The exercise programming process, like all things in fitness, can be unreasonably complicated. A quick glance at any social media fitness influencer and you are flooded with advanced exercises and strategies to “hack” your physique.
The truth is that even advanced athletes only use those crazy exercises a fraction of the time. I know; I’ve coached a host of pro athletes in multiple sports. Let me tell you, even at the peak of athletic training, mastery of 6 foundational movements make up 80% or more of the athlete’s workout.
In fact, no matter what kind of physical activity you engage in, your programming is going to favor 6 basic movement systems. Forever. A strong, balanced physique is built on this foundation and no one graduates from the need to perform these movements regularly.
These foundational movement systems are the squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, and core.
What Is A Movement System?
A movement system is a unique multi-joint pattern of movement. Each movement system is defined by the direction in which force is applied, the joints involved, and which muscles are the prime movers. Keep in mind that while every movement is classified by the prime mover; there are other muscles working simultaneously in secondary and stabilizing roles.
When you sit and stand from a chair, this is a squat movement. The prime moving muscles during a squat are your quadriceps, commonly called quads. Your quads are the muscles on the front of your upper leg stretching from your hip to your knee. Since your quads are the prime mover, squats are considered a knee-dominant lower body movement.
The most common exercises for a squat movement are a goblet or barbell squat, and the leg press.
Hinging is when you bend over at the waist, making this a hip-dominant movement, like when you’re picking something up off the floor. Your glutes (butt muscles) are the prime mover for hinging exercises.
Common forms of hinge exercises are the deadlift, hip thrust, and glute bridge.
Lunge variations cover all single leg exercises. Since single leg exercises have significant movement at the hip and knee joints, this single leg movement covers both squat patterns and hinge patterns. Exercises performed on one leg challenge the stability of your foot, ankle, knee, and hip in ways a two-legged movement cannot. This translates to real world benefits in balance, lifting and carrying on uneven surfaces, and locomotion like walking, running, and sprinting. This is a very important movement to include in workouts because your two-legged strength doesn’t translate directly to single-leg strength.
Step ups and forward/side/reverse lunge exercises will build strong legs and injury proof your knees.
With the upper body we can break down movements by prime mover and direction of movement. Pushing uses the pecs and shoulders as prime movers, but the ratio changes depending on which direction you push.
In a push movement, the pecs are the prime mover because you are pushing horizontally. Trying to shove furniture across the room? You’re bracing your legs and doing a horizontal push. Common exercises for horizontal pushing include the bench press and push up.
In a vertical push, your shoulders take the role of prime mover while you press overhead. Pushing boxes up to top shelves or stowing luggage in an overhead bin on a plane are common examples of vertical pushing in real life. Failing to train for this movement can leave your shoulders aching. Exercises for vertical pushing include overhead pressing, and landmine pressing.
Just like with pushing, you should perform horizontal and vertical pulls.
Horizontal pulling squeezes your shoulder blades together, making your traps the prime mover. Rowing any kind of boat or pulling things to your chest (including being awesome at tug-of-war) is an example of horizontal pulling in real life.
Horizontal pulling strength can have a direct correlation to your shoulder health and postural strength. If you work at a desk regularly, try to do twice as much pulling as pushing
Rowing exercises can be done one or two handed using cables, dumbbells, and barbells.
Vertical pulling uses the lats (the big muscle you can grab right below/behind your armpit) as your prime moving muscles. Anytime you pull something down from above you, or pull yourself up to something, you fire your lats.
You can strengthen your vertical pull with one or two-handed pull ups or cable lat pull downs.
This is the only movement system that is a category and not a single movement pattern. There are thousands of core exercises to choose from based on 4 basic core functions: flexion, anti-extension, rotation, and anti-rotation. The 2 kinds we will focus on are anti-extension (keeping your low back from arching) and anti-rotation (keeping your upper body from twisting). These exercises have the greatest effect on postural health and relieving low back pain. There will be much more about core function and training in a later article.
You can train anti-extension with planks and deadbugs. Side planks and pallof presses will cover your anti-rotation exercises. Just alternate which kind of core function you use.
Putting It All Together
Now that we understand the roles of these 6 movement systems, we can put them in context. Doing this total body workout 3-4 days per week will build you a strong, stable physique.
The template is programmed in supersets - two exercises performed back to back without rest. This is designed to accomplish two things: 1) save you some time 2) add a cardiovascular challenge. Each superset is built with one lower body and one upper body exercise. You will be forced to pump blood to your entire body, which is more difficult for your cardiovascular system than being able to keep blood centralized in one muscle group.
This template, as is, can take you very far. Simply by gradually increasing the weight you use for these rep ranges you can progress for months, longer than a year. Don’t overthink it and stay consistent.
Overall, consistency is the greatest contributor to your progress. Stay the course and watch your physique change!
Not Progressing Fast Enough?
That being said, you can clearly see this is a pretty simple template. It can be changed and progressed in many ways. How to most efficiently progress will depend on your overall goals, strengths/weaknesses, injury history, and several more factors.
For the most efficient results in your fitness journey, reach out to a fitness coach. Their education, experience, and professional guidance will optimize your exercise selection based on your specific physiology. This can cut days, months, and even years of trial and error out of the process and bring your results that much faster.
For questions and more info, feel free to reach out using the links on this webpage.
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