Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Why do you train? Do you have a weight goal in mind? Are you training for an event or a particular sport? Do you train just to feel and look good?
Whatever your reason or motivation, if you are participating in regular physical activity (3-5 times a week), CONGRATULATIONS; you are prolonging optimal health, boosting energy, improving mobility and significantly reducing your risk of developing a huge number of diseases and mental health problems ranging from cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis, to depression and dementia.
Whatever type, level and intensity of activity you choose, if it elevates your heart rate for up to 20- 30 mins to a level where holding a conversation is just achievable, and you combine this with some form of weight or resistance training, you will be working in a zone that will boost your metabolism, burn fat and improve your mental and physical well being.
Well, yes, but it's possible that with a little modification to movement patterns while training, you could benefit even more from the same time spent training.
If you are a habitual exerciser, and especially if you have been exercising regularly for a number of years, have you ever considered whether what you do is:
a) appropriate for your current stage of life, and
b) does it really support you in daily life?
The Essence of FUNCTIONAL MOVEMENT TRAINING
By looking at the ways we move when we train, and adapting movements to incorporate the use of multiple muscle groups at the same time, and in multi -directional patterns, we are able to achieve a number of additional benefits such as;
Injury prevention through greater core strength and stability,
Improved neuromuscular control,
Improved posture, body awareness, co-ordination, flexibility and balance, making everyday activities feel easier
Enhanced joint range of motion
Reduction in symptoms of joint pain such as arthritis, back aches, neck pain and knee problems
So, What is Functional Movement Training?
Functional movements are Integrated and multi-planar movements, with an emphasis on acceleration, stabilisation and deceleration.
The combination of movement directions and speeds, will challenge and improve movement ability, strength of the trunk region (core) and neuromuscular efficiency. Such movements include pushing, pulling, squatting, rotating, stepping, bending and balancing in a 3D world. These are then compounded into strength, flexibility, coordination and balance exercises.
Think of a Weighted Wood chop movement as illustrated in the section below. The body starts in a forward facing position, with feet and knees slightly turned out and a wide base. The movement is such that the knees are bent and the trunk is rotated to the start position with the weight beside the knees; the core is engaged so that the weight may be driven upwards and across the body (acceleration), as the legs extend and the arms move upwards and across, by rotating the trunk in the opposite direction. To elevate and stabilise, the core is fully engaged throughout, as the weight distribution changes sides. At the top of the movement, the core once again controls the decelerated movement as the weight is drawn across the trunk, and the knees once again bend.
This is a perfect example of a Functional exercise that mimics so many daily activities; think, putting washing on the line, lifting a small child out of and in to a car, or simply lifting something heavy, as well as of course, sport specific movements, such as shot put, discuss, tennis, paddle boarding, kayaking, golf. Failure to recruit the core muscles while moving in these multidirectional ways, is a major cause of what people commonly call "putting one's back out". This is the essence of Functional Training - injury prevention (in life, not just sport).
Each part of each Functional exercise therefore focuses on more than one body part – instead of just one muscle – so all of your muscles work together. This is important because all of our muscles depend on each other and they are supposed to work together.
By using your muscles together, you will be more efficient and use less energy in your daily activities.
Functional movements use your stability muscles (the deep core muscles that lie beneath the muscles of our “six-pack”) that protect the spine from excessive twisting and extending. So, by incorporating functional movement training in our fitness regime we are also able to address muscle imbalances and asymmetries through corrective exercises; all of which help to build a strong foundation for daily activities.
Another huge benefit of Functional Movement Training is an improvement in neuromuscular control. Neuromuscular control refers to the network of neurons and muscles involved in the control of movement. It is improved with functional movement training, as these movements require balance and smooth transitions between motions.
In fact, studies have shown balance training – a key component of functional training – to be more effective for neuromuscular control than strength training.
The more you strengthen the neuromuscular system, the core, and correct muscle imbalances and asymmetry, the less your risk factor is for injuries.
This is so important to keep in mind when you begin training and want to dive right into intense regimes without taking the time to build a functional foundation.
If you’re feeling impatient, remember that any goals of weight loss or increased performance will obviously be cut short if you were to sustain an injury.
These 6 foundational Functional Exercises are based on the primal movements of pulling, pushing, twisting, hinging and squatting & lunging that are the basis of everyday activities.
1. Reverse Lunge with Rotation
Stand with your feet shoulder-width distance apart. Grasp a two- to five-kilogram ball or weight between both hands, your arms outstretched in front.
Keep your core stable and weight on your heels. Take a large step back with your right foot, planting your foot and then lowering your body until both legs are bent in right angles.
As you sink into the lunge, twist your torso to the left and over your left leg.
Bring your torso back to centre, and exhale as you extend your legs. Bring your feet back together, and then repeat with your left leg, this time twisting to the right.
This completes one rep.
Though it has many variations, the squat is the most basic and fundamental of all these functional movements. Correct posture and alignment of hips, knees and ankles for each type of squat is essential for correct technique and injury prevention. Here is the basic air squat.
Roll the shoulders back and down away from the ears. It is important to maintain a neutral spine throughout this movement.
Extend arms out straight so they are parallel with the ground, palms facing each other Or, if it’s more comfortable, pull elbows close to the body, palms facing each other and thumbs pointing up.
Initiate the movement by inhaling and unlocking the hips, slightly bringing them back. Sit back, sending hips backward as the knees begin to bend
While the hips move backwards, make sure the chest and shoulders stay upright, and the back stays straight. Keep the head facing forward with eyes straight ahead for a neutral spine.
The best squats are the deepest ones your mobility allows. Optimal squat depth would be your hips sinking below the knees (again, if you have the flexibility to do so comfortably).
Top tip: Squatting onto a box or chair until the glutes gently touch it is a good cue for how low you are squatting.
Engage core throughout and, with bodyweight in the heels, stand back up to standing, driving through heels, bringing the arms back down by your side.
3. The Wood Chop
Starts in a forward facing position, with feet and knees slightly turned out and a wide base.
Hold a dumbell or medicine ball of 2-5kg securely in both hand
Bend at the knees, rotating at the trunk and reach downwards towards your left knee
Keep the core engaged throughoutby drawing the belly button back towards the spine (BUT DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH
Inhale through the nose, and as you exhale, draw the arms upwards and across the body in a diagonal motion, rotating the trunk as you do.
Try to make the upwards motion faster, with greater emphasis
At the top of the movement, the core once again controls the decelerated movement as the weight is drawn across the trunk, and the knees once again bend.
4. Press Up variations
(i) Incline Press Up
This is a great alternative to a full press up as it stresses your body in the same way, but it takes some of the weight out of it due to the angle.
Start in plank position, placing your palms on a stable surface like a wall, chair, kitchen counter, back of couch, or bench. Keep your arms and legs straight with weight on your toes, shoulders above the wrists, and core engaged.
Take a breath in, and as you exhale, bend your elbows out to the sides and lower your torso in one piece (it's common to leave your pelvis behind, aka sticking your bum out) toward your hands. Stop when your shoulders are in line with your elbows.
Inhale and straighten your arms to return to your starting position.
(ii) Full Press Up
Begin in high-plank position. Your hands should be on the ground, directly under your shoulders. Your toes will be on the ground, and your foot placement can vary anywhere from directly next to one another to wide-stance.
Brace your core by drawing your navel in towards your spine. Engage or tighten your glutes and hamstrings and flatten your back so your entire body is in a straight line.
Keeping your back flat, begin to lower your body. Your eyes should be focussed about two feet in front of you to help maintain a neutral spine.
Lower yourself until your chin is very near the floor. Don't let your back sway — keep it nice and flat the entire time.
At the bottom of the motion, hold for one count, then begin pushing yourself back to starting position, exhaling as you do so.
Modified Press Up
Begin in plank with your knees on the mat.
Extend your right leg straight behind you so it's parallel with the floor. Engage your abs, and keep your left heel in line with your hips by engaging your glutes.
With your right leg extended, exhale to bend the elbows, lowering into a push-up. Inhale to straighten your arms, keeping your leg lifted
5. Hip Hinge Variations
(i) Straight Leg Dead Lift
With your feet hip-width apart and your torso upright, slightly bend your knees to pick up the barbell (preferably), or hand weights if a barbell is not available, off the ground.
Keep an overhand grip on the barbell as you bring it to standing position with your torso straight.
Keep your back straight and hinge forward at your hips.
Focus on squeezing through your glutes as you bring your torso straight up again to the starting position.
(ii) Single Leg Dead Lift /Hip Hinge
- incorporating balance for neuromuscular control
Stand on your left leg
Roll shoulders back and down
Inhale through the nose, and as you exhale, draw the belly button back towards your spine, engaging your core muscles.
Raise your arms in front of you.
Lower your torso forwards and lift your right leg behind you until both are parallel to the floor
Contract your glutes and hamstrings to return to standing.
(iii) Hip Hinge with Reverse Row
Stand upright holding your dumbbells in each hand, with your palms facing in and your knees slightly bent.
Keeping your arms straight and knees slightly bent, slowly hinge forward, bending at your hips (not your waist), lowering the weights to your shins without rounding your back.
Keeping your back almost parallel to the floor and abs pulled to your spine, bend your elbows toward the ceiling, squeezing your shoulder blades together and performing a back row.
Maintain the position of your torso as you lower the weights back to your shins.
Squeeze your glutes to return to standing, keeping your back straight.
6. The Plank and Pike variations
(i) Walkout to Plank
Stand at the back edge of your mat and reach your arms overhead, lengthening your spine.
Keeping your back straight, bend forward, hinging at your hips to bring your hands to the mat. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees a bit to take tension off the muscles.
Walk your hands forward, moving into a plank, and hold each step to stretch your calves a bit.
Hold the plank for a few seconds to really wake up your core before walking your hands back toward your feet, returning to the deep forward bend.
Slowly roll up to standing, letting your head hang and keeping your neck relaxed. When your return to standing, reach your arms toward the ceiling to complete one rep.
(ii) Push up Pike Press
Begin in a plank position, (either full plank position or modified with knees down in 3/4 plank position).
Lower your chest to the floor keeping your elbows in to the side of the body, to ensure a greater engagement of the triceps
Push back up maintaining a straight line from your shoulders to your heels
Raise your hips upwards and backwards, straightening the arms in to a Downward-Facing Dog position.
Plant hands with fingers wide, hips lifted, and weight spread evenly between your feet and hands.
Press your chest back toward your thighs so that your head and neck are in a straight line in between your triceps.
Return back to the starting plank position
(iii) Pike with Transverse Reach
Start in a high plank position.
Lift your hips high to come into pike position with a tight, engaged core (downward dog);
Reach across your trunk, rotating your torso and reach your left hand to tap your right ankle,
Try keeping your arms and legs as straight as possible.
Return to plank and repeat on right side. Alternate sides continuously, coming back to plank between each rep.
(iv) Ball Pike Plank
This is the most advanced of all these exercises due to the instability created by the ball. Make sure the ball is sized to your body; you should be able to sit on the ball with 90-degree angles at your hips and knees.
Start in a plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your shins on the ball.
Do not allow your lower back to arch. Keep your feet, pelvis, and shoulders in one long line.
On an exhale, pull your abs deeply to your spine and use your abs to fold your body in half, pulling the ball forward toward your hands as your pelvis moves up in the air.
Your toes will move onto top of ball and your back will become perpendicular to the floor like a handstand. Allow your head to fall between your arms, keeping your neck long and in line with your spine.
Lower yourself back into a plank position and do not allow your pelvis to sag below your shoulders.
So, the more you strengthen the neuromuscular system, the core, and correct muscle imbalances and asymmetry, the less your risk factor is for injuries.
Functional training will do this by helping you to improve static and dynamic posture, body awareness and movement patterns, thus enabling you to safely engage in daily physical activities .