Compound Exercises or How to cut your training time in half and achieve more results

Komplexe Übungen

I’m naturally a pretty skinny dude. I’m tall, have long and thin limbs, a fast metabolism, very little body fat, and overall find it hard to gain any sort of weight. I’m the type of guy who can play video games and eat chips all day and still be one kilo lighter the next morning. If I didn’t work out, I would easily weigh 10 kilos less than I currently do. In professional circles, people would call me a “hardgainer” or “ectomorph” (though they only say that behind my back).

When I was a teenager, I really wanted to put on muscle (Who doesn’t at that time? Ah the folly of youth, today I’m way past that of course – wait, I still want to do that). What do you do when you are 16, have the physique of as supermodel (a female one that is) but want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? You start lifting weights.

So I went to the gym and I worked out. A lot. Every other day. How much weight did I put on in that time? Not all that much. Of course there were some changes, but not the big gains that I was hoping for (of course I was also yet to discover the role of diet in fitness).

I did what every other reasonable person would do in that situation – finding excuses for my lack of success. I convinced myself that I was genetically disadvantaged, that god or some other supernatural entity hated me, or that “something must be wrong with these weights”. Talk about self-limiting beliefs. This gave me an easy excuse to stop trying and not question what I was doing.

But, as I have been saying before, if we don’t succeed, there usually is nothing wrong with us but with our method. And my method was definitely flawed.

I was wasting a lot of time in the gym on the wrong exercises. Back then it took me up to two hours of gym time to get a workout done. Two hours! What the hell was I doing with all that time? Committing every mistake in the book is what:

  • Warming up with half an hour of steady-state cardio
  • Doing a lot of exercises that only targeted one muscle (hello bicep curls!)
  • Using a lot of machines
  • Having no idea how to eat properly (which is enough material for its own blog post)

By now I can get a full-body workout done in 30 minutes. I train much less and see way more results. What has changed? Did I start a steady diet of steroids? Did one of the werewolves from Twilight bite me? No. I just started training at higher intensity. I have kissed the bicep curls goodbye and made a more demanding type of exercise my staple. The magic word is compound exercises.

Compound vs. isolation exercises – What’s the difference?

There are two basic types of exercises you can do: compound and isolation. Isolation exercises work out a single muscle at a time such as biceps, triceps, quads, calves and hamstrings and it is what many people like to do at the gym. Especially guys are obsessed with working on their biceps and many machine options are built for isolated training: leg raises, leg curls, calf raises and arm machines.

Compound exercises on the other hand are multi-joint movements that rely on the coordinated actions of several muscle groups to move two or more joints through a range of motion. The bench press is a good example as there are both the shoulder joints and the elbows involved (and the wrists to be accurate). If you are serious about losing fat and/or putting on muscle, compound exercises are the way to go. You will see why.

The benefits of compound exercises

Compound exercisesThe general benefit in preferring compound exercises over isolated ones is that they allow you to put higher intensity on your body. Just like in the case of HIIT, this provides many benefits to your physical development.

Hormone release

When you do multi-joint exercises, more muscle groups are used at the same time. To cope with the higher demand placed on your body by this kind of training, it will be hard-pressed to adapt. This in turn stimulates an increased release in growth hormones and testosterone, which causes all your muscles to grow, not just the ones you are using at that moment. This is especially good news for us guys because testosterone is our main “feel good hormone”.

Increased metabolism

Using this many muscles has a far greater effect on your metabolism than isolation exercises. It kicks your fat-burning abilities into overdrive resulting in easier weight loss and decrease in body fat.

Cardiovascular benefits (for real!)

When it comes to doing cardio training, most people think of half an hour on a treadmill or stationary bike. However, there are other ways. Besides sprint training, compound exercises are another option. The large number of muscles involved means that your heart rate increases significantly, thereby training your cardiovascular system. In addition to that, your aerobic ability improves along with the extra muscle you are building (stud!) to ensure their proper support.

(Does that mean you can prepare for a marathon in the weight room? No. Does it mean lifting weights is beneficial to prevent heart disease? Yes.)


Compound exercises stress not only your muscles but also your joints, ligaments, and tendons. The larger demands on coordination additionally trains the little stabilizer muscles. This way your body becomes stronger as a whole, resulting in more balanced muscle development and reduced likelihood of injury. On the other hand, people have been known to experience stress breaks from one-sided/isolated work-outs.

Real-life benefits

Almost all daily activities and sports involve more than one muscle and more than one joint. When was the last time you picked up something heavy at home and decided to move it up and down like a dumbbell? Or to sit on a chair and extend your legs forward? Compound exercises mimic real-life movements and build muscles that can assist you in real life situations.

Time saver

Let’s face it, we’re all busy. Life puts so many demands on us that it can be hard to find the time to get a workout in. I have certainly been there. The good news: Compound exercises allow you to train more muscles in less time. For some people this can cut the duration of their workout in half (or reduce it to one quarter in my case) while achieving better results than before. Training harder is more effective than training longer.

Convinced yet? Try it and see for yourself. In the following articles, we will take a look at of some of these exercises in detail: their training benefits, how to do them properly, common mistakes, tips, and variations. In particular we will talk about:

Compound exercises – Things to keep in mind

Compound exercises - keep in mindWith all the benefits that compound exercises provide, it is important to note that it takes some skill to perform them correctly. They require a level of coordination that especially a novice will first have to work up to. Because of that, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Always learn good form first

To reduce the danger of injury with these complex exercises, it is important to first learn how to perform them correctly before adding heavy (or any) weight. I made that mistake when I integrated squats into my workout routine. I was already squatting with almost 40 kg on my shoulders until a trainer at my gym pointed out that my form was bad and I was running the risk of seriously hurting myself. Ever since then I have been doing squats without any weight and working on getting my form right before adding anymore resistance. Learning good form first seems boring but is a much better long-term strategy.

Athleticism before appearance

Let’s face it, many of us are working out not only because it makes us feel good but also because we want to look a certain way. We want to be thinner, bigger or whatever our goal is. And that’s fine. A little narcissism is healthy. However, don’t be “that person” in the gym who spends most of their time in front of the mirror. Shift your mindset from appearance to athletic prowess. Try to improve your performance at every workout. More weight, more repetitions, getting done in shorter time. If you turn yourself into an absolute machine/gym warrior, you will automatically look the part. Trust me.


Compound exercises put a lot more demand on your body’s recovery abilities than isolation work. Your muscles, connective tissue, and central nervous system will need time to rebuild after a grueling workout. If you are not used to this level of intensity, you will need to plan more recovery time for yourself. That might mean an extra day between workouts, getting enough sleep, and consuming a bigger amount of high-quality calories (don’t worry, you will be hungry). Just make sure you rest accordingly.

Are you already incorporating compound exercises into your routine? If so, which is your favorite one? Which one would you like to know more about? Let me know in the comments.

Images: Greg Westfall, Pasukaru76, Derrick Coetzee

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  1. 05 / Jun / 2014

    Hi Herbi

    Interessanter Artikel und schöner Schreibstil! Ich habe vor Kurzem mit Calisthenics angefangen. Hast du Erfahrungen mit Techniken an der Stange? Ich halte diese Techniken für sehr komplex und effektiv. Will aber natürlich auch nichts falsch machen…



    • 05 / Jun / 2014

      Hi Simon,

      erstmal Danke für die Blumen und Glückwunsch zu Deiner Entscheidung. Ich selber habe damit leider keine Erfahrung. Ich kenne allerdings über Facebook jemanden, der das praktiziert, vielleicht kannst Du ihn mal anhauen. Du findest ihn hier:
      In Sachen Inspiration kann ich sonst empfehlen nach “Frank Medrano” zu googeln.

      Viel Erfolg!

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