Exercises for Body Composition – Introduction
What are the best exercises for body composition? I had no clue years back that the ‘type’ of exercise you do means so much.
Instead, I followed the typical flow of most people I saw in the gym; while watching the news or reading a book, ‘work out’ on the treadmill, elliptical, or a recumbent bike for 20 minutes so.
And then do a few sets of curls and shoulder presses with dumbbells, go to the locker, weigh yourself and wonder why you can never change your body.
If you ever had or have that experience now, this post will save you from wasting time and effort in the gym.
Changing Your Body
Just like I once did, you might also work out specifically for weight loss. Do you track your progress on the scales, rejoicing at every pound you drop? While weight loss can be a worthwhile pursuit, the truth is that you would be better off focusing on your body composition.
Because what your weight is made up of is arguably more important than what the scale says. Ultimately, improving your body fat percentage, also known as your body composition, is much more useful.
When you focus on your body composition, you can lose fat, gain muscle, and stay the same weight. While this might sound like you have failed, this approach can literally transform the way you look and feel.
In contrast, focusing on weight loss could mean that you end up losing muscle rather than fat, and while you’ll weigh less, your body composition won’t change much, if at all. You could even end up being “skinny-fat,” meaning you look slender, but you are untoned, have little muscle, and still have a relatively high body fat percentage.
For weight loss, cardio can help. But to dramatically improve your body composition, you need to burn calories while stimulating your major muscles. This means building your workouts around challenging compound exercises.
So, which are the best exercises for body composition? I hope you keep reading to find out what I wish I knew decades ago!
The Top 8 Exercises for Body Composition
Remember this critical point – The best exercises for improving your body composition involve lots of muscle groups working together.
Compound exercises are challenging and should leave you feeling out of breath. I’ve included barbell, dumbbell, and bodyweight exercises you can use, so whether you work out at home or in a gym, you can still tackle these all-important movements.
So, in no particular order, here are my favorite body comp transformation exercises.
Bodybuilders and weightlifters in the know call the squat the king of all exercises. This is because squats work a kaleidoscope of muscle groups, every muscle in your lower body, and some in your upper body, too, including your core.
I still remember the first time I did squats with a 45 pound Olympic barbell in my local YMCA’s free weight area at the age of 55. I could not believe how difficult it was, both in terms of mobility and the feeling like I was going to pass out.
And for about a week after I did those first sets of squats, I could barely walk. The lesson learned is that the squat is a common functional movement pattern that you should never lose. But, if you make sure never to neglect squats again, you will be amazed at how much better you look and feel within a short period of time.
Squats are one of the best exercises for body composition you will ever do. So if you start to do squat workouts and forget the treadmill and biceps curls workout, you will gain muscle, mobility, and confidence.
There are lots of different squat variations you can use to improve your body composition, including:
- Bodyweight squats
- Barbell back squats – high bar and low bar.
- Front squats
- Overhead squats
- Zercher squats
- Box squats
- Anderson squats
- Goblet squats
- Bulgarian split squats
- Single-leg “pistol” squats
At a minimum, you should be familiar with the 20 greatest benefits of squats and how to do squats correctly with or without weights.
Squats might be the king of exercises, but deadlifts come a very close second. In fact, I think they may even be better because you don’t need a squat rack to do them, and if you are unable to complete a rep, you can just put the bar back on the floor. A failed squat can result in serious injury.
Also, you may not have the mobility to squat down, and if that is the case, the deadlift is a much more accessible total body exercise.
And even though deadlifts require less flexibility than squats, they still involve all of your major muscle groups, plus more upper body recruitment than squats, so they’ll potentially burn more calories.
Because of my limited mobility and a torn meniscus in my left knee, the deadlift became my go-to compound exercise. Little did I know that in only 6 months, deadlifting would do more to change my body than decades of dumbbell curls, shoulder presses, and walking on the treadmill.
So if you don’t have such good flexibility, don’t give up on body transformation; instead, focus on learning how to deadlift!
Like squats, there are lots of different types of deadlifts, including:
- Conventional deadlifts
- Sumo deadlifts
- Rack pulls
- Deficit deadlifts
- Romanian deadlifts
- Dumbbell deadlifts
- Trap bar deadlifts
- Single-leg deadlifts
- Kettlebell deadlifts
- Banded deadlifts
The humble push-up is probably the most widely performed exercise on the planet. It works your chest, shoulders, and triceps, and your core and legs are involved too. All of these muscles working together is what makes the push-up such a good body composition exercise. Plus, you can do them anywhere you have access to a floor – like your home.
To enjoy all the benefits that push-ups have to offer, make sure you do them correctly:
- Squat down and place your hands on the floor about shoulder-width apart, fingers pointing straight forward.
- Walk your feet out and back, so your shoulders, hips, and feet form a straight line. Tense your legs and your core to keep your body rigid.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest down to about an inch above the floor.
- Push yourself back up and repeat.
- Bend your legs and rest on your knees to make this exercise easier.
Between push-ups and deadlifts, you have an excellent push-pull workout. Even if you only do push-ups and deadlifts three times a week while focusing on eating real food instead of processed, you will transform your physique.
4. Kettlebell swings
Kettlebell swings work many of the same muscles as deadlifts and involve a powerful hip-hinge/extension movement. The main difference is that, where deadlifts are done quite slowly, swings are done explosively. Your heart and breathing rate will soar after a set of kettlebell swings.
To do kettlebell swings:
- Hold your kettlebell in both hands in front of your hips. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly.
- Lean forward from your hips, push your butt backward, and lower the weight down between your knees.
- Drive your hips forward and swing the weight out and up to shoulder height.
Lower the weight and repeat.
- No kettlebell? No problem! You can swing a dumbbell instead.
See these 5 Epic Kettlebell Swing Benefits for Total Body Conditioning for more details and motivation.
You don’t need any equipment to do burpees, so they are ideal for home and gym-based workouts. This bodyweight classic works so many muscles there isn’t enough space to list them all, but know that burpees are a fat-torching full-body exercise. Needless to say, with so much going on, this is both a challenging and effective body transformation exercise.
To do a burpee:
- Stand with your feet together and your hands by your sides.
- Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor.
- Jump your feet out and back into the push-up position. Bend your arms and do a single push-up.
- Straighten your arms and hop your feet back up to your hands.
- Leap up and into the air as high as you can.
- Land on bent knees and repeat.
- You can make this exercise easier by leaving out the push-up and/or the squat jump.
Thrusters combine front squats with overhead presses to challenge almost every muscle in your body. Only attempt this exercise if you can squat with perfect form. You can do thrusters with a barbell, a dumbbell in each hand, a medicine ball, or any other heavy weight.
To do thrusters:
- Hold your weight(s) in front of your shoulders and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Brace your abs.
- Bend your legs and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up and then press your weight overhead.
- Lower your weight back to your shoulders and repeat.
7. Medicine ball overhead throw and chase
This exercise is perfect for outdoor training. In fact, you probably won’t be able to do this one indoors unless you have a large, high workout area. Overhead medicine ball throws work your entire posterior chain, and running after the ball will drive your heart and breathing rate sky high. If you prefer to work out outdoors at a park or in your backyard, this is the exercise for you!
To do medicine ball overhead throws and chases:
- Hold your medicine ball in both hands and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- With your arms straight, push your hips back and lower the ball between your knees.
- Drive your hips forward and throw the ball up and overhead, so it travels behind you.
- Turn and run after the ball as fast as you can – SPRINT!
- Recover the ball and repeat.
- Needless to say, you should make sure the area behind you is clear, so your flying medicine ball won’t hit anyone or antagonize your neighbor’s pit bull.
8. Heavy punching bag intervals
Your final exercise works your chest, shoulders, arms, and core and will accelerate your heart and breathing rate too. Of course, you’ll need a heavy punching bag for this exercise but, if you’ve got space to put one in your home gym, you’ll be rewarded with an enjoyable and effective workout.
To do this exercise, whale on your punching bag for 2-3 minutes and rest for 60 seconds. Do 3-6 “rounds” for a short, sharp workout. Make sure that you NEVER put your thumb inside your fist and that you wear some form of hand protection (boxing gloves, hand wraps, or bag mitts) to spare your knuckles from bruises and grazes. Move around your punching bag and throw punches (and kicks if you wish) from the left and right. Imagine you are working with a sparring partner.
Exercises for Body Composition – Final Thoughts
While there is nothing particularly wrong with cardio and isolation exercises, they are not your best choice for improving your body composition. Cardio burns calories but does very little to preserve or increase muscle mass, while isolation exercises are simply inefficient; you have to do dozens instead of just a handful of well-chosen exercises. The exercises in this article provide lots of bang for your buck, delivering an effective workout in minimal time.
With an excellent nutrition plan, any of these exercises for body composition mentioned above will help you transform how you look and feel. However, I think I will always be partial to squats and deadlifts; try them out, you might also experience the same body transformation results!
Not sure how best to use the exercises in this article to decrease body fat and build muscle? Check out the Compound Exercises for Weight Loss Workout.
Or you can also use the 3×5 Workout: The Only Strength Training Program You Will Ever Need.
And last, if you feel you need to take off some weight before embarking on a weight training program, please consider picking up a copy of my ebook How to Lose 20 Pounds in 3 Months; thank you!