You may have heard the old saying “variety is the spice of life”, but when you are new to exercise or learning new exercises, variety is actually the last thing I would recommend. A large variety of exercises and constantly changing up the program every few days or 2 to 3 weeks may seem more interesting but it is not going to help you in the long term learning new motor patterns. In fact my recommendation for anyone new to exercising is usually only 4-6 exercises done as often as possible for as long as possible.
The term “physical literacy” refers to a person’s ability to master fundamental movement skills and perform fundamental sport skills. Someone who has developed their skill level in fundamental movements to a point where they can move freely and make appropriate decisions in a wide range of athletic situations is said to have a high level of physical literacy. Physical literacy is developed by exposure to specific skills and situations that may be encountered. The best way to develop these skills is with frequent exposure.
How often? This will differ among people and will depend on their previous exposure to similar movements, overall activity history, the intensity and complexity of the movement and a person’s ability to recover. Generally, if the complexity is relatively low and the intensity is low then you could practice the movement daily, which would lead to a much quicker adaptation. For example, if I have someone working on their squat I may have them perform a goblet squat 3 times per week at a higher volume but I may also have them perform body weight or counterweight squats daily to continue to groove the squat pattern.
Many times mobility is a limiting factor in learning new motor patterns. Sometimes people are so restricted that they cannot get into the proper positions needed to execute a movement properly. In this situation I like to continue working on the movement as long as there is no pain present but I will modify the movement to a range that my client can complete and continue to work on exercise-specific mobility. Other times the opposite is true. Occasionally I will work with someone that has too much mobility and cannot control their movement. This is usually the case with younger athletes. In this case I take a very similar approach but instead of working on specific mobility we will work towards increasing stability while using modified ranges of motion and pauses to teach the client how to control their body throughout different ranges.
The common theme here is that in a person with low physical literacy I have found it most effective to reduce the variety of exercises and have them perform the exercises as often as possible. For someone with 3 days to dedicate to exercise I may program something like the following.
Goblet Squat 2 x 8
Push Up 2 x 60% of Max Reps
Horizontal Pull Up (TRX or Bar) 2 x 8-10
Hip Thrust 2 x 8-10
Side Plank 2 x 20 seconds or Farmer’s Carry 2 x 30m
This might be what the program would look like for all 3 days. We can create some interest by changing some of the warm up exercises every few days or incorporating different exercises during conditioning work but the core of the program remains constant until the exercises are learned. Depending on which exercise is the weak link I will usually prescribe some lower-level work to be done on their off days such as 2 to 3 sets of pushups for 20-30% of max reps or a few reps on in incline just to work on stability and patterning. As time goes on we will increase the volume to 3 or 4 sets on training days and increase the rep ranges to create more metabolic stress with each set. Once the client is confident completing these exercises we can move onto using different equipment and more complex exercises. I am a very big supporter for keeping things simple and not using methods that are too advanced for your level. It’s not sexy, but it sets a very solid foundation to build physical literacy from and promotes far greater progress down the road.