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Master Seven Primal Movement Patterns For Full-Body Strength

By Billy Polson

I often see people in the gym who are completely lost as to why they are working out at all, and even more unsure of what exercises they should be doing while they are there. At the most basic of levels, each one of our goals should be focused first and foremost on function. We should all be using our time in the gym to make sure our bodies are 100% functional and able to perform all the movements that are necessary in our daily lives and for our active lifestyle.

For example, if you play in a recreational softball league on the weekends, you want to make sure that your body is able to adequately handle sprinting, jumping, throwing, getting grounds balls, and batting. Or if you are parent, you need to be able to pick up your children from bent-over positions, rotate with them and then place them in their car seat (again in a bent-over position). Lastly, if you are a runner, you need to be able to have full range of motion in your leg muscles to allow for running hills and encountering sudden changes of direction or uneven terrain.

So first up, look at your lifestyle and activities and see what functions you need to be able to perform on a regular basis. From there, you should start thinking about those movements in terms not of their specifics (throwing, sprinting, etc.), but in terms of the movement patterns they fit into. Every movement our bodies perform can be broken down into a series of one of seven movement patterns. These are often referred to as the "Seven Primal Movement Patterns," and they are as follows:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge
  3. Push
  4. Pull
  5. Bend
  6. Twist
  7. Gait
For example, a throw on the softball field would be broken down into a lunge, a twist and a push. If you are throwing and one of these patterns is performed incorrectly, then this will force your body to compensate with the remaining patterns, often leading to injury. For example, if a softball player has weak or even tight obliques, causing his twist movement pattern to be weak or reduced, then he would have to put far more reliance on his shoulder and the push pattern in order to get the distance out of his throws. Such an example is the exact reason that many softball/baseball players result in shoulder injuries—lack of function within the entire movement chain (or within one or more of their primal patterns).

Every single one of us should have general functionality in each one of these patterns just to get through normal daily life (loading groceries, lifting boxes of printer paper, running to catch the subway). But for those of you who have to perform these movements at full speed (athletes, parents, etc.) it is vital that your bodies are trained to handle them correctly.

So now that you have a list of your most used patterns, I recommend going through testing of yourself in every pattern. Find which of the patterns seem easy and which need work. Then use this to-do list when designing your program in the gym. Again, for those of you who are athletes and perform movements at full speed or with max power, it is vital that you are fully functional, not only in each of these patterns, but in each of the patterns while under max speed or max strength.

Below I have listed each pattern and explained how to test that pattern, what common issues to watch for, and lastly some examples of how to work on each pattern in your workouts.
Primal Movement Test Common Issues to Watch For Workout Advice
Squat Perform a regular squat with no shoes on in front of a mirror going as low (until thighs are parallel to floor) into the squat as your body allows. Knees not tracking over the center of your foot. Knees shaky, knock in, go way out to sides. Weight shifts far to one leg or side (often paired with a single knee falling inside). Butt tucks under at bottom of squat instead of keeping a nice low back arch throughout. Feet are flat or flatten out as drop into squat. Shoulders round forward and chest drops. Keeping chin too high so that neck is not in line with cervical spine. Start with trying to do perfect form squats with just body weight for as much range of motion as you can hold form. Check the Weight Loss Challenge Stretch Test if you are having major trouble with range or form to see if tight muscles are causing lack of range. Once you're able to perform a good squat with body weight, try adding weight. I do not recommend a leg press as this will not help you with your standing functionality and strength. Try starting with a barbell front squat since it is most functional (since most of the time we are squatting our bodies are front loaded with weight, i.e. holding a box or child). Front squats are a must in any client's program. Unlike many people think, front squats do not work more of the front of your leg while back squats work more of the back. Front squats are valuable because they force your extensor chain of muscles (the muscle of your back) to work overtime on maintaining your posture during a front load. Often extensor chain muscles are weak and this focus on them will bring about great strength improvements and posture improvements as well. As far as leg work and position, your legs get almost the exact same leg workout whether you are doing barbell front squats or barbell back squats.
Lunge Perform a set of lunges (stationary, walking) to front, backwards, and to side. Again watch for knee alignment throughout movement (knees should track directly over center toe without them falling in or going out with each step). Also watch that the front knee is not overly flexed and out in front of your toes; ideally, you want both knees at 90-degree angles in the low position of a front lunge. Watch for your weight on your heel in your front foot in front lunge and on the outside foot in side lunge. Watch for flat arches again. Also watch for feet to stay hip width as you move down the floor instead of walking on a balance beam. Last, watch for tall posture with upper body. Start with stationary split lunges front and side. Once form is perfect advance to walking lunges front of side with just body weight. Lastly you can add a barbell or weights to the movement. Best is to add weights that mimic the movements you are performing in life (just hold weight on one side if carrying large weight on one side of body, i.e. a baby).
Push Perform a push-up and then a standing cable chest press. On both push-up and cable press, watch for head to push forward during movement due to poor upper body posture and rounded shoulders. You should be able to place dowel on spine and maintain three points of contact (head, mid shoulder blades, lower spine at waistline) throughout entire push-up or cable press movement. Watch for one or both shoulders to hike up towards ears when press due to tight upper traps and improper motor patterns where your shoulders are stabilizing improperly. Lastly, watch for shoulders to round forward and poor spine posture (hunched forward) as you push due to weak extensor chain (back) muscles. Try starting out with a dowel on your spine for perfect form push-ups. This wooden dowel will give you good feedback on your body position and when you lose form. Then slowly advance to cable press and use a mirror to watch for perfect spine form. Do these cable presses with cables at chest height so that you are pressing straight ahead with tall spine throughout movement. Once you master this flat press you can keep exact same tall spine form and move cable to lower position (for incline style press) or to high position (for decline style form).
Pull Perform a pull-up and then a standing cable row or pull-down. (Using a workout partner to watch your form for pull-ups can be helpful.) Watch for head to push forward during pull movements as well due to poor upper body posture and rounded shoulders. Should be able to place dowel on spine and maintain 3 points of contact (head, mid shoulder blades, lower spine at waistline) throughout entire cable pull movement. Watch for one or both shoulders to hike up towards ears when doing pull-up or row due to tight upper traps and improper motor patterns where your shoulders are stabilizing improperly. Lastly, watch for shoulders to round forward and poor spine posture (hunched fwd) as push due to weak extensor chain (back) muscles. For every row and pull-up you should always watch/feel for a big chest opening and retraction of your shoulder blades. Try performing slow assisted weight pull-ups feeling for your shoulder blades to pull down and back throughout each rep. Again using a spotter to watch form may be helpful here. Then try using a mirror for cable rows to watch your form. I recommend only standing cable to strengthen your entire body (legs and core) at the same time ...when are you ever seated with your feet against a steel plate and pulling? Not very often in life. Start with cable at chest height for flat rows and then change cable to high (for pull-downs) and low (for low rows) to hit all angle of your back. Again focusing on duplicating the most often used or needed movements in your daily life.
Bend Perform a barbell dead lift with extremely light weight or no weight if you do not normally do this movement. If you normally do this movement, use a comfortable weight that you have safely done previously. (Again using a partner to watch form is helpful.) Watch for spine alignment above all else. You should be able to maintain a neutral spine throughout the entire movement (lumbar/lower spine curve instead of rounded, shoulder blades retracted to keep shoulders back instead of rounded forward, head/neck in line with cervical spine). Especially when clients do dead lifts from floor, holding this form can be very tough, but it is essential for keeping your back safe. Lastly, watch for knees or feet to buck in or flatten out. Start with Sumo-style dead lifts with little or no weight if you are a beginner (legs wide with hands inside legs). Instead of a barbell start with a dumbbell on one end (called a Jefferson Squat) then progress to a Sumo with barbell. Also start doing these with a reduced range of motion with DB or barbell on a raised platform, then as strength increases, you can add range of motion to it. Lastly, try doing normal barbell dead-lifts with hands on outside of legs for full range of motion.
Twist Perform a cable wood chop from high to low with cable to watch how your body handles twisting in each direction. Watch for reduced range of motion and the inability for your body to incorporate your legs and core into the twist in addition to your arms and shoulders. Also watch for one or more shoulders to hike during movement instead of properly stabilizing. Watch for one side being much stronger and easier. Lastly, watch for hunched forward and rounded shoulders instead of a nice neutral spine. Start with cable wood chops from high to low. Then try chops from low to high as well as straight across side-to-side. Then progress to push and pull cable patterns with twisting as well as medicine ball twists and throws.
Gait Walk across the floor down and back while barefoot and have a partner watch for weird patterns within your gait. Upper body twisted towards one direction more. Either or both shoulders hiked. Hands not swinging evenly at sides. Knees fall in or go out. Not a smooth roll from heel to toe. Most gait issues lead from pelvis or hip issues, so I recommend working through the Weight Loss Challenge Stretch Test to see what hip and lower body issues may be causing the problems. Also, posture issues up top can lead to rounded shoulders and improper arm swing, so I recommend working through the upper body stretch test as well. Then have a partner watch you again for a re-test.
Remember—have fun, and kick ass!

Note: A reference for this program is Paul Chek's Level 1 Practitioner Training.

About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is co-founder of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Billy is a certified Exercise Coach through the Paul Chek Institute as well as a Certified Personal Trainer through The National Academy of Sports Medicine. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want Billy and Diakadi co-founder Mike Clausen to answer? Send an email to