back squats? Check out Olympic Squat vs Powerlifting Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons.

How To Program It

As this is a strength exercise, I recommend including lower reps for the high bar back squat with the rep range of 1 to 8 so you can use higher intensities. I would recommend training the back squat between 75% to 90% of your 1 rep max. 

With higher intensities, you can easily activate the main muscle fibers that are responsible for most of your strength and size gains. There is no need to train each set close to failure, so I would leave at least 2 to 4 reps short of failure.

Performing reps until you’re just short of failure is also referred to as RIR training, or reps in reserve. Learn more about how to do it effectively in RPE vs RIR: What Are The Differences? How To Use Them?

2. Trap Bar Deadlift

The trap bar deadlift is one of the top compound leg exercises that can leverage the most amount of weight. It is commonly used by various types of athletes and gym-goers and can increase strength in the legs and the posterior chain muscles in the upper body. This includes the back extensors, lats, and traps.

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the trap bar deadlift are:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Back extensors (the back muscles that allow you to stand up straight)
  • Lats (the large, flat muscles on either side of your back that extend to below your arm)
  • Traps (muscles that extend over the back of the neck and shoulders)

Why You Should Do The Trap Bar Deadlift

  • It allows you to leverage high-intensity loads. Like the high bar back squat, the trap bar deadlift is also one of the best exercises to move the highest amount of loads, particularly on your leg and hip muscles. This is also a useful standardized test for lower body strength as opposed to a back squat where squat depth may be inconsistent.
  • It does not require as much hip mobility and glute and hamstring flexibility. The trap bar deadlift allows you to position your hips and knees in the position where you are most mobile and strongest. If you do not have as much hip mobility or if you are stronger in the quads, you have the freedom to move your knees more forward. If you are stronger in your hips, you can move your hips back more.
  • It’s effective at training quads, glutes, hamstrings, and hip adductors. The trap bar deadlift is also very effective at training the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and hip adductors. You can change which muscle groups you emphasize more by changing your body positioning. The more forward your knees are, the more you train your quads. The more backward your hips are, the more you train the glutes and hamstrings.

How To Do It

  • Stand in the middle of a trap bar loaded with your desired load.
  • Bend at your hips and knees and lower your arms to be able to reach the handles while maintaining a flat lower back.
  • While keeping the ends of the barbell in line with your shoulders and pressure across mid-foot, grab onto the handles.
  • Take a deep breath into your core and brace hard.
  • Gradually push your legs into the ground while keeping your chest tall until the trap bar comes off the floor.
  • Stand up with your legs and hips locked out and exhale.
  • Inhale as you lower the bar back down to the floor.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

How To Program It

This is a good strength exercise, but it can also be a very useful exercise to build muscular endurance or muscle hypertrophy.

If you are looking to train for strength, I would recommend you focus on training in the 1 to 6 rep range. Keep at least 4 to 5 repetitions in reserve.

If you are looking to build muscular endurance or muscle hypertrophy, try to use between 8 to 20 repetitions, and keep between 2 to 3 repetitions in reserve.

Want to learn more about the trap bar deadlift and how it compares to other exercises? Check out Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons.

3. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is a very good unilateral (single-leg) compound exercise that primarily trains the quads and glutes. 

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the Bulgarian split squat are:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Glutes

Why You Should Do The Bulgarian Split Squat 

  • It improves hip shift in squats. If you have obvious strength imbalances in your lower body, you may have what is called a hip shift in your bilateral exercises (exercises that train both sides simultaneously). A hip shift is when your hips shift to the left or the right of your body when you squat. Bulgarian split squats will do a really good job at fixing these strength asymmetries in your lower body.
  • It focuses on the quadriceps and glutes. The Bulgarian split squat does a good job at focusing on the quadriceps and the glutes one side at a time, and you can change your stance if you want to focus on one muscle group over the other. You can activate your quads more by bringing your front foot closer towards yourself so you bend at the knees more. You can keep the focus more on the glutes by moving your front foot further out in front of you.

How To Do It

  • First, set up a free-weight bench or an exercise step behind you and position one foot on top of the bench or step.
  • Make sure you stand about 2 to 3 feet away from the bench or step with your front foot facing forward.
  • Pick up a pair of dumbbells in both hands and make sure that your hips and torso are facing forward. Make sure that your back hip is extended (i.e. you’re standing completely upright) and your spine is flat.
  • Bend at your knees until your back knee touches the floor and allow your front knee to go towards your toes. Inhale as you descend to the bottom position.
  • Drive through your midfoot and stand back up to your starting position, exhaling as you ascend.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then change sides to execute the same number of repetitions for the other side.

How To Program It

If you are looking to build general muscle strength and size, I recommend performing the Bulgarian split squats between 6 to 12 repetitions, leaving 1 to 2 repetitions short of failure.

If you are looking to fix any strength asymmetries, I would still recommend performing the Bulgarian split squats between 6 to 12 repetitions but leaving 5 or more repetitions short of failure. This is so you can train your weaker leg hard enough that it can catch up without maximizing the stimulus on your stronger leg.

If you’re looking to make Bulgarian split squats easier or more challenging, try these Bulgarian split squat progressions.

4. Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlift

The snatch grip Romanian deadlift is one of the best compound exercises that you can do for your hamstrings and other lower body muscle groups.

This variation is more popular among the Olympic weightlifting communities but is hugely useful for powerlifters, bodybuilders, and general gym-goers.

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the snatch grip Romanian deadlift are:

  • Hamstrings
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Glutes
  • Back extensors (the back muscles that allow you to stand up straight)

Why You Should Do The Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlift

  • It’s superior for hamstring and glute training. The Romanian deadlift is generally a very good pure hip hinging exercise that targets the hamstring and glutes. By performing the Romanian deadlift with a snatch grip or a wide grip, the barbell can travel down your legs more. Therefore, you move through more range of motion in your hips. By maximizing your range of motion through your hips, you maximize the stretch in your glutes and hamstrings and allow them to grow.

How To Do It

  • Load a barbell with your desired weight and grab onto it with a grip wide enough that the barbell aligns with your hip crease when you are standing upright.
  • Stand up with the barbell and keep your shoulders down with your abs tight.
  • With a soft bend in your knees, bend your hips and push them back behind you as you slide the barbell down your thighs.
  • Keep your armpits above the barbell at all times and do not let your knees go forward.
  • Inhale as you descend.
  • When your back reaches parallel or when the barbell touches the floor (whichever happens first), stand back up and thrust your hips through.
  • Make sure your knees and hips lock out simultaneously and exhale as you reach upright.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

How To Program It

For the snatch grip Romanian deadlift, you can load a moderately heavy amount of weight through your glutes and hamstrings. However,  I would not recommend pushing towards very high intensities because you may risk straining your back if you suddenly lose concentration.

I would recommend training between 6 to 10 repetitions and leaving 3 to 4 repetitions in reserve.

You can also do regular deadlifts with a snatch grip to target the upper back more and work on your grip strength. Learn more in Snatch Grip Deadlift: What Is It? How-To, Benefits, Muscles.

5. Wall Reference Romanian Deadlift

The wall reference Romanian deadlift is one of my favorite unilateral (single-side) leg exercises that effectively activates the hamstrings, glutes, and adductors.

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the wall reference Romanian deadlift are:

  • Hamstrings
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Glutes

Why You Should Do The Wall Reference Romanian Deadlift

  • It improves hip shift in pulling exercises. The wall reference Romanian deadlift is very effective at isolating the tension through one side of your hip muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and hip adductors. If you have a hip shift in posterior chain-focused or hip dominant exercises such as barbell rows and deadlifts, the wall reference Romanian deadlift can help strengthen each side of the hip independently.
  • It improves hip mobility. If you do not hinge through your hips well or you round your back in deadlifts or barbell rows, the wall reference Romanian deadlift is good at teaching you how to hinge through your hips. You can perform this exercise with no weight at all to begin with. Many beginners will struggle with hinging through their hips by simply bending their hips backward as opposed to bowing their torso forward.

How To Do It

  • First, place one foot against the bottom of the wall and stand your other foot about 2 to 3 feet away from the wall. Ensure that your rear foot is off to the side and not directly behind your front foot.
  • Hold onto a chosen dumbbell or weight with the contralateral arm, which is the arm opposite the front foot.
  • Rotate the side of the pelvis of your rear leg slightly towards the front leg. This is called a hip shift. If your right leg is forward, then your pelvis will rotate clockwise.
  • Start with a soft bend in your hips and knees and keep the pressure on the foot between mid-foot and heels.
  • Inhale as you push your hips backward and lower the dumbbell down the front of your front leg until your back is parallel.
  • Exhale as you thrust your hips through and stand back up to your starting position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and repeat the same process for the opposite leg.

How To Program It

I recommend performing 8 to 12 repetitions, but I would advise not going too hard on this exercise as you may risk straining your back if you cannot control the weight. I recommend leaving at least 5 repetitions in reserve in each set.

6. Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge

The front foot elevated reverse lunge is another great unilateral (single-side) compound leg exercise with particular emphasis on the quads, adductors, and hamstrings.

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the front foot elevated reverse lunge are:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Glutes

Why You Should Do The Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge

  • It focuses on loading the hamstrings, adductors, and quads. The front foot elevated reverse lunge is a great split squat variation that focuses on the hips more than the knees. This is useful for those who want to improve their ability to squat deeper in a back squat because the front foot elevated reverse lunge replicates a similar range of motion as a deep squat.
  • It improves hip shifting in squatting exercises. This exercise is useful to also improve hip shifting in squatting-type exercises. It will emphasize the hip of the front leg when it is performed, and strengthening the hips individually can improve weaknesses on each side and prevent you from leaning to one side when you squat. 


What you can do is perform more on the side that you shift away from. So if you hip shift to the right, you can perform more sets with a front foot elevated reverse lunge with your left hip forward.

How To Do It

  • Stand on top of a low exercise step with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  • Take one step back, making sure that the rear foot points forward.
  • Squat down and keep the front knee in line with the front foot. Avoid letting the front knee pass the toes. When you squat down, make sure the back knee is below your pelvis.
  • Go down as low as your mobility allows you to or touch your knee onto the floor.
  • Push from both legs and stand your rear foot back up onto the exercise step.
  • Repeat the process for the same foot for the prescribed number of repetitions, then switch over to the other foot.

How To Program It

If you are looking to build strength and muscle mass without major strength asymmetries, I recommend performing between 6 to 12 repetitions with 1 to 2 repetitions short of failure.

If you do have strength asymmetries, I would still recommend performing between 6 to 12 repetitions but leaving at least 5 or more repetitions short of failure. This is so you can train your weaker leg hard enough that it can catch up without letting your stronger leg get ahead.

7. Heel Elevated Goblet Squat

The heel elevated goblet squat is a great exercise that is suitable for beginners but is far from ineffective for advanced trainers.

What Muscles Are Activated

The muscles that are activated in the heel elevated goblet squat are:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hip adductors (inner thighs)
  • Glutes

Why You Should Do The Heel Elevated Goblet Squat 

  • It improves squatting mobility and technique. The heel elevated goblet squat is good at improving mobility for those who have some limited ankle mobility. The heel elevation allows you to let your knees go forward more so you can sit your hips down more, therefore allowing you to squat deeper and train that deeper range of motion.
  • It teaches a neutral posture effectively. The heel elevated goblet squat is effective for stopping people who over-extend their lower backs in squats. It puts them in a more upright position and teaches them to sit their hips down as opposed to backward.

How To Do It

  • Set up a squat ramp to elevate your heels. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and parallel to each other.
  • Keep the pressure on your heels and a soft bend in the knees and tuck your hips under slightly to make sure your back is flat.
  • Grab onto a dumbbell or kettlebell of your choice and hold it by your chest with the bottom of your palms.
  • Inhale as you break at your knees and squat your hips down between your ankles while keeping the pressure firmly through the heels throughout. Be careful not to let your toes come up.
  • As you reach the bottom of your range of motion, stand back up until you are fully extended and exhale fully as you ascend.
  • Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions.

How To Program It

If you want to perform the heel elevated goblet squat to improve mobility or to practice squatting technique, I recommend performing 6 to 8 reps with a very light weight. You want to have at least 5 reps in reserve. I would also recommend performing it in a slow tempo where you would take 3 seconds to ascend and 3 seconds to descend.

If you want to increase muscle mass or muscular endurance, I would recommend performing between 8 to 20 repetitions and leaving 2 to 4 repetitions in reserve.

Other Lower Body Exercise Guides


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com