Forget gold, silver, and diamonds – the time is the most valuable commodity. It’s something that can’t be replaced when it’s gone, and it’s often in short supply. When time is scarce, workouts are often the first casualty. You’ll either have to cut your workout short or skip it entirely.
Missing the occasional workout is not really a problem and could actually enhance your recovery. But too many breaks from training will soon put the brakes on your progress, and you could even find yourself losing strength and muscle instead of gaining it.
Make better use of what little time you have for training with combo exercises. Using combo exercises, you’ll be able to cram more work into less time. They might not be the best training solution for every training goal, but when time is short, any workout is better than no workout, right?!
What is a combo exercise?
A combo (combination) exercise is two separate movements rolled into one that are then performed alternately, e.g., dumbbell curls and overhead presses. Most combos work multiple muscle groups, which means you can get a lot of work done in very little time.
The advantages and benefits of combo exercises include:
- Burn more calories and fat – combining two exercises into one will increase your energy expenditure, making this training method ideal for anyone looking to get or stay lean.
- Improved fitness – working two different muscle groups will put an extra demand on your heart and lungs, leading to increases in cardiovascular fitness. They’re an excellent alternative to things like assault bike workouts and met-con training.
- Increased muscle mass – providing you choose appropriate exercises, weights, and rep ranges, complexes can be useful for hypertrophy training. They’re handy for adding variation to your workouts and avoiding training ruts.
- Better coordination and balance – doing two exercises at the same time will test and develop your coordination and balance. These are neurological fitness functions. Better coordination and balance will enhance sports performance, making you more athletic and agile.
- Shorter workouts – you can train your whole body using just a couple of combo exercises. If you’re short of time, it’s reassuring to know you can preserve or even enhance your fitness in 30 minutes or less.
As useful as combo exercises are, there are a few drawbacks to consider too:
- Not so good for developing strength – most combo exercises are not suitable for very heavyweights. As such, they are less useful for developing high-end strength.
- Poor pairings – some exercise pairings work better than others. Creating combo exercises takes knowledge, practice, and skill. A poorly designed combo exercise could result in injury.
- Not for beginners – you need good coordination and must be able to perform both paired exercises using the perfect technique for combos to be safe and effective. As such, this training method is not really suitable for beginners.
The 10 Best Combo Exercises
You’ll find guidelines for creating your own combo exercises in the next section. But, to get you started, here are ten of our favorite combo exercises so you can start using this useful training method immediately.
1. Front squat and overhead press (AKA thrusters)
This two-part exercise is so familiar that you might not realize it’s actually a combo! It’s a popular CrossFit exercise that is also good for bodybuilders, and it works your glutes, hamstrings, quads, core, deltoids, and triceps. You can do thrusters with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, a medicine ball, or a sandbag.
How to do it:
- Rack and hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders back and down.
- Squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back. Keep your core tight.
- Stand up and then press the weight up and over your head.
- Lower the weight back to your shoulders and repeat.
2. Romanian deadlift and bent-over row
This exercise works your entire posterior chain as well as your upper back and biceps. As with any hip hinge exercise, take care not to round your lumbar spine as that’s a common cause of lower back injury and pain.
How to do it:
- Hold a barbell with an overhand, wider than shoulder-width grip. Stand with your feet about hip-distance apart, knees slightly bent. Brace your core.
- Hinge forward from your hips and lower the bar down the front of your legs.
- Row the bar up and into your midsection, and then lower it again.
- Stand up straight and repeat.
3. Renegade row and push-up
When time is short, this combo means you can train your chest, back, biceps, triceps, and core all at the same time! As an added advantage, you don’t need a bench for this exercise which means it’s ideal for home and outdoor workouts. Just grab a pair of dumbbells and get to work.
How to do it:
- With a dumbbell in each hand, get down on the floor in the push-up position. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing inward. Brace your core.
- Keeping your body straight, row one dumbbell up and into your lower ribs and then the other.
- Next, bend your arms and do a push-up.
- Continue alternating between rows and push-ups for the duration of your set.
- Make this exercise easier by resting on your knees. Alternatively, make it harder by wearing a weighted vest, raising your feet on a step, or doing 2-3 push-ups instead of the suggested one rep.
4. Lateral raise and lunge
This upper body/lower body combo is great cardio and calorie-burning exercise. It’s also good for hip mobility and improving your balance and coordination. All you need is a little space and a pair of dumbbells.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet together, your arms by your sides, and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Lift your arms up and out to the side, so your hands are level with your shoulders.
- Lower your arms and then step forward into a lunge. Push back up to standing and then lunge with the other leg.
- That’s one rep; keep going!
- You can also do the reverse and walking lunges. Check out our in-depth guide to lunges for more details.
5. Dumbbell curl and press
Here’s another upper body combo exercise that’s perfect for busy lifters. The dumbbell curl and press works your biceps, deltoids, and triceps, making it a very time-efficient exercise. You can do this exercise seated or standing as preferred.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms by your sides.
- Bend your elbows and curl the weights up to your shoulders.
- Press the weights up and over your head.
- Lower the weights back to your shoulders and then down to your sides.
- Continue for the prescribed number of reps.
- Turn this exercise into a full-body combo by doing a dumbbell squat before you curl and press the weights.
6. Dumbbell pullover and fly
Most combo exercises are compound in nature. The dumbbell pullover and fly is an isolation exercise that targets your lats and chest. This is an excellent upper body finisher when your biceps and triceps are tired after doing compound back and chest exercises.
How to do it:
- Lie on a flat exercise bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Press the weights together and hold them at arms’ length over your chest, elbows slightly bent.
- Lower the weights back and over your head until your biceps are next to your ears.
- Pull the weights back up until your arms are vertical.
- Next, open your arms and lower the weights out and down to your sides. Descend until you feel a stretch in your chest.
- Squeeze the weights back up and together, and then do another pullover.
7. Hang clean and push-press
Hang cleans are a simplified Olympic power clean where each rep starts from just below knee-height instead of the floor. This reduced range of motion makes them easier to learn and keeps your muscles under constant tension as you can’t rest between reps. A push-press is an overhead press with an extra leg drive. All of this means that hang clean and push-presses are a full-body exercise.
How to do it:
- Hold a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Brace your abs.
- Push your hips back and bend your knees, lowering the bar down to just below your knees. Do not allow your lower back to round.
- Stand up explosively and pull the bar up the front of your body.
- Drive your elbows forward and under the bar to catch it on your shoulders.
- Bend your knees and descend into a quarter-depth squat.
- Extend your legs and use this momentum to help you push the weight up and over your head.
- Lower the bar back down to your shoulders and then your hips, and then repeat.
- This exercise can also be done using dumbbells or kettlebells.
8. Kettlebell goblet squat and halo
The goblet squat and halo combo exercise work your legs, shoulders, arms, and core. It’s also a good full body mobilizer, and, done with light weights, it’s a very time and space-efficient warm-up exercise.
How to do it:
- Hold your kettlebell upside down in front of your chest by the vertical handles. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Push your hip back, bend your knees, and squat down as deeply as you can without rounding your lower back. Stand back up.
- Next, circle the kettlebell around your head. Do one rotation in each direction.
- Reset the weight in front of your chest and do another squat.
9. Reverse lunge and cable row
This lunge and row combo works your legs, core, lats, and biceps. Because it’s an unliteral exercise, it’s also good for improving your balance and useful for identifying and fixing left to right strength differences. You can do this exercise using an adjustable cable machine or a resistance band.
How to do it:
- Set the cable on an adjustable pulley machine to about waist-height. Take the handle in your left hand. Straighten your arm and step back, so your feet are together.
- Step back into a backward lunge with your left leg. Row the handle into your lower ribs.
- Extend your arm, return to the standing position, and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each leg.
- You can also do this exercise using an alternating leg action or switch from a single-arm row to a two-handed row using something like a rope handle.
10. Deadlift and push-ups
This challenging but straightforward combo works your legs, core, chest, shoulders, and triceps, allowing you to get a lot of work done in a very short time. With so many muscles in play, this combo will drive your heart rate sky-high.
How to do it:
- Place your barbell on the floor. Stand in the middle with your toes under the bar and your feet about hip-width apart. Bend down and grab the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Straighten your arms, brace your core, drop your hips below your shoulders, and arch your lower back.
- Without rounding your lower back, drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Do not lean back at the top of your rep.
- Place the bar back on the floor and, without letting go, walk or jump your feet back into the push-up position.
- Do a single push-up.
- Walk or jump your feet back up to the bar and do another deadlift.
- Make this exercise harder by wearing a weighted vest or doing more push-ups per rep.
Creating Your Own Combo Exercises
We’ve given you our ten favorite combo exercises, but there is nothing to stop you from creating your own time-saving moves. Follow these guidelines to ensure your combo exercises are as safe and effective as possible:
Use compatible exercises – choose exercises that flow together. While dumbbell curls and presses are a great combo exercise, something like bent-over rows and overhead presses won’t work as well. The smoother the transition between exercises is, the more effective and enjoyable your combo will be.
Consider the weight – your training weight is dictated by the weakest and not the strongest exercise. For example, for thrusters, most people can front squat more than they can overhead press. Using your usual squat weight would mean that you cannot do the press or that your upper body would fail before your legs. Base your training weights on the weakest movement.
Try a range of training tools – some combo exercises work best with dumbbells, while others are better with barbells. Some work with both. Experiment to find the best option for the exercises you want to combine. A combo that doesn’t work with a barbell could be perfect when you make the switch to dumbbells.
Sample Full-body Combo Exercise Workout
While you CAN do things like EMOM workouts using a single combo exercise, and that’s a very time-efficient way to train, it’ll soon get boring. Instead, use several combo exercises to train your entire body in 30 minutes or less.
Here is a sample full-body combo exercise workout to try. Adjust the reps according to your training goals and the size of the weights you have available. Remember to spend a few minutes warming up before this workout.
|1||Front squat and push-press||2-4||6-12||60-90 seconds|
|2||Renegade row and push-up||2-4||6-12||60-90 seconds|
|3||Romanian deadlift and bent-over row||2-4||6-12||60-90 seconds|
|4||Dumbbell curl and press||2-4||6-12||60-90 seconds|
|5||Goblet squat and halo||2-4||6-12||60-90 seconds|
The worst thing for any exerciser is losing gains because there isn’t enough time to train. You WANT to hit the gym, but you just can’t fit your workout into an already packed schedule.
It’s so frustrating!
With combo exercises, you can get a great full-body workout in 30 minutes or less. A workout based on combo exercises might not precisely match your current training goal, but it’ll always be better than not working out at all.
The next time you think you don’t have time to train, do some combo exercises instead. As well as being great time-savers, combo exercises are superb fat burners and metabolic conditioners.