In the last 10 years, many in the fitness industry have pushed the boundaries, opening people’s eyes to methods of training outside globo gym machinery. There has a been a resurgence of movement-based training making in-roads at previously over-compartmentalized notions of fitness. “Functional training” became the new buzz-word as the masses began to scoff at tricep press machines while rushing to slam heavy ropes and take sledgehammers to tires.
Every concept is prone to oversimplification and misunderstanding, but “functional training,” as overused as the term may be, has led to a wonderful re-exploration of human movement. Namely, how to balance and emphasize certain movements over the course of a training program.
As a consequence, many have dispatched with the notion of training “pecs and delts” in favor of a combination of the push, pull, squat, and hinge categories. These essential movement patterns are a blast to train and, by breaking the “muscle by muscle” workout focus, infinite exciting training templates become available. Still, there are more move categories than just these four.
As I mentioned in my latest piece on the loaded carry, we often focus our training emphasis on a limited number of fundamental patterns, excluding some of the most important. Hinging, squatting, pulling, and pushing are truly essential and truly awesome. Yet, when we only explore fitness through the lens of these four categories something is missed.
The Top-Down Approach
So much of our fitness operating system works from a top-down approach. We explore what the most elite athletes need and scale down from there according to our comparable level of fitness. The problem is that elite athletes usually have a base level of fitness that we take for granted as well as a tremendous level of adaptation from the demands of their sport that we forget to include.
As athletes become more elite, they’re able to address their many needs with even fewer exercises. For example, an elite soccer player might pistol squat, barbell snatch, push up, and row, which combined with their sport, keeps their body capable of almost anything they’d want to do. When you can pistol squat, getting up and down from the floor is a fairly modest ask.
When you can do weighted push-ups, a basic plank has lost its utility. With mastery of this bouquet of exercises, we can be reasonably sure that life’s demands for crawls, get-ups, climbs, and carries can be met. As athletes gain elite capabilities that allow absorption of many skills at once, they can reduce the emphasis on some exercises, but should still be very wary of ignoring the massive benefit of loaded carries and get-ups altogether.
For most people, particularly aging populations (and aren’t we all aging?), fitness should have a very different operating system. Rather than obsessing on movement patterns like squatting and pushing, they should try to train movement skills.
What are movement capabilities most essential for our continual thriving? What abilities might we be allowing to fall detrained that are essential to our living optimally doing what we love for as long as possible, pain-free?
In short, what movement patterns are, broadly, most essential to being a human? From this lens we see that almost every need can be hit with locomotion, loaded locomotion, getting up and down from the floor, and getting up and down from the floor with load.
Train the Skills You Need
It is the getting up and down from the floor that is mostly lost today (although, the atrophy of our locomotive capabilities is equally troubling). Couches, elevated toilets, elevated beds, and every conceivable convenience conspire to mitigate our need to get down to the ground and back up.
Masses have completely lost the capacity to get up and down from the ground (a surprisingly good workout when done repetitively), without massive compensation and discomfort. But life demands this simple capacity. We play with babies on the ground, pick up dropped spending change, and clean up after dogs who eat a bit too fast for their sensitive stomachs.
As we lose the ability to lower our body to the ground with stability, we pick things up at compromised angles putting our spine at greater risk. Most deadly of all, we lose our natural instincts about how to manage falls. Our lack of familiarity traversing to the ground combines with our lost stability from not getting up and down to eventually make falling our greatest threat. If we are lucky it’s a broken wrist. If not, it’s the broken hip that kick-starts an unexpectedly quick demise. Perhaps this is why the Sitting and Rising Test is considered by many to be an indicator of longevity.
When we look at fitness as a hierarchy of needs, we’ll find that the foundation from which we build everything upon is locomotion and getting up and down from the ground. The next level would be to add load to both which creates a united body and iron core. Any other need of the body is met through adding elevation, speed, and variety of movement planes.
For example, locomotion should be trained going up and down hills and stairs. This can progress from unloaded to loaded, from slow to fast, from linear to lateral and everything between. Likewise, we should add load to our practice of getting up and down. Speeds should be dreadfully slow early on but can be done for speed and time as we progress. As with any smart training, loads should start modestly and progress gradually.
These essential movement skills also require a degree of development of all the other patterns. We hinge to pick up weights and pull our shoulders back as we walk. We navigate ourselves to the floor by squatting or lunging and then utilize our capabilities for pushing and squatting as we bear crawl in a myriad of ways.
These movement patterns are still essential. I’d just argue that perhaps we’re still beginning our approach with too much compartmentalization. The squat, hinge, push, and pull could be reconceived as drills contributing to the broader movement skills of locomotion and getting up and down from the ground.
If we are looking at pure training utility, the development and immersion into these two movement skills offer everything we need to thrive including variety. Just examine the millions of ways you can practice locomotion. Crawling, rolling, walking, jogging, running, hopping, all of which can be done in three planes of motion and with varying loads and placements of the load.
Sleds can be pushed, or even pulled while carrying a heavy sandbag with a bearhug grip. Getting up and down from the ground can be a simple consequence of moving between two locomotive exercises early on. For example, a great workout is to alternate between farmer’s walks and bear crawls going as far as possible in a given amount of time. To get down into a crawl requires going from standing to the ground.
The idea behind the get-up is to give ourselves as many options as possible for getting up and down safely and against varying stability and load. We should practice getting up and down with limitations. This is best done with Dan John’s get up circuit where you get up and down culminating at your back, then your front, then each side, and then doing so with a rotation of hands locked to knees, and finally both hands behind the head. Once you get good at get ups, load them. Carry a light backpack under one arm as you practice getting up and down slowly.
Next, learn the sandbag get-up and eventually learn the Turkish Get Up. While I recommend starting with a shoe and moving to a light kettlebell, the options are endless for continual progression and variation. You can do them with dumbbells, barbells, or anything else. You can get-up with a locked arm or try doing them with a kettlebell in the rack position. These skills are the essentials for everyone and they can still be endlessly progressed and turned into elite level fitness feats.
What Else Should I Train?
So what else is there to hit? The only other movement skills that can bring a lot more fun and unique benefit are climbs and swims, but neither approach the basic necessity and comprehensive training capability of locomotion and get-ups. When we exhaust the variations of the get-up and locomotion pattern, we hit every need of the body.
Truly, this is all most people need. While I love heavy squats, single leg deadlifts, kettlebell snatches, and practicing my front levers, the emphasis on these training goals can distract from what is most essential. Rather than fringe outside the box training methods, the skills of locomotion and get-ups should guide our approach to training.
Put It to Practice
Look around the office place, or at the other people in line at the movie theatre. The vast majority are in poor health and are being led by habits that will only continue to make things worse. Nothing could be more important for them than to begin practicing fitness as a daily habit. This only works as a gradual lifestyle change.
With our new lens, we can see that they don’t need to concern themselves with a steady assortment of fundamental movement circuits. They’d do best to begin practicing the lowest level of our primary movement skills: get-ups and locomotion. Our most severely detrained should just walk, baby crawl, roll, and get-up and down from the ground repeatedly.
With consistency in this approach, they’ll soon be ready to progress to more advanced locomotion and get-up variations. Their fitness journey could be complete without the gym, but rather, an immersive exploration of these two broad skill sets.