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Movement Based Exercises

Machines and the Isolation Principle

With the introduction of the variable resistance camshaft in the 1970s, machine-based exercises have dominated the industry. The use of machines allowed almost anyone to fatigue a specific muscle or group of muscles in the safety of a supported environment. The support offered by these machines also enabled trainers to take their muscles to a greater level of fatigue, which in turn increased the overload potential of this equipment and the resultant gains in muscle size.

It is no surprise then that bodybuilders were soon attracted by this concept and embraced the use of machines in their training regimes. This set the stage for program design in the 1980s as bodybuilding started to become the mainstream. Resistance training became focused on the overloading of specific muscles to achieve muscle gain, and those in the know impressed us with their knowledge of machines and training techniques, which would best isolate a muscle in order to maximize the training effect on that muscle.

However, what this approach overlooked was the fact that the body is designed to move as a unit. There’s strength in numbers. True human movement generally requires the involvement of many different joints and muscles and, as a result, is both energy efficient and can generate considerable force. Within such movement, some joints will be fixed as muscles contract isometrically to stabilize body parts while others will be moved at speed to drive the movement. But whatever the role of the various elements of the musculoskeletal system, there’s no “I” in team, just as there’s no isolation in movement.

The body also functions as a unit in order to distribute stress over as many joints as possible. If considerable stresses are repeatedly imposed on one or two joints, they may well start to creak a bit in protest at their uneven share of the workload. The body would rather share the stress forces around so it is better able to cope with these forces. It’s a little like interest free credit: it's easier on the body just as smaller payments are easier on the bank balance.

In contrast, training the body in isolation will develop strength that can only be duplicated in isolation and in no way will prepare and condition an individual to attenuate stress and protect vulnerable areas of the body.

Aesthetics Over Function

The historical development of resistance training has focused on aesthetics over function. This is a philosophy based on the assumption that “as long as you look good, you must be doing yourself some good.” It is, however, clearly the case that health and fitness are not one and the same. In fact, inappropriate training is potentially more damaging than relative inactivity.

What is needed is an approach to training that promotes optimal human function but also produces a great physique. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we went to the gym because we enjoyed the exercises, and it was simply a pleasing spin off that we happened to develop the body we always wanted?

The Way Forward

The end-goal of any conditioning or training program should be to improve functional abilities. This will result in improved performance in a work, sport or everyday situation and a reduced likelihood of musculoskeletal degeneration and injury. Hall and Brody (1999) state that impairments in posture and movement are the bases of many neuromusculoskeletal pain syndromes - that is, pain from muscles, fascia, joints and their supporting structures and neural tissues.

Physical function can be thought of as goal-directed movement. As Martin (2002) states, “Function is the link between the physical actions we call movement and the environmental context in which they take place.” The act or movement of reaching, for example, only becomes meaningful, and therefore functional, when there is an object to be reached for. Again as Martin (2002) states, “People use movement every day as they interact with their environment. Goal-directed movement (i.e., function) is important for an individual to survive, to adapt and to learn within the environment. When our movement is inhibited, we may be less able to meet day-to-day needs.”

So it can be seen that movement is the basis for function, which is simply purposeful movement.

Integration Over Isolation

At the heart of any attempt to appreciate the nature and function of human movement must be an acceptance of the principle of integration over isolation. This directly contradicts conventional training methods based on isolating muscle to achieve the muscle fatigue necessary for hypertrophic responses.

We must also remember that the body knows nothing of muscles, only of movement (Bobath, 1980). It is the nervous system that initiates and controls all movement through the neurological stimulation or inhibition of muscles. Movement relies on the effective synchronization of whole chains of muscles through optimal neuromuscular coordination. It is, therefore, questionable as to what effect a lat pull-down or a bicep curl has on a body and a nervous system set up for integration. Perhaps, if you’ve ever woken up with a hangover and spent the rest of the day feeling a little vague and muzzy, you might begin to relate to a nervous system fed on traditional isolation-based exercise.

If the ability to stabilize the body and to generate force is to be truly enhanced through improved movement capabilities, the body must be trained as a harmonious unit. In this way, the nervous system receives the stimulation it craves.

Movement-Based Exercise

If movements can be identified that are being performed on a daily basis, they can be duplicated with a resistance. This will not only go to improve levels of fitness but also quality of life. Each exercise will now have a direct purpose other than just increasing the cross-sectional area of a particular muscle.

Unfortunately, there are endless movements that are performed in everyday life, making it almost impossible to ensure that they are all included in every gym-based program design. However, as Chek (2000) points out, movements can be isolated into more specific movement patterns which, when combined, will create most, if not all, of the movements generated by the human form. These specific movement patterns can be compared to the primary colors on an artist’s palette, from which all other colors or movements can be created.

Primary Movement Patterns

The primary movement patterns are:

(Adapted from Chek, 2000)

Each of these movement patterns can be reproduced in a gym with specific exercises.

It is likely, however, that attempts to mimic functional movements in a gym will incorporate more than one movement pattern. An example of an everyday combination movement might be lifting a box off the floor and placing it onto a shelf.

This could be represented by the movement patterns:

To replicate this movement in the gym, an integrated rotating medicine ball woodchop could be performed.

Clearly, this exercise is likely to be beyond a novice or previously sedentary client. Yet the movement may be currently performed hundreds of times a day, when moving boxes within the working environment, with little if any conditioning at all! As a result, it is unlikely that this complex movement is being performed effectively, with the body maintaining the optimal alignment of its joints. It would not be surprising to learn that this may result in some discomfort or pain.

In this case, in the gym environment, strengthening exercises are needed that are specific to the task at hand. The problem is that the integrated rotating medicine ball woodchop is an inappropriate starting point. The client is not ready for it, and therefore, it would be irresponsible to prescribe this exercise.

Unfortunately, this is often exactly what happens in today’s gyms. Trainers are learning fantastic new exercises and are getting clients to perform them without any prior conditioning or preparation. However, these "sexy" exercises have to be earned, and this can only be done through the effective use of program periodization.

Breaking Down to Rebuild

In short, individual movement patterns must be trained to allow the development of strength with good technique. Only then can these movements be combined into an integrated pattern to improve function and performance.

If a complex exercise can be presented and taught in stages, these can be progressively built upon towards optimal execution of the desired movement. As Janda (1999) states, “If you are going to isolate, you must then integrate.”

In the “box lifting” example, the final goal is to perform an integrated rotating medicine ball woodchop, since this will replicate the requirement placed on the kinetic chain during this movement. The desired exercise must, therefore, be broken down into its component parts. This can be achieved by identifying the primary movement patterns involved in the movement. In this case, the primary movement patterns would be bend, rotate and one leg. Exercises can now be prescribed which mimic these movement patterns. These exercises serve as the starting point in the conditioning requirements of the full, integrated exercise. Overtime, the movement patterns can be combined in intermediate exercises prior to advancement to the final goal.

Rotate Pattern 1 Leg Pattern Bend 2 Extend
Superman  1 leg standing Prone Skydiver
Russian twist Clock squats Bent-legged Deadlift
Cable woodchop 3 dimensional lunge Lateral deadlift
Integrated rotating Med ball woodchop

Program Design

So, it can be seen that the learning of movement can be periodized, or broken down into manageable and progressive stages to allow mastery of the movement at each level.

The level of difficulty or the functional demands of an exercise can be increased at each stage by utilizing any one or more of a number of manipulations of exercise performance:

As can again be seen in the push pattern example below, the culmination of this process will be the performance of a complex movement pattern, the achievement of which is based on a foundation of progressive motor learning. In this way, the process of movement-based exercise is both safe and highly effective.


If we base our program design on an appreciation of movement patterns and how these patterns interact within everyday functional activities, we will begin to employ resistance training that works with, rather than directly opposes, the human design.

If the body is an orchestra, harmony will only be achieved if all the component parts are playing the same tune at the same time. An orchestra where the wind section plays without reference to the strings or percussion would create an awful racket. Combining exercises for each of the six primary movement patterns to produce training programs that progressively enhance movement capabilities – now that’s music to the ears.


  1. Bobath, K. (1980). A Neurophysiological Basis for the Treatment of Cerebral Palsy. Clinics in Developmental Medicine No. 75. (2nd ed.) of CDM 23. The Motor Deficit in Patients with Cerebral Palsy, Spastics International Medical Publications, 1980, London, William Heinemann Medical Books Ltd. Philadelphia: J.B Lippincott Co.
  2. Chek, P. (2000). Movement That Matters. C.H.E.K Institute
  3. Hall, C.M. and Brody, L.T., (1999). Therapeutic Exercise: Moving Toward Function. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
  4. Janda, V. (1999) Function of Muscles and Musculoskeletal Pain Syndromes. San Diego, CA
  5. Martin, C., (2002). Functional Movement Development. (2nd ed.). W.B. Saunders Company.
  6. Schmidt, R.A. and Lee, T.D., (1999). Motor Control and Learning: a Behavioral Emphasis. (3rd ed). Human Kinetics.
  7. Schmidt, R.H., (1991). Motor Learning and Performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.