Picture it: You have a half hour to get a workout in. How do you spend those 30 minutes? Two words: compound movements.
Compound movements are where it’s at. Before we go any further, let’s define what they are. These are multi-joint movements that train several muscles or muscle groups at the same time.
The benefit of compound movements is probably clear: You get more work done in less time. More on that later, though.
If it’s not a compound movement, then what is it?!
Great question! If it’s not compound, then it’s probably an isolated exercise. Think of something like bicep curls. The name says it all. You’re isolating — *drumroll* — your biceps.
Another example is calf raises. You’re working one part of your body. Your glutes.
Just kidding. Your calves.
You’re zeroing in on one part of your body only, which is awesome for people who want enormous biceps or swole calves.
Wait, why would I ever do isolated exercises then?
Another good question! You might be wondering what the point of these exercises is, if you can opt for something that works more of your body at one time.
To be very clear, isolated exercises aren’t bad. They’re just different.
One major benefit of isolation movements is that they make it super easy to pinpoint specific weaknesses and imbalances that you have. If you go to do a bicep curl and can’t curl a No. 2 pencil, then you’ve found a big problem.
Better yet, you might discover that you can curl a 25-pound dumbbell for three sets of 15 on the left side but can’t lift the TV remote on the right side. Imbalances aren’t fun, they hinder your progress, and they can even lead to discomfort and injury down the line.
So, isolated exercises? They absolutely have a time and a place. That time and place just isn’t now and here.
If you’re a busy adult and time is in short supply, then knowing how to work out efficiently is a must. That’s where compound movements come in.
The Benefits of Compound Movements
We already briefly touched on the main benefit, here: You give yourself a tougher workout in a shorter amount of time. Let’s dig a little deeper, though.
Your Core Gets the Workout of a Lifetime
In some capacity, to some extent, your core will be involved in every single compound exercise you do. And we can promise you this: It’s a heck of a lot better than crunches.
Compound movements put your core in action like nothing else can. This isn’t only good for your physique. A strong and stable core is essential for the most mindless of movements — like sitting up in your chair.
You Burn More Calories
To be very clear, we’ll never tell you to obsess over torching calories in an effort to shed body fat.
However, calories in versus calories out is of importance if you’re trying to manipulate your body composition in any matter — whether that be gaining weight or losing weight. And if you want to lose fat, lean out, and have a more defined physique, then compound movements are your best friend.
The reason why is probably obvious at this point. What’s going to burn more calories: bicep curls or squats? Calf raises or deadlifts?
You don’t need traditional cardio — like treadmills and ellipticals — to torch calories. Of course, if you enjoy cardio, then have at it. But if your goal is to make your fat cry, then compound movements are all the cardio you need.
And yes, this is indeed cardio. Just because you’re not running on the treadmill or killing yourself on the elliptical, that doesn’t mean you’re not elevating your heart rate and destroying body fat.
In fact, strength training is better for fat loss in the long run, because you continue burning more calories even after you’ve stopped working out. With cardio, you only burn calories as long as you’re training. Bummer.
These Exercises Encourage Balance Across Joints and Muscles
Like we said, isolated exercises are excellent for pinpointing weaknesses and imbalances, but because you’re working one spot at a time, you can (inadvertently) create all new imbalances.
Because compound exercises work multiple areas simultaneously, it forces the different joints and muscles to learn how to work in harmony. This is crucial for everything from your most demanding workouts to carrying the groceries into the house.
And that brings us to our next point.
Compound Movements Build a Stronger Foundation for the Gym and for Life
Because certain compound movements so closely simulate movements you do in your everyday life (more on this in just a moment!), they’re important exercises to rehearse because they build you a healthy and reliable foundation.
This isn’t just about doing better in the gym (although that’s important) or looking a certain way. This is about living a long and healthy life. Strength training can be extraordinarily beneficial to us as we age, especially because it’s good for bone health and helps prevent injury.
Compound movements simply cannot be praised enough.
Okay, I get it — now give me some compound movements I can do
We thought you’d never ask.
7 Examples of Compound Exercises
These three are the biggies.
If you only have time to train one thing, train squats. We’re serious.
Not only will they keep you in excellent shape (#bootygains), but they’re also one of the most functional movements you can do. This means they translate to everyday life. Think about it: In some way, shape, or form, you squat every single day.
As an added bonus, there are infinite squat variations, so you’ll never get bored. Here are just a few:
- Front squats
- Back squats
- Overhead squats
- Pause squats
- Tempo squats
- Banded squats
Here’s something else you do every day of your life. Whenever you bend over to pick something up, you’re essentially deadlifting.
This is another functional movement, just like squats, that contributes greatly to your health even outside the gym. You ever heard those stories of that guy who threw his back out tying his shoe?
Deadlifts keep you safe, healthy, strong, and lean.
Out of the three biggies, bench often tends to be the most forgotten. Women especially are hesitant to bench press because they think it’s going to give them the upper body of a man. (It won’t, by the way.)
Bench pressing is another excellent way to do a ton of work with little time on your hands. If you’re new to the movement, make sure you understand how to re-rack the bar, start with light weights before working your way up, and have a spotter nearby. Safety first!
Here are a few more compound movements that you might want to try. They make great accessories for your workouts, after you pick from the three previous movements.
You can start with your own body weight or go straight to weighted.
Lunges can be performed as a stationary movement — meaning you just step up and return to your starting position — or as a walking movement. You can perform them by stepping forward or backward.
To add weight, you can hold a barbell in the front, the back, or even overhead. You can also work with dumbbells and kettlebells in a variety of ways.
If you can’t quite do full-blown push-ups yet (and that’s okay!), try them on your knees or with your hands on a higher surface — like a chair or box. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked into your sides and not flared out.
Need to make them harder? Put your feet on a higher surface and do them at an incline, or put a plate on your back (or both, if you’re a total beast).
Don’t be too hard on yourself if these aren’t manageable yet. You can do them from a box or use a band to remove some of your own weight. Or, you could just practice the negative (the part where you’re lowering yourself down). You’re still giving your body a good challenge.
Like lunges, there are all kinds of presses you can do. You can use a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. You can perform presses in the front or behind the neck. Switch it up, keep your body guessing, and watch as your strength transforms.
What else should I be doing besides compound movements?
If you’re incorporating compound movements into your fitness programming, you’re already on the right track. But what else is there to cover?
If you have the time, there are all sorts of excellent ways to sprinkle in additional accessory work and extras. For example, you might consider adding in mini band exercises. They’re low-impact but really get in there to work all those tiny muscles.
You might also think about spending some time on the GHD machine, which offers all sorts of opportunities to work literally every part of your body.
Dumbbells and kettlebells are incredibly versatile. There’s no end to what you can do with them. In fact, you can get an entire workout in with them.
But we’re barely scratching the surface here.
Pick one or two compound movements to focus on, add in a couple of accessory movements, and you’re on your way to increased strength. Now get to work!