Movement Patterns 101
Updated: Feb 2
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There are so many exercise trends to choose from these days! What is deemed the “in vogue” or most effective type of workout at any given time changes, much like clothing or hairstyles. There is HIIT, CrossFit, Beach Body, Soul Cycle, adventure racing, hybrid workouts, bodybuilding, and more. This is all great if it motivates someone to exercise in a way that is safe, appropriate, and fun.
I would use caution, however, before diving headlong into one of these, especially if you are new to exercise. In my May 2022 blog post, I explain why a good thorough movement assessment and customized corrective exercises are well worth the effort to keep you healthy and minimize the risk of injury.
For me, this approach and the one described throughout this post never go out of style.
When I first entered the fitness industry back in 2000, the most prevalent style of workout broke the body down by muscle group and worked each muscle group on non-consecutive days of the week. Thus, there might be a “chest & triceps” day and a “leg” day. To this day, there are countless workouts based on this premise as well as selectorized gym equipment designed to target each muscle group.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. I have used a machine-based workout for a simplified strength-training session that doesn't require much thought. This can also be a good way for a beginner to learn correct movement with the right guidance if the equipment fits the person.
Nevertheless, the body operates in terms of movement patterns rather than muscle groups. For example, a muscle-group approach uses more single-joint movements, or muscles working in isolation performing actions we may never actually perform in real life. A movement pattern approach uses functional movements that occur together at various joints as they would occur naturally. Think of a dumbbell bicep curl versus a pulling motion that utilizes all our “pulling” muscles while doing yard work.
I will next briefly describe each of the 7 major human movement patterns: push, pull, squat, lunge, bend, rotation, and locomotion.
A push is just what it sounds like, applying force away from the body. Movement occurs at the shoulder and elbow. This could take the form of a dumbbell chest or shoulder press, a pushup done on the wall or the floor, chest press with tubing, or medicine ball chest pass. A push typically engages the core muscles in addition to muscles in the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
A pull, as one might guess, is the equal and opposite of a push, applying force inward towards the body. Movement occurs at the same joints as a push but in the opposite direction. Examples could include a pull-up, lat pulldown, cable row, or even kayaking! The pulling muscle groups are typically in the back as well as the biceps.
The squat involves lowering the center of gravity by bending at the hips, knees, and ankles. This could involve resistance, such as a barbell, but it doesn’t have to. A body weight squat is one of the most useful exercises you can do! Seniors who can perform a squat correctly have a much greater chance of living independently and maintaining the ability to perform daily activities. A single-leg squat, when appropriate, is great for balance and addressing muscle imbalances between the right and left legs.
A lunge is performed with the legs in a staggered stance. It can be as simple as a stationary hold. Most commonly, the lunge is performed as a “split squat” or by taking a large step forward, backward, or sideways. This involves bending at the hip, knee, & ankle, and lowering then raising the body’s center of gravity. A lunge can involve weights for added resistance. Climbing stairs would also be a form of the lunge pattern. The parent of a young child might use a lunge, for instance, to react quickly to prevent a child from getting hurt in certain situations. The lunge works the lower body muscles and presents a balance challenge.
The bend is a hip-hinge movement that can train us, for instance, how to safely pick up something off the floor. In a hinge, we are training the hamstrings to lengthen and contract effectively so that we are “strong in the long places” to prevent falls and hamstring strains. When performed correctly, the glutes and spinal erectors are also engaged. The bend can be done on two legs, or one for a greater balance challenge. It can be a body weight movement or one with added resistance. This movement rescued me from a chronic hamstring strain I experienced in my 30’s and has helped prevent it from happening again.
The rotation is a turning action that generally includes movement around the spine and the core. Exercise examples could be a bicycle crunch, cable torso rotation, Russian twist, or medicine ball side toss. We generate our greatest amount of power through rotation. Think of someone throwing a discus or hitting a baseball with a bat. Do you remember spinning around and around until you were dizzy as a kid? That was a lot of rotation and generated tremendous power through momentum! We need to be able to rotate effectively in order to perform everyday household, recreational, and/or work activities safely. When we cannot do so, the body finds alternative ways of moving (compensation) and ends up getting hurt.
Lastly, there is locomotion. We were originally designed to be able to walk, run, skip, etc. in order to move ourselves from one location to another. Other exercise examples could be a farmers’ carry, a sideways traveling plank using an agility ladder, heel-toe walk for balance, or even walking up a wall with the hands.
Two or more movement patterns can be combined into a given exercise for greater complexity and efficiency. For example, a walking lunge with a medicine ball rotation combines a lunge with rotation and locomotion. The sky is the limit using your own creativity…and you can apply these principles to many of the trending workout styles if that’s your thing!
If we have a basic understanding of human movement, we don’t have the burden of having to think so much about every single muscle group as separate from each other. We just move in the natural ways that we were created to do.
One caveat is that sometimes in a physical therapy setting we must isolate certain muscle groups that may have become inhibited for facilitated for whatever reason. Nevertheless, once the targeted muscles are up to speed, we need to incorporate natural, functional movement patterns as soon as is feasible.
Challenge yourself to include different movement patterns the next time you move your body, whether you are at home or in the gym. Then give yourself credit for following the principles of human movement and using the natural intelligence of your own body!