Secondary Logo

Journal Logo



Movement-based Programming

King, Matt M.Ed., CSCS; Stanforth, Dixie Ph.D.

Author Information
ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal: January/February 2013 - Volume 17 - Issue 1 - p 8-14
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3182797b4e
  • Free


The aim of this article is to present a plan for program design that is consistent with the principles of functional training while being user friendly and adaptable to any situation. This article presents the “MBP Method,” with foundational principles, structure, and adaptations. MBP stands for movement-based programming, which describes the philosophy behind the structural template. The MBP Method describes how to use the template, which includes the creation of an exercise database by pairing each movement in the template to a tool and a system to tweak exercises and adapt the workout for different goals. The general ideas of this method are not original — in fact, they are simply variations of work done by other leaders in the fitness industry (10). The originality is the presentation, purpose, and organization of the method. MBP is a system that empowers the user to create a large number of workouts in a small amount of time. The MBP Method is simple, with principles and guidelines that help the fitness professional develop high-quality functional workouts for his or her clientele. The templates and strategies presented in this article are designed for healthy clientele who are cleared for regular exercise programs. Future articles will explore modifications of programs for specific injuries or health conditions.

The benefits of physical activity and exercise are well understood (2), but “how” to train most effectively and efficiently is a challenge. The ever-evolving answer to “How?” has transformed functional training into a buzzword in the fitness industry. Unfortunately, there is a lack of consensus as to the definition of functional training. For example, simply doing bicep curls while standing on a Bosu ball does not make that exercise more functional, just more difficult. Our definition of “functional training” is a systematic approach to training that is authentic to true neuromuscular function during human movement. Gary Gray, founder of the Gray Institute and known as a pioneer in functional rehabilitation and training, has developed a philosophy called “applied functional sciences” (7). Applied functional science is a biomechanical approach to understanding how the neuromuscular system reacts and operates during movement; viewing training in this fashion is markedly different from traditional programs, which developed from a study of structural anatomy.



The foundation of MBP lies in the comparison of structural anatomy versus functional anatomy. Structural anatomy is based on individually dissected tissues, focusing on the independent concentric function of each muscle and the preventive capabilities of ligaments. This “medical model” creates a more isolated approach where foot pain is treated by a foot doctor, but in reality, the problem may be stemming from tight calves or hypermobile hips. Many industry leaders have written about this topic, highlighting the reductionist nature of structural anatomy (4–6,8,9). In general, structural anatomy:

  1. presents the independent function of each muscle,
  2. stresses the agonist-antagonist relationship of muscles
  3. emphasizes the concentric action of muscles,
  4. ignores the role of fascia in movement regulation, and
  5. tends to have a single-plane emphasis.

The structural model does not address the role of the nervous system during movement, whereas the functional model does. Understanding how the body functions during movement can change how we choose to train it. Human motion is task driven (5). One does not think about consciously contracting every muscle with the right force at the right time and in the proper sequence to kick a soccer ball. Instead, he is conscious of the task and lets the nervous system regulate muscle activity to complete it. The structural model targets individual muscles. Training function does not isolate single muscles; instead, it trains the neuromuscular system. The idea of developing training systems based on movement and task rather than anatomy is gaining traction in the fitness industry (5,9,12). MBP is an approach that emphasizes training the nervous system rather than training through muscular isolation. Traditional exercises that have been used for years, such as bicep curls or leg extensions, are useful for increasing strength or size of the individual muscles but lack the training stimulus of different muscle groups working together in sequence to perform a functional task. Repeated Sandbell squat tosses, however, train both the biceps and hamstring groups but do so in an integrated fashion that reflects how they are used during functional activities one encounters in sport or everyday life.


The MBP Template

There are hundreds of muscles in the body, and to create a workout program with exercises to address the concentric action of each would be inefficient and functionally inauthentic. Rather than creating a “Back and Bi’s” day or a “Bench and Squat” day, consider what the upper and lower body can functionally “do.” As mentioned previously, other fitness professionals have developed similar movement templates with slightly different categories and application, such as what are commonly termed “pillars of training.” These “pillars” typically include locomotion, pushing/pulling, rotation, and raising/lowering the center of mass (10). The MBP template offers a slightly different perspective to simplify movement categorization, which is always task driven. Because the main purpose of the legs is to absorb and transmit ground reaction forces to facilitate movement (11), which includes both pushing and pulling simultaneously, we categorize lower body exercises as either double (DL) or single leg (SL). Similarly, upper body actions use either one or two arms to either push or pull depending on the task. The final action is locomotion, where the body moves from point A to point B. There are arguably infinite categories of what the body can do, but from a training perspective, push, pull, DL, SL, and locomotion provide an uncomplicated, but well-balanced, template.

The MBP template is a planar circuit alternating lower and upper body-dominant exercises. The order is always Push, DL, Pull, SL, Locomotion. The benefits of circuit-style training have been well documented (1,3). Training one plane per round represents a common workout order and is a great place to start for most clients, as depicted in Table 1. Assign each round a different plane of motion, and tweak each exercise to reflect movement in that plane. Not only does assigning a round to each plane of motion make the workout functionally authentic, but movements stay fresh and engagement is high because the client will never repeat the exact movement twice in any workout.

Movement-based Programming Template for Program Design With Arrows Demonstrating Order of Flow

Modality Madness

The first application of the MBP Method is to show trainers how to use modalities and not let modalities, or training tools, use them. All too often trainers categorize modalities by what part of the body that tool typically trains. For example, a medicine ball is a “core” tool, and dumbbells are arm or shoulder tools. But any tool can train any motion, if used correctly. The first step is to make a list of all the modalities available to you and come up with a pushing, pulling, DL, and SL exercise using each tool. For examples, refer to Table 2; recognizing that the exercises you develop for each tool and movement becomes your exercise “library.” The larger the exercise library, the greater the diversity and choice you will have when creating workouts.

Sample Modality/Movement List

The most important modality for creating a workout is bodyweight. Not only will you always have this tool available, but it also serves as an ideal baseline workout. If your workout space offers at least nine different modalities and you include bodyweight as one, you have 10 different workouts to implement using only one modality at a time. Once you start mixing modalities in the same circuit, the possible combinations become 104 = 10,000 different workouts — and that is before you even start tweaking different variables. Here’s how it works. If you have 10 “tools” to use as modalities and you created a list of 10 push exercises, 10 DL exercises, 10 pull, and 10 SL, you would have a database of 40 exercises. However, because you can mix modalities in any given circuit, there are now 10,000 possible exercise combinations (10 Push × 10 DL × 10 Pull × 10 SL). Just two different exercises per modality in each category will increase the combination potential to 204 = 160,000. That is a large reward for 10 minutes’ worth of brainstorming! Once you build your exercise catalog, choose a tool and insert it into the MBP template.

Tweaking Out!

“Tweaking” is changing an exercise with logical purpose (6). Understanding how to tweak an exercise for each plane is pivotal for success in using MBP. There are unlimited ways to tweak different exercises for each plane of movement, but for this article, we will examine three: preset, finish, and center of gravity.

The first is the preset tweak, in which you change the starting position of joints involved in the movement. A good example is using a preset tweak for squats: changing the starting position of the hips by changing the position of the feet in each plane, which in turn will influence the hips. Gray named this strategic positioning the SFT Syntax (S = Sagittal, F = Frontal, T = Transverse, X = Neutral) (7). The SFT uses a three-letter coding system for positioning the feet outside of neutral base stance. The first letter always tells you the foot position in the sagittal plane, the second always tells you the foot position in the frontal plane, and the third tells you the foot position in the transverse plane. For example, feet shoulder width apart, parallel to each other, and toes straight ahead sets the hips to anatomically neutral in all three planes (XXX = Neutral Base Stance). Step the right foot forward a couple of inches and the right hip is preset into flexion and the left hip is preset into extension while both remain neutral in the frontal and transverse planes, creating a sagittal plane tweak (RXX = Right Foot Forward, LXX = Left Foot Forward) (Fig. 1). Positioning the feet into a narrow stance (XNX = Narrow Stance) presets both hips to an adducted position, whereas positioning the feet to a wide stance (XWX = Wide Stance) abducts both hips for frontal plane tweaks. Turning the toes in creates internal rotation at each hip (XXI = Internally Rotated), and turning the toes out creates external rotation in each hip (XXE = Externally Rotated) (Fig. 2).

Figure 1
Figure 1:
a, Neutral (XXX). b, Sagittal tweak (RXX). c, Sagittal tweak (LXX).
Figure 2
Figure 2:
a, Frontal tweak (XNX). b, Frontal tweak (XWX). c, Transverse tweak (XXI). d, Transverse tweak (XXE).

Here is an example of the SFT Syntax applied to MBP using DL exercises with a preset tweak. The circuit calls for barbell squats at three sets of 10. Round 1 has five reps with the right foot forward (RXX) and five with the left foot forward (LXX). Round 2 includes five reps with the feet in a wide stance (XWX) and five with the feet in a narrow stance (XNX). Round 3 has five reps with toes turned inward (XXI) and five reps with toes turned outward (XXE). Refer to Table 3 for an example.

Sample Movement-based Programming Template Implemented With Tri-Plane, Tweak, and Locomotion

Changing where an exercise ends is a finish tweak. Consider the dumbbell shoulder press as an example. Pressing slightly anteriorly or posteriorly is an example of a sagittal plane tweak. Pressing overhead toward the opposite shoulder (OSL) or outside the same side shoulder (SSL) is a frontal plane tweak. Pressing with rotation in front or rotation behind is a transverse tweak (Fig. 3). These deviations from neutral provide stimuli to the entire system not found with the traditional press. For example, pressing overhead and slightly anterior forces the entire posterior chain to decelerate the spinal flexion, just like when you reach for a door handle. Pressing overhead to the posterior creates a spinal extension that has to be decelerated by the whole body, especially the anterior core muscles and hip flexors, similar to catching a football overhead. Pressing overhead to the opposite lateral side doesn’t just train the shoulder but also numerous other muscles, such as the same side obliques and hip abductors, as well as the opposite side hip adductors. Each reach provides different stimuli that will train the system in a way that more closely resembles demands put on the body in everyday life.

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Sagittal finish tweak. a, Anterior. b, Posterior; frontal finish tweak. c, Opposite side. d, Same side; transverse finish tweak. e, Front rotation. f, Rear rotation.

The third tweak alters center of gravity to make the exercise tri-planar. When applied to the standard anterior lunge, stepping laterally creates a frontal lunge, and stepping with rotation makes it a transverse lunge. Figure 4 shows application of a center of gravity tweak using dumbbell reaches in the same plane as the lunge (Fig. 4). The lower body has to absorb and decelerate ground reaction forces in multiple planes in a nonlinear fashion. It is just as important for someone to control lateral or rotational movement.

Figure 4
Figure 4:
Center of gravity tweak. a, Sagittal. b, Frontal. c, Transverse.

These tweaks aren’t limited to the obvious upper and lower body exercises. You can use the SFT Syntax for a squat press to teach a client how to create upper body power from different hip positions. Coming up with different ways to tweak an exercise in a safe and effective manner is great practice to think through movements and also will expand the exercise library.

Do the Locomotion

Locomotion is the last exercise in each round of the MBP template. The three basic modes of locomotion are the walk, skip, and run. They represent an intensity continuum from low to high and may be performed in all three planes. Any sequence where you move forward or backward is considered a sagittal motion. Any side to side motion, such as running sideways, is a frontal locomotive pattern. Transverse locomotion requires that you move in a curved or circular path. Using each of these patterns is not only important from a holistic approach but also allows for a more creative energy system development.

You now have all the necessary information to fill out the MBP template using exercises with your chosen modality in all three planes while moving from push –> DL –> pull –> SL –> locomotion. Table 3 provides a sample workout.

Overloaded on Overload

Understanding that overload isn’t just “adding more weight” is essential when using MBP for program design. Remember, the idea behind MBP is to train the neuromuscular system, not just the muscles. The bench press is an excellent exercise to increase pectoral and triceps strength, but how often do you find yourself needing to recruit those muscles repeatedly while lying flat on your back? The idea of “overload” should be to challenge the system in as many ways as possible to adequately prepare the body for what it will encounter in real life, which is much more than simply generating greater force. Coaching a client to move the same amount of weight faster is an example of a different, but potentially essential, type of overload. Sometimes, “overload” means performing a task with multiple stimuli, such as lunging and catching a medicine ball at the same time. Or consider a proprioceptive tweak by asking the client to look in different directions during movement, such as looking over the right shoulder during a lunge matrix. These overload variations may seem arbitrary, but consider all the different ways the body is tweaked during everyday life and sport, and their functional value is clear. Table 4 shows a workout example implementing some of these different overload options.

Sample Movement-based Programming Template With Variable Overload

Timing Is Everything

One of the great advantages of MBP is the ability to maximize planning time. All too often workouts are thwarted because clients do not complete the rep and set schemes in anticipated times. One way to solve this is to create a workout based on timed work/rest ratios. Each MBP template has 3 rounds of 5 exercises for 15 total exercises. If you dedicate 1 minute to both the work and the rest for each exercise, each round in the circuit will take 15 minutes. The work/rest ratio should reflect the client’s ability. For example, a work time of 15 seconds allows for a recovery period of 45 seconds before moving to the next exercise. If you bump up the work period to 30 seconds for a more advanced client, reduce the recovery to 30 seconds. Table 5 shows how an MBP workout maximizes time in a typical 60-minute training session and allows you to set the parameters to match the fitness level and training goals of individual clients.

Movement-based Programming Template: 60-Minute Workout



The demands on personal trainers are so great that entire academic majors are dedicated to teaching them the intricacies of kinesiology and related disciplines. There is increasing awareness of the benefits of a functional approach to program design and implementation, yet a trainer can go crazy writing program after program to meet all of his or her clients’ needs. The MBP offers an organized approach to not only learn how to design functional workouts but also a more efficient program design process. The MBP focuses on training movement instead of training individual muscles, resulting in a training regimen that more accurately reflects how the neuromuscular system operates during sport and everyday life. The MBP is structurally versatile, making it applicable to any situation and allowing the trainer to implement it with any type of client. This article focused on the basic principles of MBP. Future articles will focus on how to adapt MBP for specific sports, training goals, and specific populations.


This article presents the science and building blocks for movement-based programming (MBP) then organizes those concepts into an easy to use template for program design. MBP demonstrates how to develop a movement database and use tri-plane tweaking, unconventional overloading, and timing strategies to design an unlimited number of workouts. MBP bridges the gap between the latest functional and fascia research to meet the needs of practitioners for effective and creative workout programs.


1. Alcaraz PE, Perez-Gomez J, Chavarrias M, Blazevich AJ. Similarity in adaptations to highresistance circuit vs. traditional strength training in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2011; 25 (9): 2519–27.
2. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing Prescription. 8th ed. Philadelphia (PA): Wolters Kluwer Health; 2010.
3. Camargo MD, Stein R, Riberio JP, Schvartzman PR, Rizznatti MO, Schaan BD. Circuit weight training and cardiac morphology: A trial with magnetic resonance imaging. Br J Sports Med. 2008; 42: 141–5.
4. Cook G. Functional Movement Systems. Aptos (CA): On Target Publications; 2010: 35–50.
5. Dalcourt M. Whole-body training: Warding patterns. IDEA Fit J. 2012; 9 (4): 44–53.
6. Gray GW. Functional video digest series: Tweakology: Movement tweaks [DVD-ROM]. Adrian (MI): Functional Design Systems; 2008.
7. Gray Institute. GrayInstitute [Internet]. Adrian (MI): Gray Institute; [cited 2012 July 8]. Available from:
8. Meyers TW. Anatomy Trains. 2nd ed. Edinburgh (England): Elsevier Limited; 2009.
9. Price D. Strength training using myofascial lines. IDEA Fit J. 2012; 9 (4): 24–30.
10. Santana JC. The four pillars of human movement: A movement approach to exercise design and implementation. IDEA Personal Trainer. 2002.
11. Tiberio D. Pathomechanics of structural foot deformities. Phys Ther. 1988; 68: 1840–9.
12. Wolf C. Moving the body: Training movements and not muscles may be the paradigm shift needed for today’s functional conditioning. IDEA Personal Trainer. 2001; 12 (6): 24–31.

Functional Training; Program Design; Personal Training; Conditioning; Circuit Training

© 2013 American College of Sports Medicine.