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Adopt a movement-based approach for optimized workouts

Participants in a FitWall fitness class use resistance pulleys for strengthening at FitWall in Vaughan, Ont., March 19, 2012.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Like many rookie lifters who came of age during those ancient days before Google and YouTube, I received my iron education from Arnold Schwarzenegger's The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. There are approximately 140 exercises in this 832-page doorstop, each categorized by the body part it trains. Nearly half are for the arms alone. While the thoroughness of Arnold's masterly tome may be appreciated by some, it can be a touch daunting for those who've never lifted before.

A more practical way to organize your workouts is to switch from a muscle-based approach to a movement-based approach. Not only does this method ensure that commonly neglected muscles get the attention they deserve, it helps to minimize confusion; while there are thousands of different exercises, all of them can be classified based on the dozen or so movement patterns they train.

For brevity's sake, I'm going to narrow things down to the four most common movement patterns: pushing (vertical and horizontal), pulling (vertical and horizontal), squatting (knee-dominant) and hinging (hip-dominant). Master these movements and you'll be able to execute just about any exercise that comes your way.

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Pushing

Main muscles: Pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (back of arms).

Best exercises: Push-ups; landmine press; one-arm kettlebell press.

When training pushing patterns, most of the focus ends up on one exercise. Perhaps it has something to do with those strains of simian DNA that linger in our genetic makeup, but walk into any commercial gym and chances are good there will be a small horde of chest-pounding men gathered around a flat bench, each one taking turns pressing a loaded barbell into the air.

Despite its popularity, the bench press isn't that great of an exercise. Yes, it delivers results, but those results often come at a cost: banged-up shoulders and strained rotator cuffs are common among those who swear by the bench, not to mention the occasional torn pec. Push-ups offer a safer, albeit less sexy, option for developing horizontal pushing patterns. I love push-ups because they can be performed anywhere and they can be manipulated in all sorts of ways to fit just about anyone's level of fitness.

Vertical/overhead pushing targets the deltoids or shoulders. An early mentor of mine, the great Geoff Girvitz of Bang Fitness, once said that people have to earn the right to press overhead. I agree. Most people use way too much weight when shoulder pressing; they also lack the ability to stabilize their core and scapulas (shoulder blades), turning the movement into a spine-bending shrug-press. Until you've aced more subtle shoulder-pressing movements such as the landmine press, steer clear of overhead barbell presses.

Pulling

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Main muscles: Latissimus dorsi (mid back), rhomboids (upper back), biceps (front of arms).

Best exercises: Pull-ups; inverted row; face pull.

Whether it's doors that need to be opened and closed, keyboards that need to be typed on, or handheld electronic gadgets that need to be worshipped, a significant portion of our day-to-day life takes place in front of us. The result of all this frontal-plane action? Hunched backs, rounded shoulders and an overall body posture that resembles something like a question mark. I've yet to encounter anyone who's dying to resemble Quasimodo. This is why I emphasize pulling patterns in all my programs.

Pulling exercises target the back, while also giving some secondary love to the biceps and forearms. By strengthening the postural muscles of the back, we can reverse – or, better yet, prevent – the adverse effects of all this pushing and reaching.

Vertical/overhead pulling strengthens the lats – those wing-like muscles that run down the sides of the body from the armpits to the ribcage. As with pushing patterns, vertical/overhead exercises require a significant degree of shoulder mobility, meaning they're not for everyone.

Horizontal pulling (often referred to as rowing) involves hanging from a bar or a special suspension device so your back is more in line with the ground. Like pull-ups, rowing also hits the lats, but with a quick tweak you can hit the often-ignored upper back by pulling toward your shoulders rather than your sternum. Rowing is kind on the shoulder joints and offers an easier entry point for pulling exercises. If you – like just about everyone else on the planet – struggle to complete a single pull-up, stick with inverted rows until your strength increases.

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Squatting

Main muscles: Quads (front of legs), glutes (butt), hamstrings (back of legs).

Best exercises: Goblet squat; split squat; reverse lunge.

Squatting is a knee-dominant lower-body movement pattern. It develops some of the biggest and most powerful muscles in the body, making them essential for every training program. And while the classic barbell squat is the ideal option for building a solid set of wheels, it's by no means the only option. The goblet squat – in which you hold a kettlebell or dumbbell close to your chest, arms tight to your ribs – is one of the most valuable exercises out there. It's an excellent teaching aid for hammering home proper squatting mechanics, but it also works well as a standalone exercise.

One of the most overlooked elements of training is single-leg work. Exercises such as split squats and lunges help to develop balance, co-ordination and total body stability. If you're an athlete, single-leg exercises should make up the majority of your squat training.

My favourite variations are the rear-foot-elevated Bulgarian split squat (the name alone makes it an all-time great) and the reverse lunge.

Hinging

Main muscles: Hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors (low back).

Best exercises: Deadlift; Romanian deadlift; kettlebell swing.

There's an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer decides to gain a ton of weight so he can claim disability and work from home. While neglecting his already reduced workload, Homer decides to leave a plastic toy drinking bird in charge of clicking on his keyboard so he can hit the town. Envisioning and embracing this plastic toy drinking bird – with its perpetual back-and-forth head bobbing – is the key to understanding the most powerful movement pattern: the hip hinge.

Hinging strengthens just about the entire backside of the body, from the mid-back to the hamstrings, an area that fitness pros refer to as the "posterior chain."

The undisputed champion of hinging movements is the deadlift, in which a loaded barbell is lifted from the ground with a forceful hip-drive. I love deadlifts. For a person of average build such as myself, they're perfect. If, however, you have long legs, short arms or tight hips, the deadlift can put your back in a precarious position. That's where the Romanian variation, when the lift starts from an upright position and is lowered to knee height, comes into play. The kettlebell swing is another beneficial hinging movement, one that has the added benefit of delivering a serious cardio kick.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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