Functional training is all about movements not muscles. Instead of focusing on a muscle in isolation, functional training looks at how the muscles work together to improve the way we “function” in everyday movement.
What is Functional Movement?
Author, speaker, and pro trainer Nick Tuminello explains what is meant by functional movement. “Many personal trainers define “functional training” as exercises using three-dimensional movements or standing on unstable surfaces. Many strength coaches feel that “functional training” has to do with just getting stronger in the basic lifts. Many physical therapists and corrective exercise-oriented trainers think that “functional training” is about regaining your muscle balance and fundamental movement ability before you begin doing either 3D exercises or the basic lifts.”
In truth, functional training is a combination of all these skills. Functional training is training to improve for a purpose. What this means is that functional training will differ slightly for every individual, however there are principles of movement which mimic the way the body is built to move, and these tend to apply to almost everyone.
Functional Movement Patterns
Exercise, at its very simplest, is just movement. These movements are primal; our bodies are designed to move. There are 7 basic movement patterns, which most exercises will fall into. Practising exercises which develop and master these movement patterns will build functional strength which can be transferred into all other aspects of your life, from sport to daily function. If you watch a child, they will naturally learn these moves as they develop their range of movement.
The squat is one of our most primal movements, we are designed to be able to move in this position, which is why you will see many toddlers playing in a squat.
To complete a squat, your head should remain facing forward to keep your spine in a neutral position and you should sink your weight back into your heels and lower towards the floor. There are many arguments as to how low you should go. Your range of motion will depend on your flexibility, but it can (and should) be worked on.
The lunge is a single leg exercise, where one leg takes the lead and the second leg bends as it remains stationary. Originally we’d use this movement for functions such as stepping over obstacles or as we threw a spear to catch our dinner. Now the move is popular for building leg strength as well as to improve sports performance.
When lunging, you should keep your front knee tracking over your foot, but not in front of it. Hold your head high and make sure your back stays straight (try sticking your chest out if your shoulders arch).
The push range of movement requires you to move something away from your body, or move your body away from a force, ie the ground. We have two primary pushing movements, the vertical and horizontal push. A vertical push lifts something above your head and a horizontal press pushes it forward.
The top tip for correcting your push up is to keep your back straight and not let your chest drop; you can do this by squeezing your shoulder blades together. If you can’t keep straight, drop to your knees to make the exercise easier.
Pushups - Indoors or outdoors. Take them anywhere.
Pulling is the opposite movement to a push, bringing an object towards you. Much like with the push up we have two pulling motions, horizontal and vertical.
An example of the pull motion is a pull up. If you can’t do a full pull up you can start with negatives and work your way up.
This is where our third plane of motion gets involved and the movements become more functional. Here we involve the transverse plane.
If you think about lunging down and reaching across your body, or throwing a ball, running, or even walking, most human movement has some element of a rotation involved.
You bend your torso by hinging at the hips. This is one of the most commonly used movements; think of how many times you may bend throughout the day, to open a drawer, pick up your bag, tie your shoes.
Taking the weight through your hips, glutes, and legs is the key to lifting weight in a bent over position. This is done by keeping your low back in a neutral, to slightly arched position, as you bend over to lift an object off the ground.
Arch your back and you're prone to all sorts of injuries, in particular a herniated disk. Ouch.
Walking, jogging, running and sprinting all require a combination of movement patterns which we define as gait. This covers all our movement patterns required to keep the body in motion.
In order for our bodies to move in these particular ranges of motion, our muscles have to work together to create movement. Where bodybuilding isolates muscle groups, functional training brings them together in what we call muscle slings.
Anterior Oblique System:
External and internal oblique with the opposing leg’s adductors and intervening anterior abdominal fascia.
Posterior Oblique System:
The lat and opposing gluteus maximus.
Deep Longitudinal System:
Erectors, the innervating fascia and biceps femoris.
Glute medius and minimus and the opposing adductors of the thigh.
The systems tell us which muscles work together, and help us to analyses how to notice gaps in the sling to develop improved movement.
Anterior Oblique System
The obliques help provide stability and mobility in gait. They are both important in providing that initial stability during the stance phase of gait (running etc.) and then contribute to pulling the leg through during the swing phase. This system is important in helping the body create more stability as speed increases in activities such as sprinting, but also as important as the body tries to decelerate during change of direction.
Posterior Oblique System
This is most commonly used during gait movements where the glute max of one hip works with the lat of the opposing side to create tension in the thoracolumbar fascia. The action of these muscles along with the fascial system is thought to fight the rotation of the pelvis that would occur during gait as well as store energy to create more efficient movement.
Deep Longitudinal System
This system uses both the thoracolumbar fascia and paraspinal system to create kinetic energy above the pelvis, while the biceps femoris acts as a relay between the pelvis and leg. What is also important to note is the relationship between the biceps femoris and anterior tibialis, which creates stability and helps build as well as release kinetic energy to help more efficient movement.
The lateral system provides lateral stability. The lateral system is often used to create stability in the pelvis during walking, stepping, etc.
Squats - a pulse-raising exercise you can do anywhere
Functional Training is training for life
If you haven’t tried functional movements or training slings, try adding moves which challenge these areas into your routine to improve your training.