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Compound Exercises: Why & How To Do Them

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Compound Exercises: Why & How To Do Them
Compound Exercises

Do you want to know the most effective way to increase strength, burn fat and build muscle? While there’s no one secret to reaching your fitness goals, there are ways to make sure your training is as effective as it can be. 

To get the most out of your workouts, include compound exercises. This type of exercise uses more of the muscles in your body during each movement. The more muscle you use, the more energy you burn and the more muscle mass you can gain — getting you the results you want faster!

Find out: 

What is a compound exercise?

There are two different types of exercises you can do in the gym: compound exercises and isolation exercises. 

Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups and use several joints to complete a movement, while isolation exercises focus on strengthening a single muscle group and generally involve a single joint in the movement.

Compound exercises tend to mimic natural movement. Think of how your body moves when you squat, run, climb or lift something. Isolation exercises tend to focus on a very specific movement for a limb or joint in one direction, and only target a single muscle or muscle group, like a preacher curl. 

Benefits of compound exercises

During a compound exercise, you teach your muscles to move in a functional and synchronised way, training both the muscle tissue and the nervous system to work together effectively to complete the movement. Compound exercises that reproduce everyday movements can help you to improve coordination, reaction time and balance. 

This, in turn, can help to reduce your risk of injury during sports where you run or change direction rapidly, or during daily activities where you lift and carry objects. As your fitness and the rate of perceived exertion for each compound exercise improves over time, your strength and endurance will improve. You’ll build core strength and be able to carry heavier loads. 

Recruiting multiple muscles for a compound exercise means you can get a full-body workout with just a few moves. You’ll also maintain a higher heart rate throughout the workout, giving you cardiovascular benefits with strength training. 

Finally, recruiting more muscle groups in a movement means you’ll burn more energy during your workout — so make sure you’re complimenting your training with a healthy eating plan!

5 Compound exercises for the gym

You can build strength in the gym with these compound exercises — in some programs they may be referred to as the ‘primary movement’. No matter which exercise you are doing, make sure that you are comfortable using the gym equipment before you begin. 

Squat

A squat is something you do every day — when you sit and stand, when you need to lift something or jump high. Here’s how to do a barbell squat in the high bar position:

1. Set the barbell on the squat rack at approximately chin height. With a resistance band looped around your lower thighs, position yourself underneath the bar so that it rests comfortably on your shoulders. Place both hands on the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body) slightly wider than your shoulders.

Standing underneath the barbell with it resting on your shoulders, stand up tall and release it from the squat rack. Take a small step backwards and plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. 

2. Inhale. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure that your back remains within a 45- to 90-degree angle to your hips.

3. Exhale. Push through the heels of your feet and extend your legs to return to the starting position.

Repeat, before returning the bar to a secure position on the squat rack.

Bench press

The bench press helps you to build fundamental upper body strength. It works the chest, shoulders, triceps, and it’s one of the most effective upper body exercises. Here’s how to do it: 

1. Place a barbell on the rack and add any additional weight in the form of weight plates, ensuring that the amount of weight is even on both ends of the bar. Lie down on the bench press so that your head is beneath the barbell. Plant your feet on the floor on either side of the bench, or on the bench itself — whichever is most comfortable. 

Place both hands on the barbell in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than your shoulders. Push the bar away from you to unrack the barbell and extend your elbows to hold the barbell directly in front of your chest. This is your starting position.

2. Bend your elbows outwards to lower the barbell towards you until the bar touches your chest.

3. Extend your elbows and push the barbell away from your chest to return to the starting position.

Repeat, before returning the barbell to a secure position on the rack.

Barbell row

This full body compound exercise works your back, hips and arms. It uses the muscles you need for lifting and pulling. If you don’t have access to a barbell you can do a row variation

Here’s how to do it: 

1. Holding a barbell with both hands with an overhand grip (palms facing towards your body), hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. While maintaining a slight bend in your knees, hinge forward from your hips so that your torso is parallel to the floor. Extend your arms directly below your chest. This is your starting position.

2. Bend your elbows to bring the barbell in towards your lower ribs. You should feel a small squeeze between your shoulder blades.

3. Extend your elbows to lower the barbell and return to the starting position. Repeat.

Shoulder press

Use this exercise to build strength for any overhead lifting — whether it’s storing overhead cabin luggage on your next flight or practicing your pull-ups

Here’s how to do it: 

1. Safely pick up a barbell. Holding a barbell with an overhand (palms facing towards your body) directly in front of your body, plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Bring the barbell forward and upwards into your chest. Your palms should now be facing away from your body. This is your starting position.

2. Using the muscles in your shoulders and arms, extend your elbows to press the barbell directly above your head. Your arms should be in line with your ears on either side of your head.

3. Bend your elbows to lower the barbell into the starting position. Repeat.

Deadlift

Strengthen your legs and back with the conventional deadlift. If you can’t access a barbell, you can use a kettlebell instead. 

Here’s how to do a deadlift: 

1. Holding a barbell with both hands with an overhand grip (palms facing towards your body) in front of your legs, plant both feet on the floor hip-width apart. Draw your shoulder blades down and back to push your chest out slightly. This is your starting position.

2. Inhale. Bending from the hips only, allow the barbell to run along the length of your thighs. Once the bar reaches your knees, bend your knees and allow the bar to run halfway down the length of your shins. Ensure that you maintain a proud chest and that your head is an extension of your spine. You should feel tension in your hamstrings (back of your legs).

3. As you reach halfway down your shins, exhale. Push through your heels and, using your glutes and hamstrings, extend your knees and hips to return to the starting position. Ensure that the barbell remain in contact with your legs.

4. Repeat.

5 Compound exercises for home

These compound exercises can be done at home, and can be very powerful substitute exercises for many gym-based movements. You can raise the intensity by increasing the speed with which you do the exercise or increasing the number of repetitions. 

Push-ups

Push-ups require you to have quite a lot of postural and core strength. You can build up to them with push-up progressions, beginning against a wall or on your knees. 

Here’s how to do a standard push-up: 

1. Place both hands on the mat slightly further than shoulder-width apart, feet together on the mat behind you while resting on the balls of your feet. This is your starting position.

2. While maintaining a neutral spine, bend your elbows and lower your torso towards the mat until your arms form two 90-degree angles.

3. Push through your chest and extend your elbows to lift your body back into the starting position.

4. Repeat.

Goblet squat

This squat is great when you are learning the proper squat technique. If you don’t have a kettlebell, you can substitute a dumbbell instead. 

Here’s how to do a goblet squat: 

1. Holding a kettlebell with both hands directly in front of your chest, plant both feet on the floor further than hip-width apart. Point both feet slightly outward. This is your starting position.

2. Inhale. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees point toward your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor, ensuring that your back remains between a 45- to 90-degree angle to your hips.

3. Exhale. Push through your heels and extend your knees to return to the starting position.

4. Repeat.

Bench jump

To do this exercise you’ll need a sturdy bench, step or box. When done correctly, it will target your quads, glutes, calves and hip flexors

Here’s how to do it:  

1. Place a bench horizontally in front of you. Plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart.

2. Looking straight ahead, bend at both the hips and knees, ensuring that your knees remain in line with your toes. Continue bending your knees until your upper legs are parallel with the floor. Ensure that your back remains within a 45- to 90-degrees to your hips. This is called squat position.

3. Propel your body upwards and forwards, drawing your knees into your chest, to land in squat position on top of the bench. Ensure that you maintain ‘soft’ knees to prevent injury.

4. Push through your heels and extend your legs to find a standing position on top of the bench.

5. Carefully step backwards off the bench, one foot at a time, to return to the starting position.

6. Repeat. 

Kettlebell swings

Kettlebell swings are a great exercise for your posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes and spinal muscles. You will need a little bit of space to do it. Make sure you engage your core, glutes and hips during the exercise. 

Here’s how to do it:

1. Holding a kettlebell directly in front of your body, plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. While maintaining a slight bend in your knees, tilt forwards from your hips and allow the kettlebell to gently swing backwards between your legs. This is your starting position.

2. Using your glutes and hamstrings, extend your legs and hips to swing the kettlebell forwards and upwards to shoulder height.

3. Bend your knees and tilt forward from your hips to lower the kettlebell and return to the starting position.

Repeat, ensuring that your glutes and hamstrings power the movement and you are not lifting the kettlebell with your arms and shoulders.

Lunges

This bodyweight exercise strengthens the muscles you use to stand, walk, run and jump. 

Here’s how to do it correctly: 

1. Plant both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. This is your starting position.

2. Carefully take a big step forwards with your left foot. As you plant your left foot on the floor, bend both knees to approximately 90-degrees, ensuring that your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. When done correctly, your front knee will be aligned with your ankle and your back knee will be hovering just off the floor.

3. Extend both knees and transfer your weight completely onto your right foot. Step your left foot backward to return to the starting position.

4. Carefully take a big step forwards with your right foot. As you plant your right foot on the floor, bend both knees to approximately 90-degrees, ensuring that your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. When done correctly, your front knee will be aligned with your ankle and your back knee will be hovering just off the floor.

5. Extend both knees and transfer your weight completely onto your left foot. Step your right foot backward to return to the starting position.

Repeat, alternating between left and right. 

How to use compound exercises

When you do strength training using compound exercises to get a full body workout, you can train just three times each week. This will help you to build functional strength and maintain a healthy body composition.

For a full-body workout, pick any three of the five exercises for the gym or at home, and do four rounds of eight reps. Be sure to include different exercises each time to ensure you maintain a balanced training program and always allow enough time for muscle recovery between your workouts. 

If you have more specific aesthetic training goals, or you want to work on specific muscle groups, you can add isolation exercises as accessory movements to compound exercises. You’ll see this style of training in Stephanie Sanzo’s BUILD program and in Kelsey Wells’ PWR program

Compound exercises are essential to any fitness program

You’ll find compound exercises like these in all of the SWEAT programs because they are so essential to overall physical fitness. You can build a basic fitness program just using compound exercises, though isolation exercises are useful for rehabilitating an injury or achieving specific muscle strength or size goals.  

Try to include compound exercises first if you’re doing other exercises in your workout. They use more muscle groups, so they require you to focus to complete the exercise safely. With any new fitness routine, start slow and progress as your movement skills improve and you gain confidence. 

* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.

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