When you enter a gym, the variety of exercises people are performing can seem endlessly varied — not to mention overwhelming. But if you observe closely, there are seven fundamental movement patterns that pretty much all exercises boil down to. Familiarizing yourself with the basic movement patterns can help you make sure your training program is well-rounded.
These fundamental movement patterns form the basis for long-term success in lifting and in life. They occur in countless free weight and machine exercises, but also in real-world scenarios such as work, sports, or interacting with family. Many movements in real life — and some in the gym — combine two or more of these basic ways of moving, which is why they can be tricky to spot. But once you get to know them, you’ll be able to use them to stave off plateaus and reduce injury risks in your training.
In the pursuit of any goal, progressive mastery over these fundamental movement patterns assures the longest and safest path to success. While every strength athlete has unique training needs, most people need some form of each pattern in their program to fully train each range and plane of motion. This article will take you through what these fundamental movement patterns are and how you can make sure they each show up in your program.
The Fundamental Movement Patterns
Horizontal pushing isn’t actually something most people do every day. In that way, it’s the most you’ll-only-do-this-in-the-gym move of all the patterns on the list. Unless you’re a lineman in football explosively shoving someone out of your way, it’s unlikely you’ll engage in this pattern daily — except at the gym.
That said, horizontal pushing exercises such as the barbell bench press are a performance metric for many sports as a surrogate for upper body strength. It’s also necessary for competitive powerlifters and a great chest-builder for those chasing a particular upper body aesthetic. While a horizontal push may be the least likely to be called upon in real-world scenarios, a powerful upper body is a high-value commodity in many sporting situations.
Muscles That Perform the Horizontal Push
A horizontal push involves flexion of the chest, triceps, and shoulders. The width and angle of your grip can influence which muscles dominate horizontal pushes — think about the difference between performing a close-grip push-up (tricep-focused) and a standard pushup (chest-focused).
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But regardless of grip, all three of these muscles — the chest, tris, and shoulders — are typically involved to some degree. Depending on the range of motion, other shoulder stabilizing muscles may receive some stimulation from horizontal pushes, too. For example, fully protracting the shoulder in a horizontal press would also stimulate the serratus anterior (hence why your sides might be sore after a day full of push-ups).
Best Horizontal Push Exercises
The best horizontal push exercises to master early are calisthenics and variations that unilaterally challenge each side of the body. Push-ups are a fantastic way to learn about full-body bracing while drilling horizontal pushing mechanics. They are also scalable and require no additional equipment. Dumbbell floor pressing or bench pressing are scalable, unilateral horizontal push exercises that challenge the strength, coordination, and stability of the body.
The following moves and their many variations are excellent horizontal push exercises:
The biggest horizontal pulling benefits are promoting postural and shoulder health in everyday life. Many people experience a forward-rounded shoulder posture from using handheld technology or sedentary keyboard-heavy desk jobs.
When combined with pec and anterior delt stretching, horizontal pulling can go a long way in rebalancing this hunch. This isn’t to say that horizontal pulling doesn’t show up elsewhere. Rowing itself is an entire sport and can be used as a physique-builder and cardiovascular tool all at once.
Muscles That Perform the Horizontal Pull
The horizontal pull draws on the muscles of the upper back to pull your arms alongside your body. Similar to the horizontal push, muscles that perform the horizontal pull are greatly influenced by the grip orientation and degree of abduction (elbow position) of the arm.
An overhand grip with a more flared elbow position recruits more of the trapezius and rhomboid muscles. On the other hand, a neutral or underhand grip with a tucked elbow biases towards the latissimus dorsi.
Best Horizontal Pull Exercise
In addition to barbell bent-over rows, single-arm and cable-based row exercises are highly valuable horizontal pull variations. A single-arm dumbbell row or cable row allows you to balance strength and coordination from limb to limb while also accommodating individual body sizes where many machines may fail. Both single-arm dumbbell and cable variations also allow for the high variability of hand-grip orientation to bias the specific muscle of interest in the upper back.
The following exercises and their variations are some of the best horizontal pull exercises out there:
The vertical push is an extremely underrated movement pattern as it is often more difficult and therefore considered less gratifying than the horizontal push. With that in mind, to successfully push vertically means successfully pairing overhead strength and stability with shoulder health.
In addition to giving you more powerful shoulders for the gym, strengthening the overhead position with vertical pushing has a dramatic carry-over to everyday life. Reaching or lifting objects overhead can put many rotator cuffs at risk — however, much of this risk can be alleviated with a modest investment in vertical push training.
Muscles That Perform the Vertical Push
Pushing overhead will largely draw on the deltoids as the prime mover. But perhaps more importantly, it requires a strong and stable rotator cuff to safely perform. As the arm ascends higher overhead, the shoulder stabilizers are more and more challenged. By extension, a vertical push will also involve the serratus anterior, trapezius, and rhomboids.
Best Vertical Push Exercises
The best vertical push exercise will often exist on a continuum of shoulder mobility or stability. Many people don’t have suitably mobile or stable shoulders required to safely execute loaded vertical pushes. This is where exercises such as cable and machine variations shine — these allow you to train your shoulders in an externally-stabilized setting.
Progressive training that improves shoulder mobility and stability can then help you progress to dumbbell, barbell, or other free weight variations. As shoulder functionality allows, perhaps one of the absolute best vertical push exercises is the dumbbell Z-press. The Z-press is a seated, on-the-floor version of a shoulder press. This position forces maximal core engagement and frequently cues correct alignment of the torso for safe shoulder pressing.
The following exercises and their variations are some of the best of the best in terms of vertical pushing:
Similar to the vertical push, the vertical pull boasts a ton of shoulder health benefits. While the vertical push will end in a fully-overhead position, the vertical pull starts there. This means that the muscles required to stabilize the shoulder and initiate the pulling exercise are in their most compromised position at the start.
In order to safely execute overhead pulling, the correct load must be selected and often helps to enhance shoulder stability. While the vertical pull draws on the back musculature to actually complete each repetition, your rotator cuff muscles are often put on trial to initiate the movement.
Muscles That Perform the Vertical Pull
The prime movers in a vertical pull will largely be dictated by the hand grip and implement choice. Single-arm exercises and neutral or underhand grip positions will tend to bias the latissimus dorsi. By contrast, grip positions that are more narrow, or cause the elbows to flare out during the pull, will draw more upon the trapezius and rhomboids.
Another muscle commonly involved in vertical pulling is the teres group, which works with your lats when initiating a vertical pull from a protracted shoulder (dead-hang).
Best Vertical Pull Exercises
For overall shoulder health and muscular development, a single-arm cable pulldown is an extremely well-rounded exercise. Not only will it allow for unilateral strengthening and muscle stimulation, it also allows for individualized set up by manipulating the rest of the body around the cable stack. Many machine variations perform this exercise from a fixed range of motion, which may not allow for an optimal set up.
These exercises are some of the best vertical pulling moves you can try:
Squatting is one of the most common exercises in resistance training. Almost everyone will throw some version of a squat into their programming. While squatting to full depth is often portrayed around as a benchmark for functionality, not everyone needs nor would be able to accomplish this glorified position. The true value in the squat is the necessary mobility, stability, and coordination required to successfully complete whatever variation happens to be the best for you. Successfully being able to squat means there is a prerequisite level of ankle, knee, hip, and spinal stability that will carry over into nearly any other goal — both in the gym and out of it.
Muscles That Perform the Squat
The prime movers of the squat are the glutes and quadriceps. Your hamstrings and adductors also play key roles depending on the type and depth of your squat. However, there are many more muscles involved in successfully squatting. Depending on the variation, stabilizing the implement or squat pattern itself will draw upon the core and back musculature, too.
Best Squat Exercises
Squat exercises come in a wide variety of loading implements, ranges of motion, and intent. As a general tool, a front-loaded goblet squat is a great starting point for many novices and remains an excellent tool for seasoned athletes.
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Depending on the goal, high-bar and front squats have a huge general carry over to many lifters. Low-bar squats and overhead squats are primarily used for competition purposes, though many practice them in the gym to enhance their strength and functionality.
These are some of the best squat exercises:
Hinging is one of the most essential movement patterns for lifting, playing sports, and general health outcomes. A hip hinge integrates the posterior chain of muscles to produce perhaps one of the strongest and safest positions to produce force. From Olympic lifting, deadlifting, or picking up a young family member, the hinge plays a pivotal role in spinal safety when bending to perform any task.
Muscles That Perform the Hinge
The prime movers of the hinge are the glutes and hamstrings. The full complement of back and core muscles also stabilizes the spine throughout the exercise. The latissimus dorsi, trapezius, abdominals, forearms, and muscles of the hands all contribute to the successful execution of loaded hinging. When performed from the floor as a deadlift, the quadriceps also contribute to the initiation of the lift.
Best Hinge Exercises
As a general rule, most people do not need to perform a complete deadlift from the floor as a part of their primary hinge training. Unless the deadlift is a part of a competitive environment, nearly every variation will suffice.
There is value in training for the capacity to pick something up off the floor, but the dumbbell Romanian deadlift is an enormously beneficial exercise. This exercise trains grip strength, unilateral coordination, and core engagement, as well as the prime movers of the hinge. It also allows you to customize your end range of motion to where your mobility currently allows.
Some of the best hinge exercises to add to your program follow:
The ability to twist and rotate is a recurring movement pattern in everyday life. Shoveling snow, reaching across your body to grab something off the counter, or any number of real-world tasks draw on the ability to rotate and twist. Without proper technique, many muscles and joints may be put in extremely compromised positions. Too often, however, rotating and twisting gets minimal intentional focus during training.
Muscles That Rotate
Different muscles can be put on trial depending on the specific rotational exercise or task. Rotational movements are often discussed as primarily core exercises but remember that the core is not the only mover involved. As a general rule, the hips and shoulders are also involved in most twisting exercises.
Best Rotation Exercises
Rotation and twisting exercises can be thought of in both a training or sporting context. Explosive change of direction in sport, such as a football player cutting on the field, is one example of twisting or rotating that can be applied as a training drill. In a more isolated context, cable woodchoppers or kettlebell windmills also challenge rotation and twisting capacities.
In the gym, this movement pattern is often trained against itself — anti-rotation exercises are very effective at strengthening the integrity of this movement pattern. Here, think about Pallof presses and side planks.
These are some of the most effective rotation and twist exercises:
- Cable Woodchopper
- Kettlebell Windmill
- Pallof Press
- Side Plank
- Bird Dog
Sample Full Body Workout
A well-designed full body workout should incorporate each of these fundamental movement patterns at least once during the workout. The good news is, exercises in any of these movement patterns can appear in warm-up drills, main lifts, accessory exercises, and even cardiovascular training.
With that in mind, the greatest advantage these movement patterns have is the durability to fill any role necessary within a workout. You’ll perform some of these movements loaded and some unloaded; some with free weights and machines and some with just your bodyweight.
A full-body workout that incorporates at least one exercise from each fundamental movement pattern follows:
- Front-Foot Elevated Split Squat: 2 x 10 per leg
- Goblet Squat: 3 x 10
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 10
- Standing Single-arm Dumbbell Press: 3 x 10 per arm
- Single-arm Lat Pulldown: 3 x 12 per arm
- T-Bar Row: 3 x 10
- Push-up: 2 x as many repetitions as possible
- Kettlebell Windmill: 2 x 10 per side
The seven fundamental movement patterns reinforce clean exercise technique and prepare your body to be more resilient to the challenges presented in training and in life. Humans constantly need to move in these patterns, whether during workouts or everyday life.
With a proper time investment, ongoing mastery of pushes, pulls, squats, hinges, and twists can progress you through any program or exercise you’re working on. If you look closely enough, you should already be able to see the shape of each of these movement patterns in every program you perform. If not, consider filling the gaps with the missing links and propel your training to the next level.
Featured Image: Paul Aiken / Shutterstock