The last thing any athlete wants to be is weak and slow during competition. Even though there are no specific “exercises” that need to be done to have a successful training program, there does need to be a high focus on the foundational movement patterns. These include the squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, and carry. Prioritizing these movement patterns is key to longevity, injury prevention, strength development and athletic performance.
The definition of a “functional movement” or “functional exercise” may vary among coaches or athletes, but these are movements that directly relate/transfer into daily living and sport. That’s why there’s no doubt you should include them in your program. This method of training is all about enhancing your body’s performance and functional capacity while remaining pain-free. These movement patterns are closely related to activities that are natural to our bodies and that we perform on a daily basis and in competition. Therefore, if we can boost performance on these movements, they will leave us a better athlete and a more functional human being.
So let’s throw some weight on the bar, and start training hard, right? Not so fast.
Mastering these movement patterns requires practice. Once proper movement is achieved, it then needs to be frequently implemented to maintain good mechanics and enhance performance. Before you decide to add any external resistance to an exercise, you should first master the movement with just your body weight. This way, you will increase movement proficiency, reduce risk of injury and set yourself up to effectively gain strength, power and resiliency. Building a solid foundation based on how well you can move is going to set you up for success in any training goal. If you’re not proficient at these functional movements, you should practice with your body weight and work with a good coach to eliminate any remaining limitations you may have. Once acceptable movement is achieved, only then can you add resistance.
Being foundationally sound will also help bulletproof the joints and create an optimal environment for prolonged exercise and healthy living. This is important because not only will it make you a better athlete, but it will also improve your overall quality of life.
Let’s go over how to set up and perform each one of these functional movements optimally.
The best movement you can train for the lower body is the squat. But before you load up with weight on a barbell, master the Goblet Squat to establish proper squat mechanics and lower body strength development. One of the many benefits by training this squat variation is that it encompasses total body muscle activation while minimizing compression forces on the spine. This makes this variation a high benefit exercise with low risk of injury, so it should be a staple movement for novice lifters and athletes.
How to Perform the Goblet Squat: Set your feet at the appropriate width for your body. Engage the core musculature. Hip Hinge and pick up a kettlebell by grasping each side of handle. Pack the shoulders and keep a tall posture. Descend toward the floor, sinking your hips straight down between your feet. Drive through the heels returning back to the top position.
The lunge movement pattern is one of the best movements to build strong legs, boost stability in the lower kinetic chain and bulletproof the joints. Lunges are typically programmed as a secondary exercise on lower-body day, but they can very well be programmed as the primary exercise of your training session. In everyday activities and sport, we are constantly on one leg, so it is a necessity to incorporate this movement to increase longevity and performance.
How to perform the Reverse Lunge: While bracing your core, stand erect with good posture. Step back onto one leg. Descend down to the floor and bring the knee close to the floor. (Eccentric Phase) Driving through the heel of the opposite foot, stand back up into the starting position. (Concentric Phase) Repeat with the opposite leg.
Split Squats are also another great variation to the lunge pattern. This exercise is easier to execute due to being less dynamic than the Lunge, but it elicits a high amount of metabolic stress due to the fixed position. Once you set up in the starting position, you will drop down the knee of the posterior extended leg down to the floor. Then just like the Lunge, you will drive through the heel of the opposite leg to return to the top position. Stay fixed in this lunge position and complete your desired amount of repetitions.
The Hip Hinge
Regardless of your training goal, implementing the hip hinge (Deadlift) into your routine will help in several ways. Whether your focus is on muscle hypertrophy, strength, power, muscular endurance or just improving your quality of life, the hip hinge can do it! When choosing your hip hinge equipment, be mindful of what works best for you and how well you can move. It’s not about what bar or equipment you are using, but how well you can execute the movement.
How to perform the Deadlift: Brace your core musculature. Pack the shoulders and engage the lats. Sit the hips back and down while keeping a neutral spine. Grasp the handles/bar. Push your feet into the floor until your hips are at full extension. Descend back to the floor by pushing your hips back until weight is set back down onto the floor.
When it comes to upper-body training, there needs to be balanced development in both the horizontal and vertical plane. This will increase functional capacity, boost performance and reduce risk of injury. You would be quite surprised how many people cannot successfully complete bodyweight movements such as the Push-Up, Pull-Up or Inverted Row. Mastering these movements will help establish proper body mechanics and prep you for other fundamental exercises such as the Bench Press, Overhead Press, Barbell Row, etc.
As a result of increased use of technology (phones, tablets, computers, etc.), desk work, lifestyle habits and typical “bro” gym splits, our postural health is at high risk. A good rule of thumb to help offset these negative influences is to pull twice as often as you push. This will keep posture habits and shoulder health in check. Let’s start with the Push-Up, a classic horizontal pushing exercise:[youtube video=”tYjUqk6LmpQ”]
How to Perform a Push-Up: Start in a quadruped position. Pack the shoulders and engage the lats. Extend your feet until you are in the top starting position. Brace the core, maintaining a neutral spine. Elbows should remain fairly close to sides at a slight angle. Start the eccentric part of the exercise and control your body all the way down to the floor. Press back up into the starting position with arms fully locked out. Repeat for desired amount of repetitions.
The Bench Press is another example of a horizontal pressing exercise:[youtube video=”3-kU_EPThuw”]
How to Perform the Bench Press: Establish four points of contact (feet on floor, hips, upper back and head on bench). Engage core. Pack your shoulders and keep your chest high by engaging the lats. Pick up the bar from the bench. Descend by bringing the bar down to the midline of the chest. Push the bar back up into starting position by driving your feet into the floor and pushing the bar back up.
Now let’s cover the Kettlebell Overhead Press, which is a vertical pushing movement.[youtube video=”fOcZky1mcgQ”]
How to Perform the Kettlebell Overhead Press: Hold the kettlebell in a racked position. Engage the core. Press the kettlebell directly overhead until your arm is in full extension. Descend back down into starting position sinking the elbow back down to your side. Repeat for desired number of repetitions and then switch to other arm.
Now onto the Inverted Row, a horizontal pulling movement:[youtube video=”Ohs6TMgKtZo”]
How to Perform the Inverted Row: Set the bar to desired height. If you are new to this exercise, starting with the bar at chest height is a good place to begin. When an increase in intensity is needed, bring the bar lower toward the floor. Grasp the bar slightly outside shoulder width. Lower yourself under the bar. Pack the shoulders and create full body tension. Extend the arms, lowering yourself to the floor. Once your arms are at full extension, pull yourself back to the bar making sure the bar is across the midline of your chest. Hold contraction at top of movement before continuing to your next repetition.
And finally, the Pull-Up, a classic vertical pulling movement:[youtube video=”QZPf7DaVX3Q”]
How to Perform the Pull-Up: Extend arms overhead and grasp the bar with a secure grip. Pack the shoulders and think about keeping your chest high. Create full body tension by also contracting the core and lower body. Pull yourself up toward the bar, making sure not to roll your shoulders forward at the top of the movement. Hold the contraction at the top of movement before continuing to your next repetition. Descend back down until your arms are extended.
Loaded carries are one of the absolute best core exercises you can train. They build total body stability, core and grip strength, fix bad postural habits, and boost overall work capacity. What’s so awesome about this movement is that it’s one of the simplest ways to build overall strength and function while keeping risk of injury low. This exercise can be done as your main lift for the day or added at the end of your workout as a finisher. Use all kinds of tools to test yourself with loaded carries: kettlebells, dumbbells, sandbags, barbell, trap bar, etc.
How to Perform the Suitcase Loaded Carry: Hip hinge back and grasp the handle of the kettlebell, then hinge back up into starting position. Make sure the body is in correct alignment, and brace the core. Taking smooth steps, maintain your alignment throughout the entire movement. Once you have completed the desired distance or amount of time, set the kettlebell down and repeat for the opposite side. For a Racked Carry, follow the same instructions for the Suitcase Carry, but once you pick up the kettlebell bring it up into a racked position, then begin the exercise.
Fitting Functional Movements Into Your Routine
On training days, your primary focus should be on these movements/lifts. Once you have completed these, you can supplement them with unilateral (single side of the body) and isolation exercises to prevent any muscular or strength imbalances.
Your main focus should be on your overall quality of exercise during your training session. Try not to worry about how many exercises you are doing or how long you have been training.
Again, the primary focus is quality of movement and intensity, rather than high quantity of exercises. Prior to every workout, you should have a sound warm-up routine that includes a small bout of cardiovascular exercise (5- 10 minutes), mobility work, foam rolling, corrective exercise (if needed), and movement pattern prep. This will prime the body to perform at an optimal level during the harder part of your training session.
You should also have a quality cooldown period once your workout is complete to expedite the recovery process and prevent injury. This cooldown phase may include low intensity cardiovascular activity, foam rolling and static stretching to elicit a better parasympathetic response to bring the body back down to its normal resting state.
Below is a sample weekly training template you can use as a guide. There are also some sample exercises you can choose from to train the movement pattern for that day.
• Bodyweight Squat
• Goblet Squat
• Barbell Squat
• Bodyweight Lunge
• Dumbbell Lunge
• Bulgarian Split Squats
Tuesday: Push and Pull
• Barbell Bench Press
• Overhead Shoulder Press (Dumbbell or Barbell)
• Single Arm Overhead Press
• Lat Pulldown
• Barbell Row
• Single Arm Dumbbell Row
Wednesday: Recovery Work
• Foam Rolling/Self Myofascial Release
• Mobility Work
• Corrective Exercise
• Low to Moderate Cardiovascular Exercise
Thursday: Hip Hinge
• Deadlift (Barbell, Trap Bar, Kettlebell, etc.)
• RDL’s (Dumbbell or Barbell)
Friday: Recovery Work
• Foam Rolling/Self Myofascial Release
• Mobility Work
• Corrective Exercise
• Low Intensity Cardiovascular Exercise
• Farmer’s Walk
• Single Arm Overhead Carry
• Racked Position Kettlebell Carry