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Training Movement, Not Isolated Muscles

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The new ACE Integrated Fitness Training™ (ACE IFT™) Model provides an innovative, systematic and comprehensive approach to achieve results with any client. The model integrates strategies to facilitate rapport, adherence, self-efficacy and behavior change with assessments and programs based on the latest research to improve posture, movement, flexibility, balance, core function, cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular endurance and strength.

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If trainers could wave a magic wand, they would train isolated muscles and give their clients what they want: “Buns of steel” and “six-pack abs.”

But trainers know that muscles don’t work in isolation. It can be tough to educate clients that movement-based training is critical to making any physical improvements: From burning more calories, improving overall strength and gaining more flexibility.

In this article, Pete McCall, exercise physiologist and a member of the Academy Department at the American Council on Exercise, will discuss the notion of movement-based training rather than training isolated muscles and offer some specific examples of why one is more beneficial than the other.

This concept is introduced in more detail in ACE’s new Integrated Fitness Training™(ACE IFT™) exercise program design model, specifically designed to help trainers attract new clients and retain existing ones by offering time-bound expectations and fitness goals that can be easily communicated and understood.

Why do movement-based training?

“The benefits of movement training are enhanced client coordination and motor control, which can be a more immediate benefit from exercise than weight loss or muscle gain,” said McCall. “ Using more muscles during a training session expends more calories, so movement-based training also helps burn calories.”

Understanding Movement Training as Part of the ACE IFT™ Model

Trainers understand that muscles don’t work in isolation and that movement occurs as result of many muscles working together. Therefore, it makes sense to train movements and not muscles. If you explain this concept to your clients, it will help them better understand why you don’t focus on ‘problem areas’ (such as a firmer butt or tighter abdominals) alone. This, in turn, will enhance your communication and credibility with your clients.

That said, good movement pattern training should always follow assessments and training for postural and joint stability and mobility.

Under the ACE IFT™ Model, there are four phases:

Phase 1: Stability training and mobility training:

Low-intensity exercises to improve balance, muscular endurance, core function, flexibility and static and dynamic balance to improve posture.

Phase 2: Movement Training (the focus of this article):

This phase of training involves teaching patterns for the five primary movements (bend-and-lift, single-leg, pushing, pulling, and rotational).

Phase 3: Load Training:

Muscle force production focusing on goals such as muscle hypertrophy or muscle endurance, or simply to improve body composition and look more fit.

Phase 4: Performance Training:

Specific training to improve speed, agility, quickness, reactivity and power reserved for athletic clients or those with performance-oriented goals.

What does Movement Training Entail?

The idea of movement training is to teach your clients proper pattern sequencing focusing on the five primary movements:

  1. Bend-and-lift movements (squatting)
  2. Single-leg movements (lunging)
  3. Pushing movements
  4. Pulling movements
  5. Rotational (twisting movements)

McCall referenced the ACE Exercise Library to contrast certain movement patterns to the traditional way of training isolated muscle groups.

A disclaimer: The following section should not suggest that the contrasted exercises are not effective or should be banned from your exercise library. It merely suggests that when certain factors, such as a client’s time to exercise or achieving an exercise goal are off the essence, make each training session count.

The Forward-Lunge vs. Side-Lying Hip Adduction

Forward-Lunge vs Side-Lying Hip  AdductionBy looking at the forward lunge, you’ll see that this exercise incorporates various muscle groups: Glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and adductors. With the primary role of adductors in gait being to flex and extend the femur, this exercise trains clients by enhancing the real-life movements of walking or running.

By contrast, the side-lying hip adduction exercise, while also focusing on adduction through the midline of the body, is less effective for the following reasons: By having the client lie on the floor rather than standing upright (as in real life), he or she is now exercising in a “false environment.”

“With this exercise, you can’t use the muscles like you would in an upright, weight-bearing real-life activity, such as walking, running or stair climbing,” McCall explained. “It makes much more sense to focus on training movements of everyday activities as opposed to isolating them in a false environment.”

The Standing Wood Chop vs. the Bent Knee Sit-Up CrunchStanding Wood Chop and Standing Cable Rotation

The standing wood-chop is a good example of a medicine ball exercise using various muscles combining pushing, pulling and rotating movements. During the exercise, clients maintain the center of gravity over the base of support. Contrasting this exercise is the basic crunch. You can easily see that the former exercise gives clients a lot more ‘bang for buck.’

The Standing Cable Rotation vs. Supine Oblique Crunch

The standing cable rotation exercise trains the hips to work with the core muscles to control rotation of the trunk from a standing position. By contrast, the supine oblique crunch is a less productive exercise because of its limited range-of-motion and relatively minimal engagement of the other core stabilizing muscles.

Dumbbell Step-Up vs. Leg Extension

Dumbbell Step-UpOnce the client learns how to move and control his or her body weight against gravity, he or she can progress to using heavier loads. The dumbbell step-up exercise, which strengthens the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings, can be done with only using body weight. Once a client demonstrates controlled stability and mobility through the range of motion, he or she can progress to using external resistance like dumbbells. Leg extensions, on the other hand, isolate the knee joint in such a way that only the quadriceps are used.

If you’re still using a lot of machines to train your clients, it may be a good idea to get them moving.

“Doing isolated exercises using a machine can make an individual muscle stronger through the specific range of motion of the machine, but will not train them how to attenuate force and momentum created by gravity and ground reaction forces,” McCall said.

Marion Webb is the managing editor for the American Council on Exercise and is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and an ACE-certified Group Fitness Instructor. For specific fitness-related story ideas or comments, please e-mail her directly at