If you read one article about Fundamental Movements Read this one
Have you heard of Fundamental Movements, Primal Movements, Functional Movements, or whatsoever?
And you asked yourself, what are those movements?
This 8 part article aims to answer the questions
- What are fundamental movements
- How fundamental movements apply to strength training
- How fundamental movements apply to sport
- And the different fundamental movements
Table of contents
Part 1: The Magnificent 7 Fundamental Movements
Part 2: Fundamental Movement #1 Bending – Think Bending, Not Deadlifting
Part 3: Fundamental Movement #2 – Squatting – are all Squatting exercises created equal?
Part 4: Fundamental Movement #3 – Lunging – there is more to Lunges than training quads and glutes
Part 5: Fundamental Movement #4 – Pushing – Why Monday Shouldn’t be Bench Day
Part 6: Fundamental Movement #5 – Pulling – More than a big Back and Wide Lats
Part 7: Fundamental Movement #6 – Rotating (coming up)
Part 8: Fundamental Movement #7 – Gait (coming up)
Part 1: The Magnificent 7 Fundamental Movements
Does the Magnificent 7 ring a bell? Do you remember that classic movie The Magnificent 7 where 7 gunfighters protected a Mexican village against an army of bandits?
It’s definitely one of my favourite movies.
7 gunfighters, everyone has a different skill are hired to protect a Mexican village, and as every good classical movie, they managed to succeed.
What does that movie have to do with strength training and fundamental movements?
In the movie, it takes the 7 gunfighters to beat a whole army of bandits, in training it needs 7 fundamental movements to perform any exercise or movement you want to perform.
Important here is, that you need to be able to technically dominate these 7 movements in order to do every other movement.
What are those Fundamental Movements?
The order of the following fundamental movements is not relevant, it’s more important, what these fundamental movements are and how they unfold in the strength training practice.
Fundamental movement #1: Bending
The movement pattern of bending refers to bending forward, that can be achieved via bending from the hip, which is advised in most cases, but also bending from your back – yes, you can also bend from your back at times.
Bending from the hip is also called hinging or hip hinge. Hinging from the hip allows you to use the strong muscles of glutes, lower back and hamstring.
Typical hip hinge strength training exercises are
- RDL (Romanian Deadlift)
- Stiff-legged Deadlift
- Good Mornings
- Kettlebell Swings
Can you also bend from the back? Yes, you can. There might be a bit of a debate, depending who you are asking and you might also hear people advising not to bend from the back, my rationale is fairly simple and straight forward.
Our spine allows us to move, not a great deal of movement, as other parts of the body, but still with regards to bending the spine is able to flex and extend (with regards to rotation, I will cover that later).
So, why not use it?
If you look at different sports, you can clearly see, that the spine extends and flexes in different movements (think about a serve in tennis or volleyball, look at different martial arts to name just a few).
Typical bending strength training exercises are
- Back extension with focus on bending from lower back
For the advanced athletes and trainees
- Jefferson curl
- Seated Good Mornings
Which bending pattern should you use? Bending from the lower back or hip hinging?
It really depends on what you want to achieve, if you want to target the posterior chain and an optimal transfer and sequencing of force production focus on the movement pattern of the hip hinge, if you want to train the ability to flex and extend or extend and flex focus on the movement pattern of bending from the back.
Fundamental movement #2: Squatting
Squatting is a fundamental movement pattern we humans learn early on and we kind of lose it along the way.
Have you ever seen kids sitting in a full squat and playing for minutes?
Try to do that to an adult and he or she will scream after 20 – 30 seconds.
However, squatting is a fundamental movement pattern and consequently should be part of every training program.
Typical Squatting strength training exercises are
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Overhead Squat
Are amongst the most popular, variations of the squat
- Goblet Squat
- Zercher Squat
- Belt Squat
Single-legged variations include (but not limited to)
- Bulgarian Split Squat or Rear foot elevated Split Squat
- Split Squats
- Pistol Squats
Fundamental movement #3: Lunging
Lunging is another single-legged fundamental movement pattern and treated as a separate fundamental movement pattern.
What is the difference between lunging and single-legged squatting?
Whilst single-legged squatting is stationary, the body moves in a vertical line, lunging involves locomotion and the body moves in a vertical and horizontal line.
Typical Lunging strength training exercises are
- Forward Lunges
- Backward Lunges
- Walking Lunges
- Lateral Lunges
- Diagonal Lunges
The lunging pattern allows for almost unlimited variations in directions.
Fundamental movement #4: Pushing
Pushing is a fundamental movement pattern for the upper body and can be divided into horizontal pushing and vertical pushing.
Typical horizontal pushing strength training exercises are
- Bench Press (either Barbell Bench Press or Dumbbell Bench Press)
- Chest Presses (for example with cables or a strength training machine)
Typical vertical pushing strength training exercises are
- Shoulder Press (either Barbell Shoulder Press, also called Military Press or Dumbbell Bench Press)
- Push Presses
- Handstand Push-up
Fundamental movement #5: Pulling
Similarly to Pushing, Pulling can be divided into horizontal pulling and vertical pulling movements.
Typical horizontal pulling strength training exercises are
- Rows (Bent-over Row, Bench Row, Cable Rows)
- Horizontal Pull-Ups or Inverted Rows
Typical vertical pulling strength training exercises are
Fundamental movement #6: Rotating
Rotating is a fundamental movement that describes the rotation of trunk and hips, some authors also call it Twisting.
A lot of sports that require hitting, throwing or kicking generate strength and power through rotation, consequently rotation is an important movement pattern for most sports.
But not only the ability to twist and rotate is important, also the ability to resist rotation, also called anti-rotation.
Rotation can be trained in various positions, standing, kneeling, half-kneeling, seated, prone (face down) or supine (face up).
Typical strength training exercises that train rotation are
- Cable rotations
- Landmine drills
- Medicine ball drills
- Trunk rotations with the use of Stability balls in a prone or supine position.
Fundamental movement #7: Gait
The fundamental movement of gait refers to all activities that propel you forward, such as walking jogging, running or sprinting.
Typical activities that train the gait movement pattern are
How do Fundamental movements apply to our strength training routine?
In the first instance, you can see, that most of the so-called compound exercises are underpinned by a fundamental movement or combination of fundamental movements.
As an example, the Bent-over Row is a horizontal pull, but also requires a strong hip hinge to maintain the correct position of the upper body.
But how does it apply to more complex movements, such as the Olympic Lifts?
If you look at a complex movement such as the Power Snatch or Power Clean, this strength exercise can be broken down into different fundamental movements.
Essentially the start position, first pull and transition requires a strong hip hinge to keep the torso in the correct position.
The second pull is characterised by a powerful upward extension and requires a powerful squatting movement, precisely the concentric phase or ascent of a squat.
The catch phase is characterised by a pull, whether you believe in pulling the bar up or pulling yourself under the bar (some people refer to that as the third pull), it remains a pull.
The end phase of the catch, when you receive the bar, requires a strong squat, specifically the eccentric portion of the squat or the descent, to decelerate and control the bar.
The recovery phase requires again a strong squat, but this time again the concentric portion or ascent of the squat.
This example shows, how a complex movement such as the Olympic Lifts and its’ derivatives need a solid foundation of fundamental movements.
For a detailed overview of the different phases of the mentioned strength exercises, check out
Part 2: Think Bending, Not Deadlifting!
The first Fundamental Movement pattern is the pattern or hip hinging (please note that first refers to first in this article, the fundamental movements are not numbered).
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a Romanian Deadlift vs Deadlift? Or What is the difference between Deadlifts vs Squats?
My answer to these questions might surprise you, because normally the answers revolve around the muscular activation, such as ‘the Deadlift works more the muscles of the lower back, whilst the Romanian Deadlift works more the hamstring muscles.’ Or something like this.
In sports, we are very seldom concerned about muscles, we are more interested in movements and how different muscle groups interact synchronously to allow effective and efficient movements.
I like the quote which is attributed to Vern Gambetta Train Movements, Not Muscles
So, what are the difference between the Romanian Deadlift vs the Deadlift? And What are the differences between Deadlifts and Squats?
The Romanian Deadlift vs the Deadlift is not that different, both are essentially the bending pattern with slight differences, which will be covered a bit later.
The difference between Deadlifts vs Squats? This is essentially a different fundamental movement pattern. The Deadlift is a bending pattern or hip hinge movement and the Squat is a squatting pattern.
How does the bending pattern unfold?
In order to understand the bending pattern, I have put together this video tutorial with double Olympian Twan van Gendt to demonstrate, which strength training exercises can essentially train the bending pattern.
Let’s go through the different movements outlined in the tutorial that can teach and train an effective bending pattern or hip hinging pattern.
Romanian Deadlift or RDL
The Romanian Deadlift or abbreviated RDL is a very common hip hinge exercise to target the posterior chain.
The Romanian Deadlift is characterized by a strong backward shift of the hip, which allows the bar to stay close to the body and reduce stress on the lower back.
Where does the name Romanian Deadlift come from?
As the story goes, the successful Romanian Weightlifter and later successful Romanian Weightlifting Coach Dragomir Cioroslan has brought this exercise to the US.
After the fall of the iron curtain, Cioroslan became the Head Coach of the US Weightlifting Team and introduced this, to that point unknown exercise to the US Weightlifters. The US Weightlifters coined the exercise Romanian Deadlift since they knew the regular version of the Deadlift and saw this variation as a Romanian variation of the regular Deadlift.
As most other strength training exercises, there are different variations of the Romanian Deadlift. I have listed a few here, to show exemplary, how an exercise can be modified.
Ruby Huisman, Junior World Champion BMX 2016, performing a regular Romanian Deadlift, you can nicely see, how the hip shifts backward and the bar stays close to the body.
Raymon van der Biezen, professional BMX rider, and double Olympian, performing a Single Leg Romanian Deadlift with a barbell, also notice here, how Raymon keeps the barbell close to his body / legs.
Zarah de Haan, track cyclist in our development team, performing a Single Leg Romanian Deadlift with a dumbbell
Stiff Leg Deadlift
Stiff Leg Deadlift also called stiff-legged Deadlift or Straight Leg Deadlift is a hip hinge motion similar to the Romanian Deadlift, where the athlete hinges forward from the hip.
What is the difference of a Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift?
Well, to be honest, many times the Romanian Deadlift and the Stiff Leg Deadlift are used interchangeably, but they are not. I remember an incident when two people laughed into my face when I outlined the difference between a Romanian Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift.
I leave it up to you to read my explanation and draw your own conclusions.
The difference is in the hip shift, whilst the RDL shifts the hip backward as much as possible so that the barbell can travel down and up in a vertical line, in the Stiff Leg Deadlift the hip remains in the same position and the bar travels away from the body.
So, why should the bar travel away from the body, as it does in a Stiff Leg Deadlift?
The simple reason is, that it puts much higher stretch loads on the posterior chain, mainly the hamstrings.
Because a heavy stretch and eccentric component is a strong hypertrophic signal, one of the hypertrophic signals, and this is exactly where the Stiff Leg Deadlift is mainly used, in Bodybuilding or as a means to increase muscular hypertrophy in the hamstring muscles.
Important to keep in mind, the Stiff Leg Deadlift places a greater load on the posterior chain, but due to the barbell moving away from the body, the total load that can be lifted is much lower than I a Romanian Deadlift.
The Good Morning is a hip hinging movement very similar to the RDL where the barbell is held on the shoulders, in the same position as the Back Squat.
The Good Morning places a lot of load and emphasis on the lower back and is therefore used as an exercise to strengthen the lower back region.
If you think about a Squat and a Deadlift, for most athletes, the weakest link in the chain of the whole movement is the lower back. Which means they would be able to squat more or deadlift more if their lower back could support the load.
For these athletes, the Good Morning is a great strength exercise to strengthen the lower back, which results in a bigger squat or bigger deadlift.
Keep in mind, due to the bar position, the total load that can be lifted in a Good Morning is much less than in an RDL, considering you go through the full range of motion (in the bottom position the upper body is parallel with the ground).
The Deadlift also referred to as regular Deadlift, traditional Deadlift or conventional Deadlift.
The regular Deadlift, traditional Deadlift or conventional Deadlift is used to make a clear distinction between the Deadlift vs Sumo Deadlift.
What is the difference between a Deadlift vs Romanian Deadlift or Deadlift vs Stiff Leg Deadlift?
The difference between Deadlift and Romanian Deadlift or the Deadlift and Stiff Leg Deadlift is, that in the Deadlift you engage your legs.
That means whilst there is no movement in the knee joint in a Romanian Deadlift or Stiff Leg Deadlift, there is a slight knee flexion and knee extension movement in the regular Deadlift.
Due to the additional joint (knees) involved in the movement the total load, that can be lifted in a Deadlift is higher than in a Romanian Deadlift.
Sumo Deadlifts are a Deadlift variation, where the stance is much wider than in a regular Deadlift.
The wider stance allows the athlete to grab the barbell in between the legs and sit a lower in the start position.
This variation originates from competitive Powerlifters.
The reason is that these Powerlifters have stronger anterior side and the deeper start position allows them to use the muscles of the anterior side more.
What is the difference of a Deadlift vs Sumo Deadlift?
As I have just outlined, the start position is different, but let’s break it down into fundamental movements and fundamental movement patterns.
Whilst the regular Deadlift is mainly a bending pattern, the Sumo Deadlift is actually more of a squatting pattern.
This is also the practical application of the Sumo Deadlift for athletes.
Athletes who can’t squat, for whatever reason are most often very able to perform Sumo Deadlifts.
I have experienced that myself when I was working with the professional Beach Volleyball Players, they weren’t that good at Back Squats or Front Squats, but they could lift quite big in the Sumo Deadlift.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The Trap Bar Deadlift, also called Hex Bar Deadlift is another Deadlift variation that requires a specific bar, which allows the athlete to stand inside the barbell.
One of the major benefits of the Trap Bar Deadlift is, that athletes can just reach down to the bar, grab the barbell and lift it up, without worrying how to get the barbell past the knees.
This is one of the biggest technical difficulties athletes are facing in the regular Deadlift, that their start position tends to be too low and the knees come too far forward and over and in front of the bar (watch minute 05:02 and following minutes from the tutorial, that explains the difference between the start position in a Deadlift and in a Clean).
Similarly to the Sumo Deadlift, the fact that athletes can sit much lower makes the Trap Bar Deadlift also into a combination of a bending pattern and squatting pattern.
Consequently, the Trap Bar Deadlift can be used as a squatting variation as well. Mike Boyle, for example, uses the Trap Bar Deadlift as a squatting variation.
The Clean Pull is a movement, that is similar to a Clean or Power Clean, but without catching the bar. The Clean Pull is essentially the first 3 phases of the Clean or Power Clean, first pull, transition and second pull. If you want to read up on the different phases of the Power Clean technique, check out
As I mentioned in the section about the Trap Bar Deadlift, often times the Clean Pull start position and Deadlift start position are referred to as the same positions.
The truth is, the start positions are different and the movement of the Clean Pull and the movement of the Deadlift are very different.
The main difference in the start position is, that the athlete sits much lower in the start position of the Clean Pull compared to the Deadlift, which results in a more upright upper body and the knees moving forward and over the bar.
The difference in the movement is, that the most difficult part in the Deadlift is to get the barbell of the ground. Whilst getting the bar of the ground in a Clean or Power Clean is not the most challenging part of the whole movement.
Back Extensions, also referred as Hyperextensions is a bending movement that can be used in a various way and at various angles.
In the tutorial, Twan and I demonstrated two different variations of the Back Extension, depending on which movement pattern you want to teach or train.
Variation one is another hip hinge variation, that trains the bending pattern from the hip, similar to the movement patterns of the Romanian Deadlift, Stiff Leg Deadlift and Good Morning.
The second variation uses the bending pattern from the lower back, the lumbar spine region.
As I mentioned in the introduction of the article, there is quite a bit of a debate, whether you should train this movement pattern or not. Or whether it is not better to keep the trunk in an isometric position without flexion and extension.
My opinion is, that the spine is made for a certain range of motion and these movements also happen in the sporting arena, so why not train it?
The bending pattern from the lumbar region trained in the Back Extension machine requires the hip to stay stable and the movement occurs by bending/flexing and extending the spine.
The example of the Back Extension shows nicely, that the same exercise can be used for different purposes, in this example hinging from the hip vs bending from the lumbar region.
The Jefferson Curl is an advanced strength training exercise and should exclusively be used by advanced athletes with a well-developed kinesthetic sense and control of their body.
The Jefferson Curl also trains and teaches the flexion and extension pattern of the lumbar region by flexing and extending spine.
The benefits of the Jefferson Curl is, that it allows for training the lower back dynamically with eccentric-concentric contractions and therefore strengthening the muscles of the lumbar region over the full range of motion. Whilst the most common bending pattern strength exercises, such as the Deadlift variations, RDL, Stiff Leg Deadlift and Good Mornings only train the lower back isometrically.
Concluding Think Bending, Not Deadlifting
The next time you ask yourself, what is the difference between a Deadlift vs Sumo Deadlift, you know the answer can be found in breaking down the movement into its fundamental movement patterns.
The bending pattern can be trained with different strength training exercises, amongst the most popular strength training exercises for training the bending pattern are Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, Stiff Leg Deadlift, Good Mornings and Back Extensions.
By the way, not only are these exercises the most popular, they will also give you the biggest bang for your buck
Common variations, such as the Sumo Deadlift and Trap Bar Deadlift are a combination of the bending pattern and the squatting pattern.
Part 3: Squatting – are all Squatting exercises created equal?
Back Squat, Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Hack Squat, Goblet Squat, Pistol Squat, Sissy Squats, Split Squats, Zercher Squat, … the available squat variations are almost limitless and you ask yourself which squat is best?
This is the paradox of choice in action. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less a book written by Barry Schwartz argues that too much choice can lead to paralysis and ultimately result in people not making choices.
What does that have to do with squatting?
If we break down all available squat variations and look at the underlying fundamental movement, essentially they are all the same – it’s a squat!
You are bending your knees to descent into a squat position and you rise or ascent from that squat position.
Have a look at this tutorial I have done with BMX World Champion 2015 and Olympian 2016 Niek Kimmann to demonstrate the fundamental movement pattern of the squat and how this movement pattern unfolds in different squatting exercises.
Your challenge, when watching the tutorial, remove yourself from looking at the different equipment, bar positions and whether it’s single-legged or double-legged and just look at the movement.
Let’s have a closer look at the squat variations demonstrated in the squat tutorial.
Overhead Squats are one of the best squat exercises to learn the correct movement pattern of squatting.
I use the Overhead Squat to teach the correct squat technique, which then transfers to an improved Back Squat technique or Front Squat technique. Especially in the early stages of our young athletes starting out with a structured strength training program, the Overhead Squat (and the handsfree Front Squat) are my ‘bread and butter’ squatting exercise for this development stage.
For more information about the Overhead Squat and how it teaches and improves the squatting movement, check out
- What Is The Overhead Squat Good For?
- What do Overhead Squats work?
- How to improve the Overhead Squat
The Overhead Squat benefits are numerous and I have dedicated an entire article to the benefits of the Overhead Squat, check out
Keep in mind, once athletes are getting stronger, the Overhead Squat will not allow to set a stimulus with regards to strength gains, but it remains a valuable squat exercise that trains and consolidates and refines the fundamental movement pattern of squatting.
The more advanced the athlete, I don’t use the Overhead Squat as a cornerstone squatting exercise, but as a warm-up exercise for the Back Squat or Front Squat.
Check out track cyclist from the development team Steffie van der Peet overhead squatting 95 kg.
Front Squats are one of my cornerstone squatting exercises.
The Front Squat bridges the benefits of the Overhead Squat with the benefits of the Back Squat.
Let me explain.
Due to the bar position on the front of the shoulders, the Front Squat requires you to stay upright (similar to the Overhead Squat), any forward lean will result in losing the bar, consequently, the Front Squat allows for very little compensation in the movement.
On the other hand, the Front Squat allows you to train heavy (similar to the Back Squat), what the Overhead Squat doesn’t allow and you are able to set a stimulus whether you are interested in gaining strength or size.
I have compared the benefits of the Front Squat with the benefits of the Back Squat and Overhead Squat in the article
For more benefits of the Front Squat, check out the article
The Front Squat grip is always a discussion point amongst athletes and coaches.
There are 4 different variations of the Front Squat grip
- A Clean grip, what I recommend to use, if you have sufficient mobility in the wrist
- A cross-grip, which is very common, but not always ideal
- Using straps to achieve a similar arm position as with the Clean grip, but for those with less mobility
- A handsfree Front Squat, where you don’t really hold or grip the bar, but much rather balance it on your shoulders. A great variation to improve Front Squat technique and the squatting movement pattern
Check out the Front Squat of double Olympian Twan van Gendt
Check out this handsfree Front Squat compilation
Back Squats are probably the most common squat variation, the Back Squat and Front Squat are the cornerstones of every strength training program.
There are two different variations on the Back Squat technique, a High-bar Back Squat technique, which requires the upper body to stay more upright and you are able to achieve greater depth and the Low-bar Back Squat technique is more of a bending pattern and results in a stronger forward lean and less squatting depth.
For a more detailed overview of the differences between a High-bar Back Squat vs Low-bar Back Squat, check out the article
Whilst the Overhead Squat and Front Squat don’t allow you to do multiple repetitions, because of the difficulties of holding or supporting the bar, when fatigue kicks in, the Back Squat allows you to train through the full spectrum of repetitions.
In practice that means, that you have to limit your set of Overhead Squats to 3 – 4 reps and your set of Front Squat to a maximum of 6 reps. If you want to perform more repetitions in the squat, the Back Squat is your squat exercise of choice.
I have written about that in detail in the article
The Back Squat is definitely one of our cornerstone strength exercises and squatting variations. Once athletes have mastered the Overhead Squat and Front Squat, we progress them to using and training the Back Squat as one of the main strength exercises in their strength training program.
I have outlined how we use the Back Squat and variations of the Back Squats in the strength training programs with our athletes in the article
For a basic overview of the Back Squat technique check out this Back Squat tutorial
Or check out the full article
Check out BMX rider, Double Olympian and Silver Medallist at the 2016 Olympics Jelle van Gorkom performing a Back Squat with 200 kg
or Track Cyclist, European Champ Track Cycling Sprint 2015 and Olympian 2016 Jeffrey Hoogland performing a Back Squat with 210 kg and 220 kg
Box Squats are a squatting variation, where you squat to a box.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right?
However, there are different opinions on what a Box Squat is, what a Box Squat is used for and why the Box Squat is different than a Back Squat.
First and foremost, comparing the Back Squat and a Box Squat is like comparing apples with oranges, for the simple fact, that you can also hold the barbell in a Front Squat position or an Overhead Squat position in a Box Squat and in these instances it has nothing to do anymore with a Back Squat.
However, the most common Box Squat variation is with the bar on your back, similar to a Back Squat.
There are two different ways how to do a Box Squat.
- Using the box as a tool and use it as a reference point for the squat depth or as a tool to teach the athlete shifting the hip backward, I have done this variation all the time with my tennis players, since there squatting pattern wasn’t that consistent. Later I heard in a workshop from Mike Boyle, that he does the same with the athletes he coaches.
- Squat to the box, sit down and drive back up. This variation was popularized by Bigger, Faster, Stronger and has been adopted and adjusted for different demands such as Powerlifting by Westside Barbell or used in different strength and conditioning programs to improve athletic performance.
Which variation should you use?
That depends very much on your goal.
If you want to teach different aspects of the Back Squat technique, for example, you might use the box as a reference point to teach and enforce consistent and constant squat depth.
If you want to take out the stretch-shortening cycle and reduce the use of elastic energy, you chose for the Box Squat variation where the athlete sits down on the box. This variation is often combined with the use of accommodating resistance training.
Whatever variation you want to choose, make sure it aligns with the goal you want to achieve in your strength training program.
Check out track cyclist Roy van den Berg performing a Box Squat with 220 kg
Single Leg Squat vs Squat – What is the difference between Single Leg Squats vs Regular Squat?
Obviously, one squat exercise is done on two legs and the other squatting exercise is done on one leg.
But there is more to it, we use single legged squats extensively for two reasons
- Most sports happens on one leg
- The bi-lateral deficit
Most sports happen on one leg
Most sporting actions are done one leg at a time, very rarely you use both legs. Just think about jumping, sprinting, changing direction, hitting, kicking, throwing or cycling there is always more load on one leg at a given moment in the sporting action. Consequently it makes sense to train each leg individually through single leg squats.
The bilateral deficit
Another important factor is, that the athlete is able to use relatively more weight on one leg as compared to two legs.
This is referred to the bi-lateral deficit, the sum of both legs in a Single Leg Squat is higher than the total of a bi-lateral Back Squat, the same is true for a single-legged Leg Press vs a double-legged Leg Press.
As an example, an athlete is able to do a single leg Leg Press with around 300 kg (per leg), most likely this athlete will be able to do 450 – 500 kg in a double-legged Leg Press, whilst the athlete should be able to do 600 kg (300 kg per leg multiplied by 2).
This is the bi-lateral deficit in action.
To the best of my knowledge, the bi-lateral deficit could not be found in Olympic Weightlifters and Rowers, which can be explained, that these sports are performed on both legs and are therefore an exception to my statement ‘Most sports happen on one leg’.
What are the most effective single leg strength exercises or single leg squats?
The ones I use extensively will be presented here.
Bulgarian Split Squat or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Bulgarian Split Squats are a single-leg squat variation that focusses on squatting on one leg at a time and reducing the contribution of the other leg due to the elevated position.
We use Bulgarian Split Squats extensively, and found that our athletes are able to squat somewhere between 80 -95 % of their Back Squat max (depending on the individual athlete) in the Bulgarian Split Squat.
To be fair, you have to consider, that the range of motion in the Bulgarian Split Squat is less than in a Back Squat, so it’s not a 100% fair comparison. However, it’s still much higher than 50% Back Squat 1RM.
Yes, we do 1RM’s with the Bulgarian Split Squat.
It seems to work for us, check out BMX rider and double Olympian Twan van Gendt performing a Bulgarian Split Squat with 210 kg and proper Bulgarian Split Squat form
Check out this variation of the Bulgarian Split Squat in the Belt Squat machine, I used Double Olympian and Silver Medallist Olympics 2016 when he came back from an injury and we weren’t able to put any axial load (load on the shoulders) on him
Here a variation, where we added instability to the front leg as well as to the rear leg. This example of track cyclist Harrie Lavreysen demonstrates the fact, that if you have high strength levels, as Harrie has, the coordinative challenges aren’t that great.
The Bulgarian Split Squat requires a bit of practice to find the right distance of the working leg to the bench and also to find the correct squatting pattern of moving the hip downwards, rather than backward.
Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
Front Foot Elevated Split Squats are another great single leg squat variation, that allow for extra range of movement during the squat and you will be able to achieve a greater depth and the knee ca drop a bit further than in a regular Split Squat due to the elevated front foot.
Split Squats are another squatting exercise to train the single leg squat movement and single leg strength.
Split Squats allow less range as you would get in a Bulgarian Split Squat or Front Foot Elevated Split Squat and enable you to lift fairly heavy loads.
Check out track cyclist Kyra Lamberink performing a Split Squat
As a side note, usually our single leg squat exercise of choice is the Bulgarian Split Squat and we use the Front Foot Elevated Split Squat or regular Split Squat sporadically.
I have also found that athletes tend to use the back leg a bit more, hence the contribution shifts from the front leg into a squat with the front leg and a push with the back leg.
Single Leg Squats on a box
Single Leg Squats on a box are a good exercise for beginner athletes and advancing athletes to perform a single leg squat.
The benefit of a single leg squat on the box is, that it allows the athlete to go through a full range of motion into a deep squat.
For beginner athletes the bodyweight offers sufficient resistance, once the athletes get stronger you need to get creative to find ways to increase the external resistance to ensure overload.
See track cyclist from our development team Zarah de Haan performing a single leg squat on the box
Check out this Overhead Squat on a box from track cyclist Janne Tiktak
With our Olympians I use the single leg squat on the box only early in the season, when they come back from their time off, with higher repetitions for 2 – 3 weeks. After that period I focus on loaded single legged squatting exercises, such as the Bulgarian Split Squat.
Pistol Squats are another very popular single leg squat variation.
The Pistol Squat challenges balance, as the athlete has to extend the non-working leg to the front.
In my opinion, Pistol Squats are a great squatting exercise for beginning and advancing athletes, as they challenge strength and balance.
Unfortunately, athletes will get to strength levels pretty quickly, where it is very difficult to overload the movement.
One way to progress the Pistol Squat is, by adding instability to challenge the Pistol Squat form, as demonstrated in the video.
But also here athletes adapt to that pretty quickly, I use the pistol squat with added instability in warm-ups to add a proprioceptive challenge to the mix before the athletes are starting to lift.
Check out BMX rider, Olympian 2016 and World Champion BMX 2015 Niek Kimmann doing a Pistol Squat on the Bosu
Another fact, that I don’t like particularly is that athletes tend to round the back when performing a pistol squat.
I know, there are people out there, that have perfect pistol squat form with a straight back, however I am unsure whether the time and effort invested into perfecting the pistol squat form will give the edge in the competitive arena.
Concluding Squatting – are all Squatting exercises created equal?
The Fundamental Movement Pattern of squatting can be trained with a variety of different squatting exercises.
However, not all squatting exercises are created equal and some squat exercises seem to yield better results than other squatting variations.
The fundamental movement of squatting should be trained bi-lateral, as well as uni-lateral to achieve the best possible results.
Part 4: Lunging – There is more to Lunges than training quads and glutes
Almost every popular article about Lunges, states the benefits of Lunges on sculpting the lower body, particularly the quads and glutes.
Whilst athletes probably won’t mind well sculpted quads and glutes, just the fact of having them won’t help very much with their performance in their particular sport.
So the question arises ‘Why are Lunges important?’
Why are Lunges important?
Lunges have to major benefits for the athletes when it comes to improving their sport performance.
Firstly, as I have outline in the first part of this series ‘The Magnificent 7’ and illustrated with the example of the baseball pitcher from Paul Check, the lunging pattern occurs in many sports.
Examples that immediately come to my mind are Tennis, Hockey, Badminton, Volleyball or Beach Volleyball.
Secondly, with the demonstrated examples of the Split Squat variation in the second part of this series of articles ‘Squatting – are all Squatting exercises created equal?’ Lunge variation are a great way to work on single leg strength.
Single leg strength is important, as most sports happen on one leg at a time, very rarely there is a stance phase where equal force is placed on both feet, if you think about running, changing direction, jumping, throwing or kicking. In addition to that, single leg strength exercises are a great way to address the bi-lateral deficit. The bi-lateral describes the phenomenon, that the sum of the strength you are able to exert on each leg individually is higher than the force that can be exerted on both legs.
Lunges Definition: What are Lunges?
Wikipedia defines Lunges as ‘any position of the human body where one leg is positioned forward with knee bent and foot flat on the ground while the other leg is positioned behind. It is used by athletes in cross-training for sports, by weight-trainers as a fitness exercise, and by yogis as part of an asana regimen.’
With this definition, a split squat could also be a lunge.
But Wikipedia also has the answer to that question ‘In difference to the Split squat exercise, during the lunge the rear leg is also activated.’
This statement is based on the article from Live strong What Is the Difference Between a Lunge and a Split Squat?
Whilst that might be true, if you do Lunges or Split Squats with bodyweight or very little external resistance, have a look at the video below from professional BMX rider and double Olympian Twan van Gendt you can see there is a certain amount of activation in the rear leg.
Split Squats vs Lunges – What is the difference between Split Squats vs Lunges
In my opinion a Split Squat is stationary, the load moves in the line of gravity, which means vertically up and down, while during a Lunge there is also horizontal displacement.
This is also the reason, why you can use higher external loads in a Split Squat (whatever variation you are using), than in a Lunge.
In a Lunge you need to stabilize much stronger against the horizontal forces triggered through the lunge exercise.
How to do Lunges?
Lunges can be executed in different ways, as we demonstrated in the tutorial, you can use your own body weight or use external load.
Depending on your goal, you chose whether you work with your own body weight or whether you use external resistance.
I have outlined the principle of starting with the end in mind, determining your goal first and then select the appropriate course of action to achieve this goal in the article
- The Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for Beginners
- 8 Simple Steps To Figure Out How Often Should Strength Training Occur
If you use Lunges as a warm-up exercise, focusing on increasing mobility around the hip, using your own body weight might be sufficient. If you want to use Lunges to build strength, develop power or gain some muscle mass, you need to add external load.
Generally speaking in Lunges and Lunge variations that are performed in the sagittal plane (in simple words moving forward and / or backward) you can use higher external loads as Lunge variations performed in the frontal plane or coronal plane (moving laterally, left and right).
Examples of Lunges in the sagittal plane are Forward Lunges and Reverse Lunges or Backward Lunges. Examples of Lunges in the frontal plane are Lateral Lunges or side Lunges and Crossover Lunges.
Check out the different variations of Lunges in this Lunging tutorial with Niek Kimmann
Forward Lunge & return
The Forward Lunge & return is the most common Lunge variation and often referred to when people speak about Lunges.
I use the term Forward Lunge & return to specify, that once you stepped forward, you return back into the start position, as opposed to a Walking Forward Lunge, where you move forward.
The Forward Lunge & return is a great strength exercise to teach and train deceleration, especially when you use higher loads the anterior side of your legs need to work hard to decelerate the downward momentum.
Reverse Lunge & return
The Reverse Lunge & return is a good variation to the Forward Lunge & return, if you want to avoid the high breaking forces, that are necessary to decelerate the movement.
The Reverse Lunge is also called Backward Lunge.
Whilst the Reverse Lunge is mechanically much easier to execute than the Front Lunge, I have found people struggling more to perform a Reverse Lunge, because we humans tend to be more comfortable moving forward, where we can see the environment, than moving backwards.
Side Lunge & return
The Side Lunge & return is a valuable strength exercise for sports, that involve lateral movements and changes of directions.
Similarly to the Front Lunge & return, the stepping out into the Side Lunge challenges the ability to decelerate the weight, which is helpful for changes of direction. Consequently, if your sport involves lateral movements or changes of direction, you should consider to integrate the Side Lunge into your strength training program.
The Side Lunge is also called Lateral Lunge.
Reverse crossover Lunge & return
The Reverse Crossover Lunge & return, challenges balance and coordination, since athletes are not used to such a movement pattern.
In addition to that it is a great way to work on hip mobility, especially on the maintaining and improving hip abduction.
Having said that, I typically don’t load up the Reverse Crossover Lunge and focus more on the technical execution and adding coordinative challenges to the movement.
Side Lunge & Reverse crossover Lunge
The Side Lunge & Reverse crossover Lunge is a good example how you can combine two different lunging pattern into one movement.
I use this lunge variation as part of my warm ups.
Diagonal Lunge & return
Similarly to the Side Lunge, the Diagonal Lunge or 45 degree Lunge is a Lunge variation, that can offer a lot of benefits for athletes, that have to change direction and perform cutting movements I their sport.
Walking Lunges are a Lunge variation that is very similar to the Forward Lunge, but instead of pushing back into the start position as you would do in a forward lunge, you move forward as if you are walking.
That’s the epidemiology of the word Walking Lunge.
Strictly speaking, the all of the previous mentioned Lunge variations (Forward Lunge, Backward Lunge, Side Lunge, Crossover Lunge and Diagonal Lunge) can be performed walking.
Lunges with Weights
A frequent question is whether you should do Lunges with weights or Lunges without weights.
As I mentioned earlier in the article the answer depends on
- Your training goal
- On your training status. Whilst Lunges with body weight might set a sufficient stimulus for beginner athletes, but once athletes get stronger body weight alone won’t ensure enough resistance to elicit any meaningful adaptation.
Lunges with Dumbbells
Lunges with dumbbells where the dumbbells are held at the side of your body are the easiest way to add resistance to the Lunge.
For most athletes it feels very natural to hold the dumbbells on the side and not having to worry about balancing a barbell on your back or your shoulders.
Unfortunately, as athletes become stronger, there will be a point, where the grip or grip strength will be the limiting factor.
Let me explain.
Your lower body is much stronger than your arms and forearms. As you get stronger, your lower body will be stronger and you will be able to use more weight in the Lunges, than your arms, forearms and hands can possibly hold.
In this case, the weight your hands can hold will not allow to set a sufficient stimulus for your lower body.
Lunges with Barbell
As Niek and me demonstrated in the tutorial, Lunges and the Lunge variation can either be performed with Dumbbells or a barbell.
The barbell position in the lunge exercise can vary between
- Lunges with Barbell on back
- Lunges with Barbell on front
- Lunges with Barbell on overhead
Which is very similar to the squat variations Niek and me have outlined in the tutorial about squatting.
Concluding Lunging – There is more to Lunges than training quads and glutes
Lunges are a fundamental movement pattern and offer two main benefits for athletes.
The lunging pattern occurs in one form or the other in many different sports and the lunge exercise can therefore be considered as a safe way to load up this movement pattern to ensure transfer to the movement pattern in the sport.
Lunge exercises are a great variation, next to the split squat variation, to work one leg at a time, as well as addressing the bi-lateral deficit and improving single-leg strength.
Which lunge variation you should choose depends on your training goal and the demands of your sport.
Part 5: Pushing – Why Monday shouldn’t be Bench Day
One of the first things I learned, when I started strength training myself, is that Monday is Bench Day or Chest Day. It was literally written in stone and probably is still written in stone in many gyms around the globe.
One of the things I learned pretty quickly, when I became interested in coaching athletes is, that firstly a split routine or bro-split isn’t the best thing for athletes and that you should forget about benching or bench pressing and should much rather think of a horizontal push or at least consider the Bench Press one of many horizontal pushing exercises.
Why is that?
Bench Press is the king of all upper body exercises, right?
True, I agree.
However, the whole point of this article is to outline, what fundamental movement patterns are and how fundamental movement patterns or a combination of fundamental movements unfold in the real sporting environment.
A quick refresher?
Please go back to the example in the beginning of this article, when I broke down the throwing movement into a lunge, a rotation, and a push to understand what I mean.
If you want to become better at your sport, you need to have a closer look at the movement patterns that occur in your sport and then find the appropriate strength exercises to train that movement pattern.
Vertical Push vs Horizontal Push: Understanding vertical pushing and horizontal pushing
If we break down the fundamental movement pattern of pushing, we can divide the pushing movement into a horizontal push and a vertical push.
A vertical push in very simple words is, where you are pushing something overhead. Examples of vertical push exercises are a Shoulder Press or Military Press, a Push Press or even a handstand push up.
A horizontal push, on the other hand, is, where you push something away from you, horizontally to your body, in most cases in a 90-degree angle. Examples of horizontal push exercises are a Bench Press or a Push-Up.
Check out the tutorial on vertical push exercises and horizontal push exercises with Jelle van Gorkom and myself
List of Push Exercises
Let’s have a look at the most common vertical push exercises and the horizontal push exercises used in practice.
Vertical Push Exercises
Vertical Push exercises are exercises, where you push something your head.
Shoulder Press or Military Press
The Shoulder Press or Military Press or Overhead Press essentially are the same exercise, just named differently.
The Shoulder Press or Barbell Shoulder Press is the first vertical push exercises, that we demonstrated in the video tutorial, for the simple reason, that it is the most fundamental exercise.
Why is it the most fundamental vertical push?
There are a couple of points, you can usually use the highest load and as we demonstrated, it’s performed standing, which requires every part of your body to work hard to stabilize the weight during the vertical pushing motion.
The start position of the Barbell Shoulder Press is the end position of a Clean or Power Clean, where the barbell rests on the front of your shoulders.
The execution of this vertical push is a bit tricky, you need to lean slightly backward and tuck your chin in order to get the bar past the head. This movement requires a bit of practice and you see, this is where the movement goes wrong once weights get heavier. Athletes tend to push it too far forwards and away from the ideal vertical bar path, which results in a disadvantageous lever and ultimately unsuccessful lift.
When you push the weight up and lean slightly backward, make sure you keep your glutes tight or contracted. This avoids a too strong backward lean, which puts a lot of stress on the lower back.
This was also one of the two reasons, why the Olympic discipline Clean & Press was removed from the official competition format in 1972. On one side it was difficult too judge whether it was a successful lift or not, on the other side it did put athletes at a too great of a risk, because of the excessive backward lean. Have a look at this Clean & Press from John Davis in 1952, not only was the Clean technique questionable, but you can see the excessive backward lean.
By the way, if you pay close attention to the end position, he still leans slightly backward. The ideal Shoulder Press form requires you to bring the head forward and under the bar, once the bar has passed your head so that the bar can stay as close as possible to the vertical line of gravity.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The Dumbbell Shoulder Press is a variation of the Barbell Shoulder Press. The advantage of the Dumbbell Shoulder Press is, that it’s less technically demanding because you can press the weight vertically up and don’t have slightly lean backward and tuck your chin in order to get the weight past your head and face.
The Dumbbell Shoulder Press can be performed with pushing both dumbbells simultaneously, alternating or unilaterally, with one arm or dumbbell at a time.
From experience, the weight you can use in a Dumbbell Shoulder Press is 65 – 75% of your Barbell Shoulder Press. That means, if you can press 100 kg in the Barbell Shoulder Press, you can press 65 – 75 kg in the Dumbbell Shoulder Press.
And don’t forget to consider 65 – 75 kg is the total weight of both dumbbells, not the weight of one dumbbell.
The Push Press is an explosive vertical push exercise and actively engages the lower body.
The Push Press initiates the movement by a dip and a drive of the lower body, once the lower body is fully extended, you do a powerful shrug with your shoulder to bring the bar up and once the bar has passed your face and is over your head, the movement is the same as during the Barbell Shoulder Press.
The more explosive you can use the drive of your lower body and the final shrug, the more weight you are able to lift.
The Push Press is a great strength exercise for every athlete who has to jump in his or her sport, as it essentially resembles a Counter Movement Jump.
The Push Press can be performed with dumbbells, however, the inability to rest the dumbbells on the shoulders and the need to hold the dumbbells during the dip and drive makes it less beneficial compared to the variation with the barbell.
Horizontal Push Exercises
Horizontal Push exercises are exercises, where you push something horizontally away from your body.
Here we go, the king of all upper body exercises, the Bench Press.
The Bench Press is the most fundamental horizontal push exercise out there.
Not necessarily because of its’ popularity, but much rather because you can load heaviest.
In my opinion, the Bench Press is one of the best amongst all horizontal push exercises, however, the importance of the Bench Press is mostly overrated by athletes.
As a small side note, Jelle van Gorkom always wanted to get a bigger Bench Press, whilst I explained that the importance of the Bench Press for his sport isn’t that great.
So we came to an agreement, where I said that we focus on getting a medal on his chest first and after that, we focus on a bigger Bench.
After he got his medal at the Rio Olympic Games 2016, I had to fulfill my part of the agreement and I put him on an extensive Bench Press program, which allowed him to increase his 1 RM by 10% over 12 weeks.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The Dumbbell Bench Press is a variation of the Barbell Bench Press.
The Dumbbell Bench Press allows to move the arms more freely and also get a bit of extra range in the bottom of the lift, as you can lower it further than the Barbell Bench Press.
From my experience, you can also use 65 – 75% of the Barbell Bench Press weight.
Similarly to the Dumbbell Shoulder Press, the Dumbbell Bench Press can be performed with both dumbbells pushed simultaneously, alternating or unilaterally depending on your training goal.
Check out Raymon van der Biezen performing a Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Push Ups are another variation in the tool box of horizontal pushing exercises.
The benefit of the Push Up compared to a Bench Press is, that you have to activate, stabilize and control your entire body.
The disadvantage of the Push Up compared to a Bench Press variation is, that at some point it will become very difficult to find ways to overload the movement. Or in simple words, the athlete will be too strong for his bodyweight or bodyweight plus additional weight. You might have seen people putting chains around their neck and using weight vests to ensure overload. However, this approach is pretty limited.
Another way to make the Push Up more difficult is to add a coordinative challenge by using unstable surfaces or performing the Push Up unilaterally. However, this approach has its’ limits too.
Once you get stronger, you need to find horizontal push exercises, that you can load up with an external load.
Final pushing thoughts
Why do you perform the vertical push exercises standing?
In most sports, athletes have to be on their two feet, that’s why I preferably prescribe the majority of strength exercises on two feet or at least one foot.
In addition to that, do the standing variations also require the whole body and kinetic chain to work and use the lower body to stabilize in order to effectively produce force with the upper body.
Can you do vertical push exercises and horizontal push exercises only with barbells and dumbbells?
You can certainly use other training modes to train vertical pushing and horizontal pushing, such as machines, cables, the landmine or whatever suitable training modes you can think of.
The purpose of this article is to explain the fundamental movement pattern of pushing, how this movement pattern can be divided into vertical pushing and horizontal pushing and how to outline the most common vertical push exercises and horizontal push exercises.
In addition to that, do I believe you get the biggest bang for your buck by choosing barbells and dumbbells for the majority of your strength training exercises.
Concluding Why Monday shouldn’t be Bench Day
If you are an athlete and you want to become better in your sport, you need to understand what a pushing movement is and which type of pushing movement is required in your sport.
If your sport involves horizontal pushing, chose for horizontal push exercises, if your sport involves more vertical pushing, chose vertical push exercises.
Consequently, if someone asks you on Monday if it’s Bench Day you already know what to answer.
Part 6: Pulling – More than a big Back and Wide Lats
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was a young bodybuilder and competed in the Mr. Olympia for the first time, he faced the reigning Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva from Cuba, who was famous for his massive arms and wide back.
Before they went on the stage to compete, Arnold was sitting on a bench in the locker room and thinking about the competition. In this moment Sergio Oliva entered the locker room, he was wearing a kind of coat and went up to Arnold dropped his coat and spread his lats. Arnold illustrates in his book that, in that moment it seems like the lights went off because the lats of Sergio Oliva were so massive, that it was covering the light (remember Arnold was sitting and Sergio Oliva was standing in front of him).
However, Arnold recalls, that this was the moment he had lost the competition because for once he was so impressed with Sergio Oliva and on the other hand, he allowed Sergio Oliva to get the upper hand and got intimidated.
So, what does this story mean for this article?
Well, what it really means, when most people think about pulling, they think about Pull Ups and Pull Downs for wide lats and rowing variations for a thick back.
However, in sport and the use of strength training to improve sports performance, it doesn’t really matter how wide your lats are and how thick your back is.
What does matter is the pulling movement, which is an important movement for a lot of sporting activities, as it is either the primary activity or a secondary activity, that supports the primary activity.
What does that mean?
If you think about the example of the throw that I have outlined at the end of the first part of the article ‘The Magnificent 7 Fundamental Movements’ you can see that the primary movement of the throwing arm can be classified as a pushing movement. What you might not have seen, is that the non-throwing arm is not passive and the better the athlete or thrower, the more they know how to use the non-throwing arm to initiate the rotation of the trunk and later block the rotation to make full use of the kinematic chain to maximize the speed of the throwing arm and the resulting throwing velocity or spin of the ball.
And this movement is a pulling movement.
Vertical Pull vs Horizontal Pull: The difference between vertical pulling and horizontal pulling
If you have read the previous chapter about the fundamental movement pattern of pushing, it will be clear to you, that the fundamental movement of pulling can be divided similarly into a horizontal pull and a vertical pull.
List of Push Exercises
Let’s have a look at the most common vertical push exercises and the horizontal push exercises used in practice.
The horizontal pull refers to pulling from in front of your body to your body. Examples of horizontal pull exercises are
- Bent-over Row
- Bench Row or Bench Pull
- Horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row
- Various types of rowing variations with cables or on a machine
The vertical pull refers to pulling from overhead to your body. Examples of vertical pull exercises are
- Pull Ups wide grip
- Pull Ups close grip
- Pull Ups neutral grip
- Pull Ups wide grip
- Pull Ups close grip
- Pull Ups neutral grip
- Various types of Pull Downs (also called Lat Pull Downs), such as
- Pull Downs wide grip
- Pull Downs close grip
- Pull Downs neutral grip
I guess you get the idea, the fundamental movement pattern of pulling can be divided into horizontal pulling and vertical pulling.
And the horizontal pulling, as well as the vertical pulling can be trained with different exercises.
Let’s have a more in-depth look at the different horizontal pulling and vertical pulling exercises.
Horizontal Pull Exercises
As mentioned before, the horizontal pull is characterized by pulling from in front of your body to your body. The most common horizontal pull exercises are.
The Bent-over Row is one of the most fundamental exercises in every strength training program, but also requires a higher level of proficiency, because you have to stabilize your entire body throughout the whole movement.
The start position of the Bent-over Row is similar to the mid position of the RDL (Romanian Deadlift), where the bar is just below the knee.
From this position, you pull the bar towards you. There are basically two different options, you can pull the bar to your belly button or you can pull the bar towards your sternum.
What is the difference?
Well, we are entering the world of muscular activation, if you pull it to your belly button you put more emphasis on the lats, if you pull it towards your sternum, you put more emphasis on the upper back and shoulder blades (rhomboids, traps, etc).
However, since this article is about movement patterns and not muscular activation, the same approach as I am following in training my athletes, I let them pull to where they are more comfortable with (which is in most cases the belly button). My goal is to train the movement of horizontal pulling and am more interested in loading this movement pattern safely, rather than asking my athletes to perform the pull in a way that doesn’t feel natural to them.
An important consideration for the Bent-over Row is that people tend to use the body too much.
What does that mean?
Ideally, you want to keep your body stable throughout the entire movement and just row, which means the only movement you should see is the movement of the arms.
Too often you see people using their entire body, once to bring the bar into motion and then also once the bar is in motion, they bring down the chest to meet the bar, rather than pulling the bar towards the chest.
Check out this video of The Rock from minute 00:30 – 00:40 and you know, what I mean
I know, that might sound like blasphemy criticizing The Rock, however, I am not criticizing his work ethic and dedication. I believe his dedication and work ethic has lead him to the success he has.
What I am pointing out is, that the execution of the Bent-over Row is a deviation from the ideal execution. There might be a reason, why he does it this way, I don’t know, looking at the execution of the other exercises, it makes me believe that there is no real reason behind it.
Check out this variation of the row in the Back Extension machine
Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
The Dumbbell Bent-over Row is a variation of the Bent-over Row with the Barbell and can be performed with two dumbbells at the same time or one dumbbell at a time.
The technical key points of the Dumbbell Bent-over Row are the same as the Barbell Bent-over Row.
One variation you often see is the Dumbbell Bent-over Row with one arm / one dumbbell and one arm and one leg supported on a bench.
I believe as an athlete you’d be better off doing something standing on both of your feet, rather than half kneeling or sitting. In addition to that, I have seen too often in practice, that the Dumbbell Bent-over Row results in the same compensatory patterns as the Bent-over Row with the Barbell and in most cases to a greater extent, that the Barbell variation.
If there is no real specific reason, for including the Dumbbell Bent-over Row, I would much rather go with the Bent-over Row or another row or pull variation.
Bench Row or Bench Pull
The Bench Row also named Bench Pull is one of my preferred horizontal pulling variations, as it allows the athlete to fully focus on the pulling movement without worrying about stabilizing the rest of the body.
Why should you not stabilize your body?
Good question and I also mentioned before that I prefer athletes to do the majority of their exercises standing on both of their feet.
My thought process here, we get the stabilization and overload that stabilization pattern, where you are hinging forward through Romanian Deadlifts and Good Mornings. With the Bench Row, I want to fully concentrate and overload the horizontal pulling pattern. For me it’s similar to the Bench Press.
What does that mean?
In the Bench Press you also fully concentrate on overloading the horizontal pushing pattern. If you would want to include stabilization, you would do a Push Up Variation or a Standing Chest Press with cables.
The execution of the Bench Pull or Bench Row is fairly simple, start lying supine (which is the complicated word for lie on your stomach), hold the weight with the arms fully extended and pull it up until you hit the bench. Same as in the Bent-over Row, the contact point with the bench should be between the height of the belly button and the height of the sternum.
Check out Olympian 2016 and World Champion BMX 2015 Niek Kimmann performing the Bench Row
An important consideration for the execution of the Bench Pull is to keep your body stable and the only movement you should see is the movement of from the arms, as in the Bent-over Row.
Too often you see athletes compensating and using the entire body in the movement.
Horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row
The horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row is one of the exercises I like to use with athletes that are starting out on their strength training journey.
Why is that?
Because the Horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row requires you to stabilize and control your entire body throughout the whole pulling movement.
‘What?’ You are asking ‘In the paragraph above, you just explained, that you like to choose the Bench Row, because it limits the necessity to stabilize your entire body and now you are contradicting yourself and say you like the horizontal Pull Up, because it requires you to stabilize the body?’
True, let me explain.
I like the horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row for athletes that are just starting with their strength training, because you get the best of both worlds, stabilization and a horizontal pull.
However, the majority of athletes that train with me have a history of 2 to 3 years of strength training and have reached considerable strength levels.
If I put these athletes onto a horizontal Pull Up, they won’t get very much out of it. The stimulus for the pulling isn’t high enough, as resistance is low for their strength levels, the same is true for the stabilization pattern.
It’s still the same objective I have with both types of athletes, but because of their training history and strength levels, I chose different pulling variations.
Back to the topic…
The Horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row allows you to modulate the intensity and resistance through a great range for beginning athletes. From very light resistance, with a fairly upright body posture to a higher resistance, with the feet elevated. If you want to take it a step further, you can even add some additional instability by placing the feet on a stability ball.
Check out BMX rider Merel Smulders performing an Inverted Row with added instability
Another option to increase intensity is to do the Horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row unilaterally with a rotation, as demonstrated by BMX rider Kevin van den Groenendaal
Or like Double Olympian Raymon van der Biezen, a single arm Horizontal Pull Up or Inverted Row with additional load (through a weight vest)
Again, important for the execution of the Horizontal Pull Up is, that the only noticeable movement you should see is the movement of the arms, whilst the body is rigid as a plank.
Any more horizontal pulling?
Certainly, there are much more horizontal Pulling exercises, for example, this Row variation (combined with a Push Up in this example) is essentially a Horizontal Pull, I believe some people call it Renegade Row
#upperbody #pushpull #combination, #renegaderow with #pushup demonstrated by @nielsbensink under the watchful eyes of @jellevangorkom and @davevdburg #strengthtraining #bmx #bmxracing #bmxsupercross #upperbodyworkout #strengthandconditioning #strengthandpower #renegaderowpushups #upperbodypush #upperbodypull #roadtotokyo2020 #derkraftmeister
The pulling exercises presented here, are in my opinion the most valuable horizontal pull exercises and if you need to add variations to the mix, I would recommend varying the training mode, such as changing from barbells to dumbbells and / or changing from bi-lateral (training with both arms simultaneously) to uni-lateral (training with one arm at a time).
Vertical Pull Exercises
Vertical Pull exercises are exercises, where you pull something from over your head vertically to your body.
Pull Ups wide grip
Pull Ups with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) or also called Pull Ups with a wide grip are my basic vertical pull variation of choice.
The grip is around 1.5 times shoulder width. If you look from the rear, the athlete’s arms and body will look like the letter ‘Y’.
From this position the athlete pulls himself or herself up, until the chin is over the bar. For more advanced athletes, they can pull themselves up, until the upper chest makes contact with the bar.
You should watch out, if you chose to pull yourself up until the chest touches the bar, that you maintain the ‘chest up and shoulders back and down’ posture. What happens too often is that athletes are starting to round the shoulders forward on the last part of the movement.
Should you do Pull Ups with an extra wide grip?
There are variations of Pull Ups with a wide grip, where the grip is 2 times shoulder width or more. Does that make sense?
My take on this is, that the wider the grip, the more difficult you make it without necessarily making it better. Makes sense?
In my philosophy, I want to find the position, where the athlete is strongest and to progress, I add more load.
Check out BMX rider Merel Smulders performing a weighted Pull Up with a wide grip
Surely the wider the grip, the more difficult you make it. The same is true, if you put your hands into oil, before doing a Pull Up, it will make the Pull Up infinitely harder, but will this result in training adaptations?
Therefore I would not overcomplicate the Pull Up by making the grip extra wide.
Again, find the grip, where you are strongest and add load over time.
Pull Ups neutral grip
Pull Ups with a neutral grip are the variation of the Pull Up, where the hands are facing each other.
Pull Ups with neutral grip are a bit easier to execute compared to Pull Ups with a wide grip.
The movement of the pull is very similar to the Pull Ups with a wide grip, you start with the arms extended and pull yourself up until the chin is over the bar, or if you are more advanced until the upper chest touches the bar.
Check out Track Cyclist Stephan Habets performing a Weighted Pull Up with a parallel grip
Same caution here, avoid rounding of the shoulders and upper back in the end position.
Pull Ups close grip
Pull Ups with a supinated grip (palms facing towards you) or also called Pull Ups with a close grip , Pull Ups with an underhand grip or even Chin Ups are the easiest variation of all Pull Up variations.
If athletes are not able to use the other two variations of the Pull Up, I start using the Pull Up with a close grip.
Same deal here, start with your arms extended and pull yourself up, until the chin passes the bar or until the upper chest touches the bar.
Due to the pronated grip, the athlete is even more at risk to round the shoulders in the end position, so pay close attention and avoid this.
What if I can’t do Pull Ups? Shall I do Pull Downs?
Pull Ups vs Pull Downs: What is the difference between Pull Ups vs Pull Downs
Obviously the main difference is that during the Pull Up, you pull yourself up, whilst during the Pull down you pull the bar down to your body.
Without going too much into detail of biomechanics, the Pull Up is a closed kinetic chain exercise, where the proximal end of the main working muscles are fixed, whilst the distal part of the main working muscles move. During the Pull Down it’s the other way around, the distal part is fixed and the proximal part moves and the Pull Downs are a so-called open kinetic chain exercise. The implications of the difference between open kinetic chain exercises and closed kinetic chain exercises is for the purpose of discussing fundamental movements of minor importance and will be topic of a separate article. If you want to know more, check out Physiopedia’s explanation of Closed Chain Exercise and Open Chain Exercise
So, what is the difference between Pull Ups vs Pull Downs?
From the perspective of a fundamental movement there is no big difference, both variations are a vertical pull.
From the perspective of strength training and training athletes, there are a few differences.
The main difference in my opinion is that for Pull Ups you need to learn to dominate your body weight, whilst for the Pull Downs you simply sit down and pull.
This point might sound trivial, however, it has important implications.
It is often advised, that if you can’t do Pull Ups you should start with Pull Downs until you are strong enough and then switch to Pull Ups.
I have found, that there is very little transfer from Pull Downs to Pull Ups.
Why is that?
Frankly speaking I don’t really know, however, I remember Charles Poliquin explaining, that open kinetic chain strength exercises don’t transfer to closed kinetic chain activities and vice versa closed kinetic chain strength exercises don’t transfer to open kinetic chain activities.
What does that mean?
If I take the simple example of a swimming stroke, the basic idea is to ‘grab’ the water and pull yourself forward / propel yourself forward, which is a closed kinetic chain activity.
Consequently, Pull Up variations would be a better exercise choice, since they are a closed kinetic chain strength exercise than Pull Downs, that are a open kinetic chain strength exercise.
To be honest, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it makes a lot of sense and it also aligns with the concept of Dynamic Correspondence from Yuri Verskoshansky which outlines different criteria for a movement to have a transfer to the actual sport performance.
Taking all indications into account, there is probably a high correlation between open kinetic chain and closed kinetic chain strength exercises and their transfer to open kinetic chain activities and closed kinetic chain activities.
And this is also the reason, why Pull Downs and an increase in Pull Down strength will transfer very little to Pull Up strength.
What is the solution?
If you are not able to do Pull Ups, start with assisted Pull Ups with a resistance band, where you use the assistance of the resistance bands to support your body weight and help you to pull up. Find the resistance bands which provides the appropriate support for you (the thicker the band, the more support) and reduce the band support over time until you can do full Pull Ups. From experience, this process takes long (multiple weeks to month), but if you stick to it, you will succeed.
Another variation is to do eccentric-only Pull Ups, where you get into the end position with the chin over the bar and use an accentuated eccentric of somewhere between 4 – 6 seconds to lower yourself into the start position with the arms extended. Because you are stronger eccentrically, than concentrically you will be able to do a few repetitions eccentric-only. After a period of eccentric-only training you will be able to do at least 1 or 2 full Pull Up repetitions (concentric / eccentric).
Concluding Why Pulling is about more than a big Back and wide Lats
The pulling movement is a fundamental movement pattern that occurs in various sports either as a primary movement pattern, such as in rowing or as a secondary movement pattern, that supports the primary movement pattern, as outlined in the example of throwing.
In order to train the fundamental movement of pulling you can chose horizontal pulling exercises or vertical pulling exercises, depending on the demands of the sport (whether your sport requires open kinetic chain activities or closed kinetic chain activities) and the demands of the athlete.
Stay tuned for Part 7.