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Six Functional Movement Patterns Every Beginner Needs to Master

Often the simplest movements are the most effective, especially for beginners.

Your grade school teacher was onto something when she told you to KISS.

KISS: Keep it simple, silly.

And contrary to what Instagram’s razzle dazzle fitness posts might suggest, the same is true of fitness: it doesn’t need to be complicated or flashy, and often the simplest movements are the most effective (especially for beginners). 

The Basics

Whether we’re talking about getting just around in the world or playing a sport, when it comes to functional movement patterns, there are essentially six different patterns that make up all human movement: 

  • Squat
  • Bend
  • Lunge
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Core

If you want to know more, I break them down in detail in this LearnRx class.

Work out during the CrossFit Games in one of the many CrossFit Boxes in MadisonSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Regardless of whether you’re a novice, an intermediate or an advanced lifter, these movement patterns should be part of your training program, and when it comes to beginners in particular, the priority should be on developing efficiency and control through all six patterns. 

In this sense, the squat, bend, lunge, push, pull and core patterns should act as the template or carcass, so to speak, for any training program. 

And then once you have the template laid out, you can start filling in exactly what movements and exercises are appropriate based on your (or your client’s) individual abilities and goals. 

Why master these movement patterns?

When you think in terms of patterns first, rather than individual exercises, it becomes easier to connect training in the gym to daily movement in life and then build strength in creative ways. 

Let’s take a look at how to assess each movement pattern, and what the assessment tells you about appropriate exercise selection.

Functional Movement Patterns Every Beginner Needs to Master

1. Squat

So you know you want your training program to include the squat pattern twice a week, but first you need to figure out what squat variation is appropriate, rather than arbitrarily choosing a back squat or an overhead squat, for example. So step 1 is a squat assessment. 

Assessment

Start with your feet shoulder width apart. Extend your arms over your head with your thumbs facing backwards. Now hinge at the hips and squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Return to the top. Repeat three times, like this:

  • Tip: Focus on keeping your feet flat on the ground, knees tracking outward, maintaining a neutral spine, and keeping your chest proud and your hand straight overhead.

Three common faults

  1. Inability to keep your hands straight overhead and the chest proud: If this is the case, an overhead squat, for example, is certainly not the right squat tool for you. 
  2. Inability to keep your spine neutral (maybe your upper back rounds as you descend into your squat, or your bum tucks under at the bottom): If this is the case, you might be best decreasing your range of motion or squatting to a box to control your depth and ensure your spine is in a good position throughout the movement.
  3. Inability to keep your heels flat on the ground: If this is the case, squatting with your heels elevated on a small ramp, squatting with your toes off a step, or finding balance with an isometric wall sit might be more appropriate for you than something like a barbell back squat.

Tip: As a general rule, a goblet squat is often the best option for a beginner, and once you gain strength in your squat pattern, moving to a barbell front squat is an appropriate next step. 

2. Bend

“Deadlifts are dangerous.”

Ever heard that one before?

It’s a common assumption, but it’s a myth. A deadlift is not dangerous; it’s only dangerous if it’s done incorrectly. 

Assessment

The toe touch test is a simple and effective way of telling you important information about whether a deadlift from the ground is the right tool for your abilities. 

  • To do this, stand tall with your feet together. Keeping your knees straight, reach down until you touch your toes with your hands. If you’re unable to do this with straight legs, chances are you’re going to have to modify your deadlift.

The active straight leg raise can also be used to investigate range of motion and bending abilities.

Two great options include:

  1. Elevated barbell deadlift: Start your deadlift a few inches above the ground using blocks or bumper plates to raise the barbell off the ground—as high off the ground as is required so that you’re able to keep a neutral spine at the bottom. 
  2. Dumbbell or kettlebell Romanian deadlifts: The Romanian deadlift (RDL) starts at the top. From there, hinge as much as you can until you feel your hamstrings become tense, and where your back is still neutral. 

3. Lunge

Similar to the squat and the deadlift, if you can’t pass the lunge assessment, then movements like barbell overhead lunges, for example, are going to be well out of your wheelhouse for the time being. 

Assessment

Sit down with your legs straight out in front of you. Make a mark on the floor right behind your bum and another mark at your heel. This will be the distance you will lunge.

  • Now start with your toes behind your bum line, cross your arms, step forward and lower your back knee to the floor. Stand back up again. Repeat three times, like this.

If you’re able to do this with ease, then loaded lunges, such as DB front rack walking lunges, or DB farmer hold lunges, may be good tools for you.

However, if you’re not able to do these unassisted (without using your hands), your torso falls forward as you’re standing up, or you feel weakness in your lower back as you’re standing up, assisted lunges—where you hang onto a post with one hand to help assist you back up—or reduced depth lunges—where you stop before your knee touches the ground—might be right for you until you gain the requisite strength for full-depth, unassisted lunges and loaded lunges. 

4&5. Push/Pull

Many pushing and pulling movements—from push-ups to bench press to shoulder press and muscles-ups, to ring rows and kipping pull-ups—required strong, stable shoulders with access to varying degrees of range of motion. 

  • If you can’t lift your arm overhead while keeping a straight arm and maintaining a neutral spine, for example, then a barbell overhead press is probably out of your abilities for now. In this case, then a landmine press or a single arm seated DB press are better tools.
  • Or, if you’re unable to hang from a bar without pain in your shoulder girdle, then trying to learn kipping pull-ups isn’t something your shoulders are going to like. 

Assessment

We like the scratch test, as it exposes not just mobility limitations, but also inconsistencies from your left to right side.

  • Start by standing with your feet directly under your hips. Put your thumbs inside of your fists, and then reach one arm over your shoulder and the other arm behind your back and up your back as far as you can. Perform three reps on each side, like this.

Note: Front and side plank assessments (also part of our core assessment) are also useful for assessing shoulder stability and strength.

6. Core

Two simple, effective core movements for beginners include a dead bug hold (or plate hold dead bug reps) and front and side planks. Once these are mastered, then you can consider moving on to more challenging core exercises, such as quadruped shoulder touches, front planks with a rotation, or V-ups.

Assessment

While there are various ways you could assess core strength and stability, a simple one we like includes the front and side planks.

  • Front plank: Start in a four-point kneel with both knees and hands on the floor. Extend each leg and bring yourself up into a plank. Brace your mid-section and hold for 90 seconds. (60 seconds is considered a pass). Like this:
  • Side plank: Lay on your side. Stack both of your legs directly in line with your shoulder. Keep your head neutral and lift your hips, keeping one arm on the ground. Hold for 60 seconds and repeat on the other side (90 seconds is considered a pass).

Example Beginner Training Session with all Six Movement Patterns

Exercise TempoRep schemeRest
A1 Goblet squat @3111 8 reps x 3 sets rest 60 seconds
A2 Dumbbell RDL @3111 8 reps x 3 sets rest 60 seconds
A3 Prisoner walking lunge @2010 16 alt reps x 3 sets rest 60 seconds
ExerciseTempoRep schemeRest
B1 Floor press @2111 8 reps x 3 sets rest 60 seconds
B2 Ring row @2111 8 reps x 3 sets rest 60 seconds
B3 Wall deadbugs @2121 16 alt reps x 3 sets rest 60 seconds

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