Updated: Mar 6, 2021
If you’ve read part one of this series of articles you’ll know that I think we should prioritise strength training over spending time doing cardio. So what strength exercises should we be doing? There seems like hundreds of choices, too many to do fit everything in. So the purpose of this article is to simplify these endless choices down and demonstrate that there is only really 4 essential movements and that everything else is simply either an isolated part of one of these movements or a combination of them. Let’s start with defining movements into some simple categories, so first question: "is it the upper body or the lower body that is working most?". In a bicep curl it is clearly the upper body, and doing a lunge is a lower body exercise. Question number two: "are we pushing or pulling?". The easiest and most obvious comparison is push ups and pull ups. Both clearly work the upper body more than the lower but involve very different muscle groups and movements of the body. While this may seem like an easy question, the concept of pushing and pulling is dependant on the direction of the movement relative to the ourselves. So doing a tricep extension overhead using a cable machine may be considered “pulling” the cable because it is located behind you, the movement is exactly the same as if we were to lay down on a bench and do a “skull crusher” tricep extension, which we would consider “pushing” the weight up. Both use the same muscles in the same way. What we are really talking about here is: does the movement focus on the anterior (front) or posterior (back) muscle groups of the body. In order to keep it simple most of the time what we consider “Pushing” is done by the anterior (front muscles) and “Pulling” usually has a posterior (back) focus.
So using those previous two questions we can sort nearly all exercises imaginable into one of these 4 categories: - Upper Body Pushing - Upper Body Pulling - Lower Body Pushing - Lower Body Pulling Have a go, make a list of as many exercises as you can think of and try to sort them into these 4 types. You will probably find many things fit into the first 3 groups, the last one “lower body pulling” you may find a bit harder to sort, but we will come back to that category later.
Now you have your list of exercises under each category, maybe you can see that everything in one group is basically the same movement just done in different ways. In the following sections we will take a look at each individual skill area and the exercises involved.
UPPER BODY PUSH
Lets start with Upper Body Pushing, here are a few example exercises: - Bench Press - Push Ups - Dips - Shoulder Press - Tricep extension.
- Pec Fly.
Bench press involves laying on a bench holding a bar with your hands near your chest, arms bent, and then extending the arms away from the torso until the arms are straight. A push up is exactly the same thing just facing the floor so that now the item you are pushing is your own bodyweight, you still start with arms bent close to the chest and finish by extending the arms in front of you. Dips where you support your whole body weight on your arms on two items either side of you (usually bars or chairs) and lower yourself down and then back up, is again trying to get your hands from close to the chest to far away as you extend the arms the only difference is that that now you are lifting all of you body weight because your feet aren’t on the floor and this forces you to use a deeper range of motion to change the angle that the arms go away from the body. Shoulder press is the same just at the other end of the range of motion, arms overheard pushing away from the body. all of these movements can be classified as “pushing the hand away from the body” A tricep extension is any isolation exercise where your arm starts bent and ends up straight so this is just practicing a smaller part of this larger movement and taking the shoulder joint out of the equation. The Pec fly is the same idea, pushing the hands together while keeping the arm straight to transfer the focus to the muscles that control the shoulder joint. UPPER BODY PULL Upper Body Pulling is simply the reverse of everything above, so all the exercises will be about starting with the arms straight and away from the body and then trying to pull them in closer (or an isolated smaller part of this movement). Some example exercises are: - Pull Ups - Bodyweight Rows - Rowing Machines - Bicep Curls
Of all the fundamental bodyweight movements, Pull Ups seem the hardest for most people when starting out. This is due to the large range of motion the shoulder joint goes through during the movement combined with the required to move the whole weight of the body. Rowing Exercises work similar muscles but provide a much more accessible starting point as they require a smaller range of motion and reduced resistance due to your feet taking some of the weight through the floor.
LOWER BODY PUSH The lower body exercises seem a bit harder to define but in general, everything "Lower Body Pushing" involves extending the legs getting the feet further away from the body. Here are some examples: - Leg Press - Squats - Lunges - Calf Raises
Leg Press is a machine exercise where you start with both the feet close to body and push them away in order to lift a weight. Squats are the same motion, two legs working together to lift your own bodyweight (or more if holding a weight such as a kettlebell or barbell). Lunges are a way of shifting the focus so that one leg is doing more of the work than the other, but the movement is similar. Calf raises take out the usage of the hip and knee joint and just isolate the movement to focus on extending the ankle joint, but it’s still pushing away from the body.
LOWER BODY PULL Lower Body Pulling is the hardest to define because in most of these movements we don’t traditionally think of as “Pulling”, so it’s maybe best to think of these movements as things that focus on the posterior (back side) of the legs. These muscles are the glutes and hamstrings. Some examples of exercises that use these muscle are: Deadlift
Glute Raise Leg Curl Machine Running.
Deadlifting is picking a heavy weight up off the floor. Even though you may grip the item with your hands, all the work should come from the back of the legs, pulling your body back to upright, nothing should be changing in the position of the upper body. Your body starts off hinged at the hips and ends up standing straight up. I could talk about deadlifts all day and for that reason I will save it for a future article, but they are one of the best exercises you can do, so don’t miss them out. The Glute raise is just an isolation version of the same movement, starting with your hips bent and pushing them forward / up to get a straight line. The Leg curl machine isolates the hamstring focusing on pulling your heel towards your glutes. This motion is extremely important in running, where we use this muscle to pick up the feet and pull them away from the floor quickly in order to take our next step. (Also subject matter for a whole future article!) So hopefully in summary we can now see that there is only 4 movements and everything else can be explained as either an easier or harder version of the same movement (a progression, regression or isolation). Therefore these are the 4 essential exercises / skills that you should focus your time on: - Upper Body Push: Push Ups - Upper Body Pull: Pull Ups (or Rows) - Lower Body Push: Squats - Lower Body Pull: Deadlift.
These are the fundamental skills everyone should be working on, while you may find some too hard (or even too easy) there is always different progressions to adjust the difficulty to make the exercise at the right level to be challenging but still achievable. This is what I specialise in doing with my clients, finding and explaining the right progressions in the right order that lead to continued progress and success.