When you go to the gym, you want exercises that give you the biggest bang for the time you spend there. After all, it's hard to squeeze in a trip to the gym amidst carpools, volunteering in the class, getting some work done and remembering to pick up bread and milk. To make your work out efficient and effective, engage the most muscle groups at once. Two basic rules allow for maximal muscle engagement: Challenging many muscles at once and creating an unstable base.
Exercises that isolate muscles keep you fit when training around an injury or fine tuning your physique, but they require you to perform multiple exercises to work the same muscles you can challenge with one or two compound movements. The leg extension provides a clear example. This isolation exercise focuses on your quadriceps, the muscles at the front of your thigh. A compound movement, such as the barbell squat, uses not only the quadriceps, but also the hamstrings, gluteal muscles, low back and core musculature. The squat uses more muscle engagement than the leg extension, giving better results with less effort. The same is true for all compound exercises when compared to isolation exercises.
Add Instability for Further Challenge
Requiring that you balance during movement engages your core stabilization muscles to maintain form. Any exercise you do while standing adds a balance component, so you recruit more muscle fibers in the process. For example, you must engage your core more during a standing shoulder press compared to a seated shoulder press. If you lie down during an exercise, such as the bench press, add your core to the exercise by lying on a stability ball, forcing your body to remain stable throughout the movement.
Working Your Upper Body
Train your upper body with standing shoulder presses, the bench press and bent-over rows. These compound movements engage more upper body muscles than simple isolation exercises, providing an effective upper body workout. Do these exercises either in the standing position, or by lying or sitting on a stability ball. Use dumbbells for more core muscle recruitment, though a barbell is also a viable option to challenge your upper body.
Toning Below the Waist
Compound exercises to tone and tighten your thighs, hips and butt include squats, deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts. Use either dumbbells or barbells to add challenge to these exercise. Cleans, power cleans, snatches and power snatches target your entire body, though emphasize the muscles of your lower body. These exercises help you gain size and strength in all muscle groups with as little time spent in the gym as possible.
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