Many dieters and exercisers do what they do to lose weight. They celebrate every pound lost and may even set arbitrary weight loss goals, such as 10, 30, or 50 pounds. But, while weight loss can be a worthy fitness and health goal, it can also be a misleading one.
After all, when you only monitor your weight, it’s impossible to know what’s changed in your body. For example, you could have sweated off a pound of water or depleted your glycogen stores. Both of these things would register as WEIGHT LOSS, but your levels of stored BODY FAT could remain unchanged.
In this article, we will discuss body composition and reveal some of the best exercises for optimizing yours.
What is Body Composition
When you weigh yourself, the reading on the scales tells you your total body mass. However, that mass is made up of several different things:
- Muscle mass
- Bone mass
- Organ weight, including skin
- Fat mass
- Undigested food
- Water and other fluids
Losing any of these things will result in weight loss, but, really, the only thing you want to lose is fat. Water weight loss is very short-term and is regained as soon as you rehydrate. And who in their right mind wants to bone mass or organ weight?
Losing muscle often results in weight loss. But while the scales make this look like a victory, lost muscle means a lower resting metabolism and slower fat burning. There is also a possibility that you’ll become “skinny fat,” where you look slim but are actually soft and weak.
That’s why body composition is so important and more helpful than tracking just your body weight. Body composition, which is usually expressed as a percentage, compares your fat mass with your fat-free mass to give a much better idea of what you are losing.
For example, if you weigh 140lbs and have 30% body fat, about 42lbs of your weight would be fat, and 98 would be classed as fat-free mass.
Alternatively, you could weigh the same 140lbs with 10% body fat. In this case, only 14lbs of your weight would be fat, and 126 would be fat-free mass.
Needless to say, despite weighing the same, the difference in appearance between 30 and 10% body fat would be extreme.
Also, you can gain muscle while maintaining or even losing fat and end up weighing the same or more. If you base your progress solely on what you weigh, it could look like you are failing. Instead, this would be a significant achievement that would change how you look and probably improve your health.
So, to optimize your body composition, you need to lose fat while maintaining or gaining muscle mass. This may or may not be reflected by what you see on the scales.
There are several ways you can measure your body composition, and you can read all about them in our detailed guide.
The Best Body Composition Exercises
When it comes to burning fat, many people turn to cardio. This makes a lot of sense since cardio burns calories and fat. However, on the downside, doing a lot of cardio can lead to muscle loss (1). On the scales, this can look like a successful outcome, but in terms of body composition, it’s an epic fail.
For that reason, most successful fat loss programs combine cardio with strength training. Lifting weights stresses your muscles, and your body responds by either maintaining or increasing your muscle mass. This improves body composition.
However, there are plenty of exercises you can do that combine the benefits of cardio with the muscle preservation effect of strength training. For a lot of people, these exercises are more convenient than doing cardio AND strength training and could save you a whole lot of workout time.
Here are 12 of the best body composition exercises!
A lot of people wrongly assume that you need lots of fancy exercise equipment to lose fat and maintain muscle. However, all you really need is some space to move and your own body weight.
While nobody likes burpees, there is no denying that they’re a brutally effective body composition exercise. Best of all, you can do them in the comfort and privacy of your home.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
- Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor, about shoulder-width apart.
- Jump or step your feet back into the push-up position. Brace your abs.
- Bend your arms and do a single push-up.
- Step or jump your feet back into your hands and then stand up or jump into the air.
- That’s one rep – keep going!
Read more about burpees in this detailed guide.
2. Kettlebell swings
The kettlebell swing is a very powerful metabolic conditioning (met-con) exercise that will torch fat while engaging almost every muscle in your body. Just a few reps will make it clear that this exercise is effective as your heart and breathing rate go through the roof. Kettlebell swings are an excellent exercise for EMOM and HIIT workouts, both of which are great for body composition.
Learn how to do kettlebell swings here.
Thrusters combine front squats with overhead presses to create a superbly effective and challenging body composition exercise. Not for the faint-hearted, only do this exercise if you are already a master of doing front squats and overhead presses separately.
How to do it:
- Rack and hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders using an overhand grip. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Brace your core.
- Without rounding your back or lifting your heels, squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
- Stand up explosively and use this momentum to aid you in pushing the weight up and overhead to arms’ length.
- Lower the bar back down to your shoulders and repeat.
- You can also do thrusters with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a medicine ball.
4. Sumo deadlift high pulls
Like thrusters, sumo deadlift high pulls (SDHP) combine several movements to make one butt-kicking composition exercise. Where thrusters are all about your pushing muscles, this exercise works more of your pulling muscles. Doing thrusters one day and SDHP another is an excellent way to make sure you work all the muscles of your body equally.
How to do it:
- Place a barbell on the floor and stand with your toes beneath it, feet about 1.5 shoulder-widths apart and toes turned out 45-degrees.
- Reach down and hold the bar with a hip-width overhand grip. Straighten your arms, drop your hips, lift your chest, and brace your abs.
- Stand up explosively and use this momentum to help you pull the bar up and under your chin. Your elbows should be higher than your hands. Take care not to round your back.
- Lower the weight down to your hips and then to the floor before repeating.
- You can also do this exercise with a single kettlebell between your feet.
5. Dumbbell squat, curl, and press
This combo exercise works almost all the muscles in your body to burn lots of calories and preserve muscle mass. Easier to learn and master than thrusters and sumo deadlift high pulls, all you need for this exercise is a pair of dumbbells or just a couple of water bottles or cans of food.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand, and your arms by your side. Brace your core.
- Squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor, and then stand up.
- Next, bend your arms and curl the weights up to your shoulders.
- Finally, press the dumbbells up and overhead to arms’ length.
- Lower the weights to your shoulders and then your sides and repeat.
6. Box jumps
The box jump is a CrossFit staple, and you’ve seen how lean and muscular CrossFitters often are! This exercise gives your legs, heart, and lungs a good workout without being too hard on your joints. Compared to things like squat jumps, this is quite a knee-friendly exercise.
Adjust the height of your box based on your fitness and jumping ability. It’s always better to use a lower box than you need than a higher box you can’t jump on to.
Learn how to do box jumps here.
7. Sprint intervals
Sprinting, as in running REALLY fast, is a great way to burn calories while maintaining your muscle mass. However, you don’t have to run to enjoy the benefits of sprinting; any cardio activity you can do at a fast pace will work, for example:
After a warm-up, do your chosen activity as fast as you can for 20-30 seconds. Rest for 40-90 seconds and repeat. I particularly like 20-second work/40-second rest intervals repeated 10-15 times for a short but sharp body composition workout.
8. Sledgehammer swings
While there is no denying that this is an unusual exercise, it’s most undeniably great for addressing your body composition woes. Like all good body composition exercises, swinging a sledgehammer uses a lot of muscles. It also accelerates your heart and breathing rate. If you’ve got the space to do this and enjoy intense workouts, you’ll love this exercise.
You can equip yourself with an old SUV tire for free; just ask your local tire dealer. You can buy a sledgehammer for a few dollars from any hardware store. It’s also worth wearing work gloves to avoid blisters.
How to do it:
- Place an old SUV tire on its side on the ground. This is your striking target. Hold your hammer with one hand near the end of the handle and one hand further up. Adopt a square or split stance as preferred. Brace your abs.
- Putting your whole body into the swing, hit the upturned wall of the tire as hard as you can.
- The hammer will bounce back a little so be prepared. Use the rebound to help you raise the hammer for another strike.
- Try to alternate sides, either rep by rep or set by set.
There are lots of ways to do sledgehammer training, including:
- 30/30 intervals – work for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat 10-20 times
- 3-minute rounds – work for three minutes, rest for one minute and repeat 3-5 times
- 20-1 rep descending pyramid – do 20, 19, 18, 17, etc. reps as fast as possible
- 100 hits as fast as you can
- 500 hits as fast as you can
- Tabata intervals – work for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat eight times
9. Punching bag
It’s no coincidence that boxers and MMA fighters are usually lean and muscular, which is the epitome of good body composition. Hitting a punching bag is a full-body workout that will also raise your heart and breathing rate.
You’ll obviously need a punching bag (or a willing sparring partner) to punch yourself leaner. But, if you’ve got access to one or the other, try working for three minutes on, one minute off, for 3-5 rounds. It’s a lot harder to do in real life than it is to read about!
10. Barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell complexes
A complex is a series of exercises done back to back without any rest between each one. You use the same training tool/weight for every exercise, and each move is designed to flow into the next to create a logical, seamless sequence. The best complexes use compound exercises, low to moderate weights, and work your entire body. This makes them super-effective for burning calories and melting fat.
While there are bodyweight complexes, for body composition, complexes that use barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells are usually the most effective. That way, you can use weights that are challenging enough to preserve or build muscle mass.
Perform 4-8 reps of each of the following exercises. Do 4-6 sets in total or, alternatively, see how many sets you can do in 10, 15, or even 20 minutes.
- Deadlifts x 5
- Bent over row x 5
- Hang clean x 5
- Front squat x 5
- Push-press x 5
Discover more fat burning, muscle building complexes here!
11. Step-through lunges
Body composition exercises don’t have to be complicated. In fact, something as simple as lunges can be an excellent fat-burning, muscle-preserving move. This lunge variation is more challenging than regular lunges because it combines forward with backward lunges. This makes better for your body composition.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet together, arms by your sides.
- Take a large step forward, bend your legs, and lower your rear knee down to an inch above the floor.
- Push off your front leg and straight back into a backward lunge. Again, bend your knee and lower it to within an inch of the floor.
- Push off your back leg and transition straight into another forward lunge.
- Continue alternating for the required number of reps.
- Rest a moment and then switch legs.
- You can also do this exercise with dumbbells in your hands or a barbell on your back.
12. Medicine ball slams
Medicine ball slams are a fun, if somewhat noisy whole-body recomposition exercise. Really brace your core for this one, and use your abs like a bowstring to fire the ball down at the ground. Best done outdoors, do not use a gel-filled ball for slams as they are prone to splitting. Instead, use a slam ball, heavy-duty rubber medicine ball, or an old-fashioned leather medicine ball.
How to do it:
- Hold a medicine ball in your hands and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Brace your core.
- Raise the medicine ball above your head and come up onto your toes. You can also keep your feet flat if you wish.
- Putting your whole body into the movement, hurl the ball down at the floor just in front of your feet.
- Retrieve the ball as it bounces and repeat.
We have a saying in fitness – you can’t out-train a bad diet. It doesn’t matter how many of these body composition exercises you do; if your diet is unhealthy and contains too many calories, they won’t have much of an effect.
But, if you create a calorie deficit, cut down on sugary sweets, soda, and refined foods, and commit to doing these exercises regularly, you’ll soon be on your way to losing fat, preserving or increasing muscle mass, and reaching your body composition goals. Best of all, you’ll end up looking more athletic and not just slim but shapeless.
1 – Science Daily: Lose fat, preserve muscle: Weight training beats cardio for older adults https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171101130319.htm