Let’s face it: we’re all pretty busy. And when you finally do have a few hours of free time, the last thing you want to do is spend it huffing and puffing at the gym. Even world-class athletes need some down time, and most of us aren’t quite at that level yet. So what’s the secret to getting into the gym, getting fit, and getting out? Two words: compound lifts.

Compound lifts utilize multiple joints and muscle groups, so you get the most bang for your buck. It’s like doing two (or three!) exercises in one. You can cut your gym time in half by focusing on compound lifts like the squat, bent-over row, chest press, pull-ups, and chin-ups.

Compound exercises exert systemic stress throughout target muscles and neighboring areas. This increase in stress releases hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, which results in greater muscle growth. Compound movements also resemble how our muscles function in everyday life – it’s not often that you perform an isolation exercise like a bicep curl as part of your daily routine. However, anytime you pick up a heavy object from the ground, you’re essentially doing a deadlift.

In weight training, the ‘big three’ compound lifts are the bench press, deadlift, and squat. You will need specialized equipment to do these lifts, and good form is essential. You might want to ask a trainer at your gym (or someone who looks particularly bulky) to keep an eye on you when you’re starting out, to make sure your form is correct. Many gym-goers are happy to share advice and tips on exercise with others. The bench press and deadlift in particular may require a spotter, so feel free to ask someone. Just be sure to return the favor!

Bench Press

To do a bench press, lie flat on your back on a bench underneath the barbell rack. You can also do a bench press with dumbbells. Keep your feet flat on the floor on either side of the bench. The first several times you do this exercise, use only the barbell, and don’t add any extra plates. This will allow you to learn the movement and perfect your form.

Grasp the un-weighted bar firmly. The bar should be held in the palm of your hand, with the thumbs on the outside of your closed fist. If you place the bar too close to your fingers, your wrists may hurt later on. Find the proper hand placement by bringing the bar down to your chest and adjusting the width of your grip until your forearms are perpendicular to the floor.

Once you are comfortable with your form, lift the bar from the rack and slowly lower it to your breastbone, near the bottom of your sternum. The bar should only touch your chest gently; do not bounce it off your chest or rest it there. Using slow, controlled movements, bring the bar back up above your chest as you exhale. Use your legs to drive the movement. Remember, focus on form at first. It’s not about how much weight you can bench press at the start; it’s about safely achieving your goals.

Deadlift

At its most basic, a deadlift is just picking up a barbell from the floor and raising it to around hip level. Although this exercise can be difficult to do with just a bar, you can use crates or stacked weights to raise the bar so it’s easier to grasp before attempting to deadlift with a weighted bar.

With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand with the bar almost touching your shins, so it’s aligned over the top of your shoelaces. Bend your knees and grasp the bar with your arms touching the outsides of your legs. Some people find it easier to grip with one hand overhand and one hand underhand. Arch your back slightly and face forward. Your chest should be perpendicular to the ground.

Slowly stand and lift the bar. This exercise is driven by your legs; you’re not lifting with your arms. As you straighten your body, you will lift the bar until you are standing fully and the bar is raised about to your upper thighs. When you complete your deadlift, your shoulders and knees should be locked, with your arms hanging down. You’ve just completed one rep!

Barbell Back Squats

Most bodybuilders will tell you that if they could only do one exercise, it would be the barbell squat. This exercise is king when it comes to using multiple muscle groups. It’s very safe, but you have to have the proper form or you can injure your back. Ask a trainer at your gym to help you the first few times you perform a barbell back squat.

Barbell back squats are best performed in a squat rack. The bar should be just below shoulder level. Step under the bar and rest it on the back of your shoulders, slightly below the neck. Grip the bar so your palms face outward and your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Your legs should be shoulder-width apart, with your head up and your back straight.

Lift the bar off the rack and slowly bend your knees. Keep your head held up and your back straight throughout the exercise. It should be similar to sitting in a chair; if you’re worried about tipping over, set a bench behind you to catch you in case you try to squat too far. Again, just focus on your form when starting out. Don’t add unnecessary weight.

Once your hips are about even with your knees, begin to stand. The power should be driven by your heels rather than your toes. Straighten your legs slowly until you are in a standing position. This exercise can be tough on your back/neck due to the pressure of the weight, so don’t repeat to excess. Some gyms have foam pads you can use so the bar doesn’t dig in. Over time, you will become more comfortable with the feeling of the barbell on your back.

Before you start an exercise program, you should always consult with your doctor. Compound lifts can be difficult, but if you want the most bang for your exercise buck, this is certainly the way to get it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; both gym members and employees are often glad to assist newer weightlifters and show them ways to avoid injury. You might even meet a new exercise buddy!

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