February 24, 2017In TrainingBy Sean Lerwill8 Minutes

You may or may not have heard the term “Movement Patterns”. It is more often something you hear from a physio or S&C coach than from bodybuilders or PTs. However, its use seems to be becoming more prevalent now. Like anything, something becomes popular when so and so uses it and then everyone wants in on the action. The question is whether we really understand it or whether everyone agreed.

What is a movement pattern?

Basically, movement patterns are simple ways of categorising exercises based on their bio-mechanical demands on the body/muscles. Still confused? What if I said push, pull, legs programme? Does that make more sense? Good. So let’s take a push session, can you see that press-ups, dips and bench press could all be grouped into a movement pattern, which to keep things simple we’ll call “push”? The same for pull, can you see that lat pull-down, chin-ups and pull-ups are all the same movement pattern? We’ll call this “pull” (for now).

Strength and Conditioning

The idea behind this is to allow a coach or trainer to select a movement pattern for an individual to suit their specific needs or the needs of a certain session. For example, if I was designing a programme for someone who wished to compete at a higher level in CrossFit and they had noted that they are weak when it comes to overhead lifts, I would select “overhead push” or “vertical push” as a movement pattern that needs particular work and thus select exercises that train this movement pattern as part of my programme.

Different to Bodybuilding

The idea of movement patterns is quite different to bodybuilding, where the muscle/body part itself is often the focus and the exercises are selected in relation to training and developing that muscle group. For sport or rehab, it’s usually more advantageous to think about a movement pattern and making it stronger, more fluid and bulletproofing it either for competition or against injury.

That doesn’t mean of course that bodybuilders can’t utilise movement patterns, in fact, I believe they most certainly should. Not just because it could be a way to vary (and therefore progress) their training, which we know is paramount to hypertrophy, but because a overusing movement patterns can actually be bad. What? I hear you cry. I thought this blog was pro movement patterns. First, I don’t think you can be for or against them. They just are. And they can be bad, if a certain movement pattern is overdone. Any repetitive action we humans overdo can be bad. My physio actually says there is no bad posture, just overdoing a certain posture. The key is movement and variation. The same is true of movement patterns. Overdo horizontal pushes (overhead pushes) again, again, again, especially without paying attention to other movement patterns to balance that work and you are setting the body up for injury. It’s easy for anyone chasing a fitness goal to do this; so focused on the end goal that the pathway is sometimes not considered. An understanding of movement patterns helps avoid this.

Categories of movement pattern

Sean Lerwill using the deadlift machine (Credit: snhfoto)This is a little tricky. People have different opinions. On doing some reading around the subject recently, which inspired this blog, some people referred to the squat as a movement pattern. The lunge as a movement pattern. Then push, pull, twist and bend as the others making seven. I appreciate the squat is difficult to categorise due to the fact that neither the knee or hip are dominant, both are (Lombard’s paradox) but does that doesn’t necessitate it having its own movement pattern? Another article suggested Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Loaded Carry, Rotation and Counter-rotation were the patterns.

In an article on Muscle and Fitness, they wrote about the 6 movement patterns for building muscle. According to M&F these are:

  1. Upper-body pushing – exercise examples: Push-up, bench press, overhead press
  2. Upper-body pulling – exercise examples: Row, pull-up, pulldown
  3. Hip hinge pattern – exercise examples: Deadlift, glute bridge
  4. Squat pattern – exercise examples: Goblet squat, front squat, back squat
  5. Loaded carry – exercise examples: Farmer’s walk, overhead carry
  6. Anterior core/abs – exercise examples: Ab wheel rollout, hanging leg raises

Yep, you’ve noticed it, “squat pattern” is there again and apart from core/abs taking the place of rotation and counter rotation, that list if pretty similar. I continued to search both books and online resources and eventually found a more extensive (though someone will probably argue not complete) list on the science for sport website.

Movement Patterns and examples

  • Vertical Push – Push Press/DB overhead press/Military Press
  • Vertical Pull – Pull-Ups/chin-ups/Lat Pull-Downs
  • Horizontal Push – Press-Ups/Bench Press/Standing Chest Press
  • Horizontal Pull – Inverted Row/Bent Over Row/T-Bar Row
  • Hip Hinge – Romanian Deadlift/Kettlebell swing
  • Hip Dominant – Glute Bridges/High-Box Step-Up (and squat)
  • Knee Dominant – Pistol squats/Low-Box Step up/Lunge variations (and squat)
  • Rotational and Diagonal – Russian Twist/Cable Rotations/Woodchops
  • Anti-Rotation – Single-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press/Single-Arm Rows
  • Anti-Flexion – Squat/Deadlift/Bent Over Row
  • Anti-Extension – The Plank and its variations/Press-Ups/Supermans
  • Anti-Lateral Flexion- Single-Arm Overhead Press/Imbalance Lunges or Step-Ups

Utilising Movement Patterns

The question is how this knowledge helps. I believe it has three uses:

  1. Ensure you use a well rounded mix of movement patterns in your exercise programmes when training for general health and fitness, fatloss or muscle gain.
  2. Ensure you pick exercises that support you athletic goal when training for a specific sport or event.
  3. Avoid repeating the same movements patterns too much therefore overusing certain muscle groups which could lead to injury.

Whatever you health and fitness aim, once you move beyond casual interest, it’s worth understanding movement patterns; as the information above shows they can be integral in training for a goal or avoiding injury.