If you want to get the best results in the gym, you need to focus on the right exercises. The problem is that when you don't know where to start, you can get fooled by exercises that "look cool" but that fail to deliver. What I'm offering you today is not a shortcut, but rather an easy way to pick the exercises that will help you reach your goals with the most efficient use of your time and energy.
Primary Movement Patterns
By using primary movement patterns as the foundation for your program, you are effectively applying the Pareto Principle to your training template. Even if your gym routine isn't perfect, this ensures that you are performing the best "bang for your buck" exercises first and avoid wasting your time and effort on movements that aren't worth your while.
How many primary patterns are there?
From my findings, there seems to be 10 distinct primary movement patterns. They cover the most bases in terms of how your body moves in the gym. They are all biomechanically different enough from each other that it's hard to justify grouping them into fewer categories.
10 primary movement patterns:
2. Knee Dominant/Squat
3. Hip Dominant/Hinge
4. Single Leg
5. Explosive (unloaded)
6. Explosive (loaded)
7. Upper Body Push
8. Upper Body Pull
9. Core Control
10. Loaded Carry
Now let's have a look at each pattern, what it entails and why you need it in your training plan.
Primary Movement Patterns Cheat Sheet
Because of it's high demands on the joints and the metabolism, take the appropriate steps before throwing yourself into all-out sprinting. For more information on this topic, check out Eric Cressey's great article, "So You Want to Start Sprinting?".
Moving around on all fours also strengthens the link between your sensory systems. This will help you develop reflexive stability, which allows your body to anticipate movement before it happens and also react to movement as it happens. Reflexive stability plays an important role in balance and coordination(5), so don't forget to "stop, drop and crawl" once in a while.
#2 Knee Dominant/Squat
The squat also engages a considerable amount of muscle which makes it a staple in any workout program, regardless of whether you're training for health or performance. When trained with proper form and adequate load, the squat will recruit virtually all the muscles in your body.
There are many ways to squat, but you should always pick the variation that matches your level of skill and strength to stay free of injuries and keep progressing consistently.
#3 Hip Dominant/Hinge
Hinging exercises can be performed in many different ways and with a variety of implements. Here are few examples that you can include into your training: Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift, Barbell Hip Thrust, Dumbbell RDL, Barbell Sumo Deadlift.
Although the straight bar deadlift is a popular variation used by many gym-goers, the potential risks associated with performing this lift from the floor suggest that an elevated starting position or a different hinging variation might be more appropriate for most populations.
#4 Single Leg
They also put a great emphasis on core stability, since you have to control the two sides of your body moving in different directions while remaining braced. Above all else, they have great transfer to field sports when compared to bilateral movements. If you need to run, cut and change direction at any point, it all happens on one leg.
#5 Explosive (Unloaded)
Although basic explosive exercises can be safely implemented for most populations, it's important to have a very good foundation of strength before undertaking any true plyometrics such as depth jumps.
#6 Explosive (Loaded)
Before you decide to learn the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk, explore less skill demanding exercises first (eg. Trap Bar Squat Jump). Even though the Olympic lifts have become very popular in recent years with the rise of CrossFit, they take a lot of time to practice and require near-perfect mobility to be performed safely.
#7 Upper Body Push
All these exercises are extremely effective at building upper body strength and should be a staple in any serious training program. They mainly target the chest, the shoulders and the tricep muscles. They can also be performed in a unilateral manner (single arm dumbbell press, etc..).
It's important to add that all free weight exercises performed with your upper body will require you to stabilize yourself, also involving your core and your lower limbs. So even though the work is focused on the upper trunk region, you are still using "whole body" exercises.
If you want to press weights over your head, make sure you have the pre-requisite shoulder mobility before you begin. Failure to do so will result in compensations that can lead to injuries down the line. As a rule of thumb, if you can see your ear from the side when your shoulder is fully flexed, you're good to go (see pic below).
#8 Upper Body Pull
The upper body pulling pattern is the opposite of the upper body pushing pattern. Anytime you are pulling an object towards your body (or pulling your body towards an object), you're following a pulling pattern. These movements will primarily recruit the upper back, lats and biceps.
Just like the pushing patterns, these pulling exercises can be broken down into different planes of movement. Pull ups (vertical) and dumbbells rows horizontal) and two great examples of these different planes.
Vertical pulling or any kind of hanging exercises requires the same shoulder mobility as vertical pressing exercises (see pictures above).
#9 Core Control
When the topic of core strength comes up, most people immediately think about crunches. While crunches surely have their place in a smart training program, "[a] balanced multi-planar approach to core training that incorporates a combination of isometric and dynamic exercises is warranted to prevent any particular spinal segment from accentuated stress and to ensure proper spine-stabilizing biomechanics."(9)
A dynamic muscle action involves concentric (shortening) and/or eccentric (lengthening) contractions of that muscle which result in movement. A dumbbell side bend fits that description perfectly.
Horizontal/Transverse: Pallof Press (isometric), Pallof rotation (dynamic)
Frontal: Side Plank (isometric), Barbell side bend (dynamic)
#10 Loaded Carries
Putting it all together
However, if you want to make sure that your gym routine is as effective as possible, using the primary patterns outlined above will ensure balanced progress and will keep you from developing major imbalances or deficiencies over time.
To make your life easy, I've compiled a free handout that includes over 90 exercises to choose from so you can build your own gym routine. All you need to do is click that link and enter your information to get immediate access.
You can also head straight to the Upside Strength YouTube Channel where you'll find over 150 exercise videos to dial in your technique and keep you injury free in the gym.
Primary Movement Patterns Cheat Sheet
(10) NSCA's Essentials of Personal Training