Train Smarter: Think Movements, Not Muscles
Want a smarter, more efficient approach to training your entire body? How about improving your body composition, performance, and overall health in less time? I know it sounds like the shake-weight infomercial, but I promise you it is NOT.
The fitness industry is relatively young and still developing. It was only in the late ‘70s and early ’80s that the fitness lifestyle emerged from relative obscurity into mainstream culture. The primary driver of the ‘80s fitness craze was the action-movie genre featuring larger-than-life characters played by actors like former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
The popularity of the fitness lifestyle led numerous people to join health clubs and gyms in an effort to achieve the kind of buffed, toned, and muscular physiques featured in movies. Because the training goal of many of these members was a defined, muscular look, the exercise equipment sold to gyms was designed to focus on training the way traditional bodybuilders train—one muscle or body part at a time.
Bodybuilders train specifically for large, well-defined, symmetrical muscles that will stand out when being judged on stage. They commit countless hours to meal planning and rigorous exercise six or seven days a week, each day with a dedicated focus on a specific body part. Most people don’t have the time required to get results from an exercise program designed with this approach. So why do the majority of people still follow a split routine exercise program with entire workouts dedicated to individual muscle groups—leg day, arm day, chest and triceps day, back and biceps day, abs and cardio day... Sound familiar?
Does that mean people who can’t achieve the same results as a bodybuilder are failures? Or does it mean that the way they’ve been told to exercise need to be re-examined?
The first anatomists who dissected and studied the human body cut through and discarded the fascia and connective tissue that surrounds the fibers of each muscle. They thought the tissue was not important and needed to be removed to fully understand how a muscle works. The prevailing thought was that if a muscle crossed a joint then it probably created movement only at that joint. Combine that theory with the focus on training isolated muscles and it is easy to see how we got where we are today—leg day, back day, chest day, arm day, and so on. If you walk into almost any health club or gym you will see a wide variety of equipment designed to train muscles that you probably didn’t even know you had. This begs the question—do you really need all of those fancy health club machines to get a good workout? The answer is no.
So, how should we train?
Focusing on just one body part at a time would be an effective way to exercise if that was how the human body was designed to function. Human movement, however, is not a series of isolated joint actions. If you have ever watched the process of a baby learning how to roll over, crawl and eventually walk, then you have seen everything you need to know about human movement.
The human body is designed to be in constant motion with all joints, tissues, and muscles working together to walk, move, and thrive.
Moving, or the gait cycle, is a series of coordinated movements including foundational patterns that we now know are can be maximized in fitness. While there are no specific exercises that are absolute necessities in a smart exercise program, there are foundational movement patterns that every single person walking the earth should be able to develop and master. And yes, I mean everyone.
Foundational movement patterns
Exercise Examples: Body Weight Squat, Barbell Back Squat, TRX Pistol Squat
Practical Application: Sitting and standing from a chair
Exercise Examples: Deadlift, Kettlebell Swing, Body Weight Single-Leg Hinge
Practical Application: Picking up a box off the ground
Exercise Examples: Reverse Lunge, Elevated Split Squat, Walking Lunge, Lateral Lunge
Practical Application: Kneeling down to play with a child or walking up stair
Exercise Examples: Pushup Variations, One-Arm Shoulder Press, Dumbbell Chest Press
Practical Application: Pushing a door closed, getting up off the ground, or placing luggage in the overhead bin on a plane
Exercise Examples: Pull-Up variations, Bodyweight Suspension Row, One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Practical Application: Pulling a door open or starting a lawnmower
Check out my post "How Do I Train My Core?"
Resisting movement, specifically to protect the spine
Exercise Examples: Plank variations, Bridge variations, Farmers Carry variations, Cable or Band Chops
Practical Application: Bracing yourself on a moving train or bus or carrying your luggage
Check out my post "How Do I Train My Core?"
Exercise Examples: Medicine Ball Side Throw, Cable Chop, Resistance Band Rotations
Practical Application: Throwing a ball, unloading the dishwasher and placing dish ware in cabinets, swinging a golf club, or playing a sport
What are the benefits of a movement-based exercise program?
The idea of focusing on only one muscle group in a workout is definitely not efficient, nor is it functional and can often times lead to overuse injuries, muscular imbalances, and postural dysfunction. I believe you should focus on movement patterns, not muscle groups, when exercising to develop a functionally strong and mobile body that also looks good. Following a movement-based exercise program based on these patterns means that you are using all of your muscles at the same time. When we are fit and efficient, every cubic centimeter of our bodies has a purpose, a function to help us thrive and perform.
It turns out that movement-based exercises can be more effective in burning calories and improving body composition (the ratio of fat tissue to muscle tissue) in less total time and weekly commitment while also training the body for how it is designed to move.
A second benefit of this approach is that you can do most of the exercises with little to no equipment, making it a perfect option if you want to exercise at home and avoid expensive gym fees. Let’s face it, sitting on an exercise machine using only one part of the body can be a bit boring, but challenging yourself to learn how to execute and master complicated movement patterns makes exercise much more fun and engaging.
How do put this information into action?
Take a look at your current exercise program. Are any of these movement patterns missing from your current routine? If so, include some of the exercise examples shared above. Are these movement patterns all covered evenly throughout the week? If not, swap out these movement patterns into your program and remove or minimize isolation exercises like crunches, side bends, calf raises, shoulder lateral raises, bicep curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions, and leg curls.
Think of the fundamental movement patterns above as your main course at dinner and isolation exercises as the small serving of desert at the end of your meal.
By focusing on these fundamental movement patterns, you will have the potential to maximize time, reduce injury, burn more calories, improve metabolism, build muscle and strength, and improve activities that you enjoy doing! If you’re new to exercise or in need of an approach to exercise that will help you to look and move better, consider trying this twelve-week exercise program by ACE. If you are more of an experience exerciser, stay tuned for more posts diving into how to build your own movement-based workouts.
I know this post was a bit sciency and there may be questions that you would like addressed. If so, I'd be happy to help! Feel free to reach out at email@example.com.
Coach Cameron, BS, CSCS, CPT