Creating great workouts isn’t as difficult as many people think. Sure, we can talk about really complex ideas and use some big terms, that’s all fine and well. However, if such things make you feel like creating highly effective workouts is so beyond for you, then it can be detrimental. I’m not saying advanced ideas and geeking out about high level subjects isn’t fun (heck, I love to do that!) I’m saying it shouldn’t prevent you from feeling confident in having workouts you can use yourself and not feel like they are lesser than they are.
Trust me when I say the 99% of fitness pros even at the highest levels use a lot of the information that I will be sharing to form most of their workouts. There is a balance between getting stuck in “the basics” and overcomplicating things just for the sake of seeming smart. The basics are not something I like to use because if I asked 100 coaches for their top 10 basic exercises I would get 100 different answers (I’ve done this on a smaller scale and it is always true). So, “basic” is relative to the individual and what they believe in and like. A powerlifter will tell you bench, squat, and deadlift is all you need. A bodybuilder, a Crossfitter, a kettlebell enthusiast, I can keep going, all are going to give you different “basics”. That is why I rather focus on foundational concepts and that will help you identify what basic should mean for you.
So, where do we start? For some this may sound redundant (especially if you have followed us for awhile) but I can’t tell you that even today, FEW actually follow rule number one for great workouts. The first thing you should focus upon is having good balance of movement patterns in your workouts. What are the movement patterns, the 7 below tend to be a great starting point and almost universally agreed upon in the industry by good coaches. We could potentially argue for more, but we can’t argue for any less. The point of focusing on movement patterns are for the following benefits…
-Blending hardware and software: If you want to be strong, injury resilient, move well, have great conditioning, they are all predicated upon the synergy your hardware (muscles, tendons, joints, etc.) can have with your software (your nervous system). You can’t avoid training either, but focusing on isolated movements doesn’t place your nervous system’s role at a very high level as it is prioritizing the hardware. Since we want there to be almost equal balance of both, movement patterns offer the best environment to do so.
-Efficiency of training: Again, it almost doesn’t matter your goal. If you want to get more muscle, perform better, feel good, whatever, being able to perform movement patterns well helps these goals more than anything. How can that be when even today you see people promoting a lot of isolated training? If you look at bodybuilders from the early 1900’s to about the 1960’s the great majority of their training was actually align with the movement pattern concepts. Sure, they would perform isolated movements, but they would be just as much into using things like gymnastics in their training. It is about what made up the MOST of the training, it was never dominated by isolated training during those times. Only with the invention of machines, supplement companies owning fitness magazines, and a host of other reasons that isolated training gained strong momentum in fitness. However, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is good (remember margarine for example). Focusing upon movement patterns will allow you to address the functional training qualities of stability, strength, mobility, power, and endurance while also training more muscles at once than you could possibly do in isolated training.
The key is to have balance in your training of these movement patterns. For example, there is no reason to have 4 hip hinges and no lunges and 1 squat in a workout, it makes no sense. Conversely, we shouldn’t be focusing on a whole day of pushing drills and having one pulling exercise (I’ve seen this from even university based programs). Where most people get tripped up, even those that claim they do this, is they program exercises, not movement patterns. The most classic case I’ve seen is promoting loaded carries instead of locomotion, that would be like saying deadlifts instead of hip hinges. A deadlift is an exercise of hip hinging, but hip hinging movements can also include power cleans, kettlebell swings, good mornings, etc. The same is of locomotion, there is a WIDE array of exercises that fall under this category.
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Coach Cari Satre does a great job demonstrating a well balanced workout of these movement patterns.
Movement patterns can cause some questions about overlap to come about. If we have a bent row and a power clean, for example, we have hip hinges in both so is that redundant? I would tell you that you the bent row should be considered an upper body pulling exercise BUT you should still be aware that the hip hinge involved in the movement might influence the order of the exercises and how intense you make the other hip hinge movements. If I use a bent row I like to use a hip hinge in a different stance or moving in a different plane of motion (something we will discuss) that doesn’t stress the trunk quite as much as just going heavier and could cause excessive fatigue. That may sound complex but it really isn’t, we are determining the movement pattern category by the DOMINANT movement, but can still have awareness of other elements may relate to fatigue and should influence our overall programming.
If you are putting proper intensity into your workouts, then about 4-6 exercises work really well and it is rather easy to build this balance. Once you have the exercises, then what? Order and grouping of the exercises really doesn’t get discussed enough in programming workouts. In general, unless there is a SUPER specific training goal (like the performance of a lift or some very particular skill we are trying to teach) I prefer to use circuits in my workouts. That is because circuits allow proper recovery from one exercise while also being highly time efficient. People think circuits are for beginners which they can be, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be highly advanced either so trust me, use circuits for the majority of your training!
With that, order of your exercises in your workouts is key, most TOTALLY screw this up and it is important even though we are using circuits. Most people think that the exercise that uses the MOST weight is the first exercise, this is false. It is the exercise that is more neurologically demanding that is first and so on. What does that mean, how do you know what is most neurologically demanding? This can be based on qualities such as power is suppose to come before heavy strength work, even though the more strength based exercises have more load, the toll on the nervous system is higher in power based movements. It also goes for those exercises in your workouts that are less stable.
For example, if I made you as tired as possible, would you be better at doing a bilateral or single leg deadlift if that weight was relatively equal? I hope you aren’t lying to me and saying single leg, when you are fatigued you often see a lower ability to do things like stand on one leg, or resist forces trying to knock you out of position. Therefore, lunging, step-ups, single leg based lower body movements along with upper body based drills that are more unstable should be earlier in your workouts.
Coaches like Robin Paget help show how to put these principles into practical workouts. It really can become fun fast and this isn’t all the principles to building good workouts, but this would put you at an amazingly strong start! In fact, I would say that if you could feel confident with these concepts you would have better workouts than 99% of those out there AND this would be the start to you accomplishing so much more in your training!
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