Bodyparts, Or Movement Patterns?

by Mark Rippetoe | May 31, 2023

lifter locking out a deadlift at a strengthlifting meet

When I started lifting weights back in 1977, our only references were the bodybuilding magazines. There were a few books, but we didn't know that. Occasionally ABC's Wide World of Sports would show some Olympic lifting, or even powerlifting on rare occasions – Paul Jordan's famous wreck under the squat at the 1977 Worlds in Australia was part of their intro video montage for at least 20 years. Iron Man magazine, headquartered in Nebraska, was pretty good in that the Raders would print just about anything related to training, but it was sometimes hard to find. On a regular basis, Hoffman's East Coast magazines Strength and Health and Muscular Development, and their rivals on the West Coast, the Weider magazines were about all there were.

I remember reading two guys in Iron Man – Bradley J. Steiner and Stuart McRobert – that made a lot of sense, and shaped my later thinking on training. But unless they ran a piece on powerlifting (or Olympic lifting in S&H), the East and West Coast magazines were almost exclusively based on the idea that the human body was composed of parts: your chest (pecs and delts), your back (your lats), your legs (quads, hamstrings, and calves), and your arms (“bis” and “tris”). And your abz. Can't forget those.

This thinking has thoroughly permeated the entire fitness industry, to the extent that large commercial gyms have two basic areas on the exercise floor: the treadmill area and the arms area. If it's not cardio, it's bodypart machines, and a productive workout must include a minimum number of muscle groups as well as time on the treadmill – “shredding your abz, my man.”

I'll bet you that 80% of the guys hanging around in the big commercial gyms are doing “Arm Day” today, “Chest Day” tomorrow, “Back Day” pretty soon, and “Leg Day” is under consideration – but hey! I run already, and running is Legs. Abz are of course done “Every Day.” Bodypart training is the direct result of seeing pictures of Arnold, Franco, Lee Haney, Tom Platz, Mike Mentzer, Dorian, Ronnie, and all the other famous bodybuilders in the magazines, and failing to appreciate how strong they actually were and how they got that way. When you see still pictures of these fantastically muscular men, you are looking at their bodyparts, because they are showing you their bodyparts, and you therefore train bodyparts.

You see the results of bodypart training on genetically-gifted people, whose congenital attributes include “normal” anthropometric proportions, thin skin, low sub-Q bodyfat, long fat muscle bellies, and the ability to discipline their training and diet. The vast majority of the human race cannot look like these guys, and a normal psychological profile precludes it anyway. But that didn't keep you from wanting to look like them. They were big strong-looking men. Weider was very good at his job: bodypart training is about appearance, and Joe knew who to show you pictures of.

Bodypart training is analogous to cosmetic makeup: to make yourself more beautiful you change the appearance of small features on your face, while ignoring the fact that the rest of you still looks like shit. You think that visible abs make you look better, so you do lots of crunches, but we can't see them through your shirt.

What you don't see are movement patterns, what humans actually do with their muscles and bones and tendons and nerves, and what mortals such as ourselves have to worry about. Bodybuilders pose – you and I live and work. Our daily existence consists of physical interaction with the material world around us, and that interaction is through the application of force. Not the intellectual, the spiritual, or the aesthetic, but through force applied by our bodies to our surroundings. Walking, running, picking up the kids, driving the car, working in the yard, moving the furniture, digging a hole – everything you do that is outside the realm of abstract ideas is physical, and those things depend on your ability to produce force.

The majority of the human race needs to improve strength – the ability to produce force against an external resistance, because we use our strength, not our aesthetics. Old people lose their ability to physically function as effectively as younger people because they are not as strong, and their lack of razor abz has nothing to do with it. Strength degrades with age, and although we can do something about this most of us won't.

A picture of a big bodybuilder's arms communicates to you the idea that your arms can and must be made to look like that. Ditto pecs, quads, delts, and of course abz. But the way the bodybuilder's arms got big is not the way you or anybody else actually uses their arms. Strength is improved through an increase in force production capacity within the movement patterns normal to our musculoskeletal anatomy. Squatting down and standing back up, picking things up, pushing things away and up, pulling things down and in, and throwing things are the movement patterns natural to humans and their arms – dumbbell preacher curls are not.

If your training is therefore focused on normal human movement patterns that are incrementally loaded with progressively heavier weights, you will get stronger. This takes a very few carefully-selected exercises, performed correctly over the longest effective range of motion, that are incrementally increased in load. None of these exercises use one muscle group at a time, all of them involve several joints at a time, and all of them are capable of using more weight than more isolated versions of the movement pattern.

There is a stark difference in these two approaches to training. Bodypart training involves devices designed to allow the use of small groups of muscles at one time, using weights that are only sufficient for small groups of muscles. Dumbbells allow you to work one arm at a time, or one shoulder at a time, and this does not produce a long-term training effect. You can even work one leg at a time with “Bulgarian split squats” – invented by the Bulgarians to help them defeat the USSR – or with a knee extension machine, apparently invented by Jack LaLanne to work his quads and improved upon by Arthur Jones to make lots of money. But unilateral exercise does not produce a long-term training effect, because it cannot expose the whole body to sufficient stress to produce a systemic adaptation.

It does, however, allow you to watch the muscle group being exercised, and enjoy the immense satisfaction of self-appreciation, as your rippling biceps stun. Mirrors are an important tool for bodypart training.

In contrast, strength training is designed to increase the ability of the whole body to produce force, and this is accomplished by using as much of the body at one time as possible. Strength training is “bilateral” (both sides at the same time), because that's the way the body works when it produces maximum force, and it's therefore the most efficient way to make it stronger. Strength training uses barbells, the best way to load a normal bilateral human movement pattern. In strength training, the load is the primary concern, since increased force production is the goal. Dumbbell curls may make your arms look better – standing presses make both you and your arms stronger.

If you load a barbell on the floor with the most weight you can pick up for 5 reps, we know how strong you are today. If you come back 2 days later and go up 5 more pounds, you have started a process that can take you from 135 pounds to 405 pounds. Same for the squat, the press, the bench press, and a couple of other similar movement patterns. This is strength training – the intentionally progressive loading of normal human movement patterns for the express purpose of increasing the force production capacity of the whole body.

And here's the damnedest thing about this: if a 155-pound guy goes through this process for 6-8 months and gains 35 pounds of bodyweight while getting his squat up to 335, his press to 135, his bench to 250, and his deadlift to 405, he looks better than the same guy doing dumbbell curls and unilateral legs with light weights. Because he's stronger – he looks stronger, and he carries himself like a stronger man, and this is quite noticeable. He was not trying to look better; he was trying to get stronger, and now he looks better accidentally because the human eye recognizes physical strength as an admirable characteristic. Joe Weider was right, accidentally.

This is true in every culture and every society in the world, and it is buried in our DNA to the extent that physical strength is recognized by all other humans. Strength is recognizable in your appearance, in your gait (frail people walk differently than strong people), in your voice, in your opinions, in your decisions, and in your actions. Strong is useful, and useful is good. Barbell strength training makes you stronger, and bodypart training is merely fucking around in the gym, wasting time that could be spent getting stronger. Think about this before you run out of time to waste.

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