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At the beginning of the 20th century, Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, made an interesting observation. He noted that in Italy, 20% of the population owned 80% of the property. He later observed that in his garden, 20% of his pea pods contained 80% of the peas produced. This lead Joseph M. Juran to suggest the "Pareto Principle" in 1941, signifying the unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. He famously coined it "the vital few and the trivial many". But what does this have to do with primary movement patterns?

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

Primary movement patterns are basic movements that your body performs frequently. They all involve multiple joints, which means they recruit the most amount of muscle out of all the exercises you can think of. If you want a balanced training plan that will make your stronger, help you move better and promote muscle growth, that's where you need to start.

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.
Here's a concrete example: Instead of performing a barbell curl (bicep focused), dumbbell flies (shoulder focused) and dumbbell pull overs (lat focused) - 3 different exercises, you could program chin ups instead. The chin ups will work these muscle groups just as much, if not more than what the three isolation exercises did separately. In this scenario, the chin up is part of "the vital few" (primary patterns) while the isolation exercises are "the trivial many"

"Does your program include all the primary movement patterns?" Click to Tweet
 

How many primary patterns are there?

If you look around the internet, you will find many different answers to this question. The truth is that all the movement patterns belong on a continuum rather than in strict categories. For example, some people consider "unilateral lower body" to be its own pattern, while others include it in the bigger "knee dominant" and "hip dominant" patterns.

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:
1. Gait/Locomotion
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

Download your free PDF handout that includes over 90 exercises organized by pattern so you can pick and choose the right movements for your gym training routine. I took all the guesswork out of the equation for you by compiling that list. All you have to do is click that link and enter your email address to get instant access.
 
primary movement patterns handout
 

 

#1 Gait/Locomotion

This category includes a few different activities such as walking, running and crawling. All of these might not fit into a "gym routine", but be sure to include them in your weekly program.
 

Walking

Even though Bruce Springsteen and Christopher McDougall would disagree with me, I think we were born to walk. If we look at hunter-gatherer populations that still roam the earth, they spend a lot more time walking than they spend running(1).
 
Spina Quote

 
The closer we can get to mimicking the daily activities of our ancestors (without going back to living in the trees), the more likely we are to be healthy. So including 30 to 60 minutes of walking every day is a great place to start for most people.

Running

While slow, long distance running isn't very popular these days, it still brings many health benefits to the people who take part in it. If you're free of injuries, you shouldn't wait too long to get started!
 

Sprinting

Sprint training has been shown to be a very time effective way to reduce body fat(2)(3) and decrease waist/hip circumference(4). Including some sprinting in your training will also help you stay athletic and give you the ability to move fast when you need to.

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?".
 

Crawling

Crawling is the foundation of your gait pattern. It teaches your hips and shoulders to work together in a coordinated way, getting your body to work as one strong unit. In this position, it's a lot easier to maintain good core control compared to when you're standing on two feet while fighting gravity.

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

Squatting is one of the most important movements to train and maintain throughout your life. And even though we shouldn't necessarily try to squat like babies, it's arguably the most practical movement pattern of all. With a good squat, you will ensure long-lasting hip and knee health, all while developing strong legs and a stable trunk.

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

This movement pattern includes all the exercises that involve hinging at the hip. These will mainly recruit the hamstrings, the gluteal muscles and the spinal erectors. A heavy deadlift will recruit just as much if not more (6) total muscle mass than a heavy squat and will also challenge your grip strength, which is an important marker of health (7). 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.
 
 

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 #4 Single Leg

Once you've mastered the bilateral squatting and hinging patterns, you can start working with unilateral variations such as step ups, single leg RDLs and Bulgarian split squats. These exercises will highlight imbalances that you have between your left and right sides and allow you to correct them.

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)

When performing unloaded explosive exercises, you're trying to exert maximum force in a short interval of time, taking advantage of the elastic and reactive properties of your muscles. This is a great way to contrast the heavy strength training that you do in the gym. Including some jumps or light medicine ball throws will allow you to improve your power (how fast you use your strength), which will keep you fast and explosive.

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)

When it comes to improving your ability to produce power, it's hard to beat loaded explosive exercises. These require a very good foundation of strength because of the high demands they place on the muscles and the joints. They will increase your jumping ability, sprinting speed and can have great effects on changing body composition, because of the high demands they place on the metabolism.

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

Anytime you are moving an object away from your body (or moving your body away from an object), you're following a pushing pattern. This can happen in many different planes, from vertical (dips, overhead press) to horizontal (bench press) and virtually everything in between (inclined press, landmine press, etc...).

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).

 
shoulder-flexion
Awkward face off - my right shoulder (left picture) is overhead-ready while my left shoulder (right picture) still needs a lot of work

 

#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)

Isometric muscle actions "[occur] when a muscle generates a force against a resistance but does not overcome it, so that no movement takes place."(11) A front plank is a great example of an isometric core exercise.

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.

Planes of Movement
Challenge your core in all planes of motion
To ensure you train your core in a balanced way, include exercises for all three planes of motion. Here are a few examples for you to use:
Sagittal: Front Plank (isometric), Crunch (dynamic)
Horizontal/Transverse: Pallof Press (isometric), Pallof rotation (dynamic)
Frontal: Side Plank (isometric), Barbell side bend (dynamic)

#10 Loaded Carries

These are probably the least utilized and most underrated exercises out there. Whether you're into "functional training" or you just want to be a better human, look no further. Carries will improve your grip strength, strengthen your rotator cuff, challenge your hip stability, all while providing you with a great conditioning stimulus.

Putting it all together

There are no one-size-fits-all programs out there. Your training plan should always be specific to you, your strengths, your weaknesses, your goals, etc... If you have a competition or a sport to prepare for, consider hiring a professional to get an individualized program that will get your the best results possible.

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

Download your free PDF handout that includes over 90 exercises organized by pattern so you can pick and choose the right movements for your gym training routine. I took all the guesswork out of the equation for you by compiling that list. All you have to do is click that link and enter your email address to get instant access.
 
primary movement patterns handout
 

 
Sean is a personal trainer and strength coach who loves teaching beginners how to safely get stronger in the gym. He lives in Vancouver BC with his wife Lynne, and their children. Sean has a keen eye for good movement and encourages a positive lifestyle to support good training results.

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