Get More Out of Your Workout: Compound Exercises

Originally written as a two part series for The Dragontree

Part One


There are lots of ways to get more out of a workout. This time, let’s look at compound exercises.

You finally got a gym membership, and now you diligently get on a bunch of weight machines a few times a week. You seem to be getting stronger, but maybe not as strong as you’d expect after all that hard work. Or you run like crazy on a treadmill, yet your body looks roughly the same week after week. Or you ride your bike everywhere, but are still carrying around an extra six pack on top of your six pack. What gives?

Well, assuming you’re eating right (a topic way beyond the scope of a single blog post, sorry), the issue could be that you’re doing enough comprehensive muscle building exercises. The treadmill and bike are both great aerobic exercises that promote cardiovascular health and they will definitely produce some muscle growth. The weight machines are a better shot, but many machines are designed to isolate single joints and muscles. You could get big biceps doing curls on a machine, but you won’t get strong in the same broad way as someone doing compound exercises.

Building muscle throughout the body will raise your metabolism, increase your energy level, improve your stamina, and make you feel more robust overall. The best way to do this is with compound exercises. And as an added bonus, if you breathe fully and deeply, push yourself, and don’t wait too long between sets, weight bearing exercise doubles as aerobic/cardiovascular exercise. I still think it’s a good idea to do some additional cardio, but I believe you’ll get more benefit overall from doing just a few compound exercises every day or every other day (you can alternate with cardio on the alternating days). Compound exercises, unlike isolation exercises (such as the biceps curls), work multiple joints and muscle groups. With just a small handful of compound exercises, you can work your whole body.

Squats: Squats are really a fantastic exercise. I hate doing them, but I know they’re good for me. They involve several joints (hips, knees, ankles) and many muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, abdomen, and back). The simplest squat involves simply starting standing, lowering slowly to a squat (hips level with or lower than the knees), and then standing up again slowly. There are many, many variations on this. Some notes on form to keep in mind: Start with your feet about as wide as your shoulders (this may not be as wide as you think), and either parallel or turned outward just a bit. While moving up and down, don’t let your knees buckle inward or spread wider than your feet. It is important not to drop too quickly. Plant your weight firmly in your heels and imagine the whole movement is being initiated by the hips. They drop back, the knees go forward over the toes as you drop, then the hips come forward and the knees go back as you rise. If you’re doing a squat without added weight, you can start with your arms straight out in front of you at about navel height. Then bring your arms up to about face level (still straight out in front of you) as you drop to a squat. As you come back up to standing, drop your hands back to navel height. If you want to make it more difficult, you can use an elastic resistance band or tube, which you can run under both feet and grasp with both hands. Bend your elbows so that your fists are in front of your shoulders. Different levels of tension are available to provide varying levels of difficulty.

Deadlifts: Deadlifts (so called, because they start with “dead” weight on the ground, as opposed to the “loaded” weight of a barbell or dumbbell that you’ve picked up before beginning the motion) are typically performed with a barbell. They work your legs, abdomen, hips, back, and forearms. With a barbell, the weight rests on the floor and you step close to it, feet shoulder width apart or slightly narrower, with the bar just an inch or so in front of your shins (the bar is centered over the feet). The motion is much like the squat we just went over, except that the torso has to come more forward in order for you to grab the bar. Bend your knees, bring the hips back and the torso forward, keeping the back straight while you grasp the bar. The bar will often touch your shins at this point. Don’t look up in this position; your head your be in line with your back. Now, straighten your legs, keeping your back flat and your shoulders pulled down, to end standing with the bar touching the fronts of your thighs. Don’t lean back at this point. Next, slowly release the weight back down to the floor, initiating the movement by bringing your hips back. Keep your lower back straight. Don’t actively bend your knees until the bar reaches knee level. Your elbows should remain straight (unbent) through the whole exercise. It’s a good idea to google “deadlift video” and watch some examples of deadlifts in the web to get a visual sense of this exercise. Working with barbells is best done with the help of a friend or trainer. However, this exercise can be easily modified for use with dumbbells or elastic resistance bands.

Resistance bands are a cool development in exercise gear. Typically they are rubber tubes of varying degrees of thickness and elasticity. The ends fit into hand grips. The best ones allow you to switch in and out different bands quickly and they lock into place easily. They’re light, compact, and portable. Even if you have a dozen of them, you can easily stick the whole set in a bag, and you’ll have the equivalent of a whole set of weights. If using them for deadlifts, you’ll usually have to keep all the slack on the floor between your feet (because the bands are longer than the width of your stance). That way, you’ll be standing on the bands right next to the hand grips, so there is no slack when you start to pick them up.

Next time I’ll discuss a few more compound exercises. In the meantime, doing a few sets of 8 to 10 reps of each of these exercises with a minute between each set will be a great workout.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten


Part Two

I encourage you to read part one for a refresher on this topic, but here’s the nutshell version: You need to build and maintain muscle for optimal health. Good cardiovascular tone is only part of the fitness equation. Building muscle promotes a higher metabolism, feeling warmer on cold days, better circulation, more energy, and better balance. Isolation exercises, such as dumbbell curls, triceps presses, calf raises, and leg extensions only work one joint at a time and don’t promote comprehensive muscle building. Compound exercises work multiple joints, many muscles and build more functional muscle tissue.

Last time, I covered squats and deadlifts. Now for some more, all of which involve a good old medicine ball. A medicine ball is a great weight training tool. You can throw it, you can drop it on the floor, it’s easy on your hands, and the way you grip it engages your arms and chest better than the easy finger grip of a dumbbell. You can get them in various weights and with or without handles cut into them. Here are some things you can do with one.

  1. Lunges With Twists. Hold the med ball high over your head with both arms extended. Then lunge forward with one leg, bringing enough bend to the knee that the thigh becomes parallel to the floor, but don’t let your knee extend beyond your toe. As you’re dropping into the lunge, bring the ball down and beside your butt on the side you’re lunging on. Go slow. As you come back to standing, bring the ball back over your head. Then lunge with the other leg and bring the ball to your butt on that side. Repeat for a total of 14 lunges. Do 4 sets. Start with a light ball (or no ball) if you aren’t used to this type of exercise.
  2. Wall Throws. Stand facing a wall, about a foot away from it, holding a medicine ball against your chest. Squat down (thighs parallel to the floor), and then, in one motion, stand up and throw the ball up and toward the wall. As you catch the ball, bring it to your chest and drop back down to a squat, again all in one smooth motion. Do 14 times per set, 4 sets.

Variation: If the throwing part is difficult, or you don’t have a wall without expensive paintings on it, or your body can’t handle the speed aspect of this exercise, just modify it so that you bring the ball completely overhead (arms fully extended) rather than throwing it.

  1. Crunch Twists. Sitting on your tailbone on a mat, bring your torso to about a 45 degree angle off the floor and your thighs also at about a 45 degree angle off the floor (your knees can be bent with your lower legs sticking out parallel to the floor), so that your torso and thighs make a V shape. Holding a medicine ball in this position, bring the ball almost to the floor alongside one hip, then bring it to the other hip. Go back and forth 40 times. Do 4 sets.

Variation 1: Twist to the right side, put the ball completely behind your back and leave it there. Then twist to the left side, pick the ball up, bring it across to the right side and again leave it behind your back. Twist to the left to retrieve it, and continue. Do 20 times in one direction, then 20 times in the other direction.

Variation 2: If you want this exercise harder and more of an upper body workout, hold the ball straight out in front of you, arms fully extended, parallel to the floor. Then, without putting any bend in the elbows, bring the ball out completely to one side, arms still parallel to the floor, and then bring the ball out completely to the other side (in line with the shoulder), and continue.

  1. Arm Circles. Hold a medicine ball overhead, with arms fully extended and no bend in your elbows. Slowly lower the ball in a big circle, maintaining straight arms all the while – go straight out to one side, bring the ball down in front of your thighs, and then back up and straight out to the other side, and then returning the ball to overhead. So 10 circles in one direction and then 10 in the other direction. 4 sets.
  2. Chop Wood / Start the Lawnmower. Stand with feet slightly wider than your shoulders, hold the ball high above one shoulder with both hands, and then slowing bring it down diagonally, to end up at the outside of the opposite foot. Then slowly bring the ball back over the shoulder you started at. Do 7 reps, then switch sides and do 7 more. Do 4 sets total.
  3. Standing Twist. Hold the ball straight out in front of you, arms extended and parallel to the floor. Slowly bring the ball as far as you can to the left side, keeping the arms straight and parallel to the floor, pivoting on your right foot, and twisting your torso. Then do the same to the right side. Do 14 twists total (7 to each side) per set, and 4 complete sets.

This whole body workout is a great starting point. You can either do numerous sets of the same exercise in a row with a short (about one minute) break between sets, or you can “superset” two or three exercises. To do a superset, choose two or three exercises and run through one set of each without a break between the different exercises. Then take a short break (if you need it) before repeating the multiple-exericise set. This works best with exercises that work different parts of the body. For example, you could do one set of Lunges With Twists, immediately continue with one set of Chop Wood / Start the Lawnmower, and immediately continue with one set of Crunch Twists. Then repeat the whole cycle 4 times.

As always, warm up first with some neuromuscular activation and dynamic stretching (which I’ll discuss more in future newsletters). Remember, good form is everything. Go slow, look in the mirror now and then, and have fun.

Dr. Peter Borten