How to Get the Most Out of Your Workout

Tired of inefficient workouts that often take an hour or more to complete?

You can replace that boring routine with simple exercises that work all the major muscle groups in 15 minutes – and have the following advantages:

You get your workout completed faster, because you work more muscle groups with each exercise. You reduce your risk of injury, because these exercises train muscles that are generally neglected during machine-based workouts. You can achieve greater improvements in bone density, because most of these exercises are done in the standing position. You increase your functional strength, making everyday tasks easier. You can increase your sports performance, because many of these exercises train the large muscles in the back of your legs – again, an area generally neglected by machine-based workouts.

The kind of exercises I’m talking about here are full-body “compound” exercises – a type of strength training.

In a moment, I’ll give you a simple, 15-minute workout that works all of the major muscle groups. But first, let me tell you more about these exercises.

When most people think of the health-boosting benefits of exercise, they think of aerobics. But strength training (also known as resistance training) has also been shown to improve cardiovascular health, increase insulin sensitivity, and enhance calorie burning and fat loss. In fact, strength training is probably the most efficient way to exercise, regardless of your experience. By doing as few as 2 or 3 compound exercises each day, you can get life-changing results in minutes.

Compound exercises are functional, multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. For example, a bodyweight squat is a functional compound exercise – “functional” because it mimics the actions and movements we perform on an everyday basis. On the other hand, a leg extension done on a machine is an “isolation” exercise.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology to realize that the potential benefits from the bodysquat are much greater than those from the leg extension. In the squat, you strengthen the front and back of the thighs, butt, and calves. But the leg extension works only the front of the thighs. In addition to the superior strength gains, the squat exercise also helps improve body awareness and co-ordination. As a result, it’s easier to pick up and carry heavy or awkward items in real-life situations.

The same thing applies to upper-body exercises. It is far better to master the bodyweight push-up than it is to spend time on the chest pec-deck isolation exercise that is popular in so many health clubs today.

And when it comes to the holy grail of vanity – your abs – you also get more benefit with compound exercises than with isolation, machine-based workouts. If you remember to keep your abdomen braced and strong and keep your back in a neutral position, you will get improvements in your ab strength and endurance (and posture) with each compound exercise.

Unfortunately, compound exercises are practically extinct in today’s mass-market commercial gyms. Here’s how to spot them and incorporate them into your program so you get more results in less time:

A compound exercise works the body over more than one joint and strengthens more than one muscle group.

Some of the more common compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, dumbbell presses, and many rowing type exercises. And there are alternatives to all of them. If, for example, you have weak knees and can’t do squats or lunges, you can still strengthen your lower body with multi-joint, multi-muscle movements called lying hip bridges or stability ball leg curls. And if you’re an advanced lifter, performing single-leg versions of these exercises increases the difficulty and benefits even further.

Of course, as with any exercise, you should have a certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach to show you the proper technique.

Compound exercises are generally done in a standing position and performed with free weights.

Avoid machines. In general, they permit only single-joint, isolation type exercises. So instead of biceps curls and cable pulldowns, switch to chin-ups or dumbbell rows. Instead of chest pec-deck, shoulder side raises, and triceps extensions, switch to push-ups or dumbbell presses. And if you do leg curls and leg extensions, switch to squats and lunges.

Compound exercises tend to use almost every muscle in your body.

This is particularly true of the best compound exercises, such as squats and chin-ups. Almost all of your muscles are contracting at some intensity when you perform them.

Compound exercises can be classified into three categories: (1) lower-body, (2) upper-body push, and (3) upper-body pull.

For example, the push-up or bench press exercise is an upper-body push movement, whereas a chin-up or rowing exercise is an upper-body pull movement. Lower-body exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, and step-ups. If you choose only 1 exercise from each group, you will have trained your entire body.

And now for that 15-minute full-body workout I promised you …

Pick a compound exercise for the lower body, a compound pushing exercise for the upper body, and a compound pulling exercise for the upper body. For example, a lunge, a push-up, and a chin-up.

Perform a couple of repetitions of each for your warm-up. When you are ready, do 10 repetitions of the lunge … followed by 10-20 repetitions of the push-up … followed by as many chin-ups as you can. Do them all without rest … and then rest for 1-2 minutes while you recover. Repeat 2-4 times, depending on your fitness level. Finish with a 3-minute walk as a cool-down exercise.

You can use the same format with weight exercises in the gym. Choose a dumbbell squat, a dumbbell chest press, and a dumbbell row. Keep the repetitions to 8 in each work set, as research has shown that lower reps / heavier weights burn more calories after exercise than higher reps with lighter weights.

Yes, compound exercises are hard work. But, hey, I didn’t say this was going to be fast AND easy. Still, if you compare this to the machine-based, inefficient workouts that often take an hour or more to complete, I think you’ll agree that efficient and effective compound exercises are far more functional for today’s environment and time limitations.

[Ed. Note: Craig Ballantyne trains athletes and executives in Toronto, and writes for Men’s Fitness magazine. His trademarked Turbulence Training workouts and his comprehensive workout manuals (including “The Ultimate Bodyweight Workout”) are featured on his website]