When a good trainer looks at a human body, they will instinctively start assessing it. We can’t help it. You’ll catch us looking you up and down. Looking at your front and backside. Looking at you from the side. Watching how you stand, and how you sit, and how you move. Maybe even how you sleep, if the circumstances permit. We do it because it’s our job, and since training rarely makes us rich, we do it because our job is our passion, and true passion can’t be switched off.
So what am I looking at (please assume I’m not being lecherous)?
1. I’m looking at your torso and upper extremities (arms, torso, abdomen, hips, from the front; gluteus (butt), lower and upper back, posterior deltoids (back of shoulder), neck, from the rear.
2. I’m looking at your hips and lower extremities (hips, quadriceps, knees, shins, ankles, and feet, from the front; hips/gluteus (butt), hamstrings, knees, calf, ankle, and feet, from the rear.
3. From the side I’m looking at your posture; the position of your head in relation to your shoulders (your cervical spine). I’m looking at the position of your shoulders and how it relates to your thoracic spine (mid back), lumbar spine (low back) and hip. I’m looking at how your hands fall at your side when relaxed (do they fall to the side or do they rotate in so that your palms face the front of your thighs. I’m looking at your hips to see if they are excessively extended back or are your hips tucked under you?
All of this is about your skeletal alignment, because how your skeleton aligns will determine how your body moves, and whether your muscles will move you with good healthy results. It will even determine if the appropriate muscles get activated. Have you ever seen an obsessive runner who has great thighs and a flat butt? That’s not genetics. That’s bad running form, often caused by an inability to properly activate the gluteus due to musculoskeletal movement problems (movement dysfunction). Now the question would be, is it due to a bad habit (learned dysfunctional movement) that simply needs to be “reprogrammed (not simple, actually), or is something inhibiting the normal movement pattern (injury, tight muscles)?
These assessments can occur anywhere, anytime. I find myself assessing strangers walking down the street, sitting in Starbucks, running in Central Park, and of course working out in the gym. It’s not a personal judgement, it’s an impersonal observation, that I make automatically. I get half of the information I need to set a person up on program in as little as 10 minutes if I can give them a few instructions. But there’s another aspect to this view as well.
The diagrams above offer examples of how all good trainers organize the human body, and how we decide which muscles to work and in what order we work them. The one on the left was drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci. The other is a modern, 3 dimensional model. They show the human body and it’s “planes of movement”. Seem complicated? It’s not, but it confuses a lot of trainers too. Want to test a trainer in the gym? Go up to one and ask them “Can you tell me an effective exercise that works the transverse plane” (Pectoral fly’s)? That’s actually the easiest movement question you could ask, but outside of 3 or 4 trainers in any gym you’ll get a blank stare, and some fumbling. Or, can you name the largest muscles responsible for movement along the sagittal plane” (quads/glutes/hamstrings; i.e. walking)? The few somewhat sophisticated trainers will be able to answer these kinds of questions, but the really experienced ones realize that tidbit is just a stepping stone to true physical enlightenment.
In reality, these separations are almost completely unimportant when choosing exercises, as virtually every free weight exercise, or natural body movement, works in more than one plane simultaneously. Only when using weight lifting
machines (image on right) can the human body be forced to perform single plane movements because the machine stabilizes your body and restricts the movement pattern you can go through. This has some purpose with traditional body building, but in any athletic or weight loss endeavor, this is much less efficient. More movement = more potential calories expended. All athletics require multiple flowing movement patterns that require neurological coordination simultaneously and through these anatomical planes. But understanding these movement planes does offer some useful help. For one thing, it reminds us of the variety of possible motions in every joint action, and that movements that require two or more joints to act (compound movements) can and do work through multiple planes simultaneously. The greatest use this diagram serves is as an organizing principle. If I perform an exercise where I push my arms up, over my head, against pressure (Dumbbell shoulder press), than I should also do an exercise where I pull my arms down against pressure (lat pulldown). Each joint needs to be worked against resistance in every direction and in each plane it is capable of moving against.
When designing advanced weight lifting programs where we split the body parts worked into multiple days allowing for more intense workouts for every body part (many all around athletes, especially strength athletes find this advantageous at least part of their training year), being able to picture the above diagram helps to understand the multiple ways a person could effectively “split” their routine. You could easily see how to split your body at the transverse plane, working everything above the line on day 1, everything below the line on day 2, and continuing that pattern all week. Each major body part could be trained intensely three times in a week and have a full day off for recovery while the other half is targeted. You could also perform exercises for every muscular movement in front of the sagittal plane (all pushing movements) on day one, and all movements to the back of the sagittal plane (pulling movements) on day two, and continue to alternate throughout the week(s).
If you’re older, or just need more recovery time between body parts, then you can further split the body in logical ways with the above chart guiding you. If you have a decent vocabulary of exercises at your disposal, you quickly realize there are many more possible movements in the upper body, simply by virtue of the almost unlimited ranges of motion available at the shoulder joint. That means a two-day split is going to leave you with a very long upper body workout compared to the lower body workout. Or at least you’ll have a more boring lower body workout. But those upper body parts can be split too. I could do a total lower body workout on day 1, followed by all upper body pushes on day 2, with all upper body pulls on day 3. By the time you get back to the lower body, those muscles have now had 2 days of recovery. As will each group in succession. Allowing for less frequent, but often even more intense, workouts per day.
Don’t let this discussion lead you to believe that total body workouts are less useful, though. A baseball, basketball, football, or hockey player will get tremendous benefit out of total body routines that are tailored to their specific needs. A Quarterback or pitchers throwing motion and a batters swinging motion require such a complex, flowing, sequence of precise movements through almost every plane of movement, that they will absolutely utilize total body routines during certain points of their training cycles. The trick for everyone doing total body routines is to identify what their goal is and pick the most precise exercise movements to foster that end result. Do a few things intensely and precisely. When improving strength is the main goal, the split routines gain more prominence. When attempting to correct or better work around musculoskeletal imbalances, sometimes split routines can help place emphasis on the areas that need correcting.
And the point of everything is finding the method that works best now, realizing that in a few weeks or a few months, you will need to change direction to continue moving to where you want to go. And that diagram up there tells us where we need to go, and all the options we have to get there.