My Pyramid of Physical Training
I recently created a pyramid that represents a hierarchy of physical training. The idea came to me when I recently saw one of the outdated food pyramids. The pyramid turned out to be quite the failure for the USDA, but I asked myself, what would a physical training pyramid look like? This is my visual representation. The base would consist of mobility and stability training, and everything related. The next level would be practical fitness, which is natural movement training and flow. These are the movements that could prove useful in your daily life. Moving on up, we reach functional training, training movement instead of isolating muscles. There is quite a bit of overlap between practical fitness and functional training. And finally, at the pinnacle, we have weight machine training and bodybuilding, muscle isolation exercises. Let’s delve deeper into the pyramid and some of my insights behind it.
Every pyramid must be built on a solid base, or risk crumbling to the ground. At the base of my pyramid is mobility and stability. I begin with the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) to discern how much an individual has of each. It is my screen of choice, but any quality movement screen will do as long as it helps identify the quality of movement a person is starting with, what exercises should be included in the program, and what ones should be excluded for the time being. I like the FMS because it’s simple, quick, and makes movement measurable. You can refer back to my recent blog post about why I like to use the FMS. Included in the base layer is mobility. Does this person have the proper mobility in the shoulders, upper back, hips, and ankles, to train safely in specific exercises? In most cases, working on mobility in the previously mentioned areas of the body will be included in a dynamic warm-up. Even if mobility is not limited, mobility drills will be included for maintenance. I also like to use some of the stretching matrices that physical therapist Gary Gray created, and you can check my blog post about stretching in three planes of motion for more information. If they have the mobility, do they have the stability, especially pertaining to the core? They will be limited in functional movement if they are lacking stability. Then we look at the big functional movements, such as squats, lunges, and single leg, and identify any limitations. At this base level of the pyramid, we utilize corrective exercise, if needed, to improve a person’s movement. Self Myofascial Release (SMR) with the foam roller, lacrosse ball, or massage stick, are also a useful tool in workout preparation and improving range of motion. The foam roller also provides a whole host of other benefits that I have mentioned in a post. It’s all about mobility, stability, and improving movement at this level.
Practical fitness is the next step up. These are the movements that are useful in everyday life, and could even save your life in a potentially dangerous situation. They include balancing, climbing, combatives, crawling, jumping, lifting/carrying, running, swimming, and throwing/catching. We performed many of these movements on a regular basis when we were young, in games and at play, but we often never explore them anymore after childhood. Even as we age, we can still train these techniques and improve. I often narrow it down to the three easiest skills and techniques to perform, which are balancing, crawling, and lifting/carrying, and I can argue that these three, may be the most important. Proficiency in the three movements can help a person maintain their independence well into old age. I have trained clients in their seventies who have problems with their balance, but after a couple of weeks of training, they make noticeable improvements. Balance relies on inputs from three sensory systems, the visual, the vestibular, and somatosensory systems. They provide information to the Central Nervous System (CNS), on where the body is positioned in space. All three systems can become impaired as we age. One study showed that older adults need three times more contrast to see some stimuli at slow frequencies, and their depth perception and periphreal vision decline. Another study showed that individuals over 70 have lost over 40% of their sensory cells within the vestibular system, and this decline can start as early as age 30, with loss of hair cell density in the ear. The somatosensory system is hampered by the loss of the sensitivity to touch. To counteract that, we can train in a safe environment, performing plank walks at a low height, and with low risk of danger. Adults can have a psychological fear of falling which can actually keep them from training balance, increasing the risk of a fall in the future. Practicing balancing techniques under supervision can be a great way to build confidence. Crawling can be done by most people and it helps develop coordination, postural control, locomotion, and manipulation. Proper crawling technique is done with contralateral movement of the limbs to maintain balance and posture. There are many different crawls to choose from, and it all depends on your ability to move and your fitness level. Generally, I have people start with knee/hand crawling and progress from there. If that is too difficult, which it can be for some, especially those with wrist problems, we regress to the knee/elbow crawl. Lifting and carrying makes up the final movement of the big three. It has been researched that 28% of men and 66% of women over the age of 74, can’t lift objects that weigh more than 10 pounds, which equals the typical bag of groceries. A significant strength deficit such as this, makes it very difficult to perform the simple activities of daily living. In natural movement training, we practice lifting and carrying irregular objects such as sandbags. We learn to effectively lift and carry at the waist, chest, shoulders, or overhead. The other skills and techniques can prove more difficult to train, but are still very useful. They can be trained using the proper regressions and progressions as applicable for each person. Check out the MovNat website for more practical fitness workout ideas. I also like to use a natural movement flow warm-up at times. It helps increase mobility in the hips and improve movement. A past study showed that the ability to rise from the floor without the use of the hands, resulted in decreased mortality rates. Also, it just looks cool. Many of these techniques overlap into the next category, functional training.
Functional training resides in the next level and is about training movement and multiple muscle groups with compound lifts. Some of these lifts are not as practical as the previous level, but they will help increase full body strength. As I said before, some of these exercises do overlap with practical fitness. Functional training consists of squats, deadlifts, hip hinges, lunges, single leg, pushes (vertical & horizontal), pulls (vertical & horizontal), and rotational movements. Powerlifting, olympic lifting, kettlebells, free weights, and body weight training would all fall under this category. Even if some of the lifts aren’t necessarily practical, they will help increase strength and enhance a person’s ability to perform the practical skills and techniques. Bench press has to be one of the most popular exercises in the gym, but how often do we end up on our back, having to push something heavy off the top of us. Probably close to never, although, I guess it could happen. A push-up is another great exercise, but isn’t foot/hand crawling going to be a more practical movement? The crawl is basically a dynamic push-up, or dynamic plank, which could come in handy, if you ever needed to move close to the ground. Building strength from the push-ups can enhance your ability to perform the crawl. While natural movement techniques can be technical, you will find that functional training can be more technical in many cases. Proper form is crucial to safely train with olympic lifts and kettlebells.
In the top of the pyramid resides muscle isolation, such as bodybuilding lifts and weight machine training. These are the lifts that are of low importance, unless you are a bodybuilder or are rehabbing an injury. Oh and I am not downing bodybuilding, it’s just that most people would benefit more from other forms of training. Although, following a bodybuilding routine once in awhile might not be a bad thing to add some variation to a workout program while building muscle. If I include any muscle isolation exercises in a program, it’s at the very end and only if time allows. The smaller muscle groups are active during the practical and functional training, so it’s not necessary to isolate them. For athletes, I refer to it as building some muscle armor, and for others I refer to it as training the beach body or vanity muscles. Sure people want to be healthier and move better, but even if it’s not mentioned, training is most often about enhancing a person’s appearance. While muscle isolation exercises may not be necessary, if a client wants to include some in their workout because it makes them feel good, then it’s not a big deal. As far as weight machines go, I am not a big fan. Many machines move a user through a less than optimal range of motion, and can even cause injury. I also figure a large number of people sit when they are at work for long periods of time, so I don’t like machines for the fact alone that you are sitting while you workout. I believe you get much more for your effort when you train from functional positions. As I see it, the only reason to use machines are for those that are recovering from an injury or are extremely debilitated. I still encourage everyone to do as much practical and functional training as they can.
This is just a visual representation of how I, personally, look at programming for physical training. At the very least, maybe it will encourage others to include exercises they haven’t tried before in their training program. By no means do you have to follow it. I place a high priority on movement and it comes through in the way I set up programs. I work with clients who have a wide variety of goals, from fat loss to sports performance, but at the end of the day, I hope they feel like they can move better.