Why is Training Movements better than Training Muscles?

When many people sit down to write their training programme, they will think about exercises in relation to muscles and try to include an exercise that works all of the muscles of the body (chest, shoulders, arms, back, core, glutes, thighs, hamstrings, calves). This may be accomplished within a single session (whole body) or over several sessions (split programme), where different body parts are worked on different days. This is what is taught on fitness instructor and personal trainer courses, but is an outdated way of thinking about programming. For example, look at the 2 whole body sessions below:


Session A


Session B

Barbell Bench Press


Press Ups

Leg Extension



Lat Pull Down


Pull Ups

Leg Curl


Romanian Deadlift

Lat Raises


Shoulder Press

Bicep Curls


Supine Rows

Back Extensions


Farmers Walk

Side Plank


Cable Woodchop





So which session is more effective? Well it’s Session B, but let’s look at some reasons why:


1.         A press up would work the same muscles as the bench press, but would also work the anterior core muscles (stomach) so we wouldn’t need the additional crunches at the end.

2.         Squats are far superior to leg extension - not only do they work the quadriceps, but they also work the glutes, hamstrings, adductors, abductors and core (particularly the back). They result in greater strength, size and energy expenditure.

3.         Although Pull Ups and Lat Pull Down may seem identical exercises, they are not. The Pull Up requires much greater core and shoulder-scapula stabilisation, more grip strength and results in much greater energy expenditure (for fat loss).

4.         The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and Leg Curl both work the hamstrings, but the RDL works the glutes and back muscles (negating the need for the back extensions later on).

5.         The Shoulder Press will work the deltoids (like the Lat Raises), but will also work the upper back, shoulder stabilisers and triceps.

6.         Supine Rows will still work the biceps, but will also train the horizontal pulling muscles - the back of the shoulder, and upper back muscles, as well as the erector spinae back muscles and even the glutes and hamstrings to a lesser degree.

7.         The Farmers Walk (if performed with a single weight on one side) is far superior than the side plank for lateral core activation - but is also brilliant for calorific expenditure, knee, hip and ankle stability and even anaerobic fitness.

8.         The Woodchop will work the body in the transverse (rotational plane), which is markedly undertrained with most people in the gym and will work the lateral and anterior core muscles.

9.         The Press, Pull, Squat, Lift, Rotation, and Moving/Carrying Load movement patterns are all worked in perfect symmetry in Session B, whereas just the Press and Pull patterns are properly worked in Session A. Even then the Lat Pull Down and Bench Press do not balance each other out as exercises, no prolonged training this way can result in muscular and postural imbalances, and can eventually lead to shoulder problems.


In the end both programmes may seem similar, but Session A has been devised to work certain muscles, whereas Session B has selected exercises based on movement patterns instead. As well as being easier to programme this type exercise selection has a number of additional benefits:


           Training Movements will inherently have a much greater carryover for improved posture, health, strength and the ability to perform your normal daily tasks, because these actions will more closely mimic the movements that make up your day, such as walking, climbing steps, lifting and carrying heavy items and many other normal human movements.

           Training Movements will have a greater carryover to sports performance, since the movements that make up those sports can be replicated and improved in the gym. For example, rowing is made up of the squat, lift, pull and rotation patterns, so focusing on the patterns not just the muscles will help to make you a stronger, faster rower.

           Training Movements with large, compound exercises will produce a greater hormonal effect that smaller isolation exercises that don’t mimic movement patterns. These hormonal changes can increase fat loss, improve sleep, improve bone density or facilitate greater increase in muscle mass (hypertrophy) - depending on the structure of your training programme.


If this sounds quite a new way of thinking - well it is and it isn’t. Many experts are presenting this as “the new way to train”, but this actually was the original way we trained. In ancient Greek and Roman times, “exercise” was mainly for the soldiers to condition themselves and would involve running, lifting, throwing, fighting, wrestling, riding horses, shooting arrows and agility work. Even in the early 1900s, Vintage athletes involved in Strongman and Bodybuilding shows would advocate the use of Training Movements Not Muscles, rather than “cultivating muscle at the expense of strength”, and would focus on getting better or stronger at key movements. Arthur Saxon in 1905 wrote “judge a man by his capabilities as an athlete, whether a weightlifter, wrestler or not, and not by the measurement of his biceps or chest.” They would squat, lift heavy weights above their head, climb ropes, wrestle, fight and juggle kettlebells, and because they were simply training the key human movements, they would “leave the muscles to look after themselves”.


So rather than following a 1970s approach to training, follow the NEW primal way of exercise, and experience how much more effective, challenging and enjoyable it can be.


Allan Collins is Director of Education at Jordan Fitness, and is the author of the complete guides to kettlebell training, functional training and exercise physiology
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