Please step away from the Smith Machine for a moment and listen to an ancient tale from the Indian subcontinent. Although many different versions of the story exist, the basic gist is this: Several blind men are summoned before the king of vast land. They are brought into a large room, and inside this room is an elephant. The king asks the blind men to describe the beast, so each man touches a single part of the animal’s body. One touches the leg and says, “It is like a pillar.” Another grabs hold of an ear and describes it as “a fan.” A third stroke its tusk and says it’s “like a plowshare.”
Each man was sure he was correct. And he was. But when asked to summarize their findings, they could not agree on how to describe the elephant in its entirety. So stubbornly did they hold to their individual assessments that they argued until they came to blows, to the delight of the king.
The story has many meanings, Most interpret it as a parable to discourage dogma, comparing the blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind to new thinking and hold on to old ways.
In one version of the parable, the Buddha ends the bickering with this verse:
O how they cling and wrangle,
some who claim
For preacher and monk
the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with strength training. After all, it’s rare to find blind men feeling up elephants in a gym. What you do find in gyms, however, is a lot of people who act as stubbornly as those old blind men: They train one way, the same familiar way, perhaps the way they learned 10 years ago from a bodybuilding magazine or a personal trainer. They focus on the vanity muscles, or one style of exercise, or a favorite lift, and as a result, they fail to see the bigger picture.
In weight training, there are hundreds of different exercises but really just three basic movements: pushing (which includes squatting), pulling, and swinging. Yet even with so few critical moves, we’re always surprised to find that most guys focus primarily on the pushing exercises, ignoring the other two. Take notice of the lifts most guys are doing at any given time in the weight room. Consider your own workout. Overloading your workout with pushing exercises leads to unbalanced training and lopsided bodies, and it cheats you out of moves that work your whole self more effectively through a full range of motion.
Hey, we’re men. We’re a little vain. So we curl for bigger biceps, bench for a massive chest, crunch for abs of steel, and squat for powerful legs. But like those blind dudes who each focused on just one part of the elephant, most men ignore the other important body parts during training. As a consequence, their results suffer.
Training single body parts is a really inefficient way to exercise unless you are a bodybuilder preparing for a physique contest. If you want to boost your metabolic rate, burn fat all over your body, and build functional strength, you need to take a grander view during exercise. You need to take in the whole elephant.
Think about strength in practical terms: In real life, your body rarely moves just one muscle group at a time. That would be unnatural. But that’s what it does when you perform a Biceps, Curl. Ask yourself this: When in real life do you push away from your chest as if you’re doing a bench press? Maybe when you find yourself lying on the kitchen floor with a refrigerator on your chest. But that’s about it. If you work your muscles in a limited range of motion, you create imbalances in your physique, which in turn can cause posture problems and encourage injury. And you ignore all of those tiny muscles that help move the bigger ones and support your frame.
In real life, your body moves not like the hinge on a door but in three planes of motion, the way a basketball player, mixed martial arts fighter, or regular human being tripping over a curb does, with twists and turns and arms flailing. When you run, swim, jump, skip, tackle, tumble, or dance, you move the whole elephant, not just the trunk. So why train with weights in such a limited way? You’re not a fixed joint on a robotic arm in an assembly plant. You’re fluid, and so you should train with weights that way. You need to Push, Pull, Swing. If in addition to your favorite pushing exercises you did a mix of good pulling and swinging movements, you would create well-rounded, functional strength for the way you use your body every day. What’s more, you’d build a roaring metabolic fire within your body by activating so many more muscles, from tiny to big.
The most versatile tools for doing all three movements are dumbbells, the kettlebell, and the sandbag. Each tool is simple, inexpensive, can be used in a small space at home, and is small enough to hide under a bed. Try that with a Bowflex or Olympic barbells. Most importantly, each one allows you to do exercises using the greatest range of motion.
Take the kettlebell, for example, It’s like a cannonball with a handle. Extremely popular in gyms today, this old-school Soviet-era dumbbell allows the user to do an incredible array of pushing, pulling, and swinging moves, plus combination exercises that really challenge your body from all angles. The sandbag offers similar benefits: The sand shifts in the bag as it moves, forcing the lifter to balance the weight, calling more muscle fibers into play for greater functional strength and calorie burn. That’s important whether your goal is training for an adventure race like the Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, or Men’s Health Urbanathlon, or attacking blubber trouble spots like your belly, butt, and thighs.
How Your Body Moves in Three Planes
You already know your weak points, but do you know why they are weak? It’s because you’re not training your muscles the way they were designed to move. You’re inadvertently dissing them by focusing on vanity and ignoring function. To turn that around, it helps to grasp an understanding of how your muscles work in real life that is, through three planes of motion known as the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes.
The best way to understand the geometry of this is to get a little gory. Imagine you’re a samurai warrior brandishing a sword capable of cutting a man in two
- You could split an enemy down the middle from the top of his head, between his eyes, and straight down through his spine, dividing him into two symmetrical halves. That’s the sagittal plane.
- You could cleave him from the side, straight down through his head, shoulders, arms, and legs, until all that remained was a front half and a back half. That’s the frontal plane.
- Or, you could chop him horizontally at the waist, sawing him into upper and lower body halves. That’s the transverse (or horizontal) plane.
Being truly fit, not just strong in a very specific way, takes multidirectional training. By exercising your muscles through multiple planes, the way your body was meant to move, you will find it easier much easier to pack on serious muscle, increase your strength, boost your endurance, improve your sports performance, decrease your risk of injury, bring a neglected body part up to speed, and blast off stubborn fat.
Let’s look a little closer at each plane of your body.
THE SAGITTAL PLANE, which divides your body into left and right halves, is the most common plane of movement for most weight lifting exercises.
Whenever you perform an exercise that moves your body forward or backward without rotating it or letting your arms or legs cross over the midline of your body, you’re performing a sagittal plane exercise. Some examples are neutral-grip Chinups, Squats, Lunges, Step-ups, and walking while holding a pair of heavyweights at your sides.
THE FRONTAL PLANE, which divides your body into front and back sections, involves movements that occur laterally and primarily involve your shoulders, hips, and intervertebral joints.
Whenever you move your arm or leg out from your side and away from the midline of your body (abduction), reverse that motion by bringing your arm or leg back in toward the midline of your body (adduction), or move your head, neck, spine, or torso to the side, you’re performing a frontal plane movement.
One way to gauge whether you’re doing a frontal plane exercise is to flatten yourself against a wall so that your arms, legs, and back are touching it. If you could still do the exercise with all three touchings, it most likely fits the bill. For example, wide-grip Lat Pulldowns, Shoulder Presses, Side Laterals (raising and lowering a weight out from your side), Side Lunges, Side Bends, Side Planks, Side Shuffles, Jumping Jacks, and Side-Lying Leg Lifts are all frontal plane exercises.
THE TRANSVERSE (OR HORIZONTAL) PLANE, which divides your body into an upper half and lower half, is the plane of motion that most people, especially men, tend to neglect. That’s a big problem, especially because our bodies tend to work through this plane anytime we twist, turn, bend, or move in all directions. Simply put, any time you perform a movement that includes a rotational motion, such as twisting or turning, you’re working on the transverse plane of motion.
The muscles that function in the transverse plane, which include your obliques along the sides of your torso, not only help rotate your body, but they also prevent you from rotating too much, helping your body to decelerate whenever you rotate with any excess force (such as while throwing a punch, hitting a golf ball, swinging a racket, etc.). Just a few common examples of exercises that work along the transverse plane include Chops, Reaching Side Lunges, and Russian Twists.
Focus on Movement, Not Muscles
A lot of guys tend to be body part obsessed meaning, they have a specific agenda when they weight train, such as increasing their bench press, forging bigger biceps, or finally seeing that six-pack. They use traditional strength training exercises that focus on specific muscle groups and tend to move along the sagittal plane. These exercises typically work what is known as the “mirror muscles,” the ones you flex in the bathroom.
But when you spend most of your workout doing moves in any one plane of motion, you can create muscular imbalances, which cause overdeveloped muscle fibers to pull against underused ones. This starts a tug-of-war that often leads to tendonitis, impingement issues, posture problems, and other exercise-related injuries over time.
Even if your body manages to dodge any pain issues, what may not be as obvious is how that imbalance could be holding back your performance as well as your appearance. Having muscular symmetry has many performance-enhancing benefits, such as keeping your spine aligned. This perk improves your posture, allowing all of your muscles to work more efficiently when transferring power into every movement you make, which could easily equate to having a faster line drive, a stronger backhand, and more power when pushing off a defender, just to name a few examples.
Being an equal opportunity exerciser using the Push, Pull, Swing method can also help you improve upon the physique you already have. Spending equal time developing the muscles behind you also helps accentuate the muscles in front by making your body appear more muscular from all sides. Also, the more evenly matched your muscles are, the more efficient your body becomes at handling heavier weights, pulling off certain intermediate or advanced maneuvers, recovering from workouts of higher intensity, and burning fat.
Push, Pull, Swing is the solution to the challenge of making your workout routine efficient and egalitarian. In this article, you’ll learn exercises that train your body for the way it moves in real life and in sports. You’ll find exercises that work you through all three planes: moves that involve swinging and pushing against resistance, swinging. and pulling against resistance, or pushing, pulling, and swinging against resistance; hip- and knee-dominant exercises; bridges; and rotation-based exercises. Instead of designing your workout around specific muscles, you’ll focus on the movements those muscles perform by choosing a balanced mix of pushing, pulling, and swinging exercises and using dumbbells, a kettlebell, or a sandbag for resistance.