Make the Most of Your Time in the Gym With Compound Lifts!



I love the gym as much as the next person, but it took me years to migrate over to the weights section. My mistake!  I toiled away my time as a little cardio bunny and never saw any real change. Sure, I stayed the same weight, but my body had no definition. I was a prime example of skinnyfat and I was frustrated! It wasn’t until I started lifting weights that I started to actually see muscles instead of just feeling them (if I flexed real hard). Unfortunately, a lot of women feel uncomfortable in the weights section of the gym, especially free weights, and I wasn’t any different. The thought of migrating over to the weight section left me feeling sweaty and not in the way I wanted!

When I first started at my local gym they asked if I’d be interested in some training sessions and I said yes because I’ve always had a why the hell not attitude and wanting to learn how to weight lift had always been on my bucket list. My trainer taught me all about how to use the machines and what workouts to do if I wanted to gain muscle or to gain strength. My love for weight training only grew from there as I saw my body composition change before my eyes!

So what do you do if you can’t afford a trainer and the idea of diving into the weights section makes you break out in hives? Just follow me! Hopefully you can learn from my years of wasted time, trial and errors and get the body you want sooner and with less work. Don’t get me wrong, getting the body you want takes time and effort, but it’s important to make sure you’re putting your blood, sweat and tears behind the right workouts for your goals. Now, if you love your runner’s high like I do, don’t worry! You can still enjoy some cardio, but just in moderation!

My favorite and easiest place to start is with compound lifts. With compound lifts you get the most bang for your buck because you’re using a ton of muscles to get you through the movement instead of accessory lifts which just concentrate on one muscle. You’re saving time because you aren’t working each muscle individually and who doesn’t want to be in and out of the gym quicker?

The Best Compound Lifts:


The muscles that are used when you do a back squat are your glutes, quads and hamstrings, but your back and abdominals are in the mix too in order to support you. So instead of individually working your glutes by doing donkey kicks or your hamstrings my doing curls you hit all those muscles with one compound lift! Personally, I liked learning back squats in a squat rack first, but each to their own. Some prefer the Smith Machine, but I think in order to learn correct alignment and to make use of your stability muscles learning in a squat rack is far superior. If you want a play by play of how to do a squat correctly, which I know you do, see below!

  • Start with a light weight on the bar (or just the bar). A typical bar weighs 45 lbs so make sure that you’re adding that into the weight you’re putting on either end. Check to make sure that the guard rails on either side are at the proper height. You can do this by doing an air squat and confirming you won’t run into the guard rails, but that they are just a hair lower than the bottom of your squat so they will catch the bar in case of any mishaps.
  • Get under the bar and place it on your traps with your hands just outside your shoulders. I usually try and make sure that I’m wearing a shirt when I’m squatting because the bar can be a little scratchy and bar-to-skin contact doesn’t always feel the greatest. Make sure the bar is set low enough that when you’re under it your knees have to be bent and keep your back diagonal so that if you drew a line from the bar to the ground it would go through the middle of your feet.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and arch your upper back a little bit to support the bar and when you’re ready straighten your legs to unrack the bar. If your wrists feel like they’re bending too much you are probably putting too much of the weight into them. Your hands are just there to hold the bar steady and your back should be taking on the majority of the weight.
  • I like to take a baby step away from where the bar was held so I give myself some space, but that’s just a personal preference.
  • Keep your head inline with your torso. Many people want to watch their form the entire way down, but that leaves you with a big unnatural arch if you’re staring at yourself in the mirror when you’re at the bottom of your squat. This is definitely not good for your back! You shouldn’t be looking up or down. Just keep your head moving inline with your back.
  • Take a deep breath and as you go down bend your knees and hips at the same time and your lower back should be neutral. Make sure your knees aren’t pushing in at any point. Keep squatting down until your hips are just below your knees. This is called breaking parallel. There’s a lot of back and forth on how low you should go, but my opinion is that you should be at least breaking parallel.
  • On the way up let go of that breath you took and push out of the squat with your glutes and quads. Keep your knees from bending inward and your chest up with your head inline with your back.
  • You just successfully did a weighted squat!
  • If you just want to do one then walk the bar into the rack so that you actually hear the clang as the bar hits the rack and crouch down until it’s back in its holders.
  • If you’re going for another rep stand with your hips and knees locked and take a deep breath. Repeat what you just did and smile because you’re awesome!
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If you’re more of a visual person, like I am, check out this how-to video!

Compound lifts are the quickest way to work the most muscles!


Deadlifts hit your posterior chain which includes the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. Secondarily, it uses your hips, abs, quads and lats. Again, one compound lift and a lot of bang for your buck! 

  • Again, you can start just with the bar here, but feel free to add on some weight on either end. Just make sure to use clips so that the weights don’t slide off!
  • With the bar on the ground stand with your mid-foot underneath the bar. Keep your feet at hip-width. Your stance should be narrower than on your squats.
  • Lean down to grab the bar without bending your knees with a shoulder-width grip. Bend your knees until your shins are touching the bar.
  • Straighten your back and keep your head inline with your back. So when you first set-up for this lift your gaze will be low and slightly in front of you and will be straight forward by the time you have completed the lift.
  • Take a big breath and hold it. Just like the squat! Stand up with the weight while doing your best to keep the bar right against your shins and then your quads as you rise to a stand. Lock your hips and knees.
  • Look at you go. You just did a deadlift!
  • To return the weight to the floor start by unlocking your hips and knees and then slowly lowering the weight being careful to move your hips back and keep your legs almost straight. Once the bar is past your knees you can bend your knees a little so you can start lining yourself back up for your next deadlift!

Check out this video here for a visual example!

Clean and Press-

A clean and press works the deltoids, triceps, biceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and abdominals. It’s challenging to learn, but one of my favorites. I’ll list out what to do below, but this is one exercise that I think is better to see visually first. I like this video. It took me awhile to figure out the timing of everything, but once I did it all just clicked. When I was first learning I definitely took my laptop with how-to videos and used a broom to practice some of the techniques in my mirror, but don’t tell anyone!

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart and your mid-foot is under the barbell.
  • Lean down to grab the bar without bending your knees with a shoulder-width grip. Bend your knees until your shins are touching the bar.
  • Push your hips back, take a deep breath, and while keeping your core tight drive through your heels as you lift the bar up.
  • Once the bar passes your knees quickly extend the ankles, knees and hips.
  • As the bar rises you want to shrug your shoulders and continue to lift the bar up. Remember to keep it close to your body!
  • When the bar is as high as it’s going to go bend your knees and drop under the bar while rotating your elbows underneath it to “catch” the bar. I use the term catch loosely because you’re really only using your hands as guidance and to balance the weight. The majority of the weight should be resting on your shoulders.
  • Stand up tall as you press the bar overhead until your knees are completely locked out. Make sure to pull your head back a bit as the bar goes in front or you risk clocking yourself in the chin. Trust me, it’s not fun!
  • To lower the weight bring the weight back down to the position you were just in and then rotate your elbows and you drop the weight onto your thighs and slowly lower the weight to the ground to finish up or go for the next rep.
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Now you may think I’m crazy, but thrusters are literally one of my favorite compound lifts. If you use a lighter weight you can easily add these at the beginning of a workout to get your heart rate pumping! Here’s a great video on how to do thrusters. If you really concentrate on what muscles you’re using you can get some great glute work in with these. These will work your deltoids, triceps, biceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and abdominals. So pretty much the same as a clean and press!

  • Use a clean to get the weight up off the floor and the once the barbell is at your collarbone lower your body into a deep squat.
  • Drive your elbows up, the same way you do in a press, and just as your hips are about to be fully extended, drive through your heels and squeeze your glutes as the bar floats up overhead. Again, take care to pull your head back again so you don’t hit yourself in the chin with the bar.
  • Lower the weight to the collar bone and repeat the process.
  • Feel good about yourself!

Here’s a great video on how to do thrusters.

Bent Over Row- 

The bent over row is the superb lift if you want to define your back. My back gains definition the quickest and I’m always thrilled to check out my backside after I’ve added these into my workout rotation on a regular basis.

  • Walk up to the bar with a medium stance and mid-foot underneath it. Shins not touching. You know the drill!
  • Grab the bar with your hands a medium distance apart. You’ll feel pretty quickly once you start doing the rows where it feels good to have your hands positioned at.
  • Unlock your knees, but don’t squat. Your hips should be higher than on your deadlift.
  • Straighten your back without moving the bar. It should be almost parallel to the floor.
  • Then take a deep breath, hold it and pull the bar towards you until it’s touching your lower chest. You should be leading with your elbows and pulling them towards the ceiling while maintaining proper position while you breath out at your final extension. Be careful not to drop your hips!
  • To lower the weight lower it quickly, but with control. People often forget that you’re working your muscles on the way down as well as the way up.

This video shows a bent over row starting from taking the weight out of the rack, but you can still get the gist of everything. Plus, I just really like the video.

Chest Press-

Don’t forget your chest! Work those pectorals, deltoids and triceps. Instead of having to do deltoid work and tricep work separately you get them thrown in with your chest work. What more could a busy girl ask for? Now I know chest presses seem self-explanatory, but there is a specific way you should be doing them to protect your rotator cuffs and to make sure you’re engaging the right muscles. 

  • Lie on a flat bench with your eyes under the bar and pull your shoulder blades back and down keeping some tension there.
  • Grab the bar with your pinkies inside the ring marks. If you’re a women you may need to bring the grip in a smidge. 
  • Squeeze the bar and set your feet flat on the floor with a shoulder-width stance.
  • Straighten your arms to lift the barbell out of the rack and move it forward until you’re over your middle chest. 
  • Inhale and lower down keeping your elbows at a diagonal until the bar hits your nipple line (yes, I said nipple). Exhale as you push the bar up. Really focus on pushing the bar up with your chest muscles. Repeat!

Check out this video to see a chest press in action. 

So if you’re new to the weightlifting world and want to spend your time in the gym wisely compound lifts are the way to go! And no, you won’t bulk up by lifting heavy. I was at my leanest when I was lifting my heaviest and doing almost zip in the cardio department. If you want a defined and strong body go the weightlifting route and don’t twiddle your thumbs racking up mileage on the treadmill and being unhappy with what you see in the mirror. As with everything, moderation is key. Right now I spend 70% of my workouts weightlifting, 20%  doing cardio and 10% getting my inner peace on with some yoga. I love it! Going 100% into weightlifting will only leave you sore and tight so make sure you’re doing a variety of workouts. 

Now go push some weight around!


Leave a Reply


  1. I am right there with ya. I only do compound movements, you see more results with them! When can cover more muscles in 1 movement, the better I look, and the more fat I burn. Ive got to get my workout videos posted

    Posted 8.17.17 Reply
    • awaitressnomore wrote:

      Yeah, there’s a time and place for accessory lifts, but if you want to see progress and not spend hours in the gym compound lifts are the way to go!

      Posted 8.21.17 Reply
  2. Mary-Ellen wrote:

    Thanks for the detailed instructions! I am not so afraid to try these lifts now!

    Posted 8.18.17 Reply
    • awaitressnomore wrote:

      You’re very welcome. Expect to see more like this!

      Posted 8.21.17 Reply
  3. After reading some of thin on Facebook I decided to do some research and I’m glad I found your post! Thank you for sharing.

    Posted 1.11.18 Reply
    • awaitressnomore wrote:

      Happy to share. I’m glad it was helpful!

      Posted 1.11.18 Reply
  4. I am a regular gym goer. and i am strongly agree with what you said in this post.
    Thanks for sharing Jen Elizabeth.
    liked your site and bookmarked it.
    keeep the good work up

    Posted 4.6.18 Reply
    • awaitressnomore wrote:

      Aw, well you’re just too sweet. I’m glad you agree! Can’t wait to hear more from you!

      Posted 4.7.18 Reply