MVMT Physical Therapy

Push It – Basic Movement Patterns

When you go out to the gym or join a fitness class, you expect to burn some calories by “working out”, but what are you doing to build strength and stability? Which exercises are you choosing and why? This is where basic movement patterns come into play. These patterns are not just important for whole body strength, but also fundamental movements you will use many times throughout your life. As the often quoted Grey Cook says, “first move well, then move often.”

What Are Basic Movement Patterns?

There are many movement patterns that can be described as “basic”. Push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, and/or carry are some of the basic movements people use for exercise and daily life. By classifying exercises into these categories, movement professionals are able to create balanced workouts which target all major muscle groups and do so in a functional manner. Functional here refers to compound movements that utilize multiple joints and muscles, while being practical and useful for demands in life. These differ in most bodybuilding exercises which utilize a single joint and single, specific muscle.

Master StrongFirst instructor Dan John lists the five basic movement patterns as:

– Push
– Pull
– Hinge
– Squat
– Loaded Carry

Some people will also include Lunge and Walking (or gait) in this list. But for the purpose of this series, we’ll stick to these five.

The Push

A push can be broken down into multiple joint movements of the arm. The shoulder blade moves out from the midline of the back and forward in a movement called “protraction”, the upper arm moves from the side of the body up and forward in “flexion”, and the elbow straightens into “extension”. These joint actions occur simultaneously without conscious thought and the combined movement is what we describe as a push.

Pushes can be performed directly in front of you as a horizontal press (push-up), above your head as a vertical press (overhead press), to the side as a lateral press (side plank), or any combination of the three! Today, we are going to look at the horizontal press for our “push” movement.

Why Should I Push?

You will likely push something EVERY day. You may push open a door, push a vacuum, or push up the office window; at some point in the day you will be pushing. So it’s a good idea to know how to push efficiently with appropriate force. It is the load you that didn’t anticipate which may hurt you, and what better way to prepare for the demands of life than with a few exercises?

Starting Push Exercises

Knowing where to begin with a movement pattern can be tough. Below are three types of exercises that will help you strengthen your push pattern.

Quadruped with Knees Elevated (aka “Beast” position)

The Beast is a great way to start developing your push. Don’t be fooled by its easy appearance! This exercise is challenging and should be scaled appropriately to meet the ability of the individual.

Begin with hands and knees on the ground at hip width apart as pictured above. Keep the spine neutral with abdominals engaged and eyes looking forward towards the floor. When ready, press through the hands against the floor and lift the knees up off the ground an inch or two. Keep the trunk, neck and head even while maintaining knees off the ground before lowering yourself down with control. Initially, you may only be able to lift the knees for a couple seconds, which is fine! Only hold as long as you are able to maintain a neutral alignment. Repeat this exercise 3-5 sets of 20 seconds, as you are able.

Movement focus: Shoulder and trunk stability at end range
Muscle contraction: Isometric (static hold)
Major muscles: Trunk stabilizers, cervical stabilizers, shoulder stabilizers, serratus anterior, psoas

Floor Press

The floor press is a safe and effective way to strengthen the arm movement part of the push. The trunk, neck and shoulder blades are stabilized on the floor, allowing the focus of this exercise to be shoulder flexion and elbow extension.

Begin in the hook lying position, as shown above, with feet flat and abdominals engaged to prevent the ribs from flaring up. Elbow position is variable, but a comfortable starting position is normally about 45° out to the side. Keep the abdominals engaged to maintain a neutral trunk position, and push the weights away from you while straightening your arms towards the ceiling. The weights should end directly above your shoulders, so that your arm is perfectly vertical. Slowly lower weights back to the original position. Depending on your goals, this exercise can be used in an endurance program (3 sets of 12-15 reps), strength program ( 5 sets of 5 reps), or anything in between.

Movement focus: Partial-range press with shoulder stabilized on ground
Muscle contraction: Concentric-to-eccentric
Major muscles: Pectorals, triceps, and anterior deltoid


The push-up is the classic exercise which brings together core stability and dynamic upper body strength into a complete exercise. It requires both power muscles and endurance muscles, and is all around one of the best bodyweight exercises you can master. Keep this exercise scaled to your ability. If you cannot push-up from the floor, push-up from a higher stable surface such as a table or even against the wall. You can gradually lower the height of the surface until you get down to the ground. The pushup may also be performed with your knees on the ground, while still maintaining a straight trunk.

Begin with hands directly under the shoulder, as shown above. Feet may be together or apart, and the legs, trunk, neck and head should make a single line from head to heels. Keep the eyes looking slightly forward to help prevent your head from dropping down. Keep the spine neutral with abdominals engaged while you slowly lower your body to parallel with the floor. Once you’ve reached parallel, press your body back up in one solid unit. Only do as many repetitions as you can complete with strict form.

Focus: Trunk and shoulder stability in a full-range press
Muscle contraction: Eccentric-to-Concentric
Major muscles: trunk stabilizers, cervical stabilizers, shoulder rotator cuff, serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi, pectorals, triceps, and anterior deltoid

Get It!

The exercises described above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pushes. When planning your workout, it doesn’t need to be complicated or fancy. Do the basics well with enough load to stimulate muscle growth and often enough to maintain progress. In the Physical Activity Guidelines published by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, it states that adults should do muscle-strengthening exercises of all major muscle groups 2 or more days per week. Hitting every major muscle group can be effectively accomplished through the use of basic movement patterns.

So get your push on at least twice a week! Next week we’ll be reviewing “the pull.”

Alexandra Siegrist, SPT


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