Did you know there are certain movement patterns that you do every day, even when you’re not aware of it? These movements are integrated into your daily activities, whether you’re working around the house or playing sports. The purpose behind functional strength training is to master these movements so you do them safely and more efficiently.
What is functional training? Functional training consists of exercises that develop strength but also help your nervous system and muscular system coordinate their activity & work together more efficiently. This translates into greater functional capacity as well as a lower risk of injury when you play sports or carry out the movements you do every day.
So, what are the five-movement patterns you need to master? They include hinging, rotational movements, pushing/pulling, lunging, and squatting. If you can strengthen your ability to do these movements, you’ll maximize your functional capabilities. This, in turn, will transfer over to all part of your life.
An integrated, functional approach to training becomes even more important as we grow older. It’s not enough to do isolation exercises to build strength, you’ll gain the most benefits by working your body in different planes. Let’s look at each of these movements individually.
Functional Strength: The Hinge Movement
A strong posterior chain is essential for improving sports performance and functionality. That’s what the hinge movement does – it strengthens the muscles in the back of your body, including the large muscles in the back, the glutes, and hamstrings. Almost every sport that you play requires these muscles to be strong and powerful. So, how what exercises are best for mastering the hinge movement? Deadlifts and snatches both effectively work the posterior chain and help you master the hip hinge.
Kettlebell swings also involve hinging at the hips, as long as you do them properly. The problem is most people do kettlebell swings wrong. Rather than hinging at the hips, they turn kettlebell swings into a modified, dynamic squat movement. To do it right, bend at the hips rather than at the knees when you swing the kettlebell. It takes practice to master it. If you have lower back pain, you may have problems doing a proper hip hinge. Nevertheless, if your back is healthy, hip hinges should be part of your fitness program.
Another movement that can help you master the hinge are glute bridges, not to mention they build strong glutes!
Functional Strength: Twisting or Rotation Movements
We twist our bodies when we play sports and in daily life. An example is when you twist to one side to pick up something or when you rotate in a chair to see something behind you. Bret Contreras, the Glute Guy, points out that it’s important to work on hip and thoracic spine mobility and rotational core stability before doing dynamic rotational exercises. Only after these areas are strengthened, should you do movements that require spinal rotation. Even then, the rotation should be focused on the thoracic spine rather than the lumbar spine. Degenerative disc diseases and bulging discs are common in the thoracic and lumbar spine and you may be unaware that you have one. Improving hip mobility before doing exercises that rotate your spine means you’re less likely to compensate for reduced hip motion by twisting your spine too much. Doing so could lead to a back injury.
Exercises that involve rotational movements include rotational wood chops, medicine ball twists and throws, Russian twists, and rotational lunges while holding a sandbag.
Functional Strength: Pushing and Pulling
Pushing and pulling are opposing movements that use different muscle groups. Training the “push” muscles, the triceps, chest, quadriceps, and shoulders, without giving equal attention to the “pull” muscles, muscles of the back, biceps, and hamstrings, can lead to muscle imbalances that reduce functionality and increase susceptibility to injury. Most people do more pushing than pulling exercises, creating condition ripe for an injury. Examples of pushing exercises include overhead presses, front squats, leg presses, triceps extension and dumbbell flies. Pulling exercises include pull-ups, deadlifts, dumbbell curls, rows, leg curls, and delt flies. The key is to train the “pull” muscle as much as the “push” ones.
Functional Strength: Lunging
We’re all familiar with the standard, forward lunge but to maximize your functional capabilities, you need to master movement patterns in all planes of motion. Along with the tried and true front lunge, add these lunge variations to your routine:
· Reverse Lunges
· Side Lunges
· Curtsey lunges
· Forward cross lunges
· Angled front lunges
· Backward rotational lunges
With these movements, you’re training your body to move and balance easily in all planes of motion and that’s good for functionality.
Functional Strength: Squatting
No functional training program would be complete without mastering the mother of all lower body exercises, the squat. Why is squatting so important? How many times during the day do you squat down to pick something up? For example, to lift a heavy object correctly without hurting your back, you have to assume a squat position. Mastering this movement and developing the leg and core strength to do it correctly will help you avoid injury. Squats also develop glute strength – and that’s important for many types of sports and also for balancing the activity of the quadriceps. If you don’t have strong glutes, the quadriceps will have to bear more burden when you jump or run.
First, master the form for a standard, back squat. Most people have problems doing a squat with good form and could benefit from remedial work. Drop the weights and do standard squats without resistance and do them in front of a mirror, so you’re aware of your form. Get your form right on unweighted back squats before advancing to weighted squats and other squat variations such as goblet squats. Make sure you’re squatting deep enough to activate the glutes and hamstrings as well.
The Bottom Line
These are some of the most basic movement patterns to master for greater functional strength. Make sure you’re doing exercises that involve all of these movements.
American Council on Exercise. “What is functional strength training?”
The Glute Guy. “Topic Of The Week – Spinal Rotation Exercises”
RedefiningStrength.com. “Lunge in Every Direction With The Lunge Matrix”
NSCA CEU Quiz. “The Back Squat: A Proposed Assessment of Functional Deficits and Technical Factors That Limit Performance”
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The Importance of Functional Strength Training
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Balance Your Body by Exercising in All Three Planes of Motions