fbpx

If you’re looking to lose fat, gain muscle, or both, then body composition exercises can play a key role in your fitness plan. 

The best training plan will take into account your goals, current fitness level, and the time you can commit to training. The exercises in this blog are a great (and customisable!) starting place as you work to get more active. 

However, it’s important to bear in mind that sustainable, long-term changes to your body composition require a commitment to nutrition as well as exercise.

What is body composition?

Body composition describes the elements your body is made up of, including fat, visceral fat, muscle, bone, water, and other tissues. Sometimes, body composition is split into just two components –  fat mass and fat-free mass. 

Improving body composition is a common goal, whether for athletic performance, aesthetics, or the many health benefits of a leaner physique. Most often, body composition includes fat loss, muscle gain, or a combination of the two.

What affects body composition?

A variety of factors influence our body composition. Some of these include: 

  • Genetics
  • Exercise and general activity level
  • Diet and nutrition
  • Stress levels
  • Sleep quality and amount
  • Any underlying health conditions
  • Hormones 

In this article, we’ll be focusing on the second of these: exercise. However, diet and nutrition are an essential part of any body recomposition program. If your goal is fat loss and you have limited time, then adjusting your caloric intake to reflect your TDEE may be the most effective task to prioritise.

Why is body composition important?

Having a healthy body composition is linked to a range of health benefits, including:

  • Improved sleep quality
  • Improved mood
  • Improved lung function and breathing
  • Increased energy throughout the day
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Reduced joint pain and improved mobility 

Plus, a healthy body composition can help decrease your risk of developing:

Of course, there are plenty of valid reasons for seeking to lose fat or gain muscle. That being said, maintaining a healthy body fat percentage is one of the most impactful things we can do to take care of our health and decrease the risk of adverse health outcomes. A DEXA scan is the gold-standard method for assessing body composition, and a great way to track your progress. 

How to improve your body composition

 

A young, athletic man sits smiling on the gym floor, with a white towel folded over his shoulder and headphones around his neck. Gym equipment is visible in the background, and a bottle and a resistance band are on the floor beside him.

Improving your body composition by losing fat, gaining muscle, or both tends to require a two-pronged approach that incorporates a healthy diet and an increased amount of movement. 

Nutrition for body composition

The amount and type of food we eat has a big effect on our body composition. 

Consuming more calories than we use (a caloric surplus) will lead to weight gain, while consuming fewer calories than we use (a caloric deficit) will lead to weight loss. 

If you’re looking to lose fat, then the most effective way to create a calorie deficit is via your diet. The popular lore that you “can’t out-train an unhealthy diet” stands true in most instances, as it takes a lot of exercise to balance out a caloric surplus. While exercise can contribute to a calorie deficit (and create more ‘“room” in your calorie allowance), it can be difficult to maintain a calorie deficit from exercise alone. 

Depending on your body composition goals, you may want to: 

  • Increase your caloric intake to build muscle/gain weight
  • Decrease your caloric intake to lose fat/lose weight
  • Maintain your caloric intake to maintain your weight

Establishing a daily calorie goal starts with knowing your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). You can use our custom BMR and TDEE calculator to get started. 

Calorie deficit not working? Check out these top 8 reasons why

Exercise for body composition 

There are two main types of exercise for body composition: cardio and strength training. Let’s take a look at each. 

Cardio

Cardio exercise – such as running, swimming, or cycling at a moderate intensity – trains the cardiovascular system, strengthening the lungs and heart. Cardio is a great way to stay fit, improve endurance, and build aerobic capacity

Cardio is also often used as a way to burn calories, typically to create or increase a caloric deficit as a part of a weight loss plan. 

However, cardio isn’t a particularly effective method of burning calories. It’s often time-consuming, increases hunger, and can result in the body “compensating” for the burn by cutting energy expenditure in other areas. This means that cardio alone isn’t the best way to meet your body recomposition goals. 

Strength training

While many assume strength training equates to lifting heavy weights, strength training can take many forms. Free weights, weight machines, bodyweight exercises, calisthenics, resistance exercises, and cable suspension exercises all constitute strength training. 

Strength training aims to build muscle (muscular hypertrophy), improve muscular endurance, and increase muscular power. 

When it comes to body composition, strength training is an essential component. 

While the calorie burn of strength training can be lower than that of its cardio counterpart, strength training has numerous benefits for body recomposition. Strength training: 

  • Helps build new muscle mass
  • Increases strength  
  • Boosts metabolism
  • Decreases abdominal fat
  • Preserves muscle mass while in a caloric deficit
  • Increases calorie burn (since muscle is calorically expensive to maintain)

Regardless of whether your body composition goals are focused on losing fat or gaining muscle, it’s essential to incorporate some strength training into your routine. Not sure where to begin? The body composition exercises below are a great place to start. 

Measure your body composition

Simply tracking your weight won’t give insights into body composition changes. Luckily, plenty of more accurate ways to assess your body composition are available. 

The most accurate way to assess your body composition is with a DEXA scan for body composition. For more information on how a DEXA scan can complement your body composition exercises, check out our article on how to lose fat with a DEXA scan

Best exercises for body composition

 

A strong woman lifts a dumbbell over her head while in a low squat, with the other arm extended parallel to the ground. The background is dark.

Whether you’re looking to train body composition exercises at home or at the gym, the following body composition exercise groups have something for everyone. Aim to incorporate a variety of exercises from each type for a well-rounded workout routine. 

Lower body exercises

A black man performs a back barbell squat in front a squat rack in an airy gym.

Lower body exercises target the muscles of your lower body, including your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Many lower body exercises also work out your core, as these muscles stabilise you as you perform the exercise. 

Each of the exercises below has numerous iterations, so we’ve included some of the most popular variations for you to try. 

Squats

A squat is a compound movement that strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, quads, and calves, while engaging your core. 

Here are some progressions to try: 

  • Bodyweight squat: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and lower until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Raise back up slowly.
  • Goblet squat: Hold a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weighted ball to your chest. Look straight ahead, and squat as in a bodyweight squat. Keep the weight close to your body throughout the movement. 
  • Front barbell squat: Uses a barbell. Remove the bar from the squat rack, grip the bar shoulder-width apart, and, stepping back, support the bar with your chest. Keep your spine long as you drop into the squat, making sure the bar doesn’t extend further than your toes. Reverse the squat, slowly, extending through the knees and hips. Re-rack the bar. 
  • Barbell back squat: Uses a barbell. Place the barbell across your shoulders and grip with both hands. Brace your core and bend into the squat. Reverse the squat by pushing up through both feet and through your lower body. Engage your glutes at the top and stand to finish. 

All of these squat variations can be performed at different weights. Experiment with feet positioning, weights, and reps until you find what works for you. 

Lunges 

A lunge is a standing exercise that strengthens your glutes, quads, and calves, while engaging your core muscles. 

Try out the following variations: 

  • Basic lunge: To perform a lunge, start with your feet hip-width apart, and take a long step forwards. Slowly bend both knees, to no more than a 90 degree angle. Hold the position before returning to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg. 
  • Reverse lunge: Perform as a basic lunge, but stepping backwards instead of forwards. Repeat with the other leg. 
  • Walking lunge: A series of lunges performed in succession, alternating legs. 
  • Side lunge: Great for activating the hips and glutes. Step to the side instead of forwards, keeping the trailing leg straight. Return to standing and repeat with the other leg. 
  • Jumping lunge: Perform a basic lunge, and pause in position. Keeping your core engaged, jump into a lunge on the alternate leg. Repeat.  

Deadlifts

The deadlift is a strength training powerhouse, targeting your whole body and focusing on your glutes, quads, hamstrings, lower back, and trapezius. 

While deadlifts are traditionally performed with a barbell, you can use any type of weight. If you’re new to strength training, starting with two dumbbells or a light kettlebell can be a good way to learn the motions of the deadlift.

Give the following variations a try: 

  • Classic deadlift: Position your feet shoulder-width apart, and grip your weight of choice. Engage your core as you slowly lower the weight, keeping it close to your body and your knees softened. Push upwards from the legs to return to standing, keeping your arms extended and powering through your lower body. Slowly lower again. Repeat. 
  • Staggered deadlift: Begin with one foot slightly back, so the toes of your back foot align with the heel of your front. Perform as you would a classic deadlift. After you complete your reps, repeat with legs reversed. 

As with all the exercises on this list, experiment with what set up, weight, and variations work best for you. 

Upper body exercises

 

Two men and a woman lie on the floor ready to perform a push-up with their hands placed on dumbells.

Upper body exercises work out a wide range of muscles including your chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and core. 

Give the following exercises a try: 

  • Push ups: A classic for a reason, the push up targets your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core. Start in a plank position, keeping a straight line from your shouldes to ankles. Bending at the elbow, lower yourself to the ground, before pushing back up to a plank position. For an easier push up, perform against a wall, with hands raised on a bench, or on your knees. For a challenge, try wide push up, tricep push up, or clap push up variations.   
  • Pull ups: Targets the shoulders, back, and arm muscles. Hang from a bar with hands shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up to meet the bar, then lower yourself slowly back to a hanging position. 
  • Bench presses: Targets the chest, shoulder, and arm muscles. Lying on a bench, hold a barbell or two dumbbells above your chest, with arms extended. Then, lower the weight to chest level, before pushing back up to the starting position.
  • Shoulder presses: Targets the shoulders, chest, pecs, and traps. Using two dumbbells (or a machine), begin with weights at shoulder height. Engage your core and extend your arms, raising the weights above your head. Maintain a neutral spine, and slowly lower the weights to your starting position. Can be performed standing or seated. 

As with all the exercises on this list, experiment to find the set up, weight, and variations work best for you.

 

Core and stability exercises

A young woman holds a plank position on a yoga mat in the gym. A gym ball and other gym equipment is visible in the background.

Core exercises strengthen far more than just your abs. Focusing on muscles from your neck down to your pelvis, core and stability exercises are an essential type of body composition exercise. 

Make sure to incorporate a variety of core exercises, targeting different muscle groups, and making sure to work out both your back and front. 

Some core body composition exercises to try: 

  • Plank: Helps develop core stability and targets abs, obliques, shoulders, and back muscles. Can be performed either on all fours or resting on your upper arms. Hold your body in a straight line, and hold for as long as you can. 
  • Bird dog: Starting from all fours, extend your left arm and right leg, return to neutral, then extend your right arm and left leg. This exercise works your core muscles and improves stability.  
  • Russian twist: From sitting, bend your knees and bring them to your chest. Twist your torso from left to right, engaging the core muscles. Add a weight to increase difficulty. 
  • Crunch: Lying on your back, crunch your torso up, engaging your core. Lower slowly. Variations to try: bicycle crunch, reverse crunch, oblique crunch, standing crunch, tuck crunch. 
  • Cable exercises: Using a cable machine provides numerous opportunities for core and stability body composition exercises, including cable crunches, twists, and cross-body movements. 

For these core body composition exercises, you can increase difficulty by increasing reps or time or adding weight.
  

Explosive and compound exercises

A woman performs each step of a burpee: crouched, holding a plank position, preparing to stand, and jumping.

Compound exercises target more than one muscle group at once, giving them a great ROI and extra calorie burn. Explosive movements combine strength, speed, and power and require a near-maximum effort to perform. 

Adding compound and explosive movements into your body composition exercise routine can help build strength, endurance, and power and make for a great whole-body workout. 

Give the following exercises a try: 

  • Burpee: A high intensity exercise that targets your whole body while boosting cardiovascular stamina. Begin in a low squat position, jump to a plank hold, jump back to a low squat, then jump to standing to finish the rep. Optionally, add a push up from the plank position. 
  • Box jump: From standing, bend your knees and power through the ball of your feet to jump onto a box. Land with both feet. Step off the box and repeat.   
  • Jump squats: Begin with feet shoulder-width apart and drop into a bodyweight squat. Swing your arms behind you at the lowest point of the squat, then swing them as you jump upwards. Land in a squat. Repeat. 
  • Kettlebell swings: Targets the posterior chain. Starting from standing with feet shoulder-width apart, hold a kettlebell straight down. Swing your hips back, bend your knees, and bring the kettlebell in a “swing” between your legs. Engage your core and push your hips forward as you swing the kettlebell forward as far as your arms will extend. Lower the kettlebell back to neutral to complete the rep. 

Some of the exercises we’ve already covered, such as squats, deadlifts, and push ups work as great compound movements, too. 

Ready to transform your body composition?

Body composition exercises are an important component of your body recomposition journey. However, they’re not the whole story. 

If you’re looking to transform your body composition, the best results will come from a personalised approach that tackles nutrition and exercise while taking into account your specific metabolic rate, current body composition, and movement abilities. 

My Vital Metrics is London’s best lab for health and human performance. We specialise in giving you the data you need to meet and exceed your health and performance goals. 

From our gold-standard DEXA body composition scans to our Body Composition Membership, we’re here to help you succeed. To find out more or to book a free health and fitness consultation, reach out to My Vital Metrics today!