Why Your Body is Like Building a Car

Dave Thomas Performance360 Coach TrainerWritten by Dave Thomas

Tempo paused half-kneeling split stance Bulgarian squat press holds with chains, for five reps.

Here’s an insider tip. No matter the length of movement name or fancy words like “contra-lateral” we as a fitness industry might throw onto something to make it seem super cool, the reality is you can reverse engineer the benefit of any movement simply  by whittling it down to its basic movement pattern. It’s kind of like your boy Greg from high school who is now a CEO. Underneath the fancy suit is the guy you used to sneak out of fourth period with to go drink in his parent’s basement.

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Idiot

For example, here, since the movement is a spinal loaded back squat on a Bosu ball we can infer that the goal is to severe the athlete’s spinal chord.

We’re going to create the analogy of building a car when it comes to building your fitness elements because both are performance-based and analogies are kind of my thing. There are ten elements of movement in fitness that stand out above the rest, in our opinion, and while some are a bit more “important” than others, all should be included in order to build a quality product that rides smooth, holds up, and gets you to where you’re asking it to take you.

Get ready to be blown away how uncomplicated fitness can and should be.

Without further ado, our 10 Key Elements of Program Design here at Performance360.

 1. SQUAT: “The Engine”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Squat

The ability to perform a functional, healthy squat is your basic engine. You cannot advance forward without it, and when your squat ability begins to falter or weaken, you’re never running as optimally as you could be. Having a sound squat is the difference between driving that old clunker from high school versus your sweet ride now, but let’s make sure not to confuse “sound squat” with “strong squat”. Strength will come, but we’re talking about owning pattern, not load. 

Squat pattern is great for a number of reasons, namely in that it is the only pattern that allows direct training of hip drive from a range of motion parallel or lower. This makes it a great option for training range of motion and the full length of some of our bigger muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes). From an expenditure perspective, it’s very metabolically taxing because the aforementioned full range of motion, and the fact the squat is a compound movement.

The squat pattern is self explanatory and includes any and all movements in the squat family, but it also includes movements like the medicine ball slam and wall ball. It is identified by the following characteristics.

  • Deep knee flexion
  • Deep hip flexion
  • More upright torso
  • Posterior and Anterior Chain

Because the squat pattern is a a bit of a more knee dominant movement, it tends to target the quadriceps more than the hinge pattern does.

HINGE: “The Brakes”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Hinge

What good is a strong engine if you’re just going to fly off the road? No amount of forward movement would be worth a damn if you couldn’t also break. The squat and the hinge exist in a yin and yang relationship, each one important to ultimately getting you to your destination. Knowing how to perform the hinge position is like unlocking a secret video game cheat, as many movements we perform in the gym all have the exact same function of the lower half.  Bent over rows, deadlifts, swings, and even the descent of the Olympic lifts from the hang position all use the same hip hinge, which is identified by the following characteristics.

  • Very minimal knee flexion (~20 degrees)
  • Deep hip flexion
  • Torso more parallel to the floor
  • Posterior Chain dominant

Because it is a hip dominant movement, the hinge pattern tends to target the posterior chain, most notably the hamstrings and glutes. This is the major difference between the squat and the hinge, and why the hinge is so important to reversing the quad dominance that is so characteristic of most athletes. 

PUSH: “The Transmission”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Push

Shifting smoothly and staying in control of your car are pretty desirable when behind the wheel. If you have ever had your transmission fail in the middle of the road (guilty), you know what a royal pain in the ass it is, and how costly it is to fix it. The transmission isn’t something you will ever notice, but the second it craps out on you realize the level of repair you’re in for and you’ll wish you weren’t such a jackass towards it. 

Push pattern and your shoulder are the exact same thing. The ability to apply a strong and powerful push is highly beneficial to our performance and athleticism, but if overdone or performed improperly, can impinge the shoulder, develop bad habits, or blow your transmission altogether. We’ll be writing about this for a later entry on the shoulder, but a good starting point for everyone is the ability to perform 20 slow, strict, controlled push-ups. When performing them, try and round your upper shoulders a bit at the top of the rep as this will help target the frequently missed serratus anterior of the scapulae. Good pushing is about intention, not intensity. 

The push pattern is identified by the following characteristics.

  • The concentric phase (rising) goes from elbow flexion to extension.
  • The eccentric phase (lowering) goes from elbow extension to flexion.
  • Anterior muscles

Push pattern tends to target the chest, triceps and anterior deltoids when focused on upper body movements. Movements include the push-up, dip, bench press family, shoulder press and overhead press family.

PULL: “The Airbags”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Pull

Nobody ever overdid it when adding airbags to cars. If anything, we’ve seen them go from being located in the dash only, to now deploy-able from the side. Safety, safety, safety. That’s your pull pattern since it is very difficult for us to overdo pulling, specifically the row family member. Opposite of the push pattern, the pull pattern is identified by the following characteristics.

  • The concentric phase (rising) goes from elbow extension to flexion.
  • The eccentric phase (lowering) goes from elbow flexion to extension.
  • Posterior muscles

Pull pattern tends to target the the posterior chain like thoracic back, biceps and posterior deltoids when focused on upper body movements.  Pull movements target more of the posterior chain than pull movements.

Most of us can benefit from pulling more than we push when it comes to optimal shoulder health, reason being the pull pattern targets and builds the very important muscles of scapulae like the rhomboids, middle and lower trap, and previously mentioned serratus. We’ll get into the breakdown of how different scapular patterns of the pull target different muscles, and you can certainly overdo muscles like the upper trap, but for now just plan on rowing early and often and focus on “rowing low” on your body.

Pull movements include the pull-up, chin-up, clean, snatch, and row family.

Let us stop here for  a second. Nearly everything we do in the gym can be classified as either a pull or a push, or a squat or a hinge. Hopefully we’ve grasped that each one acts as the opposite of the other. Breaking down movement to it’s base level classification like this is the glue that ties together understanding of movement and easily grasping both set-up and finish for a variety of fitness tasks.

These four categories make up the bulk of what’s non-negotiable in your car. From here forward we begin to add all of amenities and turn you into a head turner.

CARRY: “The Alignment”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Carry

We’ve got all of your important parts taken care of, so let’s make sure they run optimally and you aren’t veering all over the road like Kiefer Sutherland. Loaded carries are there to build us a stable midline, building isometric strength in a way that dynamic movements cannot. Remember from the intro, we talked about stripping a movement down to its essence and at it’s base level, the loaded carry is anti-rotation training where our core muscles fight to keep our spine from rotating. Pair this opposite a movement like say, a sit-up, where our spine is flexing and extending. This “core stiffness” (as termed by famed spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill) of being able to resist rotation is best developed with isometric, anti-rotation movements like the loaded carry and is very important for keeping our spines healthy and low backs injury free. 

Plus, we can throw in the awesome benefit of a stronger grip and healthier rotator cuffs. 

Just don’t go so heavy that you’re torso is folding like an accordion.

JUMP: “The Wheels”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Jump

The next time you get into a staring contest that leads to a stoplight drag race against a Scion, you’ll thank us. Tires with bad tread are going to slide and spin the second you want them to apply power off the line, and jumping is the fix for the ability to create Rapid Force Development (RFD) we so much rely on when it comes to performance, athleticism, our bigger barbell lifts (and winning your next street race). RFD is the ability for our athletic bodies to create high-powered force in under a second, and why jump height corresponds directly to Olympic weightlifting ability. Both require similar mechanisms to recruit power and force, which is the Stretch Shortening Cycle, when the body uses energy created in an eccentric lowering movement to propel it upward on the concentric raising portion of the movement. It takes stored energy and then uses a burst or a bounce to propel the load upward in the very same manner shooting of shooting a rubber band at someone. 

Jumping should be progressively added to an athlete’s program as to ease the tendons and joints into action, but the benefits of jumping are vast.

RUN/SPRINT: “The MPG”

Taking that high-powered muscle machine out on the road is all fun and games until you realize you need to fill it up every 72 hours. We’d rather keep the power, yet also grant it the ability to get you around town at an efficient rate. Of course, running and sprinting are two very different skills and energy systems but they both arrive at the common ground of improving your movement economy. 

  • Sprinting and jumping work the Phosphagen energy system which is the exact same energy system you tap into when lifting heavy weight, making it a great compliment to your strength program.
  • Running intra-workout is a critical component of acid buffering and allowing the muscles to recover and to continue to further contract.
  • Sprinting has been shown to increase cardiovascular capacity by challenging anaerobic threshold.  In other words, sprinting will improve your distance running.
  • Sprinting and jumping at maximal or near maximal speed activates Type-II muscle fibers to their maximum capacity.  This releases naturally occurring HGH in our bodies which in turn promotes serious fat loss, strength gains and lean body mass development.
  • Sprinting increases muscle mitochondria and insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is a positive thing for body composition and avoiding a state of fat storage.  The more muscle mitochondria you have, the more ATP you can generate which means increase maximal power output when you need it. 
  • For endurance athletes, sprinting has been shown to double endurance performance at 80% of V02 max.
  • It makes you more carbohydrate sensitive which means that more of your carbs will be partitioned to promote muscle/glycogen storage than fat storage.

Do not be afraid of all varying intensities of running. Running within the structure of a workout is good in many more ways than it is harmful. Get that locomotion going and soak in the benefits. 

THROW: “The Horsepower”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Throw

Throwing is our most primal and complete source of power as it recruits muscles, tendons and ligaments for our ankles to our wrists. It is an excellent way to train the Phosphagen system and develop power in both beginner and advanced athletes alike, as well as a teaching tool for the body to transfer force through the core, and learn or revisit basic triple extension. Triple extension, the simultaneous extension of the ankles, knees, and hips is at the foundation of the throw and also a required skill to be successful in Olympic weightlifting. 

For beginners to begin building their horsepower, and advanced athletes to maintain it, we recommend primal throwing always be a part of the programming. Plus, they are great movements for when something really pissed you off that day and you need to blow off some steam. 

VARIED CHAIN: “The A/C”

Key Elements of Program Design - Varied Chain

I don’t know about you, but I want no part of riding through inland California in August without A/C. You say luxury, I say let me the hell out, deal breaking necessity. 

Let’s begin with some brief definitions.

Kinetic Chain
This refers to the components of the musculoskeletal system (muscles and joints) involved in the production and transmission of force between the base of support and the object being moved. For example, in a push press, the kinetic chain starts from the floor and moves all the way until your hands meet the barbell, so the kinetic chain involves all of the muscles and joints from the ankle all the way up to the hands. However, in a bodybuilding bench press you are laying flat on a bench, so the kinetic chain in a bench press  goes from chest to hands and is shorter than a push press.

Typically and very generically speaking, we want to perform movements that have a longer kinetic chain because our body likes to work as a complete unit, produces higher caloric expenditure, and develops greater functional strength. 

There are two kinds of movements, closed-chain and open-chain. 

Closed Chain
This type of movement puts the  arms or legs are in a fixed, unmovable position. The extremities are both firmly planted into the ground and in a fixed position against an immobile surface.

Examples include:

  • Push-Up
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Pull-Up
  • Kettlebell Swing

Open Chain
Where the hands or feet are open and free moving. The opposite of closed-chain.

Examples include:

  • Unilateral work such as,
    • Lunges
    • Step-Ups
    • Renegade Rows
  • Plyometrics – Jumping, sprinting, and often throwing.
  • Quadruped Movement – Ground-based movement on all fours such as bear crawls. These are very good for challenging movement pattern, developing thoracic mobilization, and teaching our core how to transfer force without load. They are also productive for strengthening the Serratus Anterior, an important muscle of the scapulae that helps stabilize the shoulder in pressing motion.

Unilateral work is the primary way in which we train open-chain movements, and one of the biggest benefits they carry. It is what separates it from the squat and deadlift, and why it builds strength from a position of stability that the closed-chain counterparts cannot. In a unilateral movement like a lunge, you have to balance and decelerate in a single-leg or arm capacity. This has the tendency to then create an anti-rotational demand on the core that it’s closed-chain counterparts do not provide.

Unilateral Work to Correct Imbalances?

It is common to promote unilateral work as a way to correct imbalance and prevent injury. While this is true, it is important to understand that asymmetries in the body’s structural make-up are inherent and there is no such thing as perfect symmetry.  A good rule of thumb is if there is a discrepancy that is greater than 10% between dominant and nondominant side, then it is great enough to warrant concern and be correctable through training. Anything 10% and less is a natural part of human asymmetry.

MULTI-PLANE: “Four Wheel Drive”

10 Key Elements of Program Design - Multi Plane

I like to drive a car that can operate well in multiple conditions, off road and on road. Rain, sleet, or snow, and isn’t reliant upon one road condition.

Just kidding, that’s a lie. My GMC Terrain is the softest SUV there is, thing can’t even drive up a damp hill. But, I am assuming you get my general point. We wrote about multi-planar movement in full back in January, but to recap, the human body and its movement exist in a three dimensional plane, divided into the following segments.

  • Forward and Back (Sagittal)
  • Left and Right (Frontal)
  • Top and Bottom (Transverse)

Training all three planes of movement is essential in order to achieve the highest level of performance and durability as a human. Preventing stagnation of movement pattern is a very important part of preventing movement syndromes and disruptions in our movement health, so it’s very important we get a good mix of frontal and transverse movements to compliment the heavy hitting sagittal movements.

Plus, you’re not really an athlete if all you do is flex and extend and your car isn’t much a performer if you can only take it out on the road when they weather is just right.

That about does it for our automobile and your human body, folks. As you can see, well-rounded fitness is not super complicated. No matter what we do in the gym, there is a good chance it can be boiled down to some base-level benefits, and as we learned today all ten elements of program design play their own unique role when it comes to your longevity and long-term fitness success.

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