When it comes to developing exercises for clients' programs, many fitness professionals have a tendency to overcomplicate their sessions by using all sorts of complex moves with fancy-sounding names. To keep things simple and focused on helping our clients improve their movement skill, let's keep in mind that there are five basic movements of exercise:
When we look at it, all five movements are actually components of the gait cycle, which is the default operating system of human movement:
- Ground strike and early heel off is a squat movement (center of gravity has a lower displacement).
- Mid-stance/swing phase is a lunge movement (center of gravity has a higher displacement).
- When right leg is forward, the left arm is swinging/flexing in a push movement.
- When left hip in extension, the right arm is swinging/extending in a pull movement.
- With the right leg forward the pelvis is rotated to the right, and with the left arm swinging forward the thoracic spine is rotated to the left.
Those of us who are blessed with the ability to walk and/or run learn these movements from an early age. Reflexively our brain and nervous system know to communicate in the form of movement patterns that require synergistic coordination among a variety of different muscles. We can contract individual muscles only when consciously thinking about it (like bending the elbow and contracting the biceps when asked to “flex”).
To help our clients improve their movement skill and efficiency, we should first address the stability and mobility of their joints, then teach them the integrated patterns of movement before adding additional load in the form of external resistance.
When a muscle is lengthened (an eccentric action) it can be described as being loaded with mechanical or potential elastic energy. When the muscle transitions to a shortening phase the muscle actually releases the stored energy from the lengthening into kinetic energy to create motion. This is helped by the fact that the muscle spindle synapse with the alpha motor neuron which can innervate the muscle fibers to contract to create a concentric, shortening action.
When a joint goes through a range-of-motion (ROM), one set of muscles is lengthening while the muscles on the other side of the joint are shortening. For example, when the right leg extends during the mid-stance to early heel-off phase of gait the hip flexor muscles (rectus femoris and iliopsoas) are being lengthened, loaded with potential mechanical energy, in the sagittal plane while the gluteus maximus is being shortened in the sagittal plane, releasing the stored mechanical energy in the form of kinetic energy during the contraction. When the right leg goes through swing phase, the hip flexors and anterior tibialis (lower leg) muscles are shortening, or unloading, to create the momentum to lengthen, or load, the gluteus maximus and hamstrings to prepare for the next phase of the gait cycle. These actions of loading and unloading happen throughout the kinetic chain as the body moves over the ground driven by the momentum created by gravity and ground reaction forces.
Bodyweight training focuses on using one’s own bodyweight and the five basic movements to manipulate gravity to load or eccentrically lengthen muscles to prepare for the concentric action of the shortening phase. The fact is that the load on a muscle can be manipulated by changing the plane of motion and the lever action of the arms and/or legs involved in an exercise.
Keep in mind that the three cardinal planes that pass through the human body include:
- Sagittal plane: all movement rotates around a medial-lateral axis.
- Frontal plane: movement rotates around a anterior-posterior axis.
- Transverse plane: movement rotates around a longitudinal axis.
Understanding the three planes and concurrent axes of rotation can allow you to adjust bodyweight training to create numerous angles for the five basic movements. Changing the position of a joint in a plane can create a completely different reaction in the muscles than the standard version of the exercise.
Take the squat, for example. By changing the position of the feet, the actions of the hip joint can be changed to emphasize different aspects of the musculature. The standard position for the feet in the squat is approximately hip-width apart (frontal plane), parallel (sagittal plane) with the toes pointed straight ahead (no rotation in the transverse plane). If you change the foot position to be narrower in the frontal plane, then the movement places more stress in the thighs, specifically the vastus lateralis of the quadriceps. If you change the feet in the sagittal plane so that the left foot is in front of the right (staggered stance), the then left hip will undergo more flexion than the right creating a higher load in the left glutes. If you change the feet so they are internally rotated, it can create more load in the glutes in the transverse plane.
Likewise, when performing lunges the arms can be used to change the joint angle of the hips and trunk to alter the load on the muscles affecting movement of those body segments. Understanding how to implement these tweaks and teach our clients how to control their own bodyweight in all three planes during the basic movements of exercise can give us as trainers the tools to be extremely creative when developing movement-based programs for clients.
The basic premise to created upright or vertical bodyweight-based programs is to first understand the movement patterns that meet a client’s goal, then identify the different actions of the arms and legs which can “drive” the joint and muscle actions necessary to make the movements happen. Bodyweight programs are a foundational stage of training and help create a solid structure prior to loading with external resistance. Bodyweight programs are also great options for active recovery training days (after a heavy lifting day) as well as for clients who travel quite a bit and want an option for maintaining a fitness program while on the road with limited access to a facility or equipment.