In our constant efforts to find the next great training hack or trick that might elevate our performance, it can be easy for us to mistake complexity for progress. In other words – when we keep trying to challenge ourselves through more complicated movements, the results we’re chasing can move further and further out of reach. This isn’t to say that finding unique and novel ways to train is necessarily a bad thing or that we shouldn’t ever do it – but rather, we should look at the basics as the foundations upon which everything else is built, and we should incorporate them into training continuously to ensure that the “axe stays sharp.”
Understanding the Nuts and Bolts
All exercises, complexes, flows, chains, and patterns are essentially combinations of, or variations on, the same basic movements. Whether or not our goals are performance-based or strictly for general fitness, these basic movements should be the rock on which we build our programs. The trick is in understanding what these movements look like and how to ramp up their difficulty – without necessarily changing them.
A general categorization of these fundamental movements might look something like this:
- The Hinge: driven primarily through the hips, with the direction of force being horizontal (forward and back)
- The Squat: driven primarily through the legs, with direction of force being vertical (up and down)
- The Lunge: driven primarily through the lower body, with the force generated providing locomotion (if you’re stepping out in a direction, it’s based on the lunge pattern)
- The Push: driven through the upper body, with the direction of force being away from the body and can be both horizontal and vertical
- The Pull: driven through the upper body, with the direction of force being towards the body – and like the push, can be both horizontal and vertical
- Trunk Stability: the mid-line of the upper and lower body, with development focused on allowing the transfer of strength and power from lower to upper/upper to lower, left to right/right to left, and through rotation
There have been (and will continue to be) endless articles and opinion pieces written that will offer a variation on these, but often the differences are small, at times coming down to nothing more than a change in description: ie. “Trunk Stability” is often simply called “Core” and/or broken down into specific movements such as “Carries.”
Earn Your Progression
Each of these categories has a basic form that allows for the movement to be mastered and supports future progressions. Some, however, have more advanced levels that are mistakenly designated the “fundamental” form: while appearing straightforward, they demand a higher skill level to be accomplished correctly. For example, the barbell squat is often viewed as the “basic” squat pattern – but being able to hold the barbell correctly demands a higher range of mobility in the shoulders and hips than a lot of people possess (at least starting out). Similarly, the push-up – while a staple in bodyweight training and “boot camps” – is more than simply pressing your chest off the floor. You need to ensure you can maintain a proper plank throughout its entirety, that you have a relatively balanced strength on both sides of the body, and you must have the ability to press 64% of your bodyweight for multiple reps. Thus, in these examples, there may be a stage or two that need to be learned and practiced before you start doing these variations (such as a goblet squat or elevated push-ups).
Basic – Not Easy
You can get great results just from working through the basics, and you can make great strides in your strength and conditioning without adding to the complexity – you just need to know how to challenge yourself without making the movement itself more convoluted.
Without changing the basic pattern at all, there are four ways you can turn up the difficulty level: a) you can add weight, b) you can add repetitions, c) you can add sets, or d) you can reduce the rest period. Which one you decide on will be determined by the goal of the training session/program and your current abilities. If your goal is to increase your strength, for example, then going up in weight is the most obvious choice – though it may come with a commensurate drop in repetitions to progress safely. Likewise, if the aim of the training session is to improve stamina, you might increase the reps (keeping the rest and sets the same).
Don’t Fear the Fundamentals
While there are plenty of ways to work with the same basic patterns or movements and still progress (there are entire programs built off the same 5 or 6 exercises repeated endlessly), never venturing off the “meat and potatoes” exercises can be not only uninspiring but unproductive as well. The trick is finding the balance between a broader exploration of movement while still maintaining a brutal efficiency at the basics.
 Ebben WP, Wurm B, VanderZanden TL, Spadavecchia ML, Durocher JJ, Bickham CT, Petushek EJ. Kinetic analysis of several variations of push-ups. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2891-4. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31820c8587. PMID: 21873902.