Biomechanics is an intimidating word.
You might not even know what that word means – basically it is the study of the structure, function, motion and mechanical aspect of biological systems.
I am not going to explain that statement. Why? Because it is a recursive, technical and meaningless statement – as are most technical definitions.
Here is what you need to know:
Your body moves.
It is useful to group these movements into patterns.
You have 5 basic patterns (1) and all of your movements can be understood with these patterns (2):
Why is this Useful?
Because it makes understanding movement easy. Simply by understanding these 5 movements you can:
-Move more efficiently (meaning in a safer and stronger way)
-Understand how to know which movements you need to work on
-Train your body as a complete system without missing important components
Move More Efficiently (In a Safer and Stronger Way)
This happens because the rules of a movement pattern tend to be more consistent. For example, once you have learned how to do a deadlift (a hinge pattern) many of the same rules will apply to your kettlebell swing (another hinge pattern). But this doesn’t only apply to “exercises”; those same rules apply to picking up your child or a box of books from the floor. This is because they are all hinges. The rules that make a deadlift safer and stronger will help you do all of those other movements in a safer and stronger way.
Understanding Where You Need Work
If you are having a problem with a movement it can often be fixed by addressing the problem in an easier version of the movement pattern. For example, if you are having back pain after picking things up off the floor it is likely that you are not hinging correctly. Remember it's never the movement that causes pain, it is something about your body and the way that you are doing the movement that causes pain. Learning to do things well in an easier variation will help you fix problems in related movements.
Training Your Body as a Complete System
If you do each of the 5 movements you have worked every single muscle in your body. In fact, there are ways to get full body workouts only using 4, 3 or 2 of the movements (discussed later). Not only have you worked each muscle but you have trained them how to work together to perform real tasks. Your muscles will respond and develop in a balanced fashion that will help you stay injury-free as well as healthy and strong. And you will also develop an appearance that looks healthy and strong – as a really cool side effect!
Pushing involves propelling something away from your body (or your body away from something). This is one of your two upper body movements. The main muscles used are the back of the arms (triceps), the front of the shoulders (delts) and the chest (pecs).
Many exercises that are pushes will have the word push in the name (for example a push-up) or the synonymous word press (such as bench press).
Pulling involves drawing something toward your body (or your body toward something). This is the second upper body movement. The main muscles used are the front of the arm (biceps) and all the muscles of your back (lats). It also will involve the muscles of your forearms, and will help to build a strong grip.
Many exercises that are pulls will have the word pull in the name (for example pull-ups) or the synonymous word row (such as bent over row).
A Note on the Upper Body Movements
The difference between the upper body movements is the direction of the force. Mechanically what your arms and shoulders do is effectively identical. If you take a picture of my upper body during the movements and cropped out the load it is almost impossible to tell if I am doing a pull or a push.
Squatting is lowering your body using your hips and your knees. Many people prefer the (admittedly more accurate) terms of “knee dominant” or “quad dominant” exercise. Whatever you call it the knees will bend as much or more than the hips to perform the movement. This will keep your torso more upright than when you are hinging. It will also focus more on the muscles on the front of your legs (quads) and the back of your lower legs (calves). But your butt muscles (glutes) and the backs of your legs (hamstrings) are also heavily involved.
This is particularly useful for doing things like getting on the floor and out of a chair. Sometimes it is preferable to pick up light objects using this pattern as well.
Hinging is loading your hips by driving them backwards. The knees may still bend but they will bend much less than they do in a squat. This will cause your back to move very far from upright and will resemble bending over or folding in half.
This will bring more focus to the muscles on the back of your body, such as the back of the legs (hamstrings) and butt (glutes). Often this will be loaded by placing the weight in your hands or on your back, also involving your back muscles (lats), fronts of your arms (biceps) and grip muscles.
This should be the default way of picking things up off the ground, and most athletic movements. It will allow you to generate more force (i.e., lift more or jump higher) in a safer manner.
A Note on the Lower Body Movements
Attention to detail is key here. Even though the push and the pull mechanically look the same people rarely confuse them and instantly grasp the concept. On the other hand, the squat and the hinge are mechanically very different but people often confuse them. The easiest way to tell is to look at the relative angles of the hips and the knees, which affect which muscles are used in the movement.
The carry ties your upper body and lower body together. It also involves many smaller coordinated movements and is the most functional exercise most people can do.
Carrying is the broadest and most confusing category in this system. In the purest sense carrying is moving your body from point A to point B.
The obvious way to understand this is walking, crawling, and running. And we often will load some of these movements like walking with a backpack or while holding weights or a box of books.
But it also includes pushing a sled (or grocery cart) or carrying your groceries. Because you are moving yourself and an object from point A to point B.
Where this gets confusing is the amount of other movements (and “anti movements”) that your body does to create this very useful action.
To keep it simple for you – whenever you are moving through space it is a carry, and if you can’t quickly categorize a movement into one of the other four categories chances are it is a carry.
This subject deserves its own article, but let me give you a quick example using one of my favorite ab exercises, the Hanging Leg Raise.
This exercise is really a combination exercise because you are hanging (which is part of pulling) but let's look at the lower body only. The legs come up toward the torso working your core – a motion known as hip flexion. When you walk or run you do the same thing – just one leg at a time. So the muscles that control hip flexion from an upright torso – which this exercise works – are an intense version of part of the gait pattern.
Because the gait pattern involves this action it belongs in the “Carry” category.
How to Build a Full Body Workout
Now that you know the 5 movements, let's quickly teach you how to build effective and balanced full body workouts using them.
Use All Five
The simplest way to use this knowledge is to just do an exercise from all 5 categories in equal amounts. This could mean doing one from each category every workout (which you probably only want to do 2-3 times a week) or splitting them between days. Just make sure that you keep the exercise ratio to about 1:1:1:1:1. But if you need extra exercise add extra carries.
The Fantastic Four
One of the most tried and true methods of using this system is to just do the first 4 - push, pull, squat, and hinge. Then skip the carry. Carrying is the only one that we can be sure you do in your daily life (you have to walk at least a little) and your core will get plenty of work if you pick full body multi-joint functional exercises for the others.
Remember that if you are doing the Fantastic Four and add “core” work or add some “cardio” you are really using all 5 because you are training the carry in another fashion.
Three Upper Body Focus
If you wanted to just use three exercises and focus more on your upper body development you could just use push, pull, and squat. The main reason we usually use the squat instead of the hinge is due to the larger motion on the knees and ankles.
Three Lower Body Focus
Squat, hinge, and push. This one is a bit more intense than the previous set because squatting and hinging use more muscle (and more mental effort) than pulls. The reason we use push is that there are simply some muscles that are almost exclusively used in push movements.
If you really want short workouts and a few exercises you can even get away with just two. Those two are the hinge and the push. The reason you use the push is for the muscles only used in it, and the reason you use the hinge is that if you are holding the weights it will isometrically use the muscles used in the pull (like the lats and the biceps) and activate the muscles of the squat albeit in a shorter range of motion.
If you want one movement to rule them all - you are out of luck. However, many “exercises” use a combination of movements. As long as the movement has at least a push and a hinge hidden inside you can get incredible full body workouts with just one exercise. Sometimes these are obviously combination exercises (like the Clean and Press or Clean and Jerk) sometimes they are more hidden (like the Turkish Get-Up or Snatch).
You don’t need to dedicate your life to studying human movement to see results with your workouts. Or even hire a coach who has. You just need a basic and easy system for understanding all the movements that you need to practice to keep your body healthy and strong.
The 5 Basic Human Movements is a system like that. It is not perfect, but it is really good, and you can use it to effectively train your body for the rest of your life.
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1 - To be more accurate, this is one of the ways we can classify your movements. I like to teach it this way because it is simple, easy to understand, and most important, effective. Like most things there is no one way this has to be done. If you do some research you will find other people teaching 7 or 12 and often people will give you different patterns. There is more than one right way to do this.
2 - This should really read “most movements of your skeletal muscles.” None of these patterns remotely deal with movement of your cardiac muscle (i.e. your heart) or your smooth muscle. But the biggest flaw in this statement is that it leaves out breathing – which is a movement controlled by skeletal muscles not addressed at all in this system. I have found it faster and more effective to teach these as separate concepts, since it takes most people time to grasp that breathing is done by movement as well.