Apr 28, 2011

4 Exercises and 4000 Variations...

 ...Using Motor Learning & the 80/20 Principle for getting more value out of less in your program.

By: Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS, USAW

One of my clients has a favorite warning (and perhaps intimidation technique) he likes to give all first time clients that join our Adult Athlete Performance group. He tells them, “Be ready, Chris only knows 4 exercises, but he knows 4,000 variations of each of those exercises.” While it tends to make the clients slightly nervous and make me laugh a little, there is absolutely some truth to what he’s saying.

If you’ve ever set foot inside our facility, you’d know that we don’t have a lot of equipment: 2 Power Racks, 2 Keiser Functional Trainers, 2 Glute Hams, 2 Slideboards, 1 Vertimax, and then after that we’re pretty standard (barbells, dumbbells, hurdles/ladders, tubes/bands, plyo boxes, sleds, wobble boards, etc). The reality is, that is intentional. It’s not only part of our business plan but a large part of our training philosophy as well. We don’t have (and never will have) a lot of ‘machines’ or a lot of equipment. Why? We believe in training movement patterns. Why again? Because we believe it’s of higher priority to improve all our clients’ ability to be a better athlete.

It doesn’t matter if that person is a 55 year old female looking for weight management or a 28 year old world class Brazilian Jiu Jitsu artist, it simply modifies which end of the spectrum we work on

I used to say that “we don’t use machines because you don’t get to use machines to help you move on the field or move around in your daily life!” I still like and believe that saying, the only problem is that I realized with every passing year this is becoming less and less true. Athletes still have to have high power/strength/stability ability and the motor control with which to express those traits on the field. Non-athletes still have to get in and out of the car, put groceries away, walk/run, etc. We do have more machines and gadgets and video games and technology to assist our lives so that we simply don’t need to move as much, yes. Understand, though, that this truth only STRENGTHENS the need to exercise and develop motor patterns away from and outside of those machines. The less we move freely, the more chronic deterioration and breakdown we have with our bodies.

Listen, the question isn’t if everyone has to deal with gravity and physics. The question is how well does everyone deal with those forces. One of my favorite slogans from a colleague Jim Schmitz (former USA Olympic Weightlifting coach) is “I will not rest as long as gravity threatens my people!” Great slogan that expresses a large reality…all of us simply have to deal with those forces...period. If not, we either fall into similar compensatory motor patterns (i.e. why 60% of adults have back pain) that feed right into injury patterns or our bodies just give up and we lose our ability to enjoy independence and life on our own sooner.

I like what Canadian Strength Coach, Charles Poliquin, has said many times, “Vary the exercise without changing it.” Often times (though not always), research in kinesiology helps us understand what we’ve known works in the strength and conditioning—and have therefore been utilizing—but haven’t understood exactly why. Over the past couple decades, for example, we’ve seen muscle physiology research lend insight to the fact that a squat is not a squat is not a squat. A few weeks ago I had a session with one of my metabolic training groups. As we got about half way through the session I started to hear comments ranging from

“oh good, another squat variation…because it’s been about 30 seconds since we’ve done that”


“oh dear lord…please…not another squat!”

(you must know, by the way, that I live for those moments). Yes, another squat. Changing the loading parameters, type of load, direction or placement of load, tempo of movement, plane of movement, limb involvement (single leg, double leg, or variation thereof), etc, all change the exercise. How? The research tells us it does so in at least a few ways:
1. Muscle fiber firing order
2. Rate of force development
3. Stability demands and strategies needed to support the movement pattern
4. Acute and chronic hormonal responses
5. Local and global metabolic demands

So what do Motor Learning/Control and the 80/20 Principle have to do with it all? In part, we’ve already answered this. Though we do have more than the aforementioned “4” exercises we choose from, it is absolutely true that we have a very select exercise movement pool that we pull from. Specifically, we make sure ALL of our programs include:

1. Pushing
2. Pulling
3. Single and double leg squatting
4. Hip dominant motion
5. Power (both acceleration and deceleration components)
6. Torso/Core work
7. Balance

Why so few? Because these are the biggest bang-for-your-buck movement patterns. They are the ones that both the average Joe as well as elite athletes needs proficiency in. The are the 20% of all movement patterns that, if trained, provide 80% of the results. Yes, there are a lot of cool looking exercises out there that boast big results. The truth, though, is that most likely we all simply need to work harder at the basics. This is where Motor Learning/Control come in. Decades of research tells us that to master movement patterns it takes, on average, 500-1000 hours of repetition (and quality repetition at that—perfect practice makes perfect).

Why do we use 4 exercises with 4,000 variation (or rather 7 and 7,000)? Because if we don’t utilize the basic pedagogy principles of mass and distributed practice, we know the motor control outcome…our clients WILL 
Lose that motor program = 
get weaker = 
decrease performance = 
use compensation =  

McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 4th Ed.  2009.  Backfitpro, Inc.  Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Questions/Comments? Contact chris@prevailconditioning.com

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