Intro to Movement Patterns, and Why They Matter

“Functional fitness” is the new buzzword on the block, showing new attention to how and why people train, not just mindless movement. I love this! Of course, there are some misconceptions about what defines “functional”…

Is curling 500 lbs functional? Or being able to run massive distances? Punching someone really hard? Climbing up to rooftops? It really depends on what you want to do! What I normally hear from functional fitness aficionados is that it means they are “well-rounded” and up for any new task. This “general fitness base” is what I based my program on, and it is why I call it functional.

What Are Movement Patterns?

Movement patterns are templated, basic movements that a body frequently performs. Instead of isolating movement by things like “hip extension”, “hip flexion”, “knee extension”, “knee flexion”, and so on, we can identify the primal movement pattern that all those little pieces help accomplish.

Working a movement pattern means your strength training is more grounded in natural movement, rather than isolation. For both calisthenics and conventional weight training, if you do one exercise for every movement pattern, you have a complete program!

Below, I share the foundation movement patterns (as dictated by traditional weight training).

The Basic Movement Patterns

By remembering and supporting these movement patterns, you will always know what exercises you need to fit into a workout program. Here are the 7 movement patterns:

  1. Push (Horizontal, Vertical)
  2. Pull (Horizontal, Vertical)
  3. Squat (Quad Dominant)
  4. Hinge (Hip Dominant)
  5. Other Movements

Let’s look at each individually:

1. Pushing Exercises

Pushing exercises strengthen your ability to push things. This movement pattern is used to push boxes, resist horizontal force, or punch. They primarily work the chest and triceps (horizontal) and the shoulders (vertical). Pushing exercises are further split into 2 groups: horizontal and vertical pushing.

Horizontal pushing exercises help you move weight away from your frontal plane (aka, pushing things right in front of you). Common horizontal pushing exercises:

  • Push-up VariantsDips (Calisthenics)
  • Barbell/Dumbbell Bench Press (Weight Training)
  • Machine Chest Press, Pec Deck Flyes (Machine Training)

Vertical pushing exercises help you push weight above your head. Common vertical pushing exercises:

“Why are horizontal and vertical pushing exercises different?

You might be wondering why I don’t split horizontal and vertical pushing exercises. Well, in practice they work differently primary muscles, but in training,

Any pushing exercises will affect your other pushing exercises. If I did Handstand Push-ups (a vertical push), and followed up with One-Armed Push-ups (a horizontal push), I would have decreased efficacy for the One-Armed Push-ups because I exhausted myself a bit from the Handstand Push-ups! When I recover from Handstand Push-ups, my One-Armed Push-up ability will also go up. In conventional weight training, a common way to boost a plateaued bench press is to work on overhead presses. There is some crossover.

“Dips are a horizontal pushing exercise?”

Ah, so you’ve got a keen eye! Dips are special. You’ll see below that they are “primarily” an elbow extension exercise, or a “downward push”. However, elbow extension for purpose of pushing weight is “basically” horizontal pushing. If I swapped weighted push-ups or bench pressing for weighted dips, I would see little difference between my strength progress in horizontal pushing.

Think about the muscles worked in a dip, versus the muscles worked in any horizontal pushing exercise. You will likely notice that they are one and the same (chest and triceps, with shoulder, trap, and back stability). For now, the differences are much, MUCH smaller than the similarities and function of the exercise. I’ll post more advanced programming in the comments if you ask.

2. Pulling Exercises

Pulling exercises help you pull things  — whether it’s weight towards you, or your own body towards an object— using the lats, shoulders, and upper/middle back.

Just like pushing, this is divided into horizontal and vertical pulling.

Horizontal pulling exercises:

  • Tilted Pull-ups, Chin-ups, Inverted Row Variants (Calisthenics)
  • Bent Over Rows, T Bar Rows (Weight Training)
  • Cable Rows (Machine Training)

Vertical pulling exercises:

“Tilted Pull-ups? What does that mean?”

Tilted refers to your movement focus. If you tilt your upper body backwards and lower body upwards, you can hit more of your middle back area. If you do conventional pull-ups, you’re creating more of a vertical pulling movement. I am a firm believer that simply working on pull-up angles will build you a complete back, unless you are competing in a bodybuilding competition.

If you are more advanced in calisthenics you can add Front Lever Rows and other horizontal pulling exercises, but I trust you to figure out the details! The most important of all these movements is the pull-up. This is especially true in RoamStrong’s more extreme, strength-oriented version of calisthenics.

3. Squatting Exercises(Quad Dominant)

Squatting exercises help you squat, and are the most practical movement pattern in daily life. They build leg strength all over, especially in the quadraceps. They also give you healthy hips and knees so you can squat down, pick things up, and lift!.

The most common squatting exercises:

  • Bodyweight Squat Variants (Calisthenics)
  • Lunges (Calisthenics)
  • Front/Back/Dumbbell Squats (Weight Training)
  • Leg Press (Machine Training)
  • Hack Squat (Machine Training)

“What’s a better exercise: Lunges or Squats?”

Squats offer more bang-for-the-buck. I don’t do lunges: I prefer Squats and Sprinting together.

That said, lunges may have a place in advanced functional training. If you think of movement as a force vector (aka, movement has a magnitude and a direction), then a Lunge is really good for creating thrusting movement forward in the legs. However, I think of them less as “foundation” and more as “accessory”. Squats are much more important for almost every other reason: muscle building, pure force production, flexibility, and stability.

4. Hinging Exercises (Hip/Hamstring Dominant)

Hinging occurs whenever you bend over. Pragmatically speaking, whenever you extend your back and hamstrings to pick something off the ground, you require hinging strength. The main muscles used are the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Just imagine being in a ball, then uncurling. The muscles that help you uncurl are hinging exercises.

Common hinging exercises:

  • Back Extensions (Calisthenics)
  • Pelvic/Hip Thrusts (Calisthenics)
  • Glute-Ham Raises (Calisthenics)
  • Deadlifts (Weight Training)

RoamStrong’s System 1 doesn’t have a hip or hamstring focused exercise! What gives?!”

Don’t fret! While squat progressions are primarily quad focused, they do train the Hinging movement. At the point you can hit Pistol Squats, your lower back & hips are likely prepared for 99% of the challenges life throws at you. That said…

Calisthenics does have a weakness: it lacks good hip/hamstring focused exercises for weight-free progression. I noted above that you can do Hip Thrusts and Back Extensions, but they each have issues. The Hip Thrust is of limited strengthening use without weights to increase resistance and are quickly outgrown. Back Extensions need some equipment (or a creative rig with household stuff) to manage.

I’ll work to explore Hinging Exercise options for those without weights, but for now I suggest Deadlifts and/or Back Extensions with weights if you really need to get this movement pattern trained. Otherwise, focus effort on nailing good squat strength and flexibility for optimal squat and hinging health!

5. Other Movements

These movements are more specific. ALL are tangentially worked by the primary movements listed above, and thus are helpful mostly to understand how you can further target specific body parts. Let’s explore.

For bodybuilding/toning purposes, you can utilize the below vanity patterns. I call them vanity patterns because most movements are best trained with the 4 primary movement patterns described above. The patterns below are single joint focused and offer a little more detail on mechanics. They can also help you identify common missing links.

Elbow Flexion Exercises

Elbow flexion is the flexing of your arm towards you. Basically, anything that works your bicep in a curling motion is elbow flexion. In calisthenics, you’ll hit biceps when you do chin-ups. While you can easily hit biceps more on chin-ups by deemphasizing your lats (aka, focusing more on bicep contraction), some people like to mix it up a bit. You can focus on elbow flexion with:

  • Chin-ups (Calisthenics)
  • Bicep Curls, Cable Curls, Band Curls (Weight Training)

Elbow Extension Exercises

The opposite of Elbow Flexion is Elbow Extension. That is, you flex your triceps to straighten your arm out and push away from you. These are worked in dips and push-ups for calisthenics, but are also worked in all horizontal pushing movements. That said, the best exercises exist to help push forward:

  • Dips (Calisthenics)
  • Skull Crushers, Overhead Triceps Extension, Cable Pushdowns (Weight Training)

    Knee Extension Exercises

Knee extension means any movement that straightens your legs out. They mainly strengthen your quads. This is worked in squats, when you’re coming out of “the hole”, that stalled position at the bottom of the squat. If you want to hit quads harder, I’d just do more squat movements. Otherwise, you can do Leg Extensions (a machine training exercise) as a supplement.

Knee Flexion Exercises

Knee flexion means any movement that curls your leg. Leg curls are an obvious exercise for this. This motion is worked by both squatting and hinging movements, and I find isolation to be silly for most athletes.If you’re a bodybuilder and want more back-of-leg mass, you can add Leg Curls (a weight training exercise) to your routine.

Shoulder Extension & Flexion

Shoulder extension occurs when you put your arms behind you. Good horizontal pulling movement takes care of this! Shoulder flexion occurs when you put your arms above your head. Vertical pushing movement takes care of that!

Other Vanity Exercises

I want to avoid getting too in-depth on specific body parts. But here’s the jist: you can hit your traps with barbell/dumbbell shrugs. You can hit calves with calf raises. You can hit abs with Leg Raises.

Prevent Injury – Balancing Out a Workout

For every action, you should have an equal and opposite reaction. Don’t mind the bastardization of Newton’s law, Im using it to make a point. While there are many ways to get imbalanced, the most common and perhaps the most injury prone is:

Doing WAY too much pushing, NOT ENOUGH pulling.

This sets you upf or shoulder injuries. You hear a lot about guys messing up their shoulders. That’s because they overwork pushing movements. Here’s the rule of thumb: for every horizontal push, you want a horizontal pull. For every vertical push, you want a vertical pull.

A lot of unvetted programs (even vetted programs, actually) focus a LOT more on pushing exercises. There’s one big reason for this. Vanity muscles like chest and triceps are “alpha” characteristics for men. As most programming is male-focused in strength training, you get a lot of pushing exercises. Don’t neglect this!

Note that imbalances can go deeper. If you want to go joint specific, here’s a handy cheat sheet to remember balance:

  • 1 Elbow Flexion for 1 Elbow Extension
  • 1 Knee Flexion for 1 Knee Extension
  • 1 Shoulder Flexion for 1 Shoulder Extension

So if you have 15 sets of curling and 5 sets of push-up progressions, you’re doing it wrong! Keep it balanced.

Movement Patterns in Popular Workouts

Most weight training workouts utilize movement patterns, either unknowingly or purposefully.

For “full body workout programs”, they usually take a single exercise from each category and jam it all into a day. The first 4 are the most popular (and the most valuable)! Elbow flexion and extension are the next most popular for guys because they are upper body focused. Knee flexion and extension are popular with girls because they are lower body focused.

Let’s map out exercise selection and movement patterns to popular exercise plans so you get an idea on how to audit a program.

Stronglifts 5×5:

  • Horizontal Push: Bench Press
  • Vertical Push: Overhead Press
  • Horizontal Pull: Barbell Row
  • Squat: Barbell Squat
  • Hinge: Deadlift

Note: Pull-ups are not part of the program, but are “allowed”. I see this as a weakness of the programming due to the push dominance. The creator of that program does note that he allows pull-ups and dips as supplements.

Starting Strength (Advanced Trainee, 3rd Edition):

  • Horizontal Push: Bench Press
  • Vertical Push: Overhead Press
  • Pull: Pull-ups/Chin-ups
  • Squat: Barbell Squat
  • Hinge: Deadlift, Glute/Ham Raise

Note: Starting Strength used to be the gold standard for strength athletes. It emphasizes squatting (a LOT), which creates a really good lower body base. The philosophy goes: squats are perhaps the simple most important exercise to master for full body strength.

RoamStrong Bodyweight System:

Starting to notice a pattern? They all use the same general movement patterns. And now that you know this principle, you can fluently interchange bodyweight exercises with weight training exercises. Or, you can supplement your current program with some new exercises to make it more complete.

As long as you fundamentally train the movements and challenge yourself (via leverage, added weight, or even reps), you will progress.

Final Thoughts – And Where’s “Core Exercises”?

You might have noticed a lack of “Core” exercises as a movement pattern. Seems odd given my focus on it in the RoamStrong System.

I’ll just end with this and go into detail another day. Your core represents the stability and strength of your torso as a conduit of energy. All those ab exercises I have you doing support ALL OTHER MOVEMENT PATTERNS. That is, strengthening your core strengthens everything else. It’s not really a “movement pattern” so much as a powerful supplement.

That’s it for movement patterns. You can get much deeper in technical speak (intermediate: Planar Movement Training, and advanced: Force Vector Training), but the purpose of this post is to get you thinking about how exercises correlate to movement, function, and aesthetics. I don’t plan to always go this technically as I prefer new trainees to experiment and build a fitness habit first. The learning can come afterwards. But if you findthis to be intriguing or useful, I will, by all means, continue to write it.

Comments are now open below. Ask anything you desire.

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By Aaron Roam

Aaron Roam is a fitness advocate from Berkeley, California.

10 replies on “Intro to Movement Patterns, and Why They Matter”

Love this! Finally an article that doesn’t tell me what I should do, but instead shows me why it’s done how it’s done… so much more usefull.

I’ll be going allover this blog this weekenD 🙂

I noticed you don’t specify that pull-ups/chin-ups are vertical pulling exercises on either Starting Strength or your own program. Is there a reason for this?
I also noted that in the article you say that you should have push and pull movements in pairs, then on your own program you have 2 push exercises and only 1 pulling exercise, seemingly contradicting yourself?

Good questions. Answers below:

1) Pull-ups/chin-ups fit into a category between vertical/horizontal pulling. The angle of your body, grip width, and how much emphasis on shoulder blade retraction and depression changes the angles you can hit. The variance between pull/chin-up also change this. I don’t know why Starting Strength doesn’t mention it as much, but that’s why I don’t.

2) Excellent question. I thought about that when I first made this program – and I have thought about updating it. But for now, here’s why the Progressive Bodyweight Workout Program (V1) looks the way it does:

  • Tendonitis
  • : High volume bar-based programs tend to evoke tendonitis – at least from what I’ve seen. Too much pull-up (or equivalent) volume before the body is prepared or good movement patterns are built bring about greater chance of nerve-based injury. This is especially true when you begin doing single-limb pulling movements later in the program.

    A more intermediate version of the PBW would likely add front lever and back lever work for more pulling angles. I’m also fond of bodyweight horizontal rows – focusing heavily on quality of movement (aka, very slow eccentrics and full range of motion). If weights are a desired alternative, I’d end up suggesting bentover rows.

    In an ideal world – when your joints and muscles are prepared – you’d do a pull every workout. My personal favorite is having a working pull day, then having one “skill”/moderate pull day focusing on quality of movement. That’s what I currently do. Codifying that into a beginner routine – especially one I am trying to keep simple – is hard without complicating it, so I opted out.

  • Hanging leg raises as a soft pull
  • : Currently, the program runs 2 push days and 1.5 pull days per cycle. Hanging leg raises contain elements of pulling without the full intensity (and thus, strain) of a working pull day on jonits. It would continue to stave off tendonitis, yet be sevicable as a program. It’s also a great experiential introduction to active hanging, one of my favorite movement techniques for preparing the body to handle more pull-ups/chin-ups and forming the basis of enduring shoulder movement.

  • Habit formation
  • : The PBW was designed with beginner/intermediate trainees in mind. It’s a system meant to build in good habits by being simple. I could imagine a more optimal program if people had more time to dedicate to training or were more proficient athletes, but this program is about building a physical habit (and tangentially, forming a mental habit – of competence, critical intelligence, and progressive grit through the tough reps).

    There are probably more “feely” reasons why I chose to limit pulling. But this forms the basis of my decision. If you have capacity, add more horizontal pulls/rowing motions.

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