How to Structure Workouts
Updated: Feb 13
Figuring out what to do during workouts can be overwhelming and intimidating. You might have found a routine that works, but now it’s gotten boring and you’re unsure how to change it up. In this article I will explain the essential types of movements to include in workout programs. I will also describe three different methods to split up workout routines. This information will provide a framework for how to structure workouts that are effective and engaging.
At minimum, the essential types of movements to program include a squat, hinge, push, pull, carry, and unilateral movements. It is also important to consider incorporating lateral (side-to-side) and transverse (rotational) movements, in addition to the more commonly used forward and backward movement patterns. Why is it important to balance the use of these different types of movements? To keep the body equally balanced and strong in every direction. Maintaining adequate balance across different parts of the body helps decrease the likelihood of pain and movement compensations that typically lead to injury.
Squatting and hinging are two of the most basic full body movement patterns required in daily living. We squat to sit to or stand from seated positions. As children, we can comfortably sit in a deep squat for long periods of time. Most people tend to lose their natural squatting mobility as they age and make less use of the full movement. A hinge pattern is a deadlift and is the movement used to pick up objects from the ground. It is important to strengthen both movements to have the ability to move safely throughout daily activities. Proper use of the legs and back positioning in either movement allows someone to more safely and easily move heavy objects.
Pulling and pushing are basic upper body movement patterns. Two examples of pulling are pullups or starting a lawnmower. A pull uses the muscles in the back and biceps—it is especially important to incorporate pulling in workouts because many activities in life (driving, sitting at a computer, texting, etc.) tend to round our shoulders and neck forward. Constantly sitting or standing in this position creates poor posture. Not only does poor posture appear less attractive but it also throws off the balance of the chest, neck, traps, and back—overworking some muscles and weakening others—which can lead to headaches, neck and upper back pain.
Pushing movement examples include pushing ourselves up or pushing a heavy object up onto a high shelf. Pushing involves chest, shoulder, and tricep muscles, which many people tend to train for an aesthetically pleasing look. However, as mentioned, we are typically in a forward posture most of the day, so it is important to avoid exaggerating this problem by training this movement too often in workouts.
Unilateral movements are single-sided movements, either in the upper or lower body. An example of a unilateral movement in daily living is walking up stairs. The human body is not even side-to-side; generally, one side is much stronger and takes on more work when performing bilateral (both sides) movements. Integrating unilateral movements in training can lessen, though never perfectly correct, these imbalances.
A carry is exactly what it sounds like—picking up a heavy object and carrying it. Carrying movements are fantastic to strengthen the entire trunk of the body (shoulders to hips). The trunk, or core, of the body must be strong in order to support the movements of the rest of the system. Carry variations strengthen the trunk and make many daily activities of living easier, such as carrying children, groceries, luggage, or wearing heavy backpacks. They are also a great option for a challenging but fun cardio exercise.
Pushing, pulling, squatting, and hinging are all forward to backward movements. But what happens if someone needs to turn the body to throw, step to the side, or lift an object in a chopping/diagonal motion? It is important to train lateral and transverse movements, which are also utilized in daily living. Athletes especially need to become proficient in lateral and transverse movements during training, as many sports demand strength and power in side-to-side or rotational movement patterns.
There are several choices as far as how to split movements up across training days. Options include a full body split, a push/pull/legs split, or a “bro split”. A full body split would attempt to incorporate one of each movement on every workout day (squat, hinge, push, pull, carry, at minimum). Full body splits are great for keeping a good balance on limited time. I often choose a full body split for clients who can only workout 1-2 times per week.
Supersets are a great method to fit more strength work into a short timeframe. A superset is two exercises performed back to back with no rest. So, for a full body day, I might program a superset of squats with dumbbell bench press. This tactic allows the lower body rest while the upper body works and vice versa, keeping the heart rate elevated throughout.
A push/pull/legs split would devote at least one day per week each for pushing (chest/shoulders/triceps), pulling (back, biceps, sometimes deadlifts), and legs (squats, unilateral leg movements, etc.). I would generally suggest two leg days, one with quad dominant movements, and one with hamstring/glute dominant movements, and one day each for pulling and pushing. A “bro split” is a typical bodybuilding style training split, in which each body part is trained on a different day (legs, chest/shoulders, back, arms). With a bro split, it is necessary to have at least four days to workout per week, ideally 5-6. Personally, I prefer to program a full body split each day for 4-6 days instead of splitting the work up by one body part each day. Programming multiple full body days would allow someone to still train a high volume of work for each body part, but minimize overloading one body part at a time, decreasing injury risk and recovery time.
There are many factors to consider when structuring workouts—movement patterns and how to split them up over a week only being two parts of the equation. Job or daily demands on the body, sleep quality, and nutrition also all play a large part in gaining strength or losing fat. Those who compete in specific strength sports or strength train to complement their sport have special training demands that require more refined programming tactics. When writing workouts, consider each of these elements to decide the best structure for your needs.
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