Functional Strength Training: A Guide to Programming Patterns over Parts

Functional Strength Training: A Guide to Programming Patterns over Parts

When you first start coaching and designing individual programs, it can be overwhelming to figure out what movements to select for what clients as you become lost in a sea of thousands of exercises for particular body parts.

Take a deep breath: We have some concepts and principles to help you weed through the noise and make appropriate exercise selection and individual design a little easier. 

Principle: Consider programming movements patterns over parts—aka specific exercises for specific body parts. 


Movement pattern exercise selection simplifies programming and makes it easier to understand, allowing you to be more time-efficient. 

So what exactly does it look like to program based on patterns?

Simply put, it means breaking movements/exercises into six main functional movements patterns (i.e. six general ways that our bodies move):

But before we get into some examples of when you might choose a particular exercise from a particular movement pattern category for a particular client, consider how you’re going to split up their training day.

Three options include:

Option 1: Full Body Resistance

This means the training day has both upper and lower body components and might include a squat movement, a push movement, a pull movement, a bend and a core movement all on the same day.

Full body resistance training tends to work well for novice clients, who might only be coming in twice a week and need to be exposed to all of the movement patterns.

That being said, full body resistance training is also useful for intermediate and advanced clients, who train 2 to 3 sessions per week.


Option 2: Upper-Lower Split

What this means is that, for example, if someone is coming four days a week, two days might be upper body days and two days lower body. 

For example: Mondays and Wednesdays are pushing and pulling, while Tuesdays and Thursdays are squatting, hinging and lunging, with some core sprinkled in on all days.

Upper lower splits are usually most appropriate for intermediate clients, who have gained some experience and can handle a little more volume of one movement pattern on any given day.


Option 3: Specific Split

This is when an entire training session is dedicated to one movement pattern—for example a squat day or a pulling day—and is appropriate for advanced clients who have the experience to handle volume, and who might need to dedicate some serious time toward one particular movement pattern.


Selecting Movements

Now that you have decided how you’re going to structure your client’s training days and weeks, let’s consider an example of which movement you might select from each movement pattern category for a novice client, versus an intermediate client versus an advanced client.


Novice: Goblet Squat @3111, 10 reps x 5 sets; rest 60 sec

The goblet squat is a great entry level loaded squat option as it provides a counter balance (the weight in front), which often helps auto-correct the client’s squat by helping them both keep their heels on the ground and stay upright. Further, it helps engrain the squat pattern under load.

Intermediate: Back Squat @31X1, 5 reps x 5 sets; rest 2 min

The back squat is a great one to help build strength, and now that the client has gained experience and logged a certain amount of volume squatting, their joints and central nervous system are ready to handle a little bit more load to build strength.

Advanced: Zercher Squat @3311, 5 reps x 5 sets; rest 2-3 min

The zercher squat is a great option for an advanced client who needs variety in exercise selection, as it’s going to challenge them in different ways, particularly their core. The bottom line is there’s so much more going on during a zercher squat than simply the squat, so your client should be technically proficient and strong before including it in their program.


Novice: Single Leg, Unloaded RDL to a Target @3011, 10 reps x 5 sets; rest 60 sec

The single leg unloaded RDL to a target is a perfect exercise for someone who may have failed the toe touch test or active straight leg raise in their initial assessment. The idea here is to help build some single leg strength and body awareness in a controlled manner. 

Intermediate: Trap Bar Deadlift @30X0, 6 reps x 3 sets; rest 2-3 min

At this point the client can begin to challenge strength endurance with heavier loads. The trap bar can be a more comfortable starting position for deadlifts from the floor, especially for those with more limited mobility.

Advanced: Barbell Deadlift @20X1, build to a heavy triple for the day

At this stage, the client is aware enough to listen to what their body feels like when it comes to building up to a heavy triple. They are also strong enough to express maximal contractions with a heavy one to three reps. On the other hand, if you gave this prescription to a novice client, they would have no idea what a heavy triple feels like, or how many sets it should take to get there, or how to build up to it, and they would be totally lost in the gym.


Novice: Split Squat Eccentric Only @30A1, 10 reps x 5 sets; rest 60 sec

This would be a great prescription for someone who failed the lunge test in their assessment because they lacked the strength to raise themselves back up again. These high reps of assisted split squats help them build strength and gain body awareness in the lunge pattern.

Intermediate: Dumbbell Reverse Lunge @30X0, 8-10 reps x 5 sets; rest 90 sec

The intermediate client has developed proficiency in the lunge pattern and is able to lunge unassisted with load. In this case, we have given them a rep range to choose from, so they have the ability to listen to their body and select the reps and load accordingly.

Advanced: Barbell Overhead Walking Lunge @20X0, 20 alt steps x 5 sets; rest 2 min

This advanced lunge variation requires a high level of shoulder stability and efficiency in the lunge pattern. The complexity may make it an engaging challenge for the advanced client, however, if building strength in the lunge pattern is the primary goal, then a regular front or back rack lunge is recommended.


Novice: Straight Arm Front Plank Hold, AMSAP x 3 sets; rest 90 sec

For a novice who, for example, failed the 90 second front plank hold test during their assessment, having them practice holding a front plank as long as they can is a great way to develop more scapular control and shoulder strength to eventually be able to do a push-up.

Intermediate: Dumbbell Floor Press, @20X1, 15-20 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 sec

The intermediate client has developed some strength and control and is ready to build more strength and muscular endurance. At this point, they should know how to select weights where they can do between 15 and 20 floor press reps at a challenging weight without going to muscular failure. 

Advanced: Close Grip Bench Press @20X1, 3.3 x 5 sets; rest 20 sec b/t clusters, rest 3-4 min

These cluster sets, where the client does three reps with a quick rest (10-20 seconds) before another three reps is a great way to let the advanced client log more volume at higher loads and reps than they would be able to do if this were 5 sets of 6 reps.


Novice: Top of Ring Hold, AMSAP x 3 sets; rest 60 sec

Similar to the plank hold, holding the top of a ring row for a novice client is a great first step in teaching scapular retraction, all the while building strength and muscular endurance. 

Intermediate: Ring Rows @31X3, 8-10 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 sec

Now that the client has a certain amount of scapular control and pulling strength, tempo ring rows are a great way to build lat strength that will translate into strict pull-ups for the intermediate client.

Advanced: Multi Grip Pendlay Row @20X1, 8-6-4-2; rest 2-3 minutes

The Multi-Grip Pendlay Row is a more complex movement, as not only does it require pulling strength, the client needs to stabilize through the core in the bent over position. The decreasing rep scheme means the load/intensity will increase over the course of the four sets.


Novice: Side Plank, AMRAP per side x 3 sets; rest 60-90 sec

Side planks for as long as possible are good for a novice client who failed the 90-second side plank assessment as it essentially feeds the problem to slowly build core strength and rigidity as well as endurance. 

Intermediate: Single Arm Plank, 20-30 sec/side x 3 sets; rest 90 sec

Now that the client has the ability to pass the plank test, adding a new challenge with a single arm forces the client to stabilize even harder during the plank, challenging their core strength and stabilizing ability in the process.

Advanced: Contralateral carry, 40 meters/side x 3 sets; rest 90 sec

Contralateral carries, where one hand is holding a dumbbell in a farmer hold position, while the other hand is holding a dumbbell overhead is a more complex, higher level exercise for the advanced client, as it challenges their core and ability to hold good posture.



The demand for fitness coaches is on the rise. Educated individuals who can lead by example and help the general population reach their goals. Not only is this career fun, but with the right business model, it can be profitable and sustainable. 

However, being a great coach is about more than just knowing effective exercises. You have to be able to assess your clients and develop personalized training programs with long-term progression in mind. 

Want to learn how? Sign up for our Free Coaching Course today and see for yourself what a career as a fitness coach would be like.

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