How to ‘Train the Movement’ – The 7 Primal Movements, Toe Yoga and Eccentric Isometrics

By on February 22, 2015

We tend to assume that people who work out, or people who are ‘fit’ will be generally healthy all around. I always thought I must be super healthy seeing as I lifted weights all the time and could bench a pretty impressive amount… until I realized that maybe the fact that my back was constantly in pain and I couldn’t even come close to touching my toes negated that a bit…

The irony is that a lot of us are actually damaging our ability to move effectively by working out. By training only certain muscle groups in very specific ways we often build muscle imbalances and we form and enforce incorrect movement patterns for our central nervous system. Over time we end up being very strong in some random specific ways but unable to move normally without pain…

And it’s not just working out that does it. Our regular lifestyles do it which is why a massive proportion of people are actually incapable of squatting. With zero weight that is! Most of us can barely accomplish a fraction of the kind of mobility and agility that we should have access to.

I want to be able to move like Spider-Man, with explosive power and agility – particularly as I’m also a traceur. And that’s how I think we all should move. That’s also what Ido Portal thinks, who is a real champion at the moment for optimal human movement. Watch some of his stuff and you’ll quickly realize the gulf between how we could move versus how we do…


So how could the right training program go about fixing these problems? How can you lift weights in such a way that you enhance your mobility instead of restricting it further? How should you work out if you want to become amazing at parkour and still be able to touch your toes?

The ‘7 Primal Movements’

When it comes to movement, several physical therapist types describe there being ‘seven primal movements’. Unfortunately they don’t seem to be able to agree on precisely what those movements are and the list varies a little. I’ve attempted to combine the two most common lists into one by breaking two moves down into categories.

Then you get this:

  • Gait (walking, running etc.)
  • Lunging
  • Squatting
  • Bending (as though picking something off the floor with legs straight)
  • Torque (twisting)
  • Pushing
    • Vertical push
    • Horizontal push
  • Pulling
    • Vertical pull
    • Horizontal pull

Of course this doesn’t cover everything. There is no ‘chunder dragon’ for instance… But thee seven should nevertheless cover all the fundamental ‘large movements’ that every health human should be able to do.

At the very minimum then, a training program built around mobility should include all these seven in roughly equal quantities. Of course most training programs don’t and they instead just focus on abs, pecs and biceps – they’re ‘training the muscle’ and not ‘training the movement’. Great if you’re most interested in aesthetics and you know what you’re doing and how to maintain symmetry and balance… not so great if you’re just interested in getting fitter or gaining athletic performance ability and you’re just doing a few random sets of curls and presses and never squatting or bending.


How to ‘Train the Movement’

So how do you go about correcting this problem and regaining your ability to move?

As mentioned, you should start by making sure that your routine includes work to improve each of these 7 primal movements. Here are some examples of exercises that will work in each of those areas…

Walking, running, dancing

Lunge walking, lunges

Squats, kettlebell swings, front squat

Torque (rotational chain)
Wood chopper, various oblique exercises, boxing

Straight legged deadlift, touching your toes, good mornings, leg raises

Press, handstand press ups

Bench press, chest press, press ups

Pull ups, chin ups, lat pull down

Rows, inverted press up


Meanwhile just stay away from resistance machines which are completely non-functional and designed entirely around isolating muscle groups to let you build asymmetrical strength and imbalances. Work on using multiple muscle groups in unison to build your strength in a balanced and actually useful manner.


Bodyweight movements are also excellent for improving your movement at the same time as fitness and strength. This is especially true for the more gymnastic and taxing movements. Muscle ups (where you pull up and then press yourself over the bar) have clear real-world application in parkour for example as they mimic the movement of mounting a wall. Free weights are good too but compound movements are preferable and you need to work to ensure your form is up to scratch. Just slowing down is one good way to do this (and see eccentric isometrics below).


Supplemental Movement Training

Of course it’s also crucial to be stretching which will regain you tons of mobility and you might want to try foam rolling as well to correct any ‘problem areas’. I’ve written about stretching recently but basically the lesson is just to incorporate stretching into your workouts. While you might not realize it, there’s a good chance you’re currently ‘stiff’ and once you increase your flexibility you’ll find that it’s really liberating being able to move the way you should be able to again.

One of the very best ways to make sure you’re training movement though is to engage in the sorts of physical activities that test you and that force you to move explosively and in a variety of ways. This makes an excellent supplement to your training. Some good examples of activities include:

  • Capoeira – Something like capoeira is particularly effective as it combines stretching, hand balancing and all kinds of contorting
  • Martial Arts – Martial arts generally are great and so is dancing or rock climbing
  • Yoga – Not only excellent for flexibility but also proprioception, balance and more
  • Swimming – Brilliant for moving your whole body in unison and training smaller supporting muscles
  • Dance – I’ve been doing a little Waltz the last few weeks and what really stands out to you is a) how much it taxes your brain and body and b) how immensely fit and healthy all the professional dancers are
  • Sports – Many sports are also brilliant at improving movement – tennis will get you lunging and twisting for instance. If you want to be powerful and bulky then weight training is great. If you want to be skinny then CV is useful. But if you want to be powerful, athletic and healthy then combining sports and weight training is a really powerful combination.

Basically, think of it this way: in the wild we would have been constantly trail running, tracking prey, climbing and fighting. Today we spend most of our time on our butts and just working out four times a week isn’t enough to keep you as limber as you should be; even if you’re working out intensely for that hour!


It’s also important to focus on training the specific movements you’re interested in though. Repetition helps us to lay down and reinforce movement patters in our central nervous system. The more you repeat any movement, the more easily you’ll be able to repeat it subsequently – which is also why it’s so crucial to get your form right. As one study put it:

“Prolonged training in a specific sport will cause the central nervous system to program muscle coordination according to the demands of that sport” (1)

Finally, you can also train for your movement specifically. ‘MovNat‘ is the name of a movement that turns working out into an ongoing process of using the woods and nature as a giant playground. The idea is that ‘natural’ movement becomes the focus of your training as you lift logs, climb trees, jump over rivers and throw rocks. It’s pretty cool, except if you live in London like me you’ll have to jog miles to get to the nearest park and then train in the freezing cold and wet. The solution may be ‘parkour as workout’. I’ll be looking into that more in a future article…



Eccentric Isometrics

An eccentric isometric means holding position at the point where your target muscle is outstretched/relaxed. For instance then, if you were doing bench press an eccentric isometric would mean that you held your arms at the bottom of the movement with the barbell in place (this is when the pecs would be relaxed – incidentally it’s called a rest/pause in this case). If you were doing pull ups it would mean doing a dead hang.

Normally isometric holds are used during the concentric phase of an exercise or halfway through – i.e. when your muscles are contracted. Putting the hold at the eccentric end of the movement though means the actual movement pattern isn’t interrupted but you nevertheless have to pause in between repetitions ensuring better form. This in turn helps to encourage correct movement patterns forming neurologically so that you are repeating and enforcing the correct mechanisms. Eccentric isometrics are also very effective for encouraging hypertrophy, improving balance and building strength.


Toe Yoga

A great example of how much movement most of us have lost – and of how easily you can impair your range of motion – is our lack of toe mobility. Try wiggling your toes independently and chances are that you’ll only be able to move a couple of them independently of the others. Look at a baby’s toes though and they can move them with far more dexterity almost like hands. Some amputees who have lost their arms are able to use their toes to type!

Because we wear shoes and rarely use our toes for anything, we completely lose movement. Their development is stunted and retarded and we’re left with useless digits. This in turn makes us run more slowly, makes us more likely to trip over or twist our ankles and impedes our balance. Barefoot running (or to an extent, wearing Five Finger shoes) can help undo some of this, as can ‘toe yoga’ which involves wiggling your toes in all kinds of ways to regain flexibility.


Ultimately, I don’t imagine you’re about to introduce toe yoga or even eccentric isometrics into your routine (though I do recommend trying them and incorporating isometrics generally). These things are all very good in theory but who has time to sit wiggling their toes for hours every week?

What you should do though is to make sure that you’re aware of how training affects your ability to move. You should aim to include at least the seven primal movements in your workouts, you should stretch and you should consider adding sports or other physical activities to your training. Most importantly, be aware of what your lifestyle and quite possibly your training is doing to your body… and of how your body could be moving. Then… sort it out!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.


  1. Kristopher Donnelly says:

    Do you think Feiyues allow for enough freedom to reverse or at least slow toe atrophy?

    • thebioneer says:

      I wouldn’t have thought they’d quite do it seeing as you still can’t move your toes independently. They look like good shoes though! If you’re interested but don’t want to walk around with such strange things on your feet, you can always practice foot dexterity separately!

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