We are almost all guilty of being chronic sitters. In fact we spend on average 8.9 hours a day sat down in the UK. The result is slumped shoulders, arched backs and poor posture, but functional training can fix that. Knowing the right corrective exercises can help you to improve and even correct your posture.
Effects of poor posture
Posture helps stabilise the spine and prevents back pain and fatigue. When the back is straight, the spine is supported by stabilising muscles. As you slouch or practice other methods of poor posture, your spine no longer has the support it needs to stay balanced which can lead to health problems.
Poor posture causes aches and pains. In an ideal world your spine is in neutral alignment and your muscles support your frame, however as we fall away from this alignment, the muscles have to over extend or contract to try and keep the spine stable and protected. This then leads to tightness and fatigue. The major muscles which suffer the effects of this are the Rectus Abdominus, Internal and External Obliques, Erector Spinae, Splenius and the Multifidus. This is why aches are not limited to the lower back, but can also be felt in the neck and shoulders.
Curvature of the Spine
A more serious effect of poor posture is the development of a spinal curve. Naturally your spine should resemble a soft “s” shape, however poor posture can cause this to become exaggerated. When bad posture becomes a habit, pressure on the spine builds and slowly but surely, the curves in the spine change position. Once its position has changed, the spine's ability to achieve what it’s designed to do - absorb shock and keep you balanced, is significantly reduced.
A change in the spinal curve can cause subluxations. A subluxation is a partial misalignment of the vertebra which can become a major issue. One affected vertebrae can then affect the integrity of the entire spinal column. The knock on result of this is that spinal nerves can then become stressed and irritated.
Blood Vessel Constriction
Poor posture changes the alignment of your spine, the resulting movement and subluxations can cause problems with blood vessel constriction. The constriction of the blood vessels around the spine can cut off blood supply to the cells of the muscles, which can then affect their nutrient and oxygen supply. Blood vessel constriction can also raise your chances of clot formation and deep vein thrombosis.
One of the most common side effects of bad posture is nerve constriction. As the spine changes in shape, the resulting movements or subluxations can put pressure on the surrounding spinal nerves. The nerves that connect to the spine come from all over the body and when pinched can not only cause neck and back pain but may also cause pain in other unrelated areas of the body.
Common postural imbalances and functional correction exercises
Tight hip flexors often occur as a result of extended periods of sitting and can cause shortening of the muscles. Tight hips can also lead to a restricted range of motion and discomfort around the lower back muscles, joints and legs.
Functional corrective exercises: Corrective exercises for tight hip flexors would include lots of dynamic movements to strengthen the hips, making sure to mobilise this normally static muscle group. Tight hip flexors will restrict your range of motion for a good squat, so try warm up exercises to activate the hips before you step into a squat rack.
Exercises may include:
- Standing donkey kicks
- Cross body leg swings (these could be banded or performed with a cable attachment)
- Yoga moves such as the “Open Lizard Stretch” or “Pigeon” or “Butterfly” stretch
Internally Rotated Shoulders
Typically it’s those with office jobs who tend to suffer from internally rotated shoulders the most. This is because you’re sat leaning over a computer and extending the arms to type. This causes a craning of the neck and pain around the top of the neck and shoulders and can also result in weak chest muscles. In order to correct this, we need to strengthen the chest and perform exercises which retract the shoulders.
Exercises may include:
- Cable flyes - Always opt for standing over seated when trying to train functionally. Sitting is not functional. Strengthening the chest will help to push your shoulders back and improve your posture, as the chest muscles are reactivated.
- Rotator cuff exercises such as a lawn mower pull - A lawn mower pull requires you to pull a band or cable from the ground, across the body and up to the shoulder joint, retracting your shoulder.
This is caused by... wait for it… you guess it, too much sitting! As you can see frequent sitting isn’t good for us, a list of the effects it has on the body can be read on 'workout at work' here.
Sitting completely deactivates our largest muscle group and can cause weak, tight glutes. This can often lead to sway back and an overextended pelvis.
Exercises may include:
- Deep sumo squats - These will activate the glutes and fire up the hip flexors, taking a wide (sumo) stance also enables you to get lower into the squat, activating more of the glutes and training the abductors.
- Multidirectional lunges - Multidirectional lunges are great for reactivating tired glutes as you fire up the muscles in multiple planes of motion, you should complete a lunge on each leg at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock.
As well as targeting areas which have suffered the effects of too much sitting, we can also stretch to prevent these tight zones in the first place or be more active throughout the day. A great way of doing this is EHOH, an initiative designed to prevent the dangers of sitting, where every hour on the hour, you get up and do a mini workout routine, stretch your legs and move your body about to prevent the dangers of sitting.
Functional fitness is designed to focus your training on improving daily function. What’s functional will differ from person to person, as what we do in our daily lives is different.
What’s not functional fitness?
As with most things, there’s always someone who takes it too far. Functional fitness was originally focused on developing better movement quality, however some interpreted this as “how difficult can we make an exercise” in order to brand themselves as elite. There is no need to be bouncing on a bosu, single-legged with a dumbbell in each hand, unless to function in your daily routine you need plyometric, strength and balance, perhaps this would be functional for perhaps a trapeze artist and even then, you wouldn’t throw all these goals into one exercise.
The aftermath (and most probably injuries) of these extreme exercises has led to a rewind in mainstream thinking and what we now deem as functional training. We’re starting to see the function being put back into the training.
Functional Fitness vs Bodybuilding
Are you team function or team bodybuilding? Does it have to be one or the other?
Contrary to popular belief, no. Functional fitness is not the sworn enemy of bodybuilding, in fact many bodybuilding compound lifts, such as the squat and deadlift, are adapted into functional training regimes. Where the two differ, is with their focus on isolation and aesthetics. Bodybuilding focuses on the way muscles look, whereas functional fitness is about how the muscles move.
What are the Benefits of functional fitness?
You can’t train functionally sitting down.
Typically most people spend a shocking 9-12 hours sitting down. Let’s take your typical office worker, they drive to work - sat down, spend their morning in the office- sat down, go to lunch- sat down and then when they head to the gym, what do they do? Sit on machines. Functional fitness requires you to get up, to move in multiple planes of motion. Simply standing rather than sitting increases calorie expenditure and encourages better sugar metabolism.
You can improve your posture.
Unfortunately for most of us, the stress of modern life and pressures of our jobs, aren't great for our posture. Ever feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders? A hunched over back and slumped over shoulders are more common than not and it’s not good for our health. Functional fitness focuses on realigning posture by working on muscles slings and how muscle work together. Releasing tension from in the chest for example, can help to draw back the shoulders and correct posture.
You will burn fat.
Functional training burns fat. Fact. Incorporating multi-plane, multi-joint and multi-muscle movements means multi-fat burning. Functional training movement patterns crank up your heart rate and keep your body burning lots of calories.
Touch your toes.
Can you touch your toes? No? Time to get functional. Functional training can help to develop your flexibility by developing a better range of motion in movement patterns we use in everyday life.The whole point of functional training is to replicate the body’s natural planes of motion. Contracting muscles is one aspect, but it’s equally important to stretch muscles effectively to help increase flexibility.
It gives your workouts more of a meaningful purpose.
Whilst training to look good is, of course, of importance, functional training is about more than just looking good, it's about training to improve your life on a daily basis. As we get older, this can have a huge impact. It could be the difference between an elderly person being able to get up on their own, or needing a care assistant. Functional training is designed to improve the little things we do, day in, day out, to keep our bodies young and healthy.
You’ll be less likely to fall over
Functional movement incorporate lots of different planes of motion whilst focusing on single leg exercises. This improves balance and proprioception. What does that mean? You’re less likely to stumble over.
Variety is the spice of life
Training functionally keeps workouts varied. Instead of being restricted to training one muscle group in particular, training focuses on whole body integration. The possibilities of functional training are endless.
You’ll get stronger
Training functionally will produce increases in strength, which can help improve your daily life, from lifting your shopping to picking up children.
You’ll build more muscle
Functional training incorporates a variety of different pieces of kit as well as bodyweight, stumulating different muscle fibres and promoting further muscle growth. Lean muscle burns more calories at rest than fat, as well as pulling against the bone to increase bone density.
Functional Training Round - Up
- Functional training incorporates weaker muscle groups which are often neglected.
- Functional training ensures you are fit enough to perform daily activities.
- Functional training can correct posture and improve flexibility.
What is fitness without movement? Does how much you can squat matter if you can’t bend over to tie your laces? Can you move your own bodyweight? Could you escape a burning building?
What is functional fitness?
Function is defined as “an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing”. Functional fitness therefore is being good at what we are naturally meant to do.
Why is functional fitness important?
A good level of fitness is important. We know this. Having a good level of fitness promotes better health and a longer lifespan, but why is functional fitness important?
Because functional fitness trains us for everyday life. Functional fitness trains the body for the stuff we do every day. The stuff we do without even thinking about it. The exercises mimic real life activities and are designed to allow you to perform your day to day activities more easily and without injury. Each exercise 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 are supposed to work together. By using our muscles together, we become more efficient.
The four pillars of functional training
Come on baby do the locomotion! Whatever you're doing, it will involve moving from point a to point b. Whether it’s skipping, jumping, jogging on running. In most movements where locomotion is required, single leg movements dominate. Functional training therefore includes lots of single leg movements designed to enhance functional movement patterns.
In everyday life we are often challenged to move from low to high. From seated to standing, bending over to pick things up and lift things from a to b. A great way to train for this is to vary the angles of your exercises and incorporate movements with level changes such as a single leg deadlift to shoulder press, or crossbody woodchopper, pulling the cable from low to high across the body.
Push and Pull
Push and pull movement make up almost every exercise, whether it's pushing and pulling weights, cables, objects or your bodyweight. These two movement patterns are fundamental to functional training. Most functional push and pull movements require you to push and pull whilst standing. So whilst a bench press wouldn’t be functional, a standing chest press using a cable machine would. With pulling motions, you’re typically pulling something towards you, often off the ground, and that’s where bent-over rows come in. Pull-ups are also great for training various grips required for sports, however rows are probably the best functional pulling move.
Rotation is required in most movements, we bend and twist to pick things up, to get dressed of a morning or to shoot in tennis or rugby. Rotation accelerates and decelerates movement, cables are great for training with rotation as they add resistance to regular movement patterns.
What makes an exercise functional?
An exercise becomes functional when it improves everyday function. If an exercise has a real life equivalent, it becomes functional. Yes, in real life you may not do a lunge with a medicine ball cross body rotation as such, but you may stagger your stance as you catch and twist to throw to another player in a netball match.
A pistol squat is often declared as a functional exercise, but how often do we squat down on one leg, extending the other in front of us? Not often. However this doesn’t mean the move isn’t functional as what the pistol squat does is takes a natural movement and accentuates it, making it more difficult and therefore forcing the body to improve when it has to recreate a similar movement pattern in real life.
Let your kids teach you..
When it comes to functional movements, your kids probably move far better than you. Children typically perform squats and deadlifts without anyone having to show them how and it is as we grow older and become ever more sedentary that these movements become unnatural. The bottom line? … Move like a child and you will move more functionally.
Functional muscle slings
When we talk about training functionally, we look at how muscles work together to support entire body movements. This means we look at how muscles connect to form a chain of reactions which create movement, identifying any weak links in that chain can improve performance. When we focus on muscles working together for function, we call these “muscle slings”. You can read about the movement patterns of each muscle sling.
Adding functional movement to any routine, will help improve your day to day function and keep your training varied.