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Primary Movement Patterns

Humans have seven primary movement patterns that are learnt and refined throughout life. Learn what these patterns are, and the implications of correcting these patterns for your exercise instruction.

The human brain is very efficient.  One of its aims is to record and recall movement patterns that make life easier allowing it more capacity to deal with life’s little anomalies. 

An example is that your brain learns how to walk and continually refines that pattern in your first few years of life, thereby allowing you to concentrate on everything else you are seeing while you’re walking along as a three year old. 

During your early years of life your brain records and refines several primary movement patterns that it will need again and again.  These patterns, once ingrained, allow your brain to quickly put them in to action and modify them slightly as the environment dictates. 

Again using walking as an example, your brain is recalling the basic pattern known as ‘gait’ and could modify this to uphill or downhill or over uneven surfaces or in a crowd with shorter steps than usual.  The primary pattern being used is gait, with adjustments coming from other brain centres based on what is happening in the environment.

The seven primary patterns of human movement are:

personal training walking

1. Gait (walking, running, sprinting)

personal training squatting

2. Squatting

personal training lunging

3. Lunging

personal training pulling

4. Pulling (into the body)

personal training pushing

5. Pushing (away from the body)

personal training pressing

6. Pressing (above the head)

personal training twisting

7. Twisting


How do we learn these patterns and when do we use them?


Because primary movement patterns are used in daily life they are often the focus of conditioning exercises in the gym as well.  Primary patterns are compound (use lots of joints and muscles), familiar to us, and necessary throughout life.

Once the brain has formed a pattern it will repeat it over and over in the same way.  Changing the pattern once ingrained requires more work (it’s estimated that 10 times the initial number of repetitions must be performed in the new way to over-write the existing pattern) than establishing the pattern in the first place (it’s been estimated that it takes about 300 repetitions to ‘ingrain’ a new movement pattern depending on its complexity).  The implications of this are that spending time getting a pattern right early on saves a mountain of extra work later if you want to change a problematic pattern.

The primary patterns are used in many variations but to the brain the primary pattern is always the same.  So a tennis serve and a badminton serve are replicas in the brain.  What changes is the speed at which they occur, the loading in the movement (due to the weight of the racket for example), and other minor refinements (where the target is and the timing of the start of the movement). 

With a primary pattern the relative timing of the body segments stays the same.  So, in the tennis serve if the action took one second the timing and sequencing of the joint movements would all be proportional to that one second.  If in a badminton serve the action took half a second the timing and sequencing of the joint movements would still be in the same proportion as in the tennis serve.

This allows us to ‘slow down’ and perfect a movement if someone is having trouble with it, and as if by magic, when we speed the movement up again the improved movement should prevail.  This is one reason that getting it right is more important than getting it done.  The purity of the movement greatly increases the forces that can eventually be produced and can significantly reduce the injury risk simultaneously.

The more you speed up or load up an imperfect movement pattern the more the imperfections will show.  This is because the errors in the movement pattern or the hardware (musculoskeletal system) can not be masked as the time allowed to ‘correct’ the faulty initial pattern has been reduced by asking the person to move quickly.

A video is a great way to capture this.  Video captures 25 pictures every second.  If a person is asked to jump it may take them only 0.5 of a second.  But you will have at least 12 pictures of it.  Looking at the video of an adolescent female jumping slowly, you may not see much.  But ask them to jump quickly or to jump as high as possible (increasing loading) and the dysfunction in the pattern may show through more.  You might see knocked knees (medial rotation of the femur) and weight being transferred to the insteps.  This is a sign of hip instability usually caused by the muscles that hold the hip in line not being strong enough yet.  This often happens as young girls grow, their hips broaden and femurs lengthen and their musculature takes time to catch up.  Conditioning the adolescent female into a good squat pattern can help with performance and prevent knee and back injury in the future.

Similarly, if someone is completing front squats as an exercise and you progress the load to quite a high level for them, you may see some of their movement errors begin to show.


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