The Primary Pattern Workout Plan

A Template for Strength or Muscle Gains

Train each of four primary lifting patterns every workout, then choose two optional exercises. Simple and effective. Here’s how to set it up.

Primary Pattern Programming

This system creates a training style that unleashes metabolic havoc on the greatest amount of muscle mass with the fewest number of exercises, with the least amount of redundancy.

The emphasis is on “big” exercises that stimulate lots of muscle tissue. There’s room for smaller movements and whatever else you happen to like doing, but what we’re trying to do here is distinguish between majors and minors in terms of exercise payback.

The Movement Patterns You Need to Know

The best way to get the most muscular stimulation – and the metabolic impact you need to get and stay lean – is to make sure that the primary movement patterns are always represented in your training.

There are differing opinions about how many of these patterns actually exist. But I like Dr. John Rusin’s take:

  • Squat: Any type of squat exercise: high bar, low bar, front squat, overhead squat, goblet squat, etc.
  • Hinge: Posterior chain exercises such as Romanian deadlifts (RDL’s), loaded back extensions, hip thrusts, etc.
  • Lunge: Includes the many variants of the lunge as well as step-ups and rear-foot-elevated splits squats.
  • Push: All forms of pressing, including flat barbell or dumbbell bench, incline benching, push-ups, military presses, handstand push-ups, and so on.
  • Pull: Pull-ups, chins, and rows.
  • Carry: One and two-hand carries with any type of implement. Think farmers walks and the like.

Now, there are other proposed patterns, and clearly some of your favorite exercises don’t fit any of these categories – curls, ab drills, calf work, etc. But notice that the exercises that do fit into these patterns are proven standards, things like squats, deads, presses, and rows that train a lot of muscle all at once.

That’s what makes pattern programming super-efficient. It focuses on the big stuff while still allowing for less important or impactful exercises when time and energy permit.

4 Primary Patterns for Muscle and Strength

While the idea of the six patterns is sound, there are plenty of people who just want to build muscle and strength and who aren’t particularly interested in corrective exercise or sport-specific athletic attributes. For them, we condense the list down to 4 primary patterns:

  1. Squat
  2. Hinge
  3. Push
  4. Pull

What we’re doing here is identifying the movements that deliver muscle and strength in spades.

Sample Primary Pattern Program

One way to do this is a microcycle incorporating three different workouts.

  • Each workout includes 4 compulsory moves: squat, hinge, push, and pull.
  • These 4 exercises are then followed by 1-2 optional drills such as direct arm, calf, and ab work, or anything else that you happen to like: power cleans, swings, carries, whatever.

Workout 1

  • RDL
  • Flat dumbbell bench
  • Front squat
  • Pull-up
  • Plus 1 or 2 optional exercises

Workout 2

  • Hip thrust
  • Incline dumbbell bench
  • Leg press
  • T-bar row
  • Plus 1 or 2 optional exercises

Workout 3

  • Loaded back extension
  • Military press
  • Back squat
  • Close-grip chin-up
  • Plus 1 or 2 optional exercises

Once you’ve constructed your plan, run the system for 4-6 progressively harder weeks, culminating in a one-week deload. Then change exercises and repeat.

What About Sets and Reps?

Reps per set are a function of your training goal. Strength adaptations tend to be the result of lower (1-5) reps with relatively heavy loads, whereas hypertrophy tends to respond best to higher reps (more often than not, 8-12). So simply select your reps based on your current goal.

Sets are a bit of a different question, and this really comes down to identifying what Dr. Mike Isreatel calls your Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV), which is the total amount of work you can perform and still recover from, typically measured in how many sets you do per body part per week.

If you use, for example, a 4/1 loading paradigm (where you add weight each week for 4 weeks and then do a 1-week de-load), you’re looking to reach or even exceed MRV on week 4, and then deload on week 5 by reducing volume by 50-60% and also reducing intensity a bit.

So, on week one you should be able to cruise right through your workouts pretty easily. Use a 6-7 rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on week one, meaning 3-4 reps away from failure. Then 7-8 RPE on week two, 8-9 RPE on week three, 9-10 RPE on week four, followed by a deload week.

How Important Are the Optional Exercises?

These optional exercises are important, but not as important as the compulsories. There’s a distinction between them for two important reasons:

  1. It drives home the point that some things are more important than others. This way, when time and energy are tight, you know what to prioritize.
  2. As opposed to doing a 6-exercise workout, a primary patterns workout with 4 compulsories and 2 optionals seems less daunting. After all, you really only “need” to complete 4 exercises, so there’s no pressure.

The Right Exercises for Size Gains

When hypertrophy is your main goal, choose exercises that permit a large range of motion and that work well with higher rep brackets or slower eccentric tempos (negatives). Examples include:

  • Squat: Ass-to-grass barbell and goblet squats, safety-bar squats, machine hack squats, hip belt squats.
  • Hinge: Dumbbell RDL’s, barbell hip thrusts, weighted back extensions (45-degree and/or flat), good mornings, swings.
  • Push: Flat, incline, and overhead dumbbell presses, weighted push-ups.
  • Pull: Lat pulldowns, seated cable rows, straight-arm pulldowns, dumbbell rows, landmine rows.

The Right Exercises for Strength Gains

When strength is the goal, prioritize exercises that permit a high degree of loading:

  • Squat: Low and high bar barbell squats, front squats, leg presses.
  • Hinge: Barbell RDL’s, deficit deadlifts.
  • Push: Barbell or machine presses (flat, incline, and/or overhead), floor presses.
  • Pull: Pull-ups (all grip variants), T-bar rows, bentover rows.

How to Choose the Optional Exercises

Optional exercises include:

  1. Things that you love or need, but don’t fit into any of the 4 pattern categories. This could be anything from carries, sled pushes, step-ups, Olympic lifts, direct arm, ab, trap, or calf work, or even mobility drills.
  2. Anything that isn’t well represented in the previous 2-3 workouts. This usually means direct arm work.

Now Try It Yourself!

If your current training template is leaving you underwhelmed, give this concept a good 5-6 week run. There’s lots of room for personalization based on your individual needs and goals, and it’s truly amazing how much meaningful work you can accomplish in short timeframes using this method.