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Regular exercise is the key to living a healthy and happy life. There are several ways to stay fit, either by going for regular walksrunning, cycling or swimming, or by playing your favourite sport. Gyms provide still more opportunities to those on a journey to become fit, adding more options for people to pursue physical activity as a means towards a healthier lifestyle.

Gym workouts, however, have come a long way from the old-fashioned, straightforward workouts for individual parts of the body on different days of the week. The National Health Portal of India recommends about 150 minutes of exercise - spread over three to four days - each week. However, often this doesn’t give you enough time to exercise every part of the body.

This is where compound exercises come in. In theory, compound exercises predate most isolated exercises like the bicep curls, lat pulldowns and many others. Compound exercises target multiple muscle groups at the same time, allowing you to maximise each workout either at home, in the park or at a purpose-built gym.

Newer, more modern training methods are heavily inspired by various sporting movements, military training drills as well as a combination of different exercises or workouts, making compound exercises a staple of fitness routines these days. Incorporating compound movements not only helps in intensifying your fitness regime, but it also makes it a lot more fun and engaging.

  1. Compound exercises benefits
  2. Types of compound exercises
  3. Compound bodyweight exercises
  4. Compound exercises with weights
  5. Tips for compound exercises
  6. Takeaways for compound exercises

Compound exercises are movements that involve more than one muscle group. Some of the most basic bodyweight exercises and the foundational movements in weight-training are compound movements that train different parts of the body at the same time. Getting back to these basics can have many benefits:

  • Time-efficient: A workout consisting only of compound exercises can save a lot of your time. Most gym workouts stretch to an hour or more, especially the ones targeted at a single muscle group during a session. Compound lifts ensure that you are working on different muscle groups at the same time - they also don’t require multiple sets of various exercises to be performed for the same muscle.
  • Allow you to lift heavier: Compound lifts engage multiple muscles of the body at the same time, which means you can lift a lot heavier than, say, with a dumbbell curl, which uses only the muscles in the arm.
  • Increased muscle gain: The cumulative nature of compound exercises trigger greater muscle growth in the body due to the heavier weights being lifted in each exercise.
  • More calories burnt: Attacking different muscle groups simultaneously helps the body burn more calories in the stipulated time. Training with weights has the added benefit of increasing muscle mass and boosting the metabolism - so you keep burning calories even after the workout. The positive effects of compound exercises on basal resting metabolism last for a longer period of time as compared to the benefits of aerobic exercises.
  • Increased heart rate: Compound exercises performed over a short duration of time can have the same effects on the heart and lung capacity as aerobic exercises.
  • Increased flexibility: These exercises engage multiple joints while performing a single exercise or movement, which enhances the functioning and strength of the joints like the knees, elbows, shoulders and hips.
  • Improved coordination: Performing exercises that engage multiple parts of the body also promotes greater coordination in the body’s movements. This helps in improved hand-eye coordination and promotes a greater sense of balance and stability in the body.

Read more: 6 kettlebell exercises you can do at home

Any exercise that requires the use of different muscles to perform it is a compound movement. Broadly speaking, compound exercises are performed with or without external weights, with each type having its own benefits and limitations.

Those without access to a gym, or people who don’t like visiting one, are still advised to mix aerobic training with two or three days of weight training a week, which can also be performed by doing bodyweight exercises. Three sets of 10-12 reps each are good enough for each exercise. Some of the classic bodyweight exercises are given below.

  1. Push-ups
  2. Pull-ups
  3. Dips
  4. Squats
  5. Burpees
  6. Lunges

Push-ups

One of the foundational bodyweight exercises that is also incredibly effective for multiple parts of the body is the good old push-ups. Although it has several variations, the simple movement remains a favourite among fitness enthusiasts even today. An added benefit: it can be performed anywhere.

Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, back and core

Steps:

  • Lie down face down on the floor with the legs straightened out, and plant your palms on either side of your shoulders.
  • Press your hands down into the ground and lift your entire body up until your arms are straight from the elbow.
  • Only your hands and toes should be on the ground at the top of the movement, with the entire body in a straight line from the head down to the feet.
  • Bend your elbows and bring your body down without touching the floor. This is one rep.

Pull-ups

One of the toughest bodyweight exercises around, the pull-up is a true test of one’s ability to lift their own body’s weight. The movement engages multiple muscles of the body at the same time, making it compound exercise and a solid standalone workout - though it can be done as part of a whole circuit of exercises, too. Also performed with several variations, performing even the basic movement is quite tough, even for experienced fitness enthusiasts.

Muscles worked: Chest, back and arms and core

Steps: 

  • Stand under a parallel or a pull-up bar positioned above your head, preferably at the highest point of your outstretched arms.
  • Grip the bar with an overhand grip - with your palms facing away from your body. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and your arms should be fully extended.
  • Pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar.
  • Do not jump to reach the position, instead use the muscles in your upper arms and back to lift yourself up.
  • Lower yourself down slowly back to the starting position. This is one rep.

Dips

Another exercise that measures one’s ability to lift their body’s weight clean off the floor, parallel dips are a great way to tone the entire upper body. For this exercise, you will need a parallel bar where you can anchor your hands and lift your body off the ground.

Muscles worked: Shoulders, triceps, chest and core

Steps:

  • Place both your hands on parallel bars on either side of your body while standing straight.
  • Hoist yourself off the ground keeping the arms close to your body and bend your knees up behind you for balance.
  • Lower yourself down by bending just the elbows. Your shoulders should reach the level of the bar at the lowest point.
  • Lift yourself back up by straightening the arms above the bar and keep a straight back. This is one rep.

Squats

Whether performed with or without weights, squats are extremely effective in toning and working the entire lower section of the body, including the lower back muscles.

Muscles worked: Glutes, hips, lower back, core, thighs and calves

Steps:

  • Stand straight with the legs shoulder-width apart.
  • Extend your arms straight out in front of you for balance, and bend your knees to push your hips while keeping the back straight.
  • Your hips should extend outward while lowering your body as if you are about to sit in a chair, and your knees should not go beyond the toes. The thighs should either be parallel to the floor or lower.
  • After a second or two, start to move up by pushing the heels down and straightening the legs to return to the original position. This is one rep.

Burpees

A challenging exercise meant to activate pretty much all the major muscle groups in the body, burpees are a staple among those who engage in Crossfit or other high-intensity workouts like HIIT

Muscles targeted: Arms, chest, legs, hips and glutes.

Steps:

  • Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Bend your knees slightly while putting your hands on the floor in front of you.
  • Assume a plank or push-up position by extending your legs out behind you.
  • Bend your arms to bring your chest close to touch the floor.
  • Extend your arms back up. Start coming up by pulling your legs back in and get into the squat position.
  • From the squat position, jump up with your arms outstretched above you and return to the standing position. This is one rep.

Lunges

Much like squats, lunges are a great way to engage all the muscles in the lower section of the body. This makes lunges a superb compound exercise: lunges work wonders for the hip, glutes as well as the legs besides promoting core stability and balance through the body. Lunges can also be performed with or without weights.

Muscles worked: Lower back, abs, hips, glutes, hamstrings, front thigh and calves

Steps:

  • Stand upright with your hands on your side and take a step forward with your right leg, not too far that you have to stretch uncomfortably.
  • Lower your hips and bend both knees while keeping the back straight and looking ahead. 
  • Don’t let your back leg touch the ground. Ensure the front and back knees are bent at a right angle.
  • Get back up while bringing your right leg back to get back to an upright position. Repeat with the left leg forward. This is one rep.

Isolated exercises training individual muscle groups on different days can become dreary after a point. Not to mention, they take up a lot of time in the gym. Weighted compound exercises can be extremely effective in training multiple muscles at the same time, while also saving you time in doing so. Here is a collection of compound weighted exercises one can combine into a complete workout. Like the compound bodyweight exercises, these exercises should be performed in sets of three with 10-15 repetitions in each.

  1. Bench press
  2. Shoulder press
  3. Deadlifts
  4. Barbell hip thrusts
  5. Farmer's carry
  6. Thrusters

Bench press

This exercise involves lifting a barbell or pair of dumbbells while lying flat on a bench, hence its uncomplicated name. In fact, all variations of the bench press, the conventional flat bench press, incline or decline, are compound movements as they target multiple muscles of the body.

Muscles worked: Chest, shoulders, triceps and core

Steps:

  • Lie down on your back on a flat bench, with your head resting on the cushion.
  • Hold the barbell above you with the palms facing up, and your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.
  • Lift the barbell off the rack and position it directly above your chest with both arms extended.
  • Slowly bring the barbell down towards you by bending your elbows and allow it to touch the middle of your chest.
  • Push it up forcefully by straightening your elbows. Keep your back straight and touch the bench at all times. This is one rep.

Shoulder press

Also known as the overhead or military press, the shoulder press is a superb compound exercise, especially when performed standing up. Lifting weights above the head is not easy, and this exercise engages your shoulders, triceps as well as the core for stability.

Muscles worked: Shoulders, triceps and core

Steps:

  • Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart in front of a squat rack.
  • Hold the barbell at shoulder width, like you would during a front squat.
  • Lift the barbell off the rack and rest it on your collarbone with elbows bent towards you.
  • Breathing out, lift the barbell directly above you by straightening your elbows and hold for a second or two. Stabilise yourself under the bar and keep your back straight at all times.
  • Slowly bring the barbell back down to shoulder level. This is one rep.

Deadlifts

They may look incredibly difficult to perform, but deadlifts are a great way to engage multiple muscles of the body while also working on core stability as well as improving posture. The muscles throughout the back of the body are worked simultaneously, although caution must be exercised while performing deadlifts as they can cause workout injuries if not done with perfect form. Starting with lighter weights and perfecting your technique is the right way to go.

Muscles worked: Back, hips, glutes, thighs and core

Steps:

  • Stand on a flat surface with your feet hip-width apart and your shins lined up against the barbell in front of you.
  • Keep the back straight, bend the knees and pull the hips back while holding the barbell right beside the legs. The bar can be held with either both palms facing you, or each one facing in opposite directions.
  • Look ahead, keep the back straight and push the ground with your feet while lifting the barbell off the floor.
  • Stand up by straightening the legs but without bending the back or the elbows. The barbell should line up against your thighs at the top of the movement. Pause for a second or two.
  • Slowly come back down by bending the knees and extending the hip backwards. This is one rep.

Barbell hip thrusts

Compound movements have gained popularity in recent years, thanks to elite athletes flooding social media with their elaborate training methods. The barbell hip thrust is one such movement that has been made popular only recently, primarily to focus on the posterior chain; that is, the muscles behind the body like the back, glutes and hamstrings.

Deadlifts may not activate the hamstring muscles quite as effectively if not performed with the right technique, which puts all the pressure of the exercise in the front of the thighs. Hip thrusters, however, eliminate that possibility by targeting the glutes and hamstrings. This exercise requires the help of a trainer, just to help you load the weight onto your body.

Muscles worked: Back, core, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps

Steps:

  • Sit with your back against a flat bench. Lift your body up so your upper back and shoulders are resting on the bench and your feet are planted on the ground, with the knees bent at a right angle to the floor.
  • Place a cushion on top of your pelvis and rest the barbell on it, holding it down with both hands to balance it.
  • Contract your glutes and drive your hips upward. Hold the barbell at the top of the movement for a couple of seconds.
  • Ease back into the starting position. This is one rep.

Farmer's carry

Known by multiple names, the simple practice of carrying weights in both hands while walking up and down a room is an excellent way to train multiple muscles of the body. 

Muscles worked: Shoulders, back, arms, glutes and legs

Steps:

  • Pick up a dumbbell or a kettlebell in each hand and stand up straight.
  • Walk from one end of a room to the other at a brisk pace. Keep the back straight, shoulders braced and look ahead throughout the walk.
  • Continue to do this for 30 seconds or as long as you can. Repeat at least three times.

Thrusters

Thrusters are to weighted compound exercises what burpees are to bodyweight movements. While squats and shoulder press are difficult exercises in their own right, thrusters are doubly hard as they combine both the movements into one. This exercise can be performed using a barbell or a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells.

Muscles worked: Shoulders, triceps, back, core, hips and legs

Steps:

  • Start by standing straight in front of a squat rack and holding the barbell with a neutral grip. Your feet should be slightly wider than your hips.
  • Pull your hips back and lower your body into a front squat. Rest the barbell lightly on the top part of your chest.
  • Push back up forcefully and lift the barbell by straightening your arms above your head while standing up into a shoulder press.
  • Lower the barbell slowly back on your shoulders. This is one rep.

While compound exercises can be extremely rewarding and time-saving, the rush of being able to perform exercises quickly lead to poor form or technique if you are not careful. It is important to take these precautions while doing such exercises:

  • It is a good idea to understand the movements before proceeding to perform them with the intensity required in a full workout. This applies especially to complex exercises like hip thrusts or thrusters. Instead of diving into a workout like this, try performing them without weights and get the movement right before moving onto to weighted workout.
  • It is also advised that these exercises, especially the ones that involve the use of external weights, be performed under the supervision of a qualified fitness trainer, who can correct your form and technique where necessary.

Compound exercises are performed at high intensity, resulting in greater calorie burn. They boost the metabolism as well as muscle growth. They involve the use of multiple joints and target multiple parts of the body in a single exercise, making it fast-paced and time-efficient.

Some of them comprise basic movements that can be performed without the use of any external equipment, especially the bodyweight versions of the movements. Weighted compound exercises are rather intense and can elevate your strength and fitness levels.

These exercises must also be done with the right gear as well as caution, and be supplemented by a balanced diet as well as rest to be able to supply adequate energy to the body besides avoiding injuries.

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References

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  2. Gentil P et al. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. PMID: 26446291.
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