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Functional Fitness: The 7 Primal Movement Patterns

10th January 2014
Functional Fitness: The 7 Primal Movement Patterns

The 7 primal movement patterns describe the fundamental movements that humans perform on a daily basis. They are Squatting, Lunging, Pushing, Pulling, Bending, Twisting and Walking (AKA gait).

You should be training your body through all 7 of these movement patterns on a weekly basis. I try to hit as many as I can each hour that I spend with my clients. I plan client workouts with these movement patterns in mind so that they will feel stronger and be able to function better in their everyday lives.

From a functional fitness standpoint, you shouldn’t be focusing on isolating one muscle group at a time…nothing you do in real life will require you to use only your biceps, so sitting down at the gym and doing biceps curls on a machine will not help you function better in real life. If you are a body builder, this may be a great exercise for you, or if you are trying to correct some kind of muscle imbalance, but most people should be strengthening their bodies with multi-joint, multi-planar movement patterns.

1-squatPrimal Movement #1 Squat

It is so important to squat properly! We squat to perform many daily activities like getting in and out of chairs or picking our kids up off the ground. This is probably the most important primal movement to master because we use it so often to function in our daily lives. There are many different types of squatting exercises, but here is the correct form for a traditional squat:

  • Place your feet on the ground approximately shoulder width apart, engage your abdominals, pinch your shoulder blades together
  • Hinge at your hips and stick your butt out behind you as you bend your knees to lower yourself down as if you were sitting back into a chair. Try to get your hamstrings parallel to the floor (about 90-degree angle at your knees).
  • Keep your chest up, back straight, abs tight, and make sure most of your body weight is in your heels. Check that your knees are either in line with your toes or slightly behind them. Never let your knees get out in front of your toes! This type of squat will strengthen your quads, glutes, and core.

2-lungePrimal Movement #2 Lunge

Another movement pattern humans use everyday is lunging. Anyone who plays sports will need to do lunges correctly in order to perform. Volleyball, tennis, soccer, football, martial arts…you name it, they lunge in all different directions all the time. There are many variations of the lunge, but here are the instructions for the traditional static lunge:

  • Start by placing one leg slightly in front of you and your other leg slightly behind you, keeping your legs about hip width apart. Shift most of your weight to your front leg, keeping your back foot on its toes.
  • Bend your front leg at the knee and lower yourself until your hamstring is about parallel to the floor (90-degree angel at your knee). I prefer to have my back knee bent to a 90-degree angle as well. Be sure that your front knee does not move forward past your toes. Just like the squat, you want to keep your front knee in line with your toes or slightly behind, them.
  • Straighten the front leg as you return to start position and repeat. Make sure you even out by doing lunges with the opposite leg in front. Emphasize using your front leg to do most of the work, keeping most of your weight in the heel of your front foot. This type of lunge will strengthen your quads and glutes while increasing hip stability.

Primal Movement #3 Push3-push

We push things around all day long! From pushing your shopping cart at the grocery store, to banging out some push ups at the gym, we use our push muscles to function daily. There are 2 main types of pushes, the vertical where you push something up over your head, and the horizontal where you push something away out in front of your chest.

One horizontal push exercise you can do is the push up:

  • Lay face down and place your hands right next to your arm pits.
  • Dig your toes into the ground, contract your abs, and push up to the plank position. Your body should be totally straight from head to toe throughout this exercise.
  • Lower yourself down, bending at the elbows and retracting your shoulder blades until your chest is an inch above the ground, and then push back up to plank position. This type of push up will strengthen your chest, arms, & core while increasing shoulder stability.

4-pullPrimal Movement #4 Pull

The opposite of pushing, pulling motions are often underutilized at the gym. We use our push muscles so often that it is vital to counterbalance them with plenty of pulling exercises. There are 2 main types of pulling exercises, the vertical pull where your arms are over your head and you pull yourself up (like a pull up), or the horizontal pull where you pull something towards your chest (like a row). Here are instructions for a challenging, horizontal pulling exercise called the plank row:

  • Start by placing 2 dumbbells on the floor and getting into a plank position with your hands on the dumbbells. Separate your legs to hip width apart.
  • It is vital that you keep your abs engaged throughout this exercise in order to keep your back nice and straight.
  • Lift one dumbbell until your elbow breaks the plane of your back, pinching your shoulder blade behind you. Keep your hips facing the ground (don’t let them twist) and your neck straight.
  • Lower the dumbbell back to the ground and switch to the other side. Try not to twist your hips as you shift your weight from one side to the other. This type of pull exercise will strengthen your upper back, arms, & core while increasing shoulder stability.

5-bendPrimal Movement #5 Bend

People often injure themselves doing simple things like bending over to pick up a suitcase because they aren’t bending over properly or they haven’t trained their bodies to use their bending muscles correctly. This is important because bending over properly can save you a lot of lower back pain in your life.  There are many exercises you can do to strengthen the bend, but my favorite is the Romanian Deadlift.

  • Please start with a light weight. Once you have perfected your form, then add weight on a little at a time. It is very easy to permanently injure your back doing deadlifts with improper form or too much weight.
  • Start by standing with your feet about hip width apart, holding a light weight using an overhand grip. You can use dumbbells, a kettlebell or barbell. Your arms should be straight throughout the entire exercise.
  • Bend your knees slightly, push your butt back, keep most of your body weight in your heels, and bend over at the hips with your back flat, shoulders blades pinched back, and your abdominals engaged. Your knees should be stationary as all the movement comes from the hinging of the hips.
  • Bend at the hips until your back is parallel to the floor, then reverse the movement until you are standing straight up again. This type of bending exercise will strengthen your hamstrings, lower back, and glutes.

6-twistPrimal Movement #6 Twist

It’s so important to strengthen your body in the transverse plane of motion. All athletes must twist their bodies in order to perform, like when a volleyball player spikes a ball. But did you know that most human movements involve some kind of rotation, even walking! You can train your twisting muscles by doing exercises involving rotational movements, or anti-rotational movements (meaning you hold still while something or someone is trying to get you to twist out of alignment). Here are the instructions for adding a twisting motion to the lunging movement pattern mentioned above:

  • Perform the exact same lunge as previously mentioned, but this time hold a medicine ball, kettlebell, or dumbbell at chest level.
  • As you lower yourself down into a lunge with correct form, rotate your upper body toward the side of the front leg (if your right leg is out in front, then rotate to your right). Engage your abdominals, retract your shoulder blades, and keep your back as straight as possible.
  • Return to start position on the way up from your lunge. Repeat on the other side. This type of twisting exercise will strengthen all the muscles that wrap around your trunk, otherwise known as the core musculature, as it strengthens your lower body through the lunge.

Primal Movement #7 Gait

The most frequently used primal movement pattern is a gait, which is just a fancy term for walking, running, & jumping. Gait requires you to use a combination of primal movements in order to perform. I will not bore you with instructions on how to walk, but will advise you to engage your core muscles and keep good posture while walking, running, and jumping.


Strengthening the human body using the 7 Primal Movement Patterns is the foundation of functional fitness. Using these movement patterns to exercise, instead of focusing on just one muscle group at a time, will save you time at the gym and create a better balanced and more efficient body. An added benefit is that most of these movement patterns will help your body become leaner because they work so many muscle groups at the same time, causing your body to use more energy to perform them, which means a high caloric expenditure.


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