Compound exercises are any movements that involve the use of two or more joints and work multiple muscle groups at the same time. While people often think they need to isolate every muscle with a specific exercise, this isn't the case at all. Compound exercises burn far more calories than isolations, writes Rachel Cosgrove, personal trainer and co-founder of Results Fitness in Santa Monica. Sticking to compounds also saves time. For example, you could train your quads with leg extensions, hamstrings with leg curls, your calves with calf raises, your glutes with bridges and your core with situps. Alternatively, you could do a barbell squat and work all of them at the same time.
The best way to view compound exercises is to group them into categories depending on what muscle movements they require. There are six basic compound exercise categories. They include squats, deadlifts (picking a weight up off the floor,) vertical pushes where you lift a weight overhead, vertical pulls such as chinups or pulldowns, horizontal pushes such as the bench press and horizontal pulls, such as dumbbell, barbell or cable rows.
As compound exercises work multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously, they are effective as part of a full body routine that involves training each major muscle group in every session. Full body workouts burn more calories than body-part split workouts, notes Cosgrove. You need to be careful not to overdo it though. Training too frequently or doing too much in each session can lead to fatigue and injury. So keep to one exercise from each movement category per session and leave at least 48 hours between workouts.
Sets and Reps
The old idea that to get lean and burn fat you need to use light weights for ultra-high repetition sets is completely false. The real key is intensity -- the harder you work, the stronger you get and the more calories you burn. Molly Galbraith, trainer and founder of Girls Gone Strong, recommends keeping your reps fairly low on compound movements. For your main lifts, such as squats and deadlifts, do between two and six reps per set and five to 10 reps for everything else.
Progression and Variation
Look to add a little extra weight or perform one or two more reps every time you train. If you have three sessions in a row where you struggle to progress and can't either increase your weight or do extra reps, then swap the exercise to another similar one. Back squats could replace front squats, while bench presses could replace dumbbell presses or barbell rows could replace cable rows. You can add one or two isolation exercises per session for your abs, biceps, triceps or calves, but you need to earn them writes Shanks. Put the effort on your compound movements and only perform isolations if you have enough energy left. If you've worked hard enough, chances are you won't.
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.