Whether your goal is fat-loss or athletic performance, most of your gym time should be spent on large multi-joint compound movements. These movements will give you the greatest stimulus for change allowing you to get the most out of the time invested in working out.
I’m about to share how I categorise these movements giving some insight into why they are important and what you can do. You’ll notice trends in that the exercises will sit within a continuum of movement for each pattern and that the best exercise for you depends on where your current capabilities lie and may well change as you get fitter.
Movement #1 - Squat
The Squat is one of the fundamental movement patterns that gets just about every muscle in the body working hard.
The prime movers here are the quads, glutes and core. There are many different variations of the squat pattern and the right one for you will depend on where your current fitness is at. Don’t worry though, there is absolutely a squat variation you can work on no matter what your current abilities.
The first thing we need to do is make sure we can achieve a good range of movement through the hip while keeping a relatively upright torso.
This may require some mobility work with the strengthening and stability coming from something like an upper body assisted TRX Squat. Others may already have the required attributes to go straight to the barbell back squat which is generally the option which allows maximal loading.
Movement #2 - Hinge (deadlift)
The hinge pattern is another major lower body movement pattern that requires most of the body to work hard. Just as the name suggests, the hinge pattern is a rotation through the hip so most of the power is coming from the glutes and hamstrings while tension is held in the core.
It can be a tricky movement to get to grips with but just like the squat, there are variations that can cater to any ability. Again, we must make sure we can maintain tension in the torso while achieving a large range of motion around the hip before thinking about loading or progressing to move challenging variations. In other words, the range should come from the hamstrings and glutes lengthening and not through compromising the position of the neutral spine.
Some Exercises which fall into this category are most deadlift variations, kettlebell swings and good mornings. Many people are very unfamiliar with this sort of movement and the place to start might be with a dowel hinge to drill in the movement patterns and raise body awareness with no load. Others may be proficient enough to use the barbell deadlift for maximal loading.
Movement # 3 - Push (Upper Body)
The pushing pattern is a major upper body pattern that is often categorised into either vertical or horizontal movements. Pushing exercises work the big upper body muscle such as the pecs, shoulders and triceps utilising movements that involve pushing your body away from something like a push-up or pushing something away from your body like a Bench Press all while your core is bracing to keep a rigid torso.
Push-ups and Bench Press are horizontal pushing exercises with vertical variations consisting of overhead movements like a seated overhead press or handstand push. You’ll notice that for pushing movements there is also a continuum of exercises, where you start depends on your capabilities.
The start point for some could be a slow tempo eccentric (fancy name for lowering portion of a lift) incline push-up where you are lifting only a portion of your bodyweight whereas others with a more athletic background may be able to go straight into a more demanding exercise like a tricep dip which can be loaded with a weights belt.
Movement #4 - Pull (Upper Body)
The pulling pattern is essentially the opposite motion to the pushing and is also normally categorised as being vertical or horizontal pulling. Pulling exercises are very important for posture and muscular balance and are often neglected within most programs.
They work the big upper body muscles including the lats, traps, biceps and other muscles around the upper back. Pulling exercises require you to maintain a braced and rigid core while pulling a weight towards your body like a Lat-Pulldown or pulling your bodyweight towards something like a Pull-up. Horizontal examples are Single Arm Dumbell Row and TRX Supine Pull-up/Row.
The pulling muscles don’t generally get much of a workout in day to day life so usually require a lot of strengthening, especially if your goal is to perform your first unassisted pull-up. A progression strategy might be to gradually load and increase your pull-down strength before progressing to pull-up static holds and controlled lowering before finally progressing to the full movement. Make sure the variation that you select is appropriate to where you are currently at in terms of strength and ability.
movement #5 - (Loaded) Carry / Move
Carrying or moving under load is a full body pattern that trains the body to work as a cohesive unit. You’ll have noticed so far that the role of the core has primarily been to stay rigid while we work the muscles about either the hip or the shoulder. Similarly, during carrying and loaded movement the core will work to keep alignment and transfer force from the working muscles through the floor to create movement and maintain position.
There are many variations of this pattern which can be anything from lunges to a heavy farmers carry. They can be loaded evenly on both sides or we can even introduce uneven loading to stress the movement even more on one side depending on the desired outcome. Loaded carrying and movement is also a surprisingly effective way to get the heart rate up and can serve as a great finisher to a session, providing you have proficient movement and technique.
Make sure you include a combination of movements from each of these patterns.
I've made available a free Strength Training at Home template for you to download if you'd like a guide on how to build your own program.
For a truly personalised and done-for-you approach then check out my coaching options for both online personal training and personal training in Glasgow.
Allan Young is a Personal Trainer and coach educator in Glasgow who operates Strength Coach Glasgow and is a 4x Scottish Champion Olympic Weightlifter.