Functional training aims to improve an individuals ability to perform their daily tasks and/or sporting disciplines effectively and without injury by focusing on movement efficiency, joint health and muscular balance.
A functional training programme can be split into either everyday movements or sport-specific movements. Compared to a sport, we perform a much broader range of movements day-to-day. We sit, we walk, we lift, we hold, we push and we pull, all without taking much notice of it. To apply a functional training programme to everyday life, we focus on 9 fundamental movement patterns:
These all make up our day-to-day movements (with the exception of fighting) and by developing a programme where these movements are trained we should see improvements in our day-to-day activities.
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Let’s look deeper into the 9 fundamental movement patterns:
A squat is a movement where the knees, hips and ankles bend to lower the hips towards the floor. The entire musculature of the lower body is utilised to facilitate movement, and the musculature of the upper body is used to stabilise the torso. A lunge is a squat movement pattern exercise for those of you who think I missed it out. It is essentially a single-leg squat or a combination of locomotion and squat. Exercises for this include squats, lunges, split squats, side lunges and crossover lunges.
The lift movement pattern is characterised by a bending of the hips, where the muscles responsible for movement are the glutes and hamstrings, whereas the squat movement pattern incorporates the quadriceps muscles by the knees bending; the lift is predominantly a “hip-hinge” movement.
The lift pattern should be trained to a much higher degree than the smash pattern - we will come on to that in a bit - as the lifting movement was one of the most commonly performed but, thanks to our sedentary lifestyle, nowadays underperformed movements. How? We would have lifted things from the floor all the time as hunter-gatherers while foraging for berries, laying traps and picking up our haul. If we were to stand still all day we would be underperforming the lift pattern, but we don’t stand still all day. We sit at a desk where our glutes remain in an extended (weakened) position leading to greater weakness in the hips. Therefore, we need to vastly increase the amount of lifting work we do to redress the imbalance. Exercises for this include the deadlift, snatch, clean and kettlebell swing.
An upper body movement where the hands move away from the shoulders. Due to the large range of motion of the shoulders and the fact that most of the time our hands are free to move about, whereas our feet are in contact with the floor, the press motion needs to be trained in multiple directions and under varied loads. Put simply, our shoulder joints go through a larger range of motion day-to-day than our hips and training should reflect this. Exercises include the overhead press, press up, dip, incline dumbbell press, decline bench press, cable crossovers and single-hand variations.
An upper body movement where the hands move towards the shoulders. Any movement that is a pull towards your shoulders is a pull; the clue is in the name. As with the press movement, the pull movement should be trained in multiple directions and under varied loads. Due to the fact that most people spend all day slouched over a computer screen, the back muscles become weak and lose their tonicity meaning the pull movement should be performed to a greater degree than the press motion. Exercises include the pull-up, barbell rows, Olympic pulls and single-arm variations.
Characterised by rotation of the spine in the transverse plane. Think cable twists or Russian twists. The rotation movement is important for spine health and needs to be trained sensibly. There should be no “ego lifting” going on here. As important as rotation is, anti-rotation is also vital for spine health as this helps to provide a good level of support for the spine. Rotation exercises include cable twists and Russian twists. Anti-rotation exercises include Palof press and renegade row.
This movement is the opposite of the lift movement pattern essentially. Where lifting involves lifting something from the floor and raising its centre of gravity, the smash pattern involves doing the opposite. When performed standing, the smash pattern moves with the force of gravity, meaning it could be difficult to load (add resistance), therefore the smash pattern is usually a ballistic exercise; think ball slams. On a rather important side note, the abdominal crunch is a smash pattern exercise. As most people perform thousands of crunches in the hope to develop their abdominals, this leads to an imbalance between the lower back muscles and abdominal muscles. This is why the lift pattern needs to be performed more frequently than smash patterns. In fact, the ratio for lift-to-smash exercise selections should be approximately 6:1. Exercises include medicine ball slams, crunches and cable crunches.
Walking, crawling, swimming, running, sprinting and climbing. All of these are gait or locomotion exercises. Locomotion means travelling movement and gait refers to how you move. We (should) walk a lot during the day so walking doesn’t necessarily need to be programmed into a workout. Swimming and climbing are important skills to learn and provide their own unique benefits to us as we should all know how to swim and we were apes once. Crawling should make up a portion of our training as it helps greatly with mobility and joint health.
Then there is running and sprinting. Which is best? There is a bit of an argument as to which is better for us. The answer is simple. We are designed to sprint intermittently and walk the rest of the time. Long-distance running does provide cardiovascular benefits, arguably not as much as sprinting, and should be performed only if your sport relies on it. The amount of stress-induced through long-distance running on both the body and mind means it can be more detrimental to our health than beneficial. Sprinting is much more important day-to-day and has been for hundreds of thousands of years. Escaping from danger requires sprinting, and in the past, hunting would have involved stalking prey and sprinting after it or throwing a large rock at it. There is a reason Tabata and H.I.I.T have become ever-increasingly popular in recent times.
Specifically, a loaded carry involves taking an object of a certain weight from one place to another. We tend to perform this movement a lot day-to-day without being conscious of it. Almost everyone carries shopping, their children or a bag/rucksack/holdall at some point during the day and walks with it. As we perform this movement so often, we unconsciously favour one side more than the other which can lead to injuries due to muscle imbalances. Therefore, when performing this exercise pattern, one should be conscious to pay attention to their less dominant side when performing unilaterally loaded versions of exercises (loaded on one side of the body). Exercises include farmers carry, suitcase carry, overhead walking and Turkish get-up.
Arguably the most important skill to learn. Why? Well, if you are ever in a fight, your life could depend on it. The ability to defend yourself effectively is, in my opinion, as important as learning to swim. If you cant do either when needed, it might be game over. Learning to fight is very specific and should be done in a professional environment with highly qualified instructors. Having been a martial artist for over 9 years I can say with confidence that a great instructor makes all the difference. Take the time to experiment with different styles and teachers to find one who suits your needs and abilities.
All joints can move in all planes of movement. This doesn’t mean they “should” move in all directions - the knees don’t particularly like rotating - but for joint health, it is important to get the joints used to these movements. When you are standing still and suddenly turn to the side to start walking, an element of rotation occurs at the knee. If the knee is not habituated to this rotational movement then this can lead to some pretty serious injuries.
Does this mean we should be twisting our knees all the time in the gym? No, obviously not. What it does mean though is that we should be performing exercises that contain an element of that movement so the body becomes used to it. Performing the above movement patterns in many directions and planes such as vertical, horizontal and lateral pushing addresses this issue and can prevent injuries whilst maintaining optimal range of motion at the given joint.
But I Want To Look Good
Training like a bodybuilder isn’t the only way to develop an aesthetically pleasing technique. Employing techniques used by bodybuilders will help you achieve that if that is your goal, but they should be incorporated into a functional training regime. As long as you progressively overload a muscle (make the exercise harder to perform), eat properly and rest adequately you should develop muscle and lose fat.
Of course, there is much more to it than that, the point I am making is that you can train movements instead of muscles and still elicit muscle growth which will develop a healthier body. Many bodybuilders today are actually very conscious about balancing muscles and quality of movement, and focus on this aspect in their training whilst utilising principles of overload and volume/intensity to develop their impressive physiques.
If you want to move more efficiently day-to-day and without injury, then you should include aspects of functional training into your workout regime. You can still alter your body composition and train for aesthetics (let’s face it, we all want to look good) if you train functionally and safely.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Maitland is a personal trainer with over 13 years of experience. He has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEO's, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.