Are You Doing Enough in the Gym? Part 3

Posted: July 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

Note:  This one gets a little heavy on the theory and sciencey stuff so if you have any questions, please ask and I’ll do my best to clear anything up.

If you missed parts 1 or 2, they are here and here, respectively.  In Part 3 we’ll find out which movements we should make sure to include in our training and why.

When it comes to human movement, it can be argued that there are only a handful of patterns that can occur.  These patterns combine into all the different types of movement that a person can express.

The basic movement patterns that most fitness professionals will agree on are squatting, hip hinging (or deadlifting), lunging, twisting, pulling and pushing.  For the sake of this post, you don’t have to know all the intricacies of these movements as I’ll go over them in much greater detail in future posts.

For now just know that squatting is like getting on and off the toilet; hip hinging is like bending over to clean the toilet; lunging is like that one step you take while on the toilet to reach for a new roll of tp; twisting is like when you avert your eyes and nose from whatever it is that the person before you left in the toilet;  pulling is like what you have to do when your girlfriend falls in the toilet because your dumb ass left the toilet seat up; pushing is like what your girlfriend does while she’s screaming your face off for leaving the damn toilet seat up.

Alright alright.  So they’re not exactly like that, but those examples should give you a general picture of the motions that your body performs.

If we were to break down almost any movement in general, we would find that they are all some combination of the above movements.  For example, Ken and Ryu’s Dragon Punch is a combination of a lunge (done explosively to get off the ground), a vertical one handed push (the punch), and a twist (you know, the part where he um.. twists).

So we could attempt to practice every movement in the entire world, or we could practice a select few.  But which is better? Now, you may be thinking, “wouldn’t it be better if we learned a lot of different movements so we could constantly challenge our bodies in new ways?”

And to an extent you would be right.  It would be ideal if you could keep a few primary exercises constant in your programming and rotate through a solid repertoire of secondary exercises, but variety will eventually come into play in anyone’s programs.  Either for the sake of progression or to avoid getting bored.

The case I’m making for practicing a select few movements is that if most movements are based on these six patterns, and we learn these six patterns well, we can apply the same principles to any other variation of those movements.  So if you know how to pull from a seated position (a.k.a. seated row), you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to pull while bent over in a hip hinge position (a.k.a. bent over row), or while hanging upside down and posing as a male escort (a.k.a. Schneider pulls).  All that’s different is the set up.  Not that any sane person would, you know, attempt that last one.  But if you had to, you could figure it out.  As long as you learned how to pull properly.  (And how to fix a 40 gallon fish tank properly)

So once you get a good feel for each of these movements, the variations can be endless.  Keep in mind that the goal of variation is to expose your body to different stimuli in order to get it to change (adding muscle, losing fat etc).  However, changing exercises is not the only way to add variety.  By requiring your body to do slightly more work than before (adding weight, more sets or reps), you can ensure that your body will always have a catalyst to keep improving.  This is what the smart guys like to call progression and we’ll go over that more in the last part of this series.

Great.  So you’re telling me to learn my basics.  Fantastic.  And how the hell is this going to help me lose weight or get jacked or run a marathon?  Seriously six movement patterns? Thats it?

Yes.  Thats exactly what I’m saying.  The essence of strength training is recruiting as many muscle fibers as you can, as often as you can.  All of the movement patterns mentioned above are compound movements that require us to move around two or more joints.  Movements that more around only one joint are called isolation movements.  These definitely have a place in your training program, but it would behoove to you to focus mainly on the compound guys.


Think about a bicep curl.  You’re bending your arm with a weight in your hand.  Now think about a chin up.  You’re hanging from a bar and part of getting yourself up to the bar requires bending your elbow.  This is the same thing as *gasp* … a bicep curl.  Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you don’t bicep curl with a dumbbell that’s even close to your bodyweight.  Even if you’re doing an assisted chin up, it would be a pretty safe assumption that your bicep is doing more work than it would doing the curl.  Yes, its not that black and white as other larger muscles come into play, but if your arm doesn’t bend (curl), you don’t get to the bar.  Period.

So to sum that whole mess up, the more muscle fiber you can recruit and the more times those fibers contract, the more energy they use.  Hello fat loss.  The more muscle your brain knows how to recruit, the more opportunity those muscle fibers have to grow.  Hello getting hyoooge.  The more muscle fibers your body has at its disposal, the faster you run and the more force you can absorb (leading to less wear and tear).  Hello faster marathon.

The last thing I’d like you to consider is probably something that most gym goers don’t make a connection with.  This is the idea of neural patterning.  Try this:  Stand up and bend your knees.  You should feel a lot of tension in the front of your thighs and around your knees.  Now stand with your knees against something that won’t let them bend forward.  Instead of pushing your knees forward, push your butt out behind you.  You shouldn’t feel anything in the front of your legs, but more so through your backside.

Most of the things we do outside the gym requires us to bend our knees.  If we’re moving, our knees have to bend.  The problem that arises is that people become quad dominant and never really learn to use their backside.  This can lead to a host of problems.  Jumper’s knee or IT band issues anyone?  Those backside muscles, the posterior chain as its called (mainly our butt and hamstrings), are some of the larger and more powerful muscles in our bodies.  So they SHOULD be doing more work than most people have them doing.  They should come into play when we land from a jump.  They should come into play when we’re running.  But those things are reactionary.  When we play sports or just go through our daily routine, we don’t need to be thinking about activating our glutes or using our hips.  It should just happen.  And like most things, it won’t happen if you don’t practice.

So where do we practice this?  Yeah, see where this is heading?  We need to do all that work in the gym.  By teaching ourselves how to use the right muscles in the right order and with the proper amount of strength, we improve our neural patterns for each movement.  When we become efficient with our neural patterning, it becomes reactionary.

So when we’re hopping up and down on one leg thousands of times with 2 to 4 times our body weight being placed on each leg per hop (jogging, to the general public), you’d better hope you have the right muscles absorbing all that force.  Read:  you need to get in shape to run, not run to get in shape.

So a few things to keep in mind when performing these basic movements in the gym:

– Move with your hips first, not your knees.

– Keep your weight on your heels.  This will help get your posterior chain going.

– When pulling, the movement should be initiated through your shoulder blades first, not your hands.  Think chest popping like Shaq at the All Star Game.

– Try to keep your chest nice and big and proud and “expanded”.  You should feel tension between the lower part of your shoulder blades/mid-back, even when pushing and especially while performing leg dominant movements.

– When twisting, make sure your hips and shoulders are moving together.

Ok, in case I lost you somewhere in the middle, we need to practice basic movement patterns so that we can apply them to any exercise variation we might come across.  This will help us progress through our training programs and set a base for proper neural patterning.  And all those things will help us get to our goals faster and keep us healthier along the way.

Part 4 should be up later this week going over progression as I wrap up this series.  As always, questions and comments below and thanks for reading!

  1. JTO says:

    Thank you for sharing. After reflecting on your topic, I feel inspired to do more…at the gym. -J

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