Exercise program design is an applied solution for the inherently complex task of strategically manipulating the biological expression of the human life form. The degree of complexity and depth to human physiology is one of the most daunting puzzles facing scientists. Long story short, we as coaches and sports scientists are trying to understand and manipulate a system that the best and brightest minds of all time couldn’t and cannot fully grasp.
This is really hard stuff, and it is my belief that the best we can do is create inaccurate models that are rooted in basic science and simple rules that maximize utility and reproducible numerical results. It is also my belief that the only way you can actually design a comprehensible and comprehensive training system is to design it around biomechanics rather than physiological principles. You will ultimately affect appropriate physiological pathways as a by-product of training the relevant and appropriate domains within a biomechanics model.The only way to design a comprehensive training system is around biomechanics, not physiology. Click To Tweet
If you can work your way through this article and grasp the central tenets of the fundamental principles here, I think you’ll see that this is perhaps the most useful model currently in existence for designing fitness programs.
A New Training Model – Designing with Biology
Biology, as a single coherent discipline, is said to have begun in the 19th century. Biology traces its roots to ancient times, and is heavily influenced by medicine, botany, and zoology; however, we can say that it is still relatively young compared to things like mathematics. Exercise science falls under the umbrella of biology, and is essentially in its infancy from the timeline perspective of scientific inquiry.
Whenever there is a young scientific realm, one of the first things that needs to be done is a taxonomy of the phenomena within that domain. The most famous scientific taxonomy is the one constructed for life forms (Systema Naturae) that was put together by Carolus Linnaeus. You can effectively classify any form of life on the planet by going through the hierarchical arrangement of Linnaeus’ taxonomy.
In my mind, the world of exercise is not very different from the world of life. Life on planet Earth is incredibly diverse, with what seems to be an infinite number of variations on each type of creature, plant, or fungi. Some forms of life are so bizarre that it is hard to believe they exist. From our perspective, many animals don’t seem to make any sense at all; however, each living thing on this planet makes perfect sense in the environmental niche that it has come to occupy and take advantage of.
In the world of exercise, there are so many ways that humans choose to move that it seems to defy all possible logic. Some methods of physical exertion look ridiculous—bordering on comedic, dangerous, or misguided—yet they exist, and will probably continue to exist for a long time. Those of us who work in the world of exercise and gravitate towards a scientific perspective are often mortified by what we perceive to be stupid approaches to training, but this is likely due to the perspective we take from the lens we have been taught to view things through.
Fear not for your sanity though, my empirically minded brethren, for I would like to present to you a model you can use to classify and categorize all forms of exercise, along with a model you can use to grade the degree to which the movement you are witnessing represents optimal. To accomplish such a feat, I believe that you must take a biomechanics path rather than a physiological path.The six levels of biomechanics hierarchy are pattern, stance, plane, load, velocity, and duration. Click To Tweet
The biomechanics model I present here is based on the idea that biomechanics is divided into two primary domains: kinematics and kinetics. Kinematics describes the quality of the shapes that life can assume and move through, and kinetics provides quantitative information on movement. In my model, I divide kinematics into three sections: pattern, stance, and plane. I also divide kinetics into three sections: load, velocity, and duration. It is my belief that you can arrive at any exercise you could fathom by describing it via the six levels of this biomechanics hierarchy.
Getting Started with Key Movement Patterns
The topic of movement patterns has a large amount of ambiguity, and you should feel free to come up with different patterns than what I have here. Ian King was one of the first to begin thinking along the lines of creating an exercise taxonomy, and many of us gravitate back towards his list of primary resistance training patterns whenever we think about designing a training plan for athletes.
Great coaches like Boyle and Verstegen were wise to begin thinking of designing training days based on concepts such as linear and multidirectional movement directions/patterns. However, it’s time to upgrade and expand these models, and make them more objective. Having said that, here are the patterns that I use in this section of the Exercise Taxonomy.
When I talk about stance, I mean the arrangement of the feet relative to each other and relative to the center of mass of the axial skeleton. I divide stance into three realms: bilateral symmetrical, asymmetrical front/back, and asymmetrical lateral.
Bilateral symmetrical stances are common in life and sport, and involve the two feet being next to each other and bearing equal weight from the skeleton above. The bilateral symmetrical stance is often a ready position in sports (pre-snap linebackers, pre-pitch baseball players, free throw position in basketball, etc.), and is the position from which certain athletic movements take place, such as two-foot vertical jumping. In the world of exercise, the bilateral symmetrical stance is essentially the place we find ourselves in when performing nearly every weight room movement imaginable.
The asymmetrical front/back stance can most easily be thought of as a lunge position; however, in this model it would be any instance where one foot is in front of the other foot. The asymmetrical front/back staggered position of feet is ubiquitous within athletics, as it is the only way to run. It is how we create first steps, jab steps in basketball, and shots in wrestling, to name a few.
The asymmetrical lateral staggered stance is where one foot remains under the center of mass of the axial skeleton, and the other foot is kicked out to the side like a kickstand and resides outside the axial skeleton. In the world of exercise, the lateral lunge is the easiest way to think of the presentation of this stance. Kettlebell lifting is also an exercise where this stance is used with some frequency, as movements like the Turkish Get-Up and the windmill both feature this foot arrangement throughout or in part of the movement. The asymmetrical lateral stance displays itself in sport mostly in movements featuring change of direction, such as cutting, but also in throwing motions, and is seemingly the only way to ice skate.
The Essence of the Planes of Motion
You will probably be introduced to the three anatomical cardinal planes of motion in one of the first three chapters of any anatomy textbook. Rather than belaboring the identification and definitions of these planes that we should all know, I would like to share what I perceive as the essence of each plane for humans.
The sagittal plane is your anti-gravity plane. Mastering the sagittal plane allows you to avoid falling on your face or your back. The frontal plane is the plane you have to regulate to ultimately create forward propulsion. Optimal forward propulsion occurs when a center of mass shifts side to side (truly in a sigmoidal pathway), but stays within the boundaries of the base of support (inside the feet). Those who display aberrant frontal plane mechanics stagger back and forth like they’re drunk, and lose energy that should be contributing towards moving forward. The transverse plane allows us to coil and uncoil for high rate of force development striking and throwing maneuvers.
Do what you will with this paragraph, because it is speculative; however, I do not see enough people asking appropriate questions, such as what the purpose of the cardinal planes of movement are from an overarching perspective, so I’m putting the discussion forward. My statements here regarding the purposes and essences of these planes guide me through the way that I coach exercises that I believe target a specific plane of motion. My confirmation that an exercise targeted a specific plane is the individual I am coaching reporting that they feel a muscle corresponding to an appropriate plane.
When attempting to train the sagittal plane, the affected muscles should be flexors and extensors. When targeting the frontal plane, individuals should feel adductors and abductors, and when going after the transverse plane, rotator muscles should be working. The specifics of knowing that an activity represents competency within a specific plane of motion will be covered in Part 2 of this article series.
Kinetic Zones and Individualizing Training
As we move into the kinetics side of the discussion, I would like to start out by saying that I have created my own arbitrary differentiations for what will constitute different levels of load, velocity, and duration. With all three of the kinetics variables, I try to keep things simple and divide them into three zones. If you want to create your own system with more levels or fewer levels that’s on you, and that’s fine.
I divide load into activities that use high load, moderate load, and low load. I divide velocity into high velocity, moderate velocity, and low velocity. I divide duration into long duration, moderate duration, and short duration. To provide some level of numerical bumpers to these three levels of load, velocity, and duration, the following may be useful to people.
So now that I have introduced you to all the factors at play, let’s discuss how a coach would go about utilizing this information. I would start with the kinematics information. First, what movement pattern are you trying to train? Once you have identified the pattern, what stance are you going to put the athlete in? Now that you have a pattern and a stance, what plane of motion do you want them to move in?
Now we shift our attention to the kinetics variables. How much load do you want to provide? What velocity do you want the load moved at? How long would you like this movement to take place for? Once you have provided an answer for all of these questions, you choose your tool (e.g., barbell, medicine ball, etc.) and you arrive at an exercise.Start with the kinematics information, decide on the kinetics variables, and then pick your tool. Click To Tweet
For the most part, the first thing you want to do with athletes at the beginning of a session is to “warm them up.” How would I use the model being presented here? As a very simple example, I’ll choose the locomotion pattern in the asymmetrical front/back staggered stance performed in the sagittal plane, performed with low load, low velocity, and moderate duration. What is that? Jogging the length of a football field.
Maybe you are a coach who bases things on FMS principles, and you’re of the belief that you can improve the mobility and/or stability of an athlete with a prescribed activity. You choose knee dominant, bilateral symmetrical stance, sagittal plane, low load, low velocity, and moderate duration, and you come up with an activity like a squat to stand. I could list countless examples, but warm-up is generally a time of low-load, low-velocity, and short- to moderate-duration activities that can try to either mimic the activities you want to train or attempt to improve the overall movement capabilities of the individual you are coaching.
As training sessions move beyond warm-ups, I would likely next do activities with low load, high velocity, and short duration (aka, speed, agility, plyometrics, or medicine ball throwing), and I would arrive at the activity by defining it from a kinematics perspective. Change of direction with a lateral asymmetrical stance in the frontal plane in this circumstance would be a 5-10-5. Throwing from a bilateral symmetrical stance in the transverse plane would be rotational med ball throws facing towards a wall. Triple extension from an asymmetrical front/back stance in the sagittal plane would be a split squat jump.
The Weight Room – Loading Smarter
Following low-load, high-velocity, short-duration activities, it is very likely that I would next proceed to the weight room with the athlete. The first weight room activities would most likely be lifts with high load, high velocity, and short duration. The most obvious example that fits into this category is Olympic lifts. Cleans and snatches, and their derivatives, are generally triple extension, bilateral symmetrical stance, sagittal activities. Split jerks would feature a transition into an asymmetrical front/back staggered stance.
Outside of Olympic lifts, it becomes difficult to think of activities that fall into this kinetics category; however, the sport of Strongman may provide some alternatives. Stone loading and tire flipping provide alternative triple extension, bilateral symmetrical, sagittal plane activities that require very little coaching. Tire flipping also features the transition into the asymmetrical front/back stance similar to split jerks.The sport of Strongman may provide some alternative but similar kinetic activities as Olympic lifts. Click To Tweet
An activity that lives in this kinetics category and also features a transverse plane element is the circus dumbbell clean and press. To be able to clean the dumbbell, the athlete needs to bring the bell up to only one shoulder, which requires rotation to accomplish the task. Outside of the circus dumbbell, which many strength and conditioning coaches likely are not versed in performing or coaching, it is difficult to think of other activities in this kinetic realm that feature moving in any other plane but sagittal.
After performing high-load, high-velocity, short-duration lifts, the most likely next kinetics realm that we would move to would be high-load, low-velocity, short- to moderate-duration activities. Classic examples of movements in this category would be deadlifts, squats, presses, rows, and pull-ups. Most of the activities in this realm are going to be bilateral symmetrical, sagittal plane activities, as these seem to be the stance and plane that lend themselves most to developing strength.
Generally speaking, most coaches attempt to put an activity from the major lifting categories somewhere in their weekly training programs. At some point, athletes will perform a hip-dominant, knee-dominant, horizontal push/pull, and vertical push/pull activity from this kinetics domain at least once a week in their program.
The next component of training in a standard model would be assistance lifts. This could have some movement pattern bleed over from the previous category, but could also feature movements from categories such as locomotion (loaded carries and sled work), and throwing (Turkish Get-Ups and windmills—I consider these to be the same pattern), along with core exercises focusing on the pelvis (Nordics) and ribs (planks). These activities would generally be classified as moderate load, moderate velocity, and moderate duration from a kinetics perspective.
The activities coming from hip dominant, knee dominant, horizontal push/pull, and vertical push/pull would often be unilateral choices once we’ve reached this component of training. Prior to creating this training/programming matrix, I really struggled with knowing where to put the kettlebell grind lifts. I simply did not have a bucket to know where those kinds of things belonged, other than putting them in as assistance activities after the main lift.Describing these activities biomechanically has helped me fit them into a program more accurately. Click To Tweet
Now I understand that a Turkish get-up for three reps each hand fits into the previously mentioned kinetics domain, and is a throwing activity performed from an asymmetrical lateral stance focusing on the transverse plane. I also understand that farmer’s walk for 100 feet is moderate- to high-load locomotion at moderate to slow velocity for moderate duration with an asymmetrical front/back stance in the sagittal plane. This ability to describe these activities has led me to think about where they would fit into a program much more accurately.
The last piece of a very simple training day would be some kind of conditioning exercise. Conditioning in this case is low-load, low-velocity, long-duration kinetic activity. I usually try to think of cyclic activities for this kinetic domain. Common weight room conditioning activities include jogging, stationary bikes, Jacob’s Ladder, VersaClimber, slide board, and rowers.
Jogging is asymmetrical front/back stance sagittal locomotion. A spin bike is locomotion (this is questionable—you’re free to disagree) from an asymmetrical front/back stance in a sagittal direction, but if you use an arm and leg bike, that would add transverse plane to the equation because the movements of the arms would rotate the trunk. Jacob’s Ladder is also locomotion in an asymmetrical front/back stance in the sagittal plane, and is a great option for individuals who need impact removed from their training.
The VersaClimber is locomotion in an asymmetrical front/back stance, but is a frontal plane dominant movement, as individuals move like upright salamanders while using this piece of equipment. The slide board is change of direction in a lateral asymmetrical stance with the movement taking place in the frontal plane. Rowers feature a combination of knee-dominant and horizontal pulling (hard to categorize), and are bilateral symmetrical stance sagittal tools.
To help the reader conceptualize the whole puzzle, here are three tables that visually demonstrate the taxonomy concept for specific exercises.
The easiest example that I can think of involving grossly imbalanced movers and a high degree of injury is CrossFit. When analyzing the types of movements done in CrossFit, almost all take place in a bilateral symmetrical stance, and move in the sagittal plane. CrossFitters warm up in this stance and plane, they lift in this stance and plane, and they even condition in this stance and plane (burpees, wall-balls, rowers, high-rep Olympic lifts, etc.). Other stances and planes of movement are largely neglected. With CrossFit, you also see times when the athletes are forced to do unpredictable, random events at competitions. You’ll see an inability to cope with certain new events, as well as high rates of injuries in those new events (swimming and peg board are two classic examples).CrossFit is an easy example of involving grossly imbalanced movers and a high degree of injury. Click To Tweet
It is my opinion that different stances and planes are distinct biomechanic realms with limited carryover to other stances and planes of movement. The accurate assessment of strength, speed, and fitness in specific stances and planes featuring various patterns executed with different loading schemes, velocity presentations, and durations will become a critical task for coaches moving into the future of the sports performance coaching.
Parting Thoughts on Biomechanics and Program Design
Every sport features levels of dominance in terms of what stances athletes assume, what planes they move through, what patterns they execute, what kinds of loads they encounter, what sorts of velocities they need to be able to produce, and what kinds of durations they need to continue to move through. Targeting those kinematic and kinetic realms is a great way to provide fairly specific stimuli in the training process.
Beyond specificity of training, athletes also seem to benefit from the performance of training movements that target antagonist tissues to their sports moves, as this is believed to have injury prevention elements. We should begin to try to quantify the number of movements that athletes perform in specific kinematic and kinetic realms.We should quantify the number of movements athletes do in specific kinematic and kinetic realms. Click To Tweet
Such an endeavor, using the taxonomy and tables that I have provided here, would be an enormous undertaking, and would require computer systems to accurately model out how much movement an athlete actually performs in a specific pattern, stance, and plane at specific loads, velocities, and durations. If we could see the total quantity of movement in these biomechanical domains, we may get a glimpse into the likelihood of injury potential for an individual, and possibly see that there is a movement rate-limiting factor preventing further progress towards sport-specific goals.
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