When it comes to feeling your best, things like clothing and food portions aren’t labeled as “one-size-fits-all”, so why should fitness be any different?
In a world where fitness is now just a click of a button away on the internet…..
Online Training Programs and Follow Along Workouts have been clogging up our feeds within the past year.
Which could be seen as a “good” thing in terms of convenience and consistency, but also a very “bad” thing when it comes to injury and training longevity.
Based on the exercise selection and lack of variation/alternatives that I’ve seen out there, one of the biggest problems I’ve found with many of these types of programs is that the instructor/trainer is completely unaware of who their audience may be on the other end of the screen. (Ex: 25 Push-Up Challenge) This shows me that there is an apparent lack of REAL WORLD coaching experience.
Now, the average person watching these videos may think that the BEST way to squat is with a barbell on their back, or that ONLY pushing a barbell over their head is the way to get the results they are looking for, simply because the influencer on Instagram or Youtube told them so.
As much as these exercises can be effective in getting stronger and more fit; It may not be the BEST exercise variation for that particular person when it comes to training longevity.
We are ALL Different
• Different Lifestyles
• Different Structures
• Different Pasts
• Different Goals
• Different Fitness Levels
Regardless of any of these issues, I DO believe everyBODY should be moving regularly and training in the following movement patterns on a weekly basis.
Push (Upper Body Horizontal/Vertical)
Pull (Upper Body Horizontal/Vertical)
Squat (Knee Dominant)
Hip Hinge (Hip Dominant)
Lunge (aka Asymmetrical Single Leg Stance)
Carry (aka Locomotion)
But, I also do NOT think everybody should be using the SAME variations per one of these patterns. That is where the beauty of SMART TRAINING techniques and standing out as a credible coach really shines. So let me help.
Imagine this… You have a big night ahead and you want to feel and look your best.
You decide to hit the mall to grab the newest pair of Reebok Pumps or Air Jordans. The excitement is building as you walk into the store keeping your eyes peeled for those size 11s.
You find the New Releases, but all they have left is Size 14 in the Pumps and a Size 9 in the Air Jordans.
Do you go bigger and look ridiculous OR do you try to squeeze into those tiny Air Jordans and be in agony all night? I would say it’s time to either try a different sneaker or a different store in order to find the pair that will both look and feel how they are supposed to.
It doesn’t matter if you’re training in person, in a group, or even virtual.
“Fitness Training should BUILD YOU UP and make you FEEL BETTER, Not BEAT YOU DOWN and make you FEEL BROKEN.”
– John Rusin
Working out should NOT only be to work up a good sweat, but also in terms of longevity, becoming an overall better and stronger version of yourself.
Here are my TOP 2 boxes I like to check when finding the best exercise selection or variation for someone when it comes to programming these patterns.
1⃣ How Does it Look?
As the coach, we see people move for hours upon hours each week, we should have a pretty good idea if something looks good or not.
The exercise chosen for the client should be the variation of the movement pattern that can be performed with the most pristine form.
2⃣ How Does it Feel?
As the client, this is where the communication factor is of the utmost importance. If the exercise is causing unwanted pain, we coaches need to know that in order to adjust the exercise itself, or the way it is being performed.
Once we can both boxes, we can continue to build off that specific variation with heavier loads using the same 2 principles.
This method will give us plenty of progression space while at the same time keeping the client as pain free as possible through load.
The PPSC does a fantastic job with their pyramids for each Movement Pattern, showing both variations and also alternative exercises based on a person’s needs.
Now with gyms coming back into full swing, these same methods should not only be applied to your one-on-one clients, but more importantly implemented in group settings.
Once you learn the benefits of these different variations and alternatives, you pretty much can find that a person of any limitation or fitness level can use as the foundation of a specific exercise in order to guarantee overall success on their fitness journey.
Here are a few videos based on some of my main go-to variations/alternatives that I find work the best in this “One Size DOES NOT Fit All” approach:
Coaching Tips: This is a more comfortable alternative to someone who suffers from shoulder pain during a Front or Back Squat.
Coaching Tips: This is a good alternative for someone who finds that a traditional Barbell Squat bothers the lower back as it limits range of motion. This can be used in both front and back barbell squats, as it also gives us a sense of comfort to have the box there as we sit down and back.
Coaching Tips: Changing the vector angle, the landmine gives us some feedback to stay not only in a good position on the way down, but also on the way back up when we establish power from the bottom.
2 KB Squat
Coaching Tips: This is a great variation to get someone used to keeping the pillar completely stacked in a front rack position.
Coaching Tips: My favorite squat variation, as it has so many benefits when it comes to maintaining pristine position and learning and mastering the squat pattern in its full range of motion. This can be done with both a Dumbbell and/or Kettlebell.
Goblet Box Squat
Coaching Tips: The variation I use when introducing load to the squat pattern. It helps establish proper position, control, and power in the movement. The presence of the box also makes people feel safe and also can help with someone who suffers from lower back pain during a free standing squat due to the limited range of motion.
Bodyweight Squat to Box
Coaching Tips: This is the first variation I introduce to teach clients the proper mechanics of a squat. It helps establish proper position, control, and power in the movement. The box also makes people feel safe and also can help with someone who suffers from lower back pain during a free standing squat due to the limited range of motion.
Coaching Tips: This is the safest variation and teaching tool as you can use the straps for assistance during the full range movement pattern.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Coaching Tips: This is by far my Favorite Deadlift tool. The trap bar has handles that are raised, which shortens the range of motion and in turn keeps people in a better pillar position, therefore putting less stress on the lower back. Also, with the handles being on the side of your body in a more neutral position, it becomes a lot more shoulder friendly as well.
The trap bar is so versatile that you can either be in a more hip and/or knee dominant position. I have also found this variation easier to learn which has an overall higher reward than risk when getting stronger.
Coaching Tips: The RDL is the KING of all true Hinge Exercises. I have found even when using a Barbell, the rewards outweigh the risks due to its top down eccentric component. The stronger the RDL becomes, the carryover to other deadlifts becomes even greater.
Coaching Tips: The RDL is the King of Hip Hinge Exercises. Learning the Pattern with tools like Dumbbells or Kettlebells not only gets the body used to hinging under load but also takes our hands and shoulders out of that “fixed” position like a barbell.
It’s a great alternative if a Knee Dominant Exercises continues to cause knee pain.
Coaching Tips: The Kettlebell is the go-to variation to learn how to brace and activate while lifting heavy objects off the floor. This can also be done with the kettlebell raised off the ground to limit the range of motion in order to properly establish pristine pain free position in order to transition to other Deadlift Variations.
A great alternative to try if a Knee Dominant Exercises continues to cause knee pain.
Coaching Tips: The range of motion of a rack pull is limited to just the top part of the lift and is a great way to work on your deadlift form. Using this higher position is ideal for mastering the brace and activation of the lats and upper back and will help you get you overall stronger in the same areas of a deadlift, but with less risk of lower back pain.
Feet Elevated Glute Bridge
Coaching Tips: It does not matter if you are bridging from the floor, off the bench, and with or without load, the Bridge is a great HIP HINGE exercise to get the body to learn how to use the hips through its proper range of motion. A great learning exercise but also a go-to lower body movement to help with lower back or knee pain. No matter where this falls on the pyramid, it always finds a way into my programs due to the risk/reward ratio.
Neutral Grip Bench Press
Coaching Tips: A Barbell forces you to be in a fixed position, I have found using a multi-grip bar can be a better option by putting your shoulders in a better centrated position that can help with shoulder pain associated with a standard Barbell Bench Press.
DB Bench Press
Coaching Tips: Using Dumbbells not only forces you to work harder unilaterally but also takes you out of that fixed position that a Barbell does during a traditional Bench Press which could be a better option for shoulder health.
BB Floor Press
Coaching Tips: Another Variation to combat Shoulder Pain associated with a standard Barbell Bench Press by limiting Range of Motion and Increased Eccentric Control which in turn could be more shoulder-friendly.
DB Floor Press
Coaching Tips: This is my Go-To place to start when introducing an open chain loaded horizontal press. This works great as it limits Range of Motion and Increases the Eccentric Control which in turn could be more shoulder-friendly. Even when shoulder pain appears in most horizontal or vertical pressing motion, this usually will be one of the safest options.
Band Assisted Push-Up
Coaching Tips: This variation helps build strength and confidence working from the floor in a push-up. The band will also give assistance and feedback to the hips to maintain that neutral position.
Incline Push Up
Coaching Tips: The incline push up is a great starting point when learning the push-up. Using a bar on a rack or smith machine is the most ideal as we can increase or decrease the height of the bar based on strength, technique, and progression.
½ Kneeling Bottoms Up Press
Coaching Tips: The half kneeling position gives us more ground contact and can ultimately help us maintain a stronger pillar position. A bottoms up Kettlebell Press requires a lot of stabilizers and irradiation throughout the body to keep the shoulder supported in order to move freely.
I have found that this ‘bottoms up’ position is the only complete overhead pressing variation that many people who usually suffer from shoulder pain when overhead and loaded have found success with. Start light, work the overhead pattern, and progress accordingly from here.
½ Kneeling OH Press
Coaching Tips: The half kneeling position gives us more ground contact and can ultimately help us maintain a stronger pillar position. This is a great variation to work on when maintaining core stability is the main issue during a vertical press.
Incline DB Press
Coaching Tips: Vertical-”ish”… A definite go-to variation when an overhead press is limited due to improper position and/or pain.
A great alternative to try if overhead pressing causes shoulder pain or lack of overhead mobility occurs.
Coaching Tips: The Landmine Press is a great variation to increase shoulder stabilization, movement quality, strength, and pillar stability.
It reinforces proper overhead pressing mechanics with beginners and also those who may have limitations when pressing overhead.
A great alternative to try if overhead pressing causes shoulder pain or lack of overhead mobility occurs.
3 Point Row
Coaching Tips: Once we understand how to sit into the hips, the 3 point row is a staple for myself and all my clients. It has many variations to keep it fresh and boatloads of benefits such as strength, hypertrophy, and shoulder health.
Not only are we working one limb at a time through a full range of motion of your shoulders but your core is also putting in the work as well to resist lower back rotation during the movement.
Chest Supported Row
Coaching Tips: Most Rows, particularly a bent over row, require you to engage the whole body while sitting into a hip hinge throughout each set. This can become very difficult, therefore the back becomes rounded and could cause back pain as the body struggles to stay stable.
Using the incline bench to lean your chest into creates a more supported row. This variation will take the rest of the body out of the equation and focus more on the row technique itself while progressing the weight. Compensation of the lower back is virtually eliminated.
Coaching Tips: I love this variation, it can be used with a cable or a band. It can also be used in a half kneeling position like shown, standing, or seated.
Maintaining position and adding a bit of rotation, it can really help to understand and feel true movement of the scapula during the row, which will lead to increased shoulder health.
Once this optimal movement is established, it will make life so much easier when it comes to performing any type of row variation.
Band Pull Apart
Coaching Tips: This pull exercise has many variations of its own, strengthening the muscles of the upper back and improving posture for long term shoulder health and resilience.
This variation also helps teach protraction and retraction of the scapula which often is lost through poor lifestyle changes. It can be effectively programmed into your warm-up routine, as an accessory movement during the workout, or a high volume finisher.
Coaching Tips: This pull variation strengthens the muscles of the upper back and also improves posture for long term healthy and resilient shoulders. This variation also helps teach the protraction and retraction of the scapula which often is lost through poor lifestyle changes.
It can be effectively programmed as a warm-up, accessory movement during the workout, and also a high volume finisher.
Coaching Tips: This is a go to Pull Variation that I use to teach how to pull the shoulders DOWN and BACK. This exercise also can help prevent injuries to the shoulders and due to the core stability and pillar stacking components, will help improve low back health.
A great Upper Body alternative to go-to if ALL Push variations cause shoulder discomfort.
Coaching Tips: Once you Master the TRX Row, here is the next progression to shoot for. A super effective pull exercise which forces you to maintain proper pillar position and core stability while building a strong back and maintaining healthy shoulders.
Band Assisted Pull-Up/Chin-Up
Coaching Tips: This is a variation of the granddaddy of vertical pulls. Giving you some of the same strength and hypertrophy benefits, the band is also used as a ‘teaching tool’ to help maintain proper pillar position during a pull-up/chin-up.
The core is one of the first things to break during this exercise, so the band will give you enough assistance to better dial in for a more effective and pain free pull-up.
Coaching Tips: Instead of pulling yourself up, try pulling something down in a similar fashion. This variation is a better fit for most when it comes to pulling vertically compared to a pull-up.
This variation is a good way to help keep the shoulders healthy in this plane of motion while also building strong and solid lats.
High to Low Row
Coaching Tips: Similar to the lack of overhead mobility and range or motion of a press, going overhead may not always be in the cards. This is a great “Vertical-ISH” Pulling Exercise that has very similar benefits without the need of full overhead Range of Motion.
Even if someone has great overhead mobility and core stability, this is still an amazing exercise to program quite a bit using a band or cable to maintain healthy shoulders while also building a big, strong, and resilient back.
Banded/Cable Straight Arm Pull-Down
Coaching Tips: This is a big go-to variation to help “find and feel” the Lats and is very shoulder-friendly, especially when using a band. Make sure to keep constant tension on the band from all sides at all times. This helps activate the stabilizers of the shoulder and works really well keeping the shoulders moving through a greater range of motion.
Coaching Tips: Keeping Minimal Tension on the back leg. This is an amazing exercise for single leg strength, stability, and hypertrophy. Keeping a strong pillar position and not “breaking” at the Hips, this is an effective exercise which you can work from the bottom up and also limit the ‘Range of Motion’ by raising the floor in order to keep this as knee-friendly as possible.
Single Leg Box Squat
Coaching Tips: The Pistol Squat is a true single leg exercise, but quite honestly I do not program it much. It’s a very advanced exercise, which rarely gets performed with pristine form and I believe has minimal “bang for the buck”. Luckily, we can simulate a similar single leg squat pattern in different ways.
Here is one of those variations, the presence of the box gives clients that sense of security and also can help reduce the risk of joint pain during the movement due to the limited range of motion.
Step Down Squat
Coaching Tips: A second variation of the Pistol Squat, the Step Down Squat, involves Stepping Down from a higher surface in turn helping to maintain a better position of the pillar on a single leg. Controlling the eccentric and being able to either shorten the box or raise the floor to limit range of motion if needed is also a plus. This will help decrease possible knee pain during this single leg movement.
Coaching Tips: Another favorite Single Leg Exercise, I have found using the Reverse Lunge as the lunge of choice cleans up a lot of knee pain during movements like split squats or even squats due to the stepping back motion. This can help understand how to use the hips to sit into and load the front leg only.
This is a very easy exercise to start loading comfortably once the movement is perfected. Do not hesitate to use something like a pad to raise the floor to limit the ROM until you find that “sweet spot” where no pain occurs.
Coaching Tips: This may be my absolute favorite Single Leg exercise. Not only does it completely help you dial in to the Hamstring and Glute, but it is also very knee friendly and helps with single leg stability.
To get the most out of this exercise is to work slow and controlled on the eccentric, and isolate the posterior chain throughout the movement.
This can be used with many other load variations; such as KBs, Cables, Steel Mace, Sand Bag, etc
A great Lower Body alternative to go-to if single leg squat or lunge variations cause knee pain.
Coaching Tips: The Kickstand RDL is a fantastic hinge variation that bridges the gap nicely between your bilateral RDL to a Single Leg RDL. This exercise is a staple when trying to truly locate the glute on a single leg with just minimal support of the back foot.
TRX Reverse Lunge
Coaching Tips: This is the safest variation and teaching tool because you can use the straps as assistance during the full range movement pattern. Great for understanding the Lunge movement, and a definite go-to if free standing lunges cause knee pain. Do not hesitate to use something like a pad to raise the floor to limit the ROM until you find that “sweet spot” where no pain occurs.
Coaching Tips: The Step Up is a basic single leg exercise and functional motion that should be in any program. Going up a step pain free is a must to get through everyday life. Use the height of the step and load giving to progress accordingly.
Coaching Tips: As we should be able to move in all planes, this single leg exercise variation is a must. The lateral lunge also works the adductors which are often neglected in a program. Using a TRX as support is also a great way to teach this movement if needed.
When it comes to improving someone’s quality of life, as coaches we need to make sure we have their best interests in mind instead of our own.
I have found it is less about “What” exercise is being performed and more about the “How” and “Why” when it comes to consistent progression, training longevity, and results.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Garrett Sawaia is a PPSC Assistant and well-known trainer in the New England region. Sawaia specilizes in group training under the umbrella of strength and conditioning. With a diverse background ranging from performance to commercial fitness, Garrett’s expertise has been featured on sites such as PPSC and DrJohnRusin.com. Email: CoachGarrett.email@example.com Instagram: @gpscoaching
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