Digging into the foundational movements—part 2


In part one we recapped what the foundational movements are, why we selected them, and muscles used by them. Now we'll look into some of the many variations of these exercises and provide examples of how to program them into your workouts.

Squatting variations

  • Air squat

  • Barbell back squat

  • Dumbbell front squat

  • Barbell overhead squat

  • Kettlebell squat

  • Zercher squat

  • Hack squat

  • Machine squat

  • And more

Hip-hinge variations

  • Toe touch

  • Barbell deadlift

  • Barbell good morning

  • Hyperextension

  • GHD machine

  • Barbell Romanian deadlifts

  • Straight-leg dumbbell deadlift

  • And more

Overhead press variations

  • Pressing arms overhead

  • Overhead barbell press

  • Overhead kettlebell press

  • Dumbbell push-press

  • Barbell push-jerk

  • Barbell half-press

  • Handstand push-up

  • And more

Running variations

  • Walking

  • Power walking

  • Decline/incline walking

  • Jogging

  • Running

  • Sprinting

There are many things to consider when programming the squat, hip-hinge, and overhead press alongside running. The two big things to consider are goals and physical ability. For this part of the series, we'll assume people are able-bodied, meaning they do not have significant limitations that would prevent them from performing any of the listed exercises. As a reminder, part three will focus on person who have limitations that prevent them from performing these exercises.

The role of goals

No two programs we create are the same. A person seeking general strength improvements will require a different program from the person who wants to powerlift. For example, a person who wants general strength improvements will be fine programming any squatting exercise, but the powerlifter must program the back squat, since it is the competition version of the squat.

Thinking about the hip-hinge, the same idea is true. The person seeking general strength improvements can perform any hip-hinge exercise, while the powerlifter will need to perform the barbell deadlift, since it is a contested lift in powerlifting.

Again with the overhead press, we see differences. For the general strength person, programming any overhead press exercise is acceptable, but the powerlifter does not need to focus on the overhead press for competition. However, that lifter does not need to focus on it for general strength and to keep balanced, so realistically, in this example, both lifters could use the same exercise.

When considering running, neither person needs to include running for their goals, but health should always be an underlying focus, so the inclusion of cardio is a must.

These are brief examples, of course, but they begin to illustrate that each person's goals make their program unique.

Considering ability

The ability of each person dictates his or her program. There is an entire conversation to be had about this topic, but we'll abbreviate it down to a few key points here. A person's ability dictates:

  • Exercises performed

  • Load used

  • Volume performed

  • Workout frequency

Again, we'll assume people are able-bodied, meaning they do not have significant limitations that would prevent them from performing any of the listed exercises. As a reminder, part three will focus on persons who have limitations that prevent them from performing these exercises.

Exercise performed

A person must be able to perform an exercise with enough efficiency to include it as part of the program. Even if a person is able bodied, he or she may not initially be able to perform certain exercises. For example, someone may be able to perform the air squat, but does not have the technically proficiency to perform a back squat. This person could use the air squat as their primary squat exercise, then focus on form with the back squat as a secondary exercise.

Load used

If a person cannot use a given weight, he or she should not use that weight. This seems simple on the surface, but we have seen many people who will attempt to add more weight than they can safely use. If the set calls for 10 reps, and a person's one-rep deadlift max is 100 lbs, then it doesn’t make sense for them to do sets of 10 with 80-100 pounds. They will not be able to perform the work and will have bad form when attempting to do so.

Volume performed per workout

Much like a person should not use a weight he or she cannot lift, a person should not attempt to do more volume than they can do. For example, if a person's max distance run—meaning they're gasping for air and their legs are giving out—is one mile, then that person should not attempt 1.5 miles. It's that simple.

Workout frequency

A person can only recover properly from so much activity in the week. After this point, a person's muscular system, nervous system, and other systems will not fully heal from activity, and a cycle of decline will start to occur unless impeded. Some trainers call this max recoverable volume, or MRV, meaning that this is the upper threshold for a person's training volume. While exercises x sets x reps do equate to volume, so does workout frequency. Simply put a person must have adequate rest between workouts to recover effectively for the next workout. How much this is depends on the ability of the person.

All of these aspects change over time. As a person exercises with enough intensity, he or she will improve skills, develop strength, increase volume per workout, and enable greater training frequency. The harder someone pushes, that is, the closer someone pushes to their limits without going over, the quicker he or she will see improvements. These are rough ideas, of course, as we cannot possibly provide all of the necessary details for complex ideas that deal with the physiological processes of the body as it reacts to training and adapts over time.

Determining how to program the foundational movements

Before we program any workouts for a person, we need to get an idea of what kind of shape that person is in. This starts with the intake paperwork and continues with an assessment session for face-to-face clients and an assessment week for online clients. We'll focus on the assessment used for face-to-face clients.

Performing the assessment

The assessment is as follows:

  • Mobility warm-up assessment

  • Weighted warm-up assessment

  • Overhead press assessment

  • Squat assessment

  • Deadlift assessment (hip-hinge)

  • Additional assessments as needed

  • Solo cardio assessment

Mobility warm-up assessment

The mobility warm-up assessment puts the client's body through range of motion at all joints and also begins to assess their ability to pick-up new skills.

Weighted warm-up assessment

The weighted warm-up assessment continues to run the person's body through range of motion, but this time with added weight and a couple differences in exercise selection.

Overhead press assessment

The overhead press assessment takes any one strict (no use of momentum) overhead press exercise, such as the overhead dumbbell press or overhead barbell press, and has the client perform it for a predetermined number of sets and reps, such as four sets of 10 repetitions, ascending in weight each time. This assessment determines if the client has the mobility to get into the proper overhead position, can perform the skill in good form, and begins to determine his or her upper-body strength and muscular endurance.

Squat assessment

The squat assessment takes any one loaded (use of weight) freestanding (no machines) squatting exercise, such as the dumbbell squat or barbell squat, and has the client perform it for a predetermined number of sets and reps, such as four sets of 10 repetitions, ascending in weight each time. This assessment determines if the client has the mobility to get into the proper squat position, can perform the skill in good form, and begins to determine his or her lower-body strength and muscular endurance.

Deadlift assessment (hip-hinge)

The hip-hinge assessment takes any one loaded (use of weight) freestanding (no machines) deadlifting exercise, such as the dumbbell deadlift or barbell deadlift, and has the client perform it for a predetermined number of sets and reps, such as four sets of 10 repetitions, ascending in weight each time. This assessment determines if the client has the mobility to get into the proper deadlift position, can perform the skill in good form, and begins to determine his or her posterior chain strength and muscular endurance.

Additional assessments as needed

Depending on the client, additional assessment may be programmed ahead of the session or introduced due to something noticed in the assessment. For example, with athletes we've historically added additional movements such as jumps, pull-ups, etc. Recently, we moved to using a format similar to Dave Werner's Athletic Skill Levels. On the other side of that comment, if we notice someone has limitation in an area, we may stop the standard assessment in order to further assess the potential issue with movements particular to that problem.

Solo cardio assessment

*Note: there are some exceptions to this. If the client has a known underlying issue that would make a solo assessment unsafe, if the client has zero experience with cardio, or the client has another aggravating circumstance, then we will perform the cardio assessment on-site.

To save the client time and money as well as set the stage for them to workout on their own, we have that person perform a solo cardio assessment. Our standard cardio assessment is a one-mile walk/jog/run with a time cap of 20 minutes. This means the client must attempt to walk/jog/run one mile and complete it in 20 minutes or less. Ideally, the client, especially an athlete, will video the run and provide it to us for review.

Using the assessment to set workouts

*Note: if during the assessment we find the client has significant limitation in one or more areas for any reason, we will consider them a client with limitations and program for them accordingly. You'll learn more about this in part 3.

The assessment determines how we create a client's initial program, which is usually 12 weeks. That said, the first four weeks of the program are generally something of an assessment too, in that we're still learning more about the client and what he or she can do. What this means is even though we'll create a 12-week program, the first four weeks (phase 1) will be fluid in design and while the second and third four-week periods (phases 2 and 3) will change according to the results during the first four weeks. While this is always true to some degree with any cycle (12-week period) of any program, it is even more so in the first 12 weeks.

Now, exactly how we create the program varies based on the clients ability. In this written piece, we cannot possibly cover every possible client condition, so we won’t even try. What we will do is provide you an example client to give you an idea of how we would program.

The sample client

Imagine a 5'3, 130-pound, 21-year-old female client who wants to improve her fitness for personal reasons. Now consider her assessment reveals she has full mobility at all joints, her intake paperwork reveals no health conditions, and she has no limitations such as severe weakness, bad knees, or an inability to complete any of the assessments.

However, consider it took her 15 minutes to complete the run, she could only work up to 10-pound dumbbells for the overhead press and 15-pound dumbbells for the deadlift and squat. From a cardio point she's okay, in that she can keep an average pace of 4 mph for the run assessment, which equals a jogging pace. It’s a good start. However, only being able to use 10 pounds dumbbells (20 pounds of total weight) is very weak.

Now you might say "10-pounds is not so bad" but you would be wrong. Think about this, an average 4- to 5-year old male child weighs roughly 30 pounds. She would have trouble picking him up, let alone a 6- to 7-yeard old child, in a life-threatening situation to carry him to safety. She would have trouble picking up 20-pound bags of dog food. She would not be able to lift a standard sized bag of softener salt, which weighs 40 pounds.

Our minimum strength threshold for all three strength movements is 50 pounds, while our minimum run time is 12 minutes. This does not mean we consider somebody "limited" if they cannot do this, but our first goal will be to get that person to this level. Again, note that this does not apply to persons with limitations, which we will cover in part 3.

In this instance, thankfully these goals align perfectly with her goal. Since improved fitness is her goal—which includes improved strength, cardio, muscular endurance, etc.—we can include these minimum goals with her goal.

Now we could select many different set-ups, but we'll just offer one example here. The following spreadsheet images layout sample workouts for this client. Again, this is one of many options.

Using this program, we'll focus on strength, muscular endurance, cardio output, skill development, and metabolic conditioning. Doing so will effectively improve the sample client's fitness. Understand that this is just the first phase of the first cycle of the program. As mentioned above, things will change.

There are additional aspects of the program, such as the warm-ups performed before the listed exercise as well as mobility work she will complete. Many considerations go into a program, such as why we provide a rest day between each workout, but you now have a better idea of how to self-assess and create a workout around the foundational movements.

The discussion could go on, but this is as good a place as any to end it. Use what's here to put together an assessment and workout program of your own.

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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