We know, we know: Fitness results take time. But that doesn’t mean you should let any bead of sweat go wasted in the gym.
When it comes to burning fat and building muscle, some exercises are far more efficient (read: yield far faster results) than others. “The more muscles, and the greater total area of muscle fibers being worked in a given exercise, the greater the response to performing that move will be,” explains exercise physiologist Mike Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
Sounds logical, right? After all, it does take a lot more energy to perform a pushup than a bicep curl. But it turns out exercises that work multiple muscles at once, called compound exercises, are more than just the sum of their parts. When you work a large amount of your musculature at once, you actually trigger a greater release of hormones, including testosterone and human growth hormone, which build muscle and increase fat-burning.
However, to get the most muscle-building, fat-burning benefits from compound strength exercises, you need to perform them a certain way, says Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. Your level of resistance, number of sets and reps, how much rest you give yourself between sets, and even how fast you perform each rep greatly impacts how your body responds to each workout move, he says.
That’s why, when vying for fast results (yes, please!), Nelson recommends performing about three to six sets of five to eight reps. Between each set, give yourself about two minutes of rest—as much as three if you need it. That might sound like a lot of down time, but you should use heavy weights for these moves, so you’ll need a good chunk of rest to perform each set with proper form, he says. Incorporate enough weight and rest into your exercises that you can just eek out your last rep with proper form.
Now that you know how to use compound exercises for max benefits, here are the five moves that offer up some of the fastest results you can find in the gym.
Low-Bar Back Squat
This squat variation hammers your glutes while also working your quads, hamstrings, core, and back musculature to a high degree, Nelson says.
Instructions: Stand tall with a racked barbell across your upper back, just above your armpits, holding the bar with a wider-than shoulder-width grip. (Raise your elbows straight behind you to form a “shelf” for the bar.) With your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart and a slight forward lean to your torso, slowly hinge at the hips and knees to lower your body toward the floor. Lower as far as you can without feeling discomfort in your knees, lifting your heels, or otherwise breaking form. Pause, then push through your heels to return to standing, making sure to keep a straight back throughout.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
This upper-body move works everything: your lats, rhomboids, rear delts, traps, and even biceps, Nelson says.
Instructions: With a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other, bend at the waist and slightly bend at the knees so that your torso is almost parallel with the floor. With your eyes directed toward the floor (a few feet in front of your body), and your core braced, pull the weights back and up to the sides of your ribcage, keeping your elbows close to your body. At the top, squeeze your shoulder blades together, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
A true total-body exercise, the deadlift leaves no muscle untouched, Donavanik says. To get the most from every rep and stay safe, prioritize quality over quantity.
Instructions: Stand facing a loaded (with bumper plates) barbell, feet underneath the bar and hip-width apart. Push your hips as far back as possible and bend your knees just slightly to grab the bar with your hands just wider than hip-width apart, arms extended. Your shins should be about an inch from the barbell, and your shoulders should be in front of the bar. Keeping your core braced, forcefully extend your hips and knees to stand. At the top of the movement, thrust your hips forward so that the bar is against your thighs and your shoulders are behind the bar. Pause, then slowly lower the bar down your thighs and to the floor. Do not let you back round at any point in the movement, and make sure not to “squat” your deadlift, a common mistake. To avoid this error, focus on creating maximal movement through the hips and minimal movement through the knees.
Front Squat to Overhead Press
This lift is a twofer, working literally every muscle throughout your upper body in addition your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, Donavanik says. Expect to get winded.
Instructions: Grab a racked barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and position it on the front your shoulders. Rotating your elbows in front of you so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. From here, bend your hips and knees to lower into a squat. As you lower, the bar should stay directly over the center of your feet. At the bottom of the squat, immediately and forcefully reverse the movement to return to standing. As you do so, and just before your hips and knees reach full extension, rotate point your elbows toward the floor and extend your arms to press the bar overhead. In the top position, your arms should be fully extended with the bar just behind your ears. Lower the bar to your shoulders, then either repeat or return the bar to the rack.
Your glutes are the single largest muscle group in your body. This lift hammers them better than any exercise around, Nelson says.
Instructions: Sit on the floor with your back against a flat bench and your feet planted firmly on the floor in front of you. Hold a loaded barbell balanced on top of your hips (use a pad to prevent bruising) with a wider than shoulder-width grip. From here, thrust your hips toward the ceiling so that your back comes to rest flat on the bench, your torso and thighs are parallel to the floor, forming a 90-degree angle with your shins. Pause, then slowly lower your hips back to the floor.