10 min read

The Six (Sort of) Foundational Movement Patterns

by | Training

Welp. I couldn’t think of a clever subtitle, so we might as well get into it.

I’M GOING TO GO OUT ON A LIMB HERE…

Your goals probably have to do with one of these three things: looking better, performing better, or reducing pain/ avoiding injury.

Am I right? Thought so.


If you want to gain strength, improve your physique, or reduce pain/ avoid injury, your training should be centered around compound movements. Most trainers and coaches will tell you there are six foundational movement patterns that you have to do for your training program to be complete:
 
  • Squat
  • Hip Hinge
  • Push (Horizontal & Vertical)
  • Pull (Horizontal & Vertical)
  • Lunge
  • Carry

If your goals are aesthetic-based, these movements are beneficial because your joints have to work synergistically to perform these movements, making them effective in building muscle and burning calories.

Take deadlifts, for example. Deadlifts (hip hinge) work nearly every muscle in your body, while crunches target your rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles). Pay attention to how you feel after a heavy set of deadlifts compared to a set of crunches taken to failure. Deadlifts are WAY more taxing on the body and require much more energy output.

 

If your primary goals are strength and performance, these movements are important because they have the most potential for progressive overload (lifting more weight). Think about it: Have you ever seen anyone do chest flies with the same weight they use for bench press? Of course not–and there are a couple of reasons for this.

First, isolation exercises like a chest fly primarily target one muscle; whereas compound movements like a bench press mainly target the chest, but your front delts, triceps, and even your lats help out. Second, most isolation exercises intentionally put you in a biomechanically disadvantageous position; that’s because the goal is to isolate a specific muscle, not to perform the movement as heavy as possible.

Basically, isolation exercises are meant to isolate specific muscles–crazy, right?

When it comes to pain-reduction, these movements are crucial because they mimic movements you perform in everyday life. So, implementing them into your training program will make you more resilient, avoiding flare-ups, or injuring yourself while going about your day-to-day tasks.

 

EVEN IF YOU AREN’T CURRENTLY TRAINING THESE MOVEMENTS, YOU STILL DO MOST OF THEM EVERY DAY.

Think about every time you take a dump in the morning (c’mon, I know I’m not the only one on a schedule). Every time you get off the toilet, you perform a half-rep of a squat–but your rep isn’t complete until you spray the Febreze. You also perform a hip hinge whenever you pick something up off the floor (and during miscellaneous adult activities).

You do some combination of a push and lunge when you get up off the floor. You may even grab something, or someone, to pull yourself up off the floor. And you perform a carry every time you bring all of your groceries inside in one trip.

Never trust someone who takes more than one trip.

I digress–back to the muscle and fitness stuff. These movement patterns, in combination, work every muscle group in your body:

 

  • Squat: quads and glutes.
  • Hip Hinge: glutes and hamstrings
  • Vertical & Horizontal Push: chest, shoulders, and triceps
  • Vertical & Horizontal Pull: back and biceps
  • Lunge: quads and glutes
  • Carry: core and forearms


So, hypothetically, you can build a solid physique by exclusively training these movements while excluding all accessory work.

If you still can’t tell at this point, these movements are important. Many trainers and coaches will even say “no program is complete without training each and every one of these movement patterns pain-free.”

This. This is where I fall off the “movement pattern theory” bandwagon.

This is the part that I find to be—quite frankly—a pile of white dog shit. You don’t need to train all the movements all of the time for your program to be “complete,” whatever that even means. Don’t get me wrong, you should train most of the movements most of the time. But saying a program isn’t complete because it doesn’t contain a farmer’s carry is ridiculous.

I’ve had plenty of clients in the past who worked around injuries by avoiding some of these movement patterns for a period of time—I have two clients who are currently doing it.

One of my clients, Sarah, has elbow tendinitis. When we started working together, we couldn’t do much. Pushing, pulling, and gripping anything relatively heavy put her in a great deal of pain. She could squat and lunge without pain—those two movement patterns are covered. Although she couldn’t do deadlift (elbow pain from grip), she could still do hip thrusts and barbell good mornings, taking care of the hip-hinge movement-pattern.

Because of her limitations, she could only do three-of-the-six movement patterns. If she bought into the dogmatic belief that she has to do all six of the movement patterns, she would likely do one of two things: push through the pain and make it worse, or quit training because she can’t do what’s optimal.

Both of these options suck.

Luckily, there’s no shortage of training modalities. Sarah opted for one that sucks a little bit less: work around the pain and work toward performing all of the movements pain-free in the future. And that’s what we did… ‎ Her upper-body work consisted of towel clenches, towel twists, wrist curls, chest flies, rear delt flies, tricep extensions, and bicep curls. No pushing. No pulling. No carrying. Instead, we focused on strengthening the muscles surrounding her elbow through isolation exercises.

During this eight-week period, she lost 10 pounds, gained strength, and felt noticeably less pain in her elbow. After another couple of months, she was able to push, pull, and carry without pain. Now her workouts are centered around the main movement patterns, but they still include some isolation work.

Another client of mine, Kara, has a labral tear in her hip. Squatting causes her pain, so she does lunges and Bulgarian split squats. Yes, they have the name “squat” in them, but they’re still considered a lunge. But also, who gives a shit? If doing split squats, lunges, or underwater basket weaving allows Kara to train hard, make progress, and go about her daily life without pain, that’s a win. Regardless of whether or not we do all six movement patterns.

When we speak in absolutes–black & white, right & wrong, always & never–we lose the most important aspect of sustainable progress: context. The perfect or “complete” program for me may be the worst program for you. Or Kara. Or Sarah. It all depends.

Dogmatic beliefs are more harmful than helpful. Most people want to do what’s best or optimal. And if they can’t do what’s optimal, they don’t even try. I’ve seen it too many times. But if you can take more of a nuanced approach, understanding that there is no “best” program for everyone, you’re more likely to find something that helps you see progress. Because there is no best–only what’s best for you.

 

IF THESE MOVEMENT PATTERNS WERE A MUSIC GROUP, THEY’D BE THE JACKSON FIVE.

Because why write a fitness article if you aren’t going to include a pop-culture reference?


Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon, and Michael—those were the five we all know and love. But did you know there was the sixth brother in the group? His name was Randy. Poor Randy Jackson was often forgotten. From 1971 to 1975, Randy made unofficial appearances on the percussions. He wasn’t officially a part of the group until 1975.

To make things worse, he wasn’t even the most famous Randy Jackson. If you’re like me, you had to do a Google search to realize that the Randy Jackson from Journey and American Idol is not the same Randy Jackson on the percussions alongside the King of Pop.

Randy Jackson was only recognized as a member of the group was after Jackie quit because he got married and started a family. Randy was included because the group needed a fifth Jackson to stay the Jackson Five.

After learning this, one thing became apparent: Randy Jackson was replaceable. There are plenty of percussionists and background vocalists who could’ve stepped in and no one would’ve noticed.

Randy Jackson is to the Jackson Five what the “carry” is to the six foundational movement patterns. You can swap it out with walking lunges, or any exercise that requires constant movement. The carry is considered “essential” for the locomotion aspect of the movement–being able to move from one place to another with an external load. There are plenty of exercises that can achieve this feat.

You don’t need farmer’s carries to build muscle, strength, or avoid injury. But doing some form of loaded locomotion can be incredibly beneficial. Personally, I wouldn’t call it foundational or essential–but to each their own.

This isn’t to say that a farmer’s carry isn’t valuable and helpful for a specific person. I just don’t believe in programming exercises that don’t pertain to a person’s goals because someone on the internet told me I have to.

 

TL;DR


In a perfect world, your training program prioritizes 4-6 of the foundational movement patterns. How you implement them into your program depends on your goals and current abilities/ injuries. While these movement patterns are incredibly beneficial, it’s important to know that it’s not “essential” to do all of them, all the time; you can make great progress doing most of them, most of the time. Also, your program isn’t “incomplete” just because you aren’t doing all six of them.

There may be periods of time where you can’t perform all of these movement patterns. There may be periods of time where you exclusively train them. But over the course of a year, your training should be somewhat balanced, containing mostly compound movements and some accessory movements.

If you can do all of these movement patterns pain-free, great. If you can’t, that’s fine too. Just do what you can, avoid training through pain, and seek out a coach who can help you get the most out of these movements.

Connor Youngman is a personal trainer, fitness writer, podcaster, and competitive coffee chugger. He has a deep love for the Chicago Bears, Stoic Philosophy, Harry Potter, and writing about himself in the third person.