Arm Day? (Training Movements versus Training Body Parts)

CJ's picture
Blog Category: 

If you go to a commercial gym and you ask the average member “what they are working on today,” the chances are high that they will name a specific body part that they’ve chosen for that workout. The traditional weight training program tends to revolve around training body parts (chest, back, arms, abs, and legs). While this type of programming may be satisfactory for bodybuilders and models – who are concerned primarily with aesthetics – it may not be good enough to address the needs of athletes (recreational or elite) or people who work in physically challenging occupations, such as mountain guides or construction workers. Even someone who drives a vehicle, or a desk, for a living can benefit more from a program that focuses on movement rather than specific body parts

At first, training the body through its various “parts” seems intuitive and logical. Each muscle group must be developed evenly to ensure that the body is proportioned. Also, the fitness industry has produced several machines to target specific muscle groups. Walk into most big-box commercial gyms and you will see a machine for abs, one for leg extensions, one for chest presses, etc. This helps to engrain the body-part mentality in our minds. The two main draw backs of this are:

  1. The body does not naturally separate itself into distinct parts when it moves (it is much more efficient than that) so we may actually be creating dysfunction when training in that manner.
  2. People often end up training “mirror muscles,” such as abs, biceps & triceps, chest, and quads, while paying very little service to groups of muscles such as upper, mid, and low back, gluteals, and hamstrings.

Before discussing why movement training offers more benefits than body part training, let’s look at the fundamental movements that the human body is capable of, and examples of each of them:


  • Squatting (double or single-limb)
  • Lunging (one leg is planted as the other leg is moving)
  • Hinging (double or single-limb)
  • Pushing (horizontal or vertical, double or single-limb)
  • Pulling (horizontal or vertical, double or single-limb)
  • Rotating (limbs or spine)
  • Loaded Carry (double or single-limb)


  • Squatting (air squat, front squat, back squat, split squat, pistol squat, side squat, etc.)
  • Lunging (forward, sideways, reverse, step ups, etc.)
  • Hinging (romanian deadlift, stiff-legged deadlift, hip thrust, kettlebell hip swing, etc.)
  • Pushing (push up variations, bench press variations, overhead press variations, etc.)
  • Pulling (Rowing variations, chin up or pull up variations, face-pulls, etc.)
  • Rotating (internal or external rotation of the arms and legs, rotation of the spine when hitting a fast-ball or shooting a puck, etc.)
  • Loaded Carry (farmer walk, waiter walk, sled push, sled pull, resisted sprinting, etc.)


The benefits to movement training include:

  1. USING THE BODY THE WAY IT WAS MEANT TO BE USED. As previously mentioned, when you perform a movement or do any type of physical work, your body does not break itself down into separate pieces to get the job done. The body is meant to recruit all of the muscles and joints needed to perform a movement efficiently. Let’s say that it is your chest day (which means that it’s probably Monday). When you are performing a push up or a bench press, your body has no way of saying, “well, today is chest day, so I am going to isolate the pectoral muscles while placing less emphasis on the front deltoids and the triceps because those muscles are trained on different days.” Your body will recruit several muscles and joints in concert to produce as much force or speed as possible for you to perform any given movement. Some biomechanists take this even further saying that training muscles in isolation may create dysfunction because the body does not naturally work that way. Sitting down on a machine to isolate one muscle group along one joint puts you in a fantasy-like setting where most of your body can “disengage” while you train that single part.
  2. BETTER CARRY-OVER INTO SPORTS OR PHYSICALLY DEMANDING OCCUPATIONS. It is very rare to see any type of athlete use his or her muscles or joints separately. The vast majority of athletic movements (sprinting, jumping, landing, kicking, throwing, cutting, catching, etc.) require the body to coordinate several different muscles groups and joints to produce the desired movement. For example, when a soccer player kicks a ball, there are numerous muscles and joints involved in that kick and the player has no ability (and should have no desire) to isolate specific muscles in order to execute that movement. At a construction site there are many tasks that require the entire body (or most of it) to work in an organized manner – carrying supplies, operating equipment, digging ditches, etc.
  3. RECRUITING MORE MUSCLE MASS, THUS BURNING MORE CALORIES. Training movement patterns rather than specific body parts gives you more “bang for your training buck!” Most people are busy and can only allot a certain amount of time each week for exercise. With that in mind, does it really make sense to spend 45 – 60 minutes training your biceps and triceps alone? A better plan would be to choose one or two pulling movements and one or two pushing movements. That way you get to hit the chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and a myriad of back muscles all in the same training session. Using all of those muscles together will cause you to burn significantly more calories than if you were to pick one muscle and try to exhaust it. This should catch the attention of anyone looking to burn fat! This is a much smarter approach to training and a better use of time.
  4. AVOIDING (OR CORRECTING) MUSCLE IMBALANCES. When you walk into most fitness centres, you will find the majority of people training the muscles that they can see or performing the movements that they like best. Which movement do you see performed more often in the gym, the bicep curl or the romanian dead lift? Continuing to train your favorite muscle groups (or movements) and neglecting the rest will cause muscle imbalances, leading to dysfunction and pain over time. If you perform each of the fundamental movements at least once each week, this will go a long way in ensuring that no part is over-trained or neglected. This becomes increasingly important if you are someone that drives a vehicle or sits at a desk for most of the day. Performing multi-joint, multi-muscle movements will ensure that you work the muscle groups that may be underdeveloped (such as the gluteals, and upper back).
  5. THE ABILITY TO TRAIN MUSCLE GROUPS MORE THAN JUST ONCE PER WEEK. Both hinging and squatting involve the gluteal muscles; both horizontal pushing and vertical pushing involve the deltoids. Training through movement allows us to train each muscle more than once per week. If your goal is to increase your muscle mass, this would be a much better way to train as you would stimulate each muscle group multiple times each week.


There are a number of training splits that you can use when training movements:

  • Full Body (each fundamental movement is performed in one training session)
  • Day 1 - Upper Body Movements ; Day 2 - Lower Body Movements (those 2 days can be done more than once per week)
  • Mixed: Day 1 - Horizontal Push/Pull & Squat; Day 2 - Vertical Push/Pull & Hinge, etc.

The goal should be performing each type of movement at least once during the week.

There are a few cases where isolation training can have its place. For instance, many rehabilitation modalities call for isolated training of specific muscles and joints after an injury. If one group of muscles is severely lagging behind the rest of the body, some isolation work may be needed to target that area and bring it back to normal function. If you compete in aesthetic sports, such as body building or figure competitions, you can perform isolations movements in between your compound movmements (ex. performing biceps curls between sets of front squats).

I have included some links for those of you that want to read more about this topic. Some of the links support what is written in this blog and some of them refute the information in this blog. Read them and decided which way is best for you to train, based on your needs and goals.

Recent Comments

Share this:

Posts by CJ

Appears in:

At one time or another, all of us have fallen off of the proverbial ‘horse’ in terms of our health and fitness goals. It can take a considerable amount of discipline and dedication to stick to a nutrition plan or training program.

Appears in:

Keep Moving Forward (Use Unfortunate Incidents, Mistakes, and Pain to Your Advantage)

Appears in:

In the last blog, I discussed why sleep was so important for normal function, as well as the consequences of sleep deprivation. Now that the importance of proper rest has been hammered home, we will look at sleep quantity, sleep quality, and tips to improve your sleep.


Appears in:

Our Attitude Toward Sleep