How to design an effective workout: PART 1 – Choose the right exercises

Your time is precious – and so is your health. When you decide to start (or re-start) exercising, you want to ensure you’re getting the most value out of that time, minimizing the risk of injury and focusing on your goals. In this article, the first in a three-part series, I’ll break it down into the basic elements, then show you how to apply them based on your current fitness level and what you want to achieve.

I know it’s really tempting to try those workouts you see online or in magazines. Unfortunately, there are lots of pitfalls with this. For one, they’re often designed for people with perfect health and zero movement issues. Which is pretty much no-one ever. They’re just not realistic – and they don’t take into account your personal goals.

So how DO you choose the right exercises for YOUR  most effective workout?

First of all, remember: Exercise = Movement

There are four basic principles of human movement. Effective exercise incorporates all of these principles – but in different ways, depending on the outcome you’re looking for.

Principle #1:  Functional Movement Patterns

The human body has seven functional movement patterns:

1. Hinge

2. Squat

3. Lunge

4. Push – horizontal

5. Push – vertical

6. Pull

7. Rotate

It’s great to incorporate all of these movement patterns into your exercise routine. But you don’t necessarily have to include them all in one session – do different ones on different days, for example. The beauty in understanding these movement patterns is that it doesn’t really matter what training tools you use – whether it be dumbbells, a barbell, kettlebells, TRX, or even just your own body weight. Here are some examples to get you thinking:

Hinge:  Deadlifts with a barbell, single-leg hip hinges, forward bends, toe touches, leg extensions (side or back) with a stretch band, bicep curls

Squat: Basic bodyweight squats, sit-to-stand’s from a chair, wall sits, single-leg squats

Lunge: Forward/backward/side lunges with or without weights, step up’s, stair climbing

Horizontal push: push-ups (from knees or toes), high planks, chest presses with dumbbells or barbell, tricep presses

Vertical push: overhead presses with dumbbells or stretch cords; one-arm thrusters with a kettlebell, tricep extensions

Pull: Dumbbell rows, rowing machine, assisted pull-ups, lat pull-downs

Rotate: Twisting crunches, cross-body punches, windmills

Principle #2 : Planes of Motion

Your body moves in space within three “planes” or directions of movement. Not only are they all important to include in your exercise, they’re also described using some pretty technical-sounding terms – so learn them and then impress your friends by injecting them into conversations!

Here they are – in technical and simple terms:

Sagittal Plane – forward or backward (think walking, pedaling a bicycle, climbing stairs)

Frontal (aka Coronal) Plane – side to side (e.g. side arm raises, overhead reaches, side leg lifts)

Transverse (aka Horizontal) Plane – rotating around the spine (any kind of twisting or rotating movement)

A significant portion of your life is spent moving in the sagittal plane. Spend some time observing people working out at a gym and you’ll probably see 80% of them are exercising only in this plane of motion. An important goal of exercise in general is to improve mobility – because with better mobility comes a lower risk of injury, stiffness, joint or back pain. So be sure to incorporate frontal plane – and especially, transverse plane -movements into your routine. Yoga is one form of exercise that really targets all three.

Principle #3 – Force Production

Movements, and therefore exercises, are distinguished by how much force is produced to fight gravity. Static movements involve stability and using the strength of muscle contraction to move a weight – whether that’s a dumbbell, or your body itself. Think of squats, bicep curls, or stationary lunges, for example. Dynamic movements involve less stability and more force to move the body, or a weight, through space. Box jumps, kettlebell swings, walking lunges, and ball slams are all dynamic movements.

Both types are important for a variety of fitness goals, as well in as everyday life – such as having the strength to pick up a suitcase from the car trunk without straining your back, or catching yourself when you accidentally trip, preventing a serious fall injury.

Principle #4: Complexity

Did you know that the purpose of muscles is to move joints? For example, the quadricep straightens the leg, and the hamstring bends it, both at the knee joint. The more joints involved in a movement, the more muscles are recruited; the more muscles that are recruited, the more energy is expended. This distinction reflects the level of complexity of an exercise. Complexity can also include an added instability component, which activates the core to maintain balance. An added bonus of complexity is that it often takes less time to work multiple muscle groups in a single exercise session! Here are two exercises on opposite ends of the complexity spectrum:

Simple:  Single-arm dumbbell bicep curl – Typically performed while seated on a bench, with the dumbbell in one hand and the elbow pressing into the same-side leg. This exercise isolates the movement to only the bicep, contracting against force (the weight, plus gravity) to bend the elbow.

Complex: Alternating forward lunge with bicep curl – Lunging forward activates the quadriceps and glutes, as well as the calves. Pressing back up to standing brings in the hamstrings. Performing bicep curls with dumbbells at the bottom of each lunge incorporates both biceps at the same time. Lunges also require balance, which activates the core.

Putting it all together

Now that you know the fundamentals of movement, how do you put them into practice? First, consider these things:

A single workout should be one step in a comprehensive program that’s designed to get you to your fitness goal – whether that’s fat loss, or increased endurance, or perhaps improving at a sport or recreational activity you love. An effective program will have you start easy, and slowly build progress over time, with adequate recovery.

Next, the body usually gets really good, really fast, at performing a particular movement. Once the muscles have adapted to performing a particular movement, with a given level of resistance, they’ll never go beyond that – because they can now meet the demand imposed on them, and that’s as far as they’ll go.

A woman once proudly told me that her exercise routine had been the same for the last 3 years – twice a week she does two sets of bicep curls, side raises, and squats, all with 5 lb. dumbbells. When I asked her why she didn’t mix it up more, or try different exercises, maybe using heavier weight, she said “Oh, I don’t want to get bulky muscles.”  I just left it at that…

Here are some simple guidelines for building your workout program, and choosing the exercises you’ll do in a particular workout:

  • Include at least one exercise from each of the seven movement patterns
  • Try to include all three of the planes of motion within the exercise session
  • Start with static exercises and slowly progress into more dynamic ones as ligaments and soft tissue strengthen
  • As you gain experience, consider including more complex movements into your routine
  • Mix it up! Add lots of variety in exercises and movements to continue challenging your body and keep it fresh and fun

Some additional tips for specific goals:

Fat Loss: Focus on larger muscle groups (glutes, quads) to build more metabolically active tissue;  keep things as dynamic as possible to raise the heart rate and additional calorie burn

Sport/activity improvement: Replicate the movement patterns used by your sport or activity, including the directional movements, in a dynamic way.

In my next article in this series, I’ll discuss how to take these principles a step further with repetitions, sets, and exercise tempo.

Don’t want to spend time planning your workout program to meet your goals? Let me help! I’ll build a unique program designed for your specific needs and fitness level – and one that fits into your life as well! Contact me here and let’s have a conversation.


  1. Thanks for reminding me that I should add more complex exercises to challenge my body as I continue my workouts. Being stuck at home has made me gain a lot of weight so I’m planning on getting back in shape by exercising. I think I would need to hire a personal fitness coach to help me achieve my goals so I’m going to look into this tomorrow once I get off work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: