Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Two of the most common reasons people give for not exercising is lack of time and not knowing what type of exercise they should be doing. This is what leads many people to hire a personal trainer—they want an expert tell them how to achieve their goals. Typically, they also want to know how to do it in the most time-efficient manner possible. 

While single-joint, isolation exercises are ideal for people who have the inclination or time to sculpt the perfect body, they simply aren’t that effective for maximizing the calorie burning effects of exercise. If a client’s goal is improving his or her overall fitness level, compound exercises that feature multijoint movements involving more than a single muscle group can be extremely effective for realizing benefits from all three categories of fitness: cardiovascular, strength and flexibility. Knowing how to use compound exercises can give you specific strategies and techniques for helping your time-strapped clients. 

Here are five benefits of compound exercises, along with suggested exercises to help your clients experience the maximum benefits from a limited amount of exercise time. 

1. Compound exercises burn more calories.

The body expends 5 calories of energy to consumer 1 liter of oxygen. Exercises that involve more muscle tissue require more oxygen, which helps the body increase its net energy expenditure.

2. Compound exercises improve intermuscular coordination.

This is the function and timing of multiple muscles around a joint or joints. Consider, for example, the gluteal complex (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus), which is responsible for controlling motion of the hip. Compound exercises such as squats, lunges or steps that move the hips in all three planes can improve how all of the muscles work together to produce and control force.

3. Compound exercises elevate the heart rate and provide a cardiovascular training benefit.

The purpose of cardiovascular exercise is to improve the ability of the heart to function as a pump. This can be accomplished through activities such as running and cycling, or by doing exercises that involve a significant amount of muscle tissue. Sitting in a leg-extension machine doing knee extensions or performing biceps curls with dumbbells uses only a limited amount of muscle tissue; these exercises are more appropriate for focusing on isolated strength. Squats to shoulder presses, medicine ball chops or burpees are all examples of compound exercises that involve large amounts of muscle tissue, which challenges the heart to pump blood to keep the muscles fueled and active.

4. Compound exercises are a form of dynamic flexibility.

When most people think of flexibility they picture static stretching. While holding a muscle in a lengthened position can be effective for reducing tension in a muscle, it also reduces neurologic activity, which is not recommended prior to dynamic activity. Any exercise that involves an active range of motion can be considered a form of dynamic stretching, which involves moving a joint through a range of motion to lengthen the surrounding tissue. As muscles on one side of a joint contract, the muscles on the opposite side have to lengthen to allow contraction to occur. Over the course of a number of repetitions, the contractions and activity in the involved muscles elevate the temperature and inhibit activity, which reduces tension and improves length.

5. Compound exercises improve movement efficiency.

Have you ever noticed that body builders move robotically? This is because training only one muscle group at a time does not teach multiple muscle groups to coordinate their contractions and firing rates, which is how muscles actually contract. Compound exercises that involve large groups of muscles teach the muscles how to coordinate the firing of the motor units responsible for timing muscle contractions. Compound exercises can actually help your clients improve their movement skills and dynamic balance, which can actually help improve overall quality of life.

Here is a sample workout comprised of compound exercises that can help your clients experience the benefits of using multiple muscles at the same time.

Medicine Ball PNF Lift

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, with the right foot slightly forward of the left (the heel of the right foot should be parallel to the toes of the left foot). Hold a medicine ball in both hands. Sink into the hips while bringing the medicine ball to the outside of the left hip. Press both feet into the floor to move to a standing position while moving the ball diagonally from the left hip to the right shoulder. Push with the left foot so that it rotates to point toward the right foot at the end of the move. Again, sink into the hips while bringing the medicine ball back to the outside of the left hip. Complete 10 to12 repetitions on each side and rest 45 to 60 seconds; complete two to three sets.

Dumbbell Thrusters (squat to shoulder press)

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold one dumbbell in each hand so the dumbbells are in front of each shoulder with the palms facing each other. Sink into the hips to perform a squat; at the bottom, press both feet into the ground to move to a standing position. Press both arms overhead while keeping the palms facing each other. Coordinate the moves so that the weight is lowered while sinking into the squat and the weights are pressed overhead once a standing position is reached. Complete 10 to 12 repetitions and rest 60 to 90 seconds; complete two to three sets.

Renegade Rows

Start in a push-up position with the hands holding on to dumbbells that are lined up parallel to each other. Perform a push-up. At the top of the push-up, press both feet into the ground to create stability while pulling the right dumbbell up to the chest in a rowing move (the elbow brushes against the rib cage). Place the right hand down and perform a rowing move with the left hand. Once a row has been completed on each side, perform another push-up. Complete as many as possible with good form and rest 45 to 60 seconds; complete two to three sets.

Reverse Lunge to Balance With Biceps Curls

Stand with feet hip-width apart while holding one dumbbell in each hand so they are hanging next to the body with the palms facing the body. Step backward with the right foot and lower the hips. Push the left foot into the ground and bring the right foot forward to return to standing. At the top, stay balanced on the left leg (don’t let the right foot touch the ground) and perform a biceps curl with both arms. Complete six to eight reps on one leg before switching to the other side. Rest 60 to 90 seconds after performing repetitions on both legs; complete two to three sets.

Transverse Lunge to Reach to Ground 

Stand with feet hip-width apart while holding one dumbbell in each hand so they are hanging next to the body with the palms facing the body. Keep the left foot in place as you rotate to the right; step toward the 4 o’clock position with the right foot. (TIP: Press the left foot into the ground and contract the left thigh muscles to protect the knee.) As the right foot hits the ground, push your weight into the right hip and lean forward to reach both dumbbells toward the right foot. Bring the upper body back to an upright position as you push the right foot into the ground to return to the original starting position. Perform six to eight reps on the right side before switching to the left. Rest 60 to 90 seconds after each set; complete two to three sets.

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