If you were alive 5,000 years ago, what do you think you would look like?
My guess is that you would be lean, strong and fit, with a well proportioned body. And the best part is you wouldn’t have to step foot into a gym and “workout” to get these impressive results.
You would likely be walking over 5 miles per day, sprinting to chase animals you would eat, cutting down trees, lifting logs, building shelter, all of which would require you to use your entire body.
This primal model of optimal human health and fitness is very different from the typical gym-goer who has a sedentary lifestyle and may barely move his, or her, body in the ways that nature intended during exercises. As an extreme example, think about that guy who has arms 2x bigger than his calves from doing arm exercises all the time, or the cyclist who does nothing else but cycle, or the runner who only runs.
Our bodies are an amazingly complex web of interconnected muscles, joints, fascia, ligaments, tendons, bones, and other tissues and organs that work synchronously and seamlessly. When we are lean and fit, every cubic centimeter of our bodies has a purpose, a function to help us survive and thrive.
So, if the body is this interconnected web that’s really more like one unit, one muscle, why would we focus on only one muscle group during a workout or one type of exercise activity? The idea of focusing on only one muscle group in a workout is definitely not efficient, nor is it athletic. At BuiltLean, we believe you should focus on movement patterns, not muscle groups, when exercising to develop a functionally strong body. At its core, exercise is all about movement.
We’re laying out the 7 basic, primal movement patterns you should use at least once per week and that form the foundation of the workouts & exercise programs we develop. These movement patterns were crystallized by exercise expert and physiologist Paul Check.1.
Movement Pattern #1: Squat
A squat is a movement pattern where you plant both feet on the ground, then bend your legs to lower your body down while keeping your chest up and lower back straight. We use squats in our daily life such as squatting in and out of a chair. As we age, an inability to squat can very negatively affect our quality of life.
As an exercise, you can provide resistance to a squat from the front of your body (like holding a dumbbell, called a goblet squat), on your back with a barbell, from the sides holding dumbbells, or on the entire upper body by wearing a weighted vest. With each method of resistance, the lower back and abs must contract to keep the body upright as the body is lowered down. The most common reason why people have trouble squatting is because of tight hip flexors or tight calves.
Squat Exercise Examples:
- Goblet Squat
- Barbell Back Squat
- Front Squats
For more detailed information on the squat, check out these three articles:
Movement Pattern #2: Lunge
A lunge is single leg exercise movement that requires one leg to step forward and bend while the other leg remains stationary. Throwing a spear, carrying water while stepping over a log, or in modern sports, lunging forward to catch a ball requires balance, strength, and flexibility. The lunge is a dynamic exercise because you can lunge in any direction with both legs forwards, backwards, and sideways. To add resistance, you can hold a medicine ball, dumbbells, barbells, or even a sandbag on one shoulder to help engage the core to a greater degree.
- Bench Step Up
- Side Lunge
- Reverse Lunge
Movement Pattern #3: Push
A pushing exercise requires pushing external weight away from your body, or your center of mass away from the ground, like in a push up. Pushing yourself off the ground to get up, or pushing a toolbox overhead to put it away in a cabinet, are both pushing movements used in our daily life.
There are two primary types of pushing movements (1) vertical push and (2) horizontal push.2 A vertical push is a DB shoulder press where you press a dumbbell vertically over your head. A horizontal push is pushing a weight away from your horizontally, like in a DB Chest Press as you lay back on a bench. A vertical press tends to emphasize your shoulder muscles while engaging the back of the arms (triceps) while a horizontal press emphasizes the chest, while engaging the shoulders and the back of the arms.
- Push Ups
- Barbell Shoulder Press
- DB Incline Press
Movement Pattern #4: Pull
A pulling motion is the opposite of a pushing motion, in that you are pulling a weight towards your body, or pulling your center of mass toward an object, like in a pull up. From pulling down a branch to reaching for an apple, to starting that old boat motor, pulling is a movement we use our daily lives.
There are two primary pulling movements, a (1) vertical pull and (2) horizontal pull. An example of a vertical pull is a pull up, which is a classic exercise that develops strength in your back, shoulders, biceps, and even core. An example of a horizontal pulling motion is a single arm dumbbell row.
- Pull Ups
- TRX Body Row
- Single Arm DB Row
Movement Pattern #5: Twist
Of all the exercises listed so far, they are completed in two planes of movement, either forward, or to the side (saggital and frontal planes). But there is a third plane of motion which makes exercise much more functional – the transverse plane, or twisting motion.
If you think about lunging down and reaching across your body, or throwing a ball, running, or even walking, most human movement has some element of a rotation involved. The problem, however, is that most exercises we do in the gym have no rotational component.
There are two primary types of twisting, or rotational movements: (1) rotational and (2) anti-rotational. Rotational movements are the basic twisting exercises, such as twisting to throw a ball. Anti-rotation are exercises where the rotational movement is prevented, like in a paloff press, or a single arm DB row.
- Cable Wood Chops
- Palloff Press
- Medicine Ball Throws (standing sideways against a wall)
Movement Pattern #6: Bend
Bending is a movement pattern where you bend your torso by hinging your hips. A very common movement, we use it in our daily lives by picking up a baby off the ground to trying to lift that heavy suit case. Of all the movements listed, the bending movement may be most dangerous given that more than half of adults3 experience low back pain at some point in their lives.
Bearing the brunt of the weight on your hips, glutes, and legs is the key to lifting weight in a bent over position. This is done by keeping your low back in a neutral, to slightly arched position, as you bend over to lift an object off the ground. If you round your back, significant pressure can be put on your intervertabral disks, which may cause a disk herniation. In the BuiltLean Program, we have only a few exercises that require a bending movement pattern; we prefer to use it during the dynamic warm up phase of a workout as it is a high-risk exercise for most people.
- Kettlebell Deadlift
- DB Clean and Press
- DB Stiff Legged Deadlifts
Movement Pattern #7: Gait / Combination
Walking, jogging, or sprinting is called a gait, which requires pulling, lunging, and twisting motions to propel the body forward. Whether you are sprinting to catch the train, or walking in the park, gait is the most frequently used of all the movement patterns in our daily lives. At BuiltLean, we consider this last movement pattern as a catch all for dynamic human movement and combinations of movements. For example, jumping, cutting, crawling, and other movements and combinations of movements can be added to this category.
I hope this was a helpful overview that will help you think about exercise in terms of movement patterns, not just muscle groups. Your body will thank you as it becomes stronger, leaner, and better balanced.
- Chek P. How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy!, Your Personalized 4-Step Guide to Looking and Feeling Great from the Inside Out. (affiliate link) C.H.E.K Institute; 2004. ↩
- Boyle M. Advances in Functional Training, Training Techniques for Coaches, Personal Trainers and Athletes. (affiliate link) Lotus Pub.; 2011. ↩
- The number is close to 70-80% in medical studies ↩
Another great article! This really helps me think through ways to vary my exercise routine so I don’t get bored and can keep challenging myself!
Quick follow-up: I’m looking to increase the number of full-body push-ups I can do – currently I can only complete 5 or 6 on my toes, and then I have to switch to my knees, but can do another 15-20 fairly easily. Are there other exercises I can do (aside from more push-ups!) that will help me increase my full-body push-up count?
@Megan – That’s a great question and one that I should probably make into a video. I’m not a big fan of push ups on your knees. I wouldn’t even bother with them. I would instead do push ups on a bar or platform raised somewhere between 3-10 inches off the ground which will make the push ups easier for you. I do think simply doing more push ups on your toes is a great strategy. So maybe you start off with six, then to to five, the four, then three. The next week, you get 7, then 6, then five and so on. Over time, you’ll be doing 20 without breaking a sweat! Check out this video for proper push up form => Proper Push Up Form Video. Using proper form where you engage the correct muscles can also make a big difference. Finally, getting a bit leaner and doing heavier pressing movements can definitely help. A basic barbell bench press (just be careful with your shoulders) should only help your ability to do push ups, which are technically a closed chain kintetic exercise, meaning your hands and feet are fixed against the ground, which makes it a very functional exercise.
I really liked this article. I have been looking for ways to have the same “hard” workouts I get in the gym, but at home or on the go with no weights. I have read an article or two where you have suggested a few ways to get this done, so this is a great addition. I have really gotten into knowing my body a little better, and changed goals from getting bigger to just being more fit. I would like to see you have an article that would take the “weightless” workouts to the next level. So to include more advanced body weight fitness like the Pistol Squat, L-sit Chin-ups, or Behind the back – clap – Push-ups.
Thanks for the great stuff Marc!
Thanks for the comment Dirk, duly noted!
Thanks for the quick response, Marc – just tried a few push-ups on my toes using an incline and it definitely felt more challenging that on my knees!
I just ordered a body fat caliper (I got tired of my BIA scale and the wildly different percentages it reported) – how frequently should I measure my body fat with this tool? Every Monday am as part of my weigh-in, or should it be less frequent, like bi-weekly or monthly?
@Megan – I would recommend monthly, while using weekly Monday Morning Weight Ins as a proxy for body fat loss.
how badly would someone be missing out if they excluded compound/olympic lifts from their workouts? don’t these lifts create the strongest hormonal response and pack on tons of muscle?
i have a couple of herniated discs so i’m not sure if they would be a good idea!
@Nik – You can still create a very strong, fit body without olympic lifts. That’s a fact. Think about someone like former professional football player Hershel Walker who was incredibly strong and fit yet he didn’t even touch any weights. Olympic lifts can certainly help you get bigger and stronger faster, but they also require a lot more skill and the risk of injury is much higher. I would focus on exercises that have a better risk/reward profile for you given you have herniated disks. It’s NOT worth the risk to really screw up your back…and you can still build muscle simply with adding a bit more volume to your workouts in a way that’s safe.
hey marc ,its a good article,but i would like to concentrate more on sprint training,can you give me a routine for sprint exercise
@Alab – Here’s an article to check out – Interval Training Sprint Workout For Fat Loss. You can use the search bar on the top right hand side of the site to find more.
Thanks as always for your quick follow-up on the calipers! So I got received mine today and took my measurement – it was just a hair under 10 mm. But when I looked at the chart to see what my percentage is, I see that the result is based on my age. If I were 25, that would equate to a 20.3% and put me under the “Ideal” category — but since I’m 41, that changes to 22.8% but puts me under “Lean.” So, does that mean that as I get older I’m SUPPOSED to carry more fat? Or is it just that older people tend to HAVE more fat in general, and the chart is just reflective of that reality. I checked the Accu-Measure website and didn’t see any explanation. Any insight on this would be great!
Megan – That’s a great question. The following is from a body fat percentage article I wrote on BuiltLean => Ideal Body Fat Percentage Chart: How Lean Should You Be?.
“You may have noticed as your age increases, your acceptable body fat within these ranges increases as well. Why you ask? In short, these charts are based on statistical assumptions. Older individuals tend to have a lower body density for the same skinfold measurements, which is assumed to indicate a higher body fat percentage. Older, athletic individuals, however, might not fit this assumption because their body density may be underestimated.”
Very informative. Love how you create a basic template for a workout but leave room for people to make it their own. Are all your workouts strength circuits or do you do more ‘traditional’ set and rep formats sometimes? I am loving the Built Lean Program. I am 40 and this is exactly the type of program I am looking for. I have no interest in bulking up with long duration workouts. I have already started to see some changes and have been following Built Lean for less than a month. Keep up the great work.
@James – Just about every strength workout I personally do and those with our clients are done in circuits. But many are as little as two exercises paired together, such as a DB Bench and Pull Ups. I think pairing exercises and combining them into circuits in a way that is safe and effective is the way to go. You can certainly do straight sets, I just think they are less efficient. Also, I will certainly do an interval training workout on it’s own, or some Yoga etc. on rest days, or days when I don’t want to lift. I’ve been contemplating going down to 2 strength workouts per week so I can fit more interval training and sports types of activities into my schedule, but it’s more for maintenance and overall fitness. Super happy to hear the BuiltLean Program is working for you!
First off would like to say that this article was really helpful, provided great information and help understand why focusing on these seven is so critical. For a long time i focused on working on one muscle group to help tone the body but it never worked properly. However, I am currently working on a regiment that focuses on these seven primal movements and have split it up in 4 day regiment starting with; day 1 is Push, day 2 is Lunges/Squat, Day 3 is pull and day 4 is Gait/Twist and bend. I am having trouble finding enough exercises for each that just use the body weight, I was wondering if you could help me out.
@Aakash – I think just searching around Youtube and Google for bodyweight exercises should give you a lot of decent ideas. Also consider these two videos:
1) 10 Pull Up Variations: Which Ones Can You Do?
2) 10 Push Up Variations: Can You Do Them All?
I would like to thank you & your team for this wonderful worksite that i started to follow year ago. This article really benefial for me togather with the secret of fitness trainner, drop sets, metabolic conditioning just to name a few. It’s really show me the door on how to achieved my current level 6% body fat way from 20%. Regards, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
@khairul – super happy to hear that! Congrats on your success.
But what type of movements are leg raises or bridges then ?
A bridge is a basic hip hinging movement that targets the glutes and hamstrings, and would fall into the “bend” category. Leg raises also qualify as a “bending” movement, and target the abs, hip flexors, and quads.
-Kristin Rooke, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor