Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Case for Full Body, Movement-based Training

Does your one-rep max loaded pull-up equal your one-rep max barbell bench press? If not, you may be in need of a paradigm shift from muscles to movement.

In order to hit all the major muscle groups, many folks utilize split training. That is, over the course of a week, they might do chest one day (usually Monday, when they're fresh), back the next day, shoulders and arms the third day, and legs and abs the last day. Unless you're a bodybuilder -- and even then -- this protocol hardly makes sense for several reasons.

"Split Training"
Photo courtesy: http://fitnessmember.com/fitness-workout/basic-rules-for-split-training/

Let's start by re-conceptualizing our discussion of muscles into one of movements. We can break down exercise into three fundamental movement categories, with two subcategories each. (How symmetrical!) We have:

1. Lower body

a. Knee dominant (bilateral and unilateral) – i.e. squat, lunge
b. Hip dominant (bilateral and unilateral) – i.e. deadlift, single leg stiff-leg deadlift
2. Upper body
a. Pushing (horizontal and vertical) – i.e. bench press, overhead press, skull crusher
b. Pulling (horizontal and vertical) – i.e. row, pull-up, bicep curl
3. Core
a. Rotation/anti-rotation – i.e. medicine ball rotational side throw, Pallof press
b. Hip flexion/anti-extension – i.e. hanging leg raise, ab wheel

Just beware, some exercises fit multiple categories. Take the Turkish get-up, for instance. It's a hip and knee dominant movement all wrapped up into one! Another tricky one is the Cook bar chop, which is comprised of a pull followed by a push.

Now, take a moment to examine which categories our sample split targets. We have three days of upper body – two days of pushing (chest and shoulders) and one day of pulling (back) – and a half-day each of lower body and core. It's no wonder the typical meathead bodybuilder has overdeveloped mirror muscles (pecs, delts, and biceps) atop chicken legs. Granted, there are certainly better splits than the one described above; however, the majority of them underwork the lower body.

Besides the overemphasis on pushing and gross underemphasis on lower body and core, there's another fundamental flaw in this split. Hearken back to that children's song that goes, 'The thigh bone's connected to the hip bone / The hip bone's connected to the back bone...' You get the idea: the human body is one integrated unit. Shouldn't it be trained as such?

In order to reach our goal – be it performance enhancement, aesthetics, improved posture, injury reduction, or all of the above – we must strive for balance from top to bottom, front to back, and side to side. To do this, we have to train our entire body each session, paying equal mind to all of the movement categories and subcategories and devoting sufficient time to each.

To achieve front to back balance, comparable anterior and posterior strength must be prioritized. Because many of us spent our first few years of training bench pressing four days per week, an emphasis generally needs to be placed on posterior chain development. For the upper body, a 3-to-2 ratio of pulling to pushing over the course of a week works well, as does a slightly greater stress on hip dominant over knee dominant lower body exercise.

In order to ensure equal strength from left to right, as well as better mimic field and court sports, incorporating unilateral lower body training is an absolute must. When training unilaterally, should we find an imbalance from left to right, we can work to correct it by performing an additional set on the weaker side. A nice timesaving strategy is to do unilateral knee dominant exercise on the same day as bilateral hip dominant exercise, and vice versa.

Using the movement-based approach, split training can even be employed judiciously. A good split might look something like pushing and knee dominant on odd training days, pulling and hip on evens, and core on both. In this way, we're able to exhaust certain movements while still training full body every session.

The change in perspective from muscles to movements may take some getting used to. Try using the six subcategories as a template into which you plug your favorite exercises, thereby creating a perfectly balanced full body program. Or simply use it as a check to make sure you're hitting everything. Either way, you'll soon grow to appreciate the elegance and simplicity of the movement-based approach. Plus, you'll be the only one in the gym loading two forty-five pound plates around your waist for pull-ups (see video below).

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