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How Your Workout Is Failing You (And How to Make It Better)

Feel like you’re doing all the right things but still not seeing results? Don’t make the same mistake most people are making in their workouts. Many people train single muscle groups or do isolation exercises and think they’ll get results.

Although they may be spending a lot of time in the gym, the results are limited. You need to start changing your mindset about training. Instead of thinking about isolation exercises, focus on fundamental movement patterns.

Get Back to Basics

First, ask yourself, “What exercises are in my workout?” Are most of your exercises isolating small muscle groups and fixed around one joint (like biceps curls, seated shoulder presses or crunches), or are you using large muscle groups and multiple joints at the same time (as with squats, burpees and step-ups)? If it’s the former, make the change to large muscle groups and fundamental movement patterns.

So what’s a fundamental movement pattern? Think back to your childhood. Everyone typically learns a pretty standard set of movements as a kid. As an infant learning to crawl, you must first push yourself up off the ground — like a push-up.

We then learn how to stand, walk and step over things — like a step-up. These patterns have been learned as primal movements, but unless you use these movements every day, you slowly unlearn them.

The neuromuscular patterning (how your brain turns these movements into second nature) that’s learned through these movements is essential to the development of balance, stability, proper muscle sequencing and overall strength.

These primary exercises link the brain to the body and teach us how to engage the right muscles and move correctly. Now it’s time to get back to the basics and start using these movements in our all of our training programs.

Break Down Your Workout

As previously mentioned, one major mistake people make when working out is isolating a single muscle group, either to bulk up an area or to spot reduce.

Although there can be significance in doing some accessory work on isolated movements, the majority of your workout should be comprised of multi-joint exercises. It’s important to incorporate these as primary exercises in your workout.

Below are six fundamental movement patterns that everyone should include in their warm-ups and workouts (assuming, of course, you don’t have any injuries that would prevent you from doing these safely). They may seem basic, but that’s the point! Really focus on mastering these exercises before incorporating more complex ones into your workouts.

The first four exercises incorporate lower- and upper-body muscle groups and patterns that can be made more challenging with weights. The fifth and sixth exercises incorporate an isometric hold of a forearm plank and a side elbow plank.

These will strengthen your core in the neutral-spine position along with the shoulders and hips by maintaining a strong plank position. These planks will also improve the other four movements patterns as well. Now let’s take your workouts to the next level!

1. Walking Lunge

HOW TO DO IT: Start standing tall with your feet hip-width apart. Step forward and lower your back knee down so it lightly touches the ground. Your upper body and shin should have a slight forward lean to put most of the weight on your front leg. Maintaining a neutral spine, drive through your front-leg heel up to a standing position. Repeat, alternating legs.

2. Step-Up

HOW TO DO IT: Start standing tall with your feet hip-width apart. Lift your knee and place your foot on the step in front of you. (Place your entire foot on the step so your heel is not hanging off.)

Your upper body and shin should have a slight forward lean to put most of the weight on the leg/foot on the step. Drive through your front heel to stand on the step. Slowly lower down using the same leg you stepped up with. Repeat, alternating legs.

3. Squat

HOW TO DO IT: Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart (or slightly wider). Hinge at your hips, bend your knees and sit back. As you descend, drive your knees out and keep the weight distributed between your feet.

At the bottom of the squat, your hip crease should be slightly lower than your knees, your spine should be neutral and your upper body and shins should be parallel. Drive through your heels, push your knees out, squeeze your glutes and finish by returning to the standing position.

4. Push-Up

HOW TO DO IT: Start in a plank position with your hands on the floor and spaced slightly wider than your shoulders. Your spine should be neutral, your core engaged, your legs locked out and your quads and glutes squeezed.

Maintaining that position from head to heels, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bend at the elbows and lower yourself. (Your arms should form 45-degree angles to your body. Lower your body until your chest lightly touches the floor. Press your hands into the floor, straightening your arms and finishing back in the plank position.

5. Forearm Plank

HOW TO DO IT: Place your forearms on the ground with elbows directly underneath your shoulders, forearms parallel to each other and palms facing up. Extend your legs back with the spine neutral, the core engaged, legs locked out and quads and glutes squeezed. Maintaining that position from head to heels, hold for the designated amount of time (see the workout circuit below).

6. Side Elbow Plank

HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your side with your feet stacked on top of one another and legs extended out. Place one elbow on the ground directly underneath your shoulder. Lift your hips off the floor with your spine neutral, your core engaged, your legs locked out and your quads and glutes squeezed. Maintaining that position from head to heels, hold for the designated amount of time. Repeat on the other side.

The “Back to the Basics” Workout

Circuit 1

3 Rounds:

  • 20 walking lunges
  • 10 squats
  • 30 to 60 seconds of forearm plank

Circuit 2

3 Rounds:

  • 10 step-ups
  • 10 push-ups
  • 30 to 60 seconds (each side) of side elbow plank

Incorporating this workout into your routine will strengthen foundational movement patterns and allow you to apply these strengths into other exercises. Taking it back to the basics can help break plateaus and reach new levels of fitness!

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About the Author

PJ Stahl, MA, CSCS, is the creator of the TABATA™ Transformation System, TABATA BODY program director and a TABATA™ master trainer. He utilizes his 14+ years of experience in the fitness industry, education in kinesiology and national certifications to provide a wide range of services to his clients including elite coaching, motivational speaking, fitness consulting and educational seminars. You can take a TABATA™ class with PJ at Lock Box LA.

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