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Why doing compound exercises is great for your fitness

Sometimes it pays to get back to basics and work on the building blocks of fitness training by doing simple and effective compound exercises

Compound exercises like pull ups are the building blocks of fitness training.
Compound exercises like pull ups are the building blocks of fitness training. (Unsplash/Anastase Maragos)

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With newer workouts and training techniques constantly vying for our attention, sometimes it’s just good to go back to the basics. And few things are as effective as compound exercises. You could even say that no effective exercise programme is complete without them. 

So what are compound exercises? Quite simply, these are moves that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. These exercises are great for building strength and getting the best bang for your buck from the training hours you put in. Comprising moves such as weightlifting movements, squats and deadlifts, compound exercises are excellent for maintaining proper musculoskeletal fitness and overall levels of everyday fitness. 

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If you feel like it’s a struggle to stay on track with your daily fitness routine, the sheer addictive high of doing compound exercises will fix it for you. Since they engage several muscle groups at once, doing them can evoke a feeling of great satisfaction. 

When looking at the basic building blocks of effective training, compound exercises are extremely effective as a part of any training plan on any given day, and can easily become a full workout by themselves.

Thrusters: This is one extremely effective compound exercise, which combines the front squat and the push press. This exercise engages the entire lower body, as well as the back and shoulders. Thrusters also engage your biceps, and the triceps come into play when you perform the push-press part of the exercise. This makes it one of the most effective full body moves. You could either include it in your normal routine, or simply do 50 reps of thrusters with moderate weights to get a great full body workout. If you are a beginner, 30 reps is a good start and those who are regular in their training could attempt 100 reps. 

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Burpees: Who in their right mind likes burpees? Yet, they are extremely effective. You start from a standing position and jump into a low plank, drop down flat to the floor, perform a push-up, jump back up to your feet and jump up while clapping your hands above your head. It readily knocks the wind out of you and that’s exactly what makes it a great exercise. It engages all the muscles in your body and while helping your legs, core and lower back it also works your arms and chest. It also includes an element of cardio, thanks to the jump and clap that wraps up the movement. It is a great movement for a warmup, and is versatile enough to be included as a body weight movement in both strength and HIIT routines. If you try for a high rep count, then it becomes a workout on its own. If you are a beginner 50 burpees are sufficient to be counted as a full body workout.

The squat clean: This is an integral part of weightlifting and it forms the first part of the clean and jerk, which is an Olympic sport. The squat clean includes a deadlift, high pull and a front squat—and each of these is a compound movement. “Since weightlifting emphasizes overall fitness, it leads to increased muscle mass and a drop in body fat. It also vastly improves general athletic capacity so that you can perform better in your weekend sports. You make significant gains in muscle strength and flexibility, and that makes you also less prone to injuries,” says A.K. Abhinav, coach and founder of Namma Crossfit in Bengaluru. 

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It is a very adaptable exercise and can be modified depending on your goals. You could substitute the deadlift with a hang squat clean. Or substitute the front squat with a power clean. You could easily take both the deadlift and front squat out and you do a hang power clean, which is still a compound movement. For beginners, 30 reps counts as a full workout, 50 for intermediates and 75 to 100 squat cleans with a moderate weight for advanced.  

Pull-ups: This is a basic movement in the exercise world and yet the strongest people struggle to master it. In fact, those with big muscles who can’t do it cite their bulk as the reason for their struggles with the pull-up. The biggest misconception about the pull-up is that big and bulky people have to move a lot more weight, while those who are lighter and smaller have it easier.

That’s only true if the latter have big biceps and back muscles. Since most people have arms and back muscles proportional to their size and weight, if you’re attempting the pull-up, you are likely working with a normal similar ratio. A strong core, back and arms is critical for the pull-up. Because it is such a challenging exercise, it makes for a great workout on its own. How about going for 50 pull-ups for a session? 

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Deadlifts: This is one the best exercises for the entire lower body, while it also works the shoulders. Cult.Fit’s strength coach Rahul Huidrom says compound movements like deadlift are necessary to build strong legs. “Deadlifts also stimulate the release of large amounts of hormones such as cortisol, testosterone and human growth hormone. It improves core strength and stability too,” he says. In combination with push-ups, deadlift can become a total workout. For example, try a progression of 21-15-9 reps of deadlift and push-ups back to back. Or consider 50 deadlifts with moderate weights; that’s enough workout for a day as well. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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