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Reawakening Ancient Instincts: Mastering the 5 Essential Movement Patterns

By Greg Brookes
5 essential movement patterns

Over centuries, the human body has fine-tuned the fundamental movement patterns necessary for survival.

Our forebearers had to master the basic movement patterns such as squatting, pushing, pulling, hinging, and core engagement, not for an intense gym workout but to hunt, gather, and live. 

Today, through a lifestyle far less physically demanding, we’ve lost touch with these foundational movements, yet they remain the cornerstone of functional strength and fitness.

Integrating these five movement patterns — push (vertical and horizontal), pull (vertical and horizontal), squat or knee bend, hinge, and core — into your strength training program, you can ward off the risk of injury and perk up your performance and results.

Some benefits include:

  • In sync with your body’s natural mechanics, these exercises lower the risk factor for injury and heighten performance.
  • Compound exercises simultaneously engage multiple major muscle groups and escalate strength, flexibility, and coordination.
  • A variety of exercises helps fend off muscle imbalances, a root cause of many physical onset injuries.
  • Time-efficient yet effective workouts can be achieved, resulting in total-body strength.

Let’s break down these movements for a deeper understanding of our body basics:

1. Push

The ‘push’ pattern involves exerting force to move an object away from oneself, just like our ancestors would have pushed heavy rocks or obstacles out of their way. 

This fundamental movement principally targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

  • Vertical Push: Arm extension above your head, as seen in exercises like overhead presses and handstands, classified as a vertical push.
  • Horizontal Push: Pushing an object away from your body is best demonstrated by push exercises like push-ups or bench presses.
Overhead Kettlebell Press
Overhead Kettlebell Press

2. Pull

Opposite of pushing is the ‘pull’ pattern, primarily activating the back, biceps, and forearms. Whether to haul a kill back to the cave or pull oneself up onto a ledge, pulling has always been essential to human survival.

  • Vertical Pull: Pulling an object downwards, showcased in exercises like pull-ups.
  • Horizontal Pull: As seen in rowing exercises, drawing an object towards your body.
Kettlebell single-arm row
Kettlebell single-arm row

3. Knee-Bend

Our forebears extensively utilised squat and lunge movement patterns in daily activities critical for survival. 

  • Squat: Squatting was integral to tasks such as lighting fires, foraging, and resting, as chairs and similar conveniences were absent. It was also crucial in lifting heavy objects and safeguarding the spine by engaging the leg and core muscles. 
  • Lunge: Lunging, on the other hand, was pivotal for hunting and gathering. This movement allowed nimble navigation of uneven terrains, quick chasing or sprinting after prey and reaching in varied directions. Lunging actions were vital in combat scenarios, permitting diverse and swift movement.
Kettlebell Side Lunge
Kettlebell Side Lunge

4. Hip Hinge

The hip hinge movement pattern was a staple motion in our ancestors’ daily lives and essential for survival. This functionality is best exemplified when lifting heavy objects – a frequent task when constructing a shelter, gathering food, or moving rocks. 

To protect their spines during these activities, our ancestors would bend primarily at the hips while maintaining a straight back – the basic premise of the hip hinge

This movement pattern effectively distributed the load to the more powerful hip, buttock and thigh muscles, thereby minimising strain on the lower back.

Different versions include kettlebell swings, single-leg deadlifts, and hip thrusts.

Two handed kettlebell swing
Kettlebell Swing

5. Core

Our ancestors overwhelmingly relied on the core movement pattern, especially evident in carrying tasks.

Whether lugging tools, transporting gathered food, throwing weapons, or bearing weights such as rocks or logs for constructing shelters, the core muscles provided the necessary stability and strength. 

These actions necessitated strong, engaged core muscles to stabilise the trunk while the limbs performed the task.

This use of the core muscles extended beyond merely enabling lifting, throwing or carrying; it provided balance, protected the spine, and served as a base for almost all movements.

Kettlebell Farmers Carry
Kettlebell Farmers Carry

Sample Workouts

Using these 5 essential movement patterns, let’s develop two progressive workouts:

Beginner Workout:

Advanced Workout:

​Incorporating the 3 Planes of Movement

When planning an exercise regimen, incorporating all three planes of movementsagittal, frontal, and transverse, is also essential for cultivating a balanced, well-rounded fitness program. 

The sagittal plane exercises involve forward and backward motion; the frontal plane engages your body in side-to-side movements, while the transverse plane emphasises rotational movements

Including movements in these planes enhances functional fitness, making day-to-day tasks easier and improving overall mobility and body stability.

Moreover, it helps reduce muscular imbalances that might develop due to overemphasising one specific plane, i.e. the sagittal plane.

Furthermore, by including transverse and frontal plane movements, you improve your core stability and strength, which, in turn, contributes to better posture and reduced risk of injury.

Thus, a well-designed exercise program should ideally include movements in all three planes for optimal bodily function and health.


Incorporating these five essential movement patterns empowers us to work more effectively towards the functional movements our bodies are innately designed for; it awakens our ancient instincts for robust, attractive workouts. 

So why wait? 

Start with the sample workouts, tweak them according to your level, and share your experience and progress. Remember, it’s about advancing at your speed in a way that feels right and natural to you.

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