Digging into the foundational movements—part 1

Updated: Mar 12


If you've been subscribed to the newsletter, read our blog, or followed us on social media, you know we have specific foundational movements that are part of any program we create. These are:

Now we want to dig deeper into why these are our foundational movements and how to get the most out of them. This first part will recap what the movements are, why everyone needs to be able to do them, and muscles worked by the exercises. The second part will delve into examples of the exercises, possible exercise programming options to include these exercises in your workouts, and how to do so to maximize the benefit of the movements. The third part will look at modifications for persons who cannot perform these exercises. Again, there will be three parts that cover various points:

  • Part 1: recap what the movements are, why everyone needs to be able to do them, muscles worked by the exercises, and examples of the exercises

  • Part 2: delve into possible exercise programming options to include these exercises in your workouts and how to do so to maximize the benefit of the movements

  • Part 3: look at modifications for persons who cannot perform these exercises

Why are these foundational movements?

The squat, hip hinge, overhead press, and running collectively work all the muscles and systems in the body, effectively enabling a person to perform any other movement he or she may need to during daily activities. For example, if you squat down to look at something with a low viewpoint, you just used the squatting movement. If you bend over, pick something up, and then place it on a shelf overhead, you just performed the hip-hinge and overhead press movements. If you quickly jog across the street to avoid traffic, you just performed a variation of running.

Building strength and endurance in these movements transfers over into every other activity as well. For example, if you build lower-body, posterior chain, and core strength from the squat and hip-hinge, every movement that uses the muscles that comprise these groups will benefit as a result. For example, if you increase your lower muscular ability, you'll be able to stand longer, walk further, push objects (e.g. a loaded cart, a car, etc.) longer, and just overall perform better using the associated muscle groups. If you run on a regular basis, you'll improve your ability to hike, kick the ball with the kids, and perform similar activities, since your cardio ability will improve.

On top of that, engaging in the squat, hip-hinge, and overhead press helps improve mobility. If you have stiff hips and tight quads, squatting helps stretch out these tissues. Properly applied, the squat will improve the mobility of tendons, ligaments, and muscles in the hips, knees, ankles, quads, glutes, lower back, and hamstrings. The hip-hinge helps increase mobility of the entire posterior chain (i.e. back side of the body) while the overhead press helps improve mobility in the shoulder complex, upper back, and arms. Running helps in much the same way.

Muscles worked by the squat

While the squat is a lower body dominant movement, all squat exercises work other parts of the body as well, including the core and overall upper-body.

The primary movers

The quadriceps, which are the muscles on the front of your thigh, are the dominant muscles involved in all squatting exercises. The quads extend to allow you to lower into the squat and contract to stand you up from the lower position of the squat. However, the gluteals (i.e. your butt) and hamstrings (i.e. the back of your thighs) help lower you into the squatted position and drive you back to the standing position.

Stabilizers

At the same time, tendons, ligaments, and smaller stabilizer muscles help keep you balanced and stabilized as you work through range of motion (ROM) when performing the squat. Without these all important assistance tissues, the primary movers cannot perform their job.

Other muscles worked

The core—your abdominal muscles, obliques, and lower back muscles—all work hard to keep you upright when performing the squat. This becomes especially true when you perform weighted exercises such as the barbell back squat, any front squat, overhead squat, and kettlebell squat, among others.

Additionally, when you perform weighted squat variations the mid back and upper back muscles as well as the arm and shoulder muscles come into play. These muscles include the deltoids, forearm muscles, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi, among others.

If you have mobility issues, consider working the squat in. Work within safe ranges, of course, and try to increase your range of motion over time, as you become stronger, improve flexibility, and become more proficient in the squat.

Muscles worked by the overhead press

The overhead press works various muscles in the upper-body but like all exercises, has primary movers, stabilizers, and secondary muscles.

Primary movers

The deltoids (i.e. shoulder muscles) and the triceps (i.e. back of arms) are primary movers when performing overhead pressing movements, which include inverted exercises such as the handstand press. The main deltoid muscles involved are the anterior delts, though the medial and posterior plays varying roles, dependent upon which overhead press variation you perform.

Stabilizers

The tendons and ligaments of the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and even the neck help stabilize and balance weight as you press it overhead. Secondary muscles help with stabilization as well.

Secondary muscles

When performing an overhead press, the trapezius, rhomboids, forearm muscles, finger flexors, and biceps, among other muscles, are involved, though to lesser degrees than the primary movers. The exact level of involvement varies on the muscle and type of exercise performed.

Muscles worked by the hip-hinge

Like most movements and exercises, hip-hinging has both primary movers and stabilizers as well as other muscles involved.

Primary movers

The posterior chain (i.e. that backside of the body) is dominant during hip-hinge exercises. The gluteals (i.e. your butt), hamstrings (i.e. the back of the thighs), and lower back are the main muscles involved in moving the body through range of motion during these exercises. The glutes and hamstrings are especially involved.

Stabilizers

At the same time, tendons, ligaments, and smaller stabilizer muscles help keep you balanced and stabilized as you work through range of motion (ROM) when performing a hip-hinge exercise. Without these all important assistance tissues, the primary movers cannot perform their job.

Other muscles worked

In conjunction with the primary movers, your abdominal muscles, obliques, mid back and upper back muscles as well as your deltoids, forearm muscles, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi, among others, come into play. These muscles help stabilize the core when performing the movements and help hold weight when performing weighted versions such as the barbell deadlift.

Muscle worked by running

Running works all the muscles worked by the squat, hip-hinge, and overhead press. As the arms move back and forth during a run, the biceps, triceps, and shoulders stabilize the arms, keeping them in the necessary position for efficient running.

In much the same manner as the arms, the back, pecs, and core stabilize the upper body, enabling the runner to keep a neutral spine position and run more efficiently.

The legs, both anterior and posterior portions, as well as the glutes are the primary movers for running. The quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves work in unison to propel the body through the air.

A starting point

We're not saying these are all the movements you should perform. Really, get as varied as reasonably possible. The more variety you have, the more interesting your workouts will be, the less chance you'll plateau, and the more likely you'll be able to do any task that comes you way. That said, at a minimum, you should complete these four exercises with enough variety in volume and load, while varying difficulty through other methods, such as altering rest, supersetting, and other modifiers.

In part 2, we'll look at various examples of each movement and how to program these into your workouts.



Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA. 

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