Creative Total-Body Exercises
Use a science-based system to unlock a fun, full treasure chest of moves for clients.
Do you ever walk into a training session and think to yourself, “I wish I had some new or different exercises for my client?” Do you then realize that you want this, not just for your client, but also for yourself? You’re not alone. Many fitness professionals probably have this very same thought at one time or another. Routine, a perceived lack of time and, in some cases, a lack of education, may keep personal trainers from dazzling a client with a new, multiplanar motion.
A fitness professional’s job—in addition to understanding and applying intelligent decisions to issues of risk and liability—is to provide service. Clients come to us to get help with matters that most of them know very little about. They also enter our studios and facilities hoping their experience will be sprinkled with fun, challenge and motivation and are eager to meet their desired goals along the way.
Is it possible to provide an experience where these scenarios meet? Can you offer clients new and different exercises on a consistent basis while making the sessions fun, challenging and motivational—all while assisting the clients to meet their goals? The answer is yes, and it depends on a creative total-body “formula” and system steeped in exercise research and practical application. By the time you have finished this article, you will never again say, “I wish I had some new or different exercises.”
In this article we define a “total-body” exercise as an exercise that places emphasis on more than one major body part or region; for example, an exercise that stresses and involves leg and arm motion, arm and trunk motion and/or leg and trunk motion, etc. Why is this type of exercise so valuable? For the answer, look to research. If you want to create total-body exercises, it’s important to have a solid scientific foundation.
There are a few good reasons to develop and incorporate total-body exercises into a workout. They are rooted in functional anatomy (how our bodies are intended to move); metabolic demand (how to increase the metabolic requirement of exercise); and movement and performance (how to enhance motor learning capabilities).
Functional Anatomy. In recent years, anatomists and researchers have begun to rethink and re-evaluate how the body is designed and how it produces movement. It is now becoming more evident that our bodies are far more integrated and interconnected than we have given them credit for.
Most of us learn where muscles begin and end (origin and insertion) and what they do concentrically; then we call it a day. From this very constricted approach, we conclude that if we perform a concentric motion, we will be training our muscle and thus “working out.” While that is true to a degree, it is only a fraction of the story. Muscle is intertwined and inseparable from fascia. In fact, all tissues in our bodies are intertwined and inseparable from fascia.
This is important because we know that fascia transfers and distributes forces and also has the ability to contract (Myers 2009). From this understanding, it is much easier to see that we really have a myofascial system (myo = muscle; fascial = fascia). Muscles are not islands all by themselves, but rather elements within a continuous track of myofascia spanning the entire body (Myers 2009).
For example, the plantar fascia (fascia and muscles on the bottom of the foot), Achilles tendon, calf muscles, hamstrings, sacrotuberous ligament (connecting ischium to sacrum), erector spinae and scalp are all connected in one continuous band of myofascia. This means that when a muscle contracts, it transfers force to and through anything else it is connected to, including the tendon (which is fascia), bone and other fasciae; this ultimately affects other joints (bones) and other myofascial regions, etc. (Myers 2009).
Building on this concept, if we know that muscles are all connected through this fascial network in order to distribute forces across multiple joints from head to toe, and if we desire to train the body as it functions, then it makes perfect sense for us to move the whole body. Thus, the concept of functional myofascial anatomy dictates that total-body exercises will have a purpose congruent with the function of the body, since whole-body motion appears to be a major means by which our bodies move.
Metabolic Demand. Open up any exercise physiology book or look up the definition and you will see that metabolism is simply the chemical reactions that take place within our bodies to maintain function (Volek 2000). Anything we do can alter our metabolic rate or the amount and frequency of the chemical reactions. Activities such as eating, thinking and exercising can all influence our metabolism. In the case of exercise, the more intense it is, the greater the metabolic demand will be (Volek 2000).
Intensity can be manipulated in many ways. For example, increasing the load or amount of resistance, the speed of motion and/or the amount of myofascial tissue used during movement can increase the metabolic demand of an exercise (Robergs et al. 2007; Mazzetti et al. 2007; Mier & Feito 2006). If we follow these concepts with clients seeking to lose weight or reduce body fat, it is logical to use more body parts per exercise to get the clients moving as much as possible. Total-body exercises increase metabolic demand, which can play a major role in achieving goals.
Movement and Performance. Sometimes we train clients who just want to move better, either for activities of daily living (ADL) or for some sporting or recreational activity. When we look at ADL, sport and/or recreation, it’s easy to see that they all involve the use of multiple body segments moving in a synchronized manner; in other words, total-body movements.
Most movements appear to be a summation of many smaller movements. Traditionally what we’ve done is break up the “whole” movement into its constituent “parts.” Then we train each part but usually forget to train the whole. In motor learning research, this has sometimes been termed “chunking” (Luft 2005). Even though in the initial stages of learning this can have some great benefits, we still need to put the parts together to work the whole.
This fits very nicely with the concept of functional myofascial anatomy. Muscles are not individual islands; rather, they are components of a whole system. Interestingly, research relative to movement and motor learning reveals that when we are training to enhance a skill or movement, it is important to perform the whole motion as soon as we can in order to train the neuromyofascial system (van Vilet & Heneghan 2006).
Show Me How
With a basic understanding of why total-body exercises can be so good to use in an exercise program, let’s turn now to how you can develop your own total-body exercises for a client. The best place to start is, of course, with the client. You must first know his wants, preferences, goals, needs, abilities and personality. Once you know these factors, you can effectively establish whether total-body exercises are a viable option and what the overall customized program may look like.
The client’s personality and preferences will help you determine whether she will feel comfortable using total-body exercises and/or what types of equipment or variations will best suit her. Her goal and ability level will determine how complex the exercise may or should get. The bottom line: the fact that total-body exercises are useful and beneficial in many ways does not mean you should push them on every client. Let clients dictate what they feel safe and comfortable with in the initial stages, and progress them as they establish a deeper level of trust in you, the exercise(s) and themselves.
Once you have established a client’s needs, it is time to determine the type of total-body exercise that fits best. The number of possibilities is infinite (or close to it), so you need a system to get started. Two basic questions you must answer in order to begin are “How do I determine what to do?” and “What are my options?”
When deciding what to do for a total-body exercise, follow a simple acronym known as M.O.V.E. Developed by PTA Global, M.O.V.E. stands for Movements, Optimal alignment, Variables and Execution. Let’s say your client Bob is 42 years old and apparently healthy, and his goals are to lose a few pounds, tone up a bit and have better overall movement ability. Here’s how to apply M.O.V.E to help him progress toward his goals, in this particular workout.
M = Movements. What movement(s) do you want to use? Do you want a squat and row or pulling movements? Do you want chest-pressing and biceps curl movements? Calf raises and shoulder shrugs? For Bob, we will choose squatting and chest-pressing movements.
O = Optimal alignment. What position(s) do you want to use, or what will allow for maximal success with the selected movements? Options might include standing only, standing and prone, supine, etc. Choosing the best position(s) will in turn help you determine what type of resistance or equipment you will use. For example, with Bob let’s use both standing and prone alignments. By getting him to move up and down we address all of his goals. More movement per exercise burns more calories and helps Bob move better.
V = Variables. What equipment will you use? How will the exercise look, or what is driving the motion? If you want to do a squat and chest press and you have chosen a standing-only position, you may now realize that using free weights will probably not be your best option—unless the client is doing an explosive motion. This is because it will be tough to get resistance to the chest region using gravity in a standing position. A better choice might be cables and/or tubing. Next, select what will drive the movements. Will you use bilateral feet and bilateral hands? Will you include any trunk motions (e.g., rotation)? Or will you use bilateral feet but alternate the hand motions? With Bob, we will use dumbbells with his feet in a neutral, parallel stance for the squat and bilateral hands for the chest press. If you combine everything so far to paint a picture, Bob holds the dumbbells at his sides and squats down. He then moves into a push-up position, performs a push-up and returns to standing. If you really want to get fancy, you can have Bob start in a staggered or split stance, squat, go into a push-up position—only this time with hands also staggered—perform the push-up and return to standing.
E = Execution. How will the client execute the exercise? What will the triangulation be, or in what direction or plane will the client move—sagittal, frontal or transverse? How fast will he move and how far? This will help you determine the direction, speed, path and range of motion (ROM). Depending on Bob’s level of ability, he may benefit from a faster tempo to improve metabolic results. He may also respond well to moving in other planes of motion. For example, if you want to manipulate this exercise to involve more transverse plane or rotational movement, you can have Bob turn his trunk to the left while squatting down and/or perform the push-up with rotation of his head, trunk and/or pelvis.
The next question—“What are my options?”—can be addressed with the Total-Body Exercise Development Chart (see the full-page sidebar). This chart was designed to help provide a framework for the many concepts and parameters that can be considered within an exercise. The chart is by no means comprehensive, but it does give a good starting point from which to work.
The chart is broken into columns. The first column on the left provides various movements from which you can customize “M” in the M.O.V.E. system. The next column, moving to the right, provides various positions for optimal alignment, “O.” The next two columns help you with the variables, “V.” The last column is for execution parameters, “E.”
In this last column, there is a section titled “Sequence.” Within this section you will see the terms “with,“ ”then” and “hold-then.” These terms and their meanings, as well as the term “triangulation,” are taken from the Gray Institute’s Applied Functional Science (AFS) nomenclature. These terms help clarify the timing of different movements relative to one another.
For example, if you select a squat and a biceps curl as the two movements, or two of the movements, in your total-body exercise, the term “with” tells you that these two movements take place simultaneously. Therefore, as the client is squatting, he will also perform a curl. The term “then” tells you that the two movements happen in a sequence, one after the other. The client will squat, come back up and then curl. The term “hold-then” tells you that the client will squat, hold that position, then curl and stand back up. This variable alone can add a whole new dimension to exercise.
Progression and Regression
The great part about the M.O.V.E system and the Total-Body Exercise Development Chart is that with these two pieces of information you have all the tools you need to regress or progress an exercise. Let’s discuss some very useful points about regression and progression to make this clear. Think of it as a motor learning continuum:
1. simple to complex
2. known to unknown
3. slow to fast
Start off simple and work toward more complexity. Combine two movements before moving to three or four. This concept also applies to ROM. Initially, with most clients, you may want to stay within an easy-to-control or moderate ROM, especially when using lateral and/or rotational movements. It is not necessary to avoid the frontal and transverse planes (lateral and rotational motions). In fact, it’s possible that working in these planes could be very beneficial to a client. However, you may want to use a very controllable ROM.
Next, keep movements within the known realm for the client. Use exercises that match the person’s experience level. Even a client who has never exercised might have seen some very traditional and basic movements in magazines, on television, on the Internet, in school, etc. The symmetry of motion also falls into this category. Start with bilateral stances and hand motions, as these may be a bit more known than single-leg or one-hand motions. Use movements that are pretty universal. Try out slower speeds of motion and progress to faster speeds.
We want our clients to reach their goals in a safe, fun, yet relatively quick way. By
using a variety of tools, we can achieve this while inspiring and motivating the clients at the same time. Creative total-body
exercises can be valuable for increasing metabolic demand and movement efficiency. These exercises help clients move and use bodily tissues in a manner more consistent with the body’s “original design.” In addition, total energy expenditure increases.
There are endless combinations with total-body exercises. With so many variations to choose from, it helps to have a simple system to organize your thoughts. Using the M.O.V.E. system in conjunction with the Total-Body Exercise Development Chart, you can easily mix and match exercises to meet your clients’ goals, needs, wants, abilities and personalities. Follow a basic motor learning continuum to progress your exercises and you will quickly be on your way to developing your own creative total-body exercises.
Gray, G. 2003. Functional Nomenclature. Functional Video Digest Series, 4.12.
Luft, A.R., & Buitrago, M.M. 2005. Stages of motor skill learning. Molecular Neurobiology, 32 (3), 205–16.
Mazzetti, S., et al. 2007. Effect of explosive versus slow contractions and exercise intensity on energy expenditure. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (8), 1291–301.
Mier, C.M., & Feito, Y. 2006. Metabolic cost of stride rate, resistance, and combined use of arms and legs on the elliptical trainer. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 77 (4), 507–13.
Myers, T.W. 2009. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
PTA Global. 2009. Introduction to Gym Terminology and Exercise. PTA Global Personal Trainer Certification course. www.ptaglobal.com; retrieved Sept. 24, 2009.
Robergs, R.A., et al. 2007. Energy expenditure during bench press and squat exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21 (1), 123–30.
van Vliet, P.M., & Heneghan, N.R. 2006. Motor control and the management of musculoskeletal dysfunction. Manual Therapy, 11 (3), 208–13.
Volek, J.S. 2000. “Enhancing exercise performance: Nutritional implications.” In W.E. Garret, & D.T. Kirkendall (Eds.). Exercise and Sport Science (pp. 471–85). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.