What is the Perfect Workout?

What is the Perfect Workout Plan?

It depends.

It depends on your needs. Your past training history.  Your injury history, your goals, physical status, desired time commitment, access and availability to gear and instruction.  It depends on your social network and financials, and definitely on what you like and enjoy.

It depends on basically everything.

So getting anything absolutely perfect is up to you.  Let’s stick to words like “better,” “optimal” or “sustainable.”  And I will have to speak in some broad generalities. Starting with a line I definitely didn’t coin:  Done is better than Perfect.  Some things might be better than other things, but something is generally better than nothing.

The FMS establishes minimal standards for movement competencies.  Prioritizing first mobility, then stability, and multi-joint functional movements.  When considering exercise plans we must also have a framework of priority.

When we discuss the pyramid, understand that yours in going to be unique depending on all those things above.  Still we have to respect some degree of hierarchy, especially when we are talking in generalities like this. Also know that some activities can fall under multiple rungs of the pyramid.

  • Movement competency
    1. Can you move? FMS
    2. Do you have adequate ROM/Strength to safely perform the tests?
    3. Functional activities, such as recreational sports, jujitsu, golf, tennis, hiking, Yoga, ti-chi, running could all fall under this category.
  • Strength
    1. As much as you need/want
  • Explosive Power
    1. As much as you need/want
  • Skill
    • I didn’t put it on the pyramid, but it should be there for those that are trying to train for something technical, be it olympic lifting, golf, jujitsu, tennis or whatever.

Running is a fundamental human movement, maybe even the quintessential human movement. I personally don’t like routine distance running, but if you want to run I want you to too. Especially if your passionate and love to compete with yourself or others.  I think any reasonably fit man or women should be able to beat these mile times ever decade without ever actually running as workout.  My age average (37yo) is a staggering 10:53.  Im quite confident I could run that running backwards, and I rarely run.

The plan

If you have pretty minimally high stress goals, ie you don’t wanna lift a ton, sprint really fast, or even lose much weight, just live comfortably, your pyramid should be very pointed.  You don’t need much explosive power, but you still need some.  You probably need as much movement competency as anything.

If you want to lose weight or build muscle your pyramid should be shaped pretty differently. Biasing towards strength, with as much movement competency as you need.  The subtleties of weight loss vs muscle gains are less in training and more in diet.

The idea of a movement intensity pyramid can give you an abstract framework to view your training through.

Let’s look a few hypothetical examples.  Now with them being complete hypotheticals, I play fast and loose with the programing, and you really shouldn’t think that this programing applies directly to you. Of course diet always matters, and let’s admit that when your goals include any modification of body composition, they matter more.


56yo male 20-30lbs over ideal weight, really stiff, history of low back pain, currently not flared up, FMS 11, wants to move better be hurt less.  Works as an OTR driver, routinely sitting 10+ hours a day.  He is willing to do some activity at home, 20-40 min max, and can get to the gym for longer periods 1 day a week.  He has had disc issues in the past that responded well to care in our office. His issues in the FMS start with poor scores on the mobility screens so we will be addressing those and re-testing him in 4 weeks. He has not been active in a gym in 20+ years

  • Home exercise plan
    • FMS based warm-up and spine health
      • Prayer stretch
      • Hip hinge hamstring stretch
      • DNS 8 month position
      • Rib Roll
    • 30 minute Walking. He does not move enough, he has to walk, he can run if he feels up to it, but he’s a guy that is taking 4-5K steps a day, that has to be doubled or tripled.
      • Hip hinge chair squats. 10 every minutes on the minute for 10 minutes.
        • Each week he can add 1 rep.
    • Gym Day: This is his best chance to gain strength, and build muscle that can burn more calories throughout the rest of the week. For him and his goals we CAN do it in one day, in about an hour. We are trying to train as many major muscle groups as possible, there’s literally no time for single joint exercises. He should be smoked when we are done, maybe muscle sore, but certainly not in pain. Doing it in a day, im going to recommend a subtle circuit for Steve. Because his FMS shows issues with shoulder ROM we are going to OK some machine work for him to continue to train, but stepping laterally to avoid potential pain. We also want this to be fun/enjoyable.
        • FMS based warmup 10 min
        • FMS guided moves that are safe and effective for him and his goals
          • Box squats with a dumb bell or KB 2 x 10
          • Machine shoulder press 2×10, Standing DB if tolerable
          • Assisted Pull ups 2×10
          • Chest Press 2×10 (machine if needed)
          • Lunges 2×10
          • Ring Rows 2X10
          • Cycle through as time allows and endurance sustains

After a few weeks of doing something, we would try to find a suitable HIIT option for him to add 1-2 days a week. Lifting like this, short set schemes and lots of body parts with mild weights, is not going to create a body builder. Yet for the relatively untrained it’s a start. Our goal here is to secretly get him to like it, and start going more than once a week.


As a 24yo male, Tony is 5’11 165lbs.  He has an FMS symmetrical 14 (good enough). He wants to build some lean mass, and has worked out off and on in the gym since high school.  He works in construction, a highly active work environment. He’s will to go to a commercial gym 3-4 days a week.

Working like that, with no significant pain/illness, and having a totally acceptable movement screen, he can more or less clep out of the first three portions of the pyramid. His explosive power needs are higher than Steves, but lower than someone who wants to hit a golf ball a quarter mile.  Most of his gym experience the last 6 years has been “tee shirt workout” based, body builder, aesthetic, and “bro-ish,” lots of curls, single joint lifts and the such.  Tony likes the idea of lifting getting swole, so let’s make it happen.

Unless he also REALLY likes hanging out in the gym for long periods of time lets also avoid this; single joint lifts.  These are usually elbow/knee based; curls, tricep presses, leg extensions, but can also be shoulder, chest calfs whatever. They’re often called isolation exercises.  They serve a purpose for body builders and some rehab cases, but not for him.  Time being a non-renewable asset, I say avoid them and stick with multi-joint exercises. Also with him being young, he is roughly at peak natural testosterone levels.  We can further enhance his T levels through high recruitment lifts.  None of these are better than the deadlift, but also can include bench, and some squats.

If he wants to increase lean mass, he is going to have to move mass (as well as ingesting mass but thats a story for a future post). His plan can be fairly straight forwards; lets stick with 3 gym days, and each day pick one heavy multi-joint lift and 2-3 moves that compliment it. Progressively moving more heavy weight for him will cue new muscle development, over time. Muscle mass will burn more calories throughout the day.  Going to failure and progressively increasing the reps or weight is a must for adding muscle. He will need to find his 1rep max, or at least compute based on a 3-5rep max, for a few lifts: Deadlift, bench, front squat and or back squat, possibly one arm shoulder press.

Being familiar with the gym, but a bit new to some of the powerlifting moves, I’m gonna recommend a 14 day cycle, instead of the regular mindset of weekly. This is largely so that he can give his joints/muscles ample time to adapt between training sessions.  He will do each week a lower body, upper body push and upper body pull. Lots of options for rep schemes but for Tony, I am going to recommend Strong First’s 5×5 plan for the primary lifts, with 2-3 auxillary lifts that complement the primary moves, done at set sets of 8-12 reps.

He will apply these to his Front Squat, Deadlift, Shoulder Press, and Bench Press.  It’s simple, logical and effective.  I love this scheme, starting at a weight you can just barely get 5 high quality reps at, usually around 75% of your max, do five sets: 5-5-4-3-3, with around two minute rest times bewteen.  Tony is going to work on a 14 day cycle so in two weeks when he returns, hell do the same weight, adding a single rep, 5-5-4-4-3, 5-5-4-4-4, 5-5-5-4-4, 5-5-5-5-4, 5×5.  After completing the 5×5 scheme, hell have a low volume week where he drops weight on the lifts (at least 25% reduction) and then re-test for his maxes the following week.

Day 1: Lower body

  • Warm up: 3×10 light goblet squat, weight going up a tad with each set. Save your fire for the heavy lifts.
  • Primary lift: Front Squat 5×5 plan
  • Two or three Auxillary lifts: This is where he can be creative and variable. For him, keep it multi-joint, non-machine, and fairly heavy (the last reps of any set should be a safe struggle). If his goal is mass, then probably best to keep the rest periods around 2 minutes so that hes rested enough to go hard and heavy for the next set. Ordered from more strength biased to more power biased
    • Goblet squat
    • Rear foot elevated split squat
    • Lunge
    • Step ups
    • Single leg dead lifts
    • Hip Thrust
    • Thrusters
    • Kettlebell swing/snatch
    • Box jumps
    • Hill Sprint

Day 2: Upper body push

  • Warm-up, again pretty flexible here, just enough to feel ready for the 5×5.
  • Bench Press 5×5.
  • Auxiliary options
    • Dumbbell (DB) bench, incline, or overhead press.
    • Standing Cable press variations
    • DB or Cable fly’s
    • Dips
    • Turkish Get Ups
    • Push up variations
    • Kettlebell clean and press or snatch
    • Med ball press/throws

Day 3: Upper body pull

  • Warm-up, again pretty flexible here, just enough to feel ready for the Primary.
  • I actually love a strict pull up if doable, Tony can do 10 strict ones so well use the same scheme as 5×5 but with 10 pull-ups. So 10-9-8-7-6….10-9-8-7-7 and so on. If he can’t do them use a band to facilitate it, then fight to own the decent (eccentric loading)
  • Auxiliaries:
    • Lat Pull down variations
    • Bent over Rows
    • Cable pulls or rows
    • TRX or ring rows
    • Kipping pull ups

Day 1 Lower body Alternate

  • Warm up
  • Deadlift 5×5 plan
  • Same Auxillary ideas

Day 2 Upper body push alternate

  • Standing DB Press 5×5
  • Same Auxillary ideas

Day3 change ups.

  • Every 2 two weeks do something different. Go run, swim, bike, go to a CF class or a jujitsu class, go rock climbing, do some degree of unique movement.  I know his work is active, and his movement competency is sufficient for his goals, but some degree of functional movement is good for your brain!


48yo female, who wants to lose 40lbs, run and few 5ks, she is naturally bendy and an FMS 12. She works in resort call center, sitting the majority of the day. She has walked for exercise in the past, she’s done some yoga classes and very limited gym or weight lifting experience.  She has a history of neck and lower back pain, currently not flared up. She has a fairly short commute, and lives in a safe subdivision.  She is unlikely to join a gym, but is willing to buy a small kettlebell and have a few lessons on how to use it. She thinks she can commit 45-60 minutes of dedicated exercise 3-4 days a week.

This amount of weight loss isn’t possible with exercise alone.  There’s going have to be some diet changes.  Ill follow up with that aspect next week. Lets address her pyramid here.  He history of pain has to be respected and anything may require unique modifications. In her FMS screen she does have a few issues that need addressed. Her mobility screens were fine, and her lowest issues are both the stability-based moves, upper body push up stability and rotary stability.  We need to work on those consistently and then re-test in a few weeks.  This doesn’t mean she can’t train, it just means that these couple aspects could be better. Her General Human Movement is way low, that can be addressed straight out of the gate.  Lets look at this sample program.

Daily baby steps: She’s going to park a bit further away at work and the store to increase her steps. She’s going to take the stairs when possible.  She’s going to stand up and walk around for a minute or two every hour.  If possible, she will do 10 sit to stand movements every hour at work. Her walk/runs will take place around dinner time or early morning to avoid the heat.

She only needs 2-3 simple workouts which she can alternate between. As time progresses, and her skill with the bell improves she may add additional exercises.  Id re-test her FMS in 4 weeks.

  • Workout 1
    • FMS based warm up 10-15 min
      • Bird Dog
      • Wall Bug
      • Eccentric Push up
    • 30 min walk/run.As time progresses she will walk less, run more
      • Let’s avoid jogging. Either run, or walk. Especially for someone with stability issues, a brisk run helps to stiffen you in a good way.  In her first outing she might not run more than 2 min total, and that’s okay.
    • If time allows repeat FMS warm-up
  • Workout 2
    • 10 min FMS based warm up
    • 10 min Kettlebell specific warm up
    • 20 minute Every minute on the minute (EMOM) 5 swings
      • This is 100 swings, a good volume for her, with a work rest ratio of (less than) 10sec work (more than) 50 seconds rest.
      • Each week she will add 1 rep, doing 6 next week, working up to a 20:40 work rest ratio
      • This meets goals in the fundamental human movement, movement competency, strength, and power camps.
    • Repeat FMS warm-up if time allows
  • Alternate workout 1: 45 min to keep moving
    • some sample moves that she would be familiar with and capable of safely and effectively doing. Depending on the intensity she could very her W:R ratio from 10:50 to 30:30
    • 10-15 min FMS warm-up
    • KB suitcase carry
    • Goblet squat
    • Lunge
    • Burpees
  • Alternate workout 2
    • High Intensity Interval training (HIIT)
      • Simply 3-5 minutes at 20:40 W:R
      • The work has to be at 90%+ max exertion, so for her she probably has to buy an exercise bike, or possibly re-create an upper body bike (ergonometer) using a heavy hose or battle rope. In an athletic stance pumping the arms creating a sine wave with the rope hard and fast for 20 seconds on 40 off.
      • After 3-4 weeks of training she may be ready to learn a kettlebell snatch as a form of HIIT for her.

So what constitutes perfect for you?  Or even better?  It probably involves simply moving more, loading movements with progressively more weight.  But maybe not? It just depends I guess.  If you need help, its something im always happy to talk to patients about.


Zach Vahldick DC, CSCS

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