Functional Fitness: Are You Strong Enough?

Updated: Apr 1

5 Functional Movements That Will Help Decrease Your Risk of Sports Injury

A big part of my job in helping my clients get out of pain is understanding what level of fitness they were at before they got injured or started feeling discomfort. Knowing this information not only helps to set goals, but gives me an idea of where they were strong or what kinds of patterns may have contributed to their pain/injury.


In my nearly 10 years of practice, I can't tell you how often clients tell me that they walk (insert here: any kind of cardio) for their exercise. Don't get me wrong, walking (and cardio) is great. A regular routine can help you decrease your risk for several serious health conditions (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes), it can improve your muscular endurance, and it's great for cardiovascular fitness. But it's not enough.


Overloading your systems is essential to progressing strength. If you're walking 30 minutes a day (or running 30 minutes, or biking 30 minutes) every day at the same pace, over the same terrain with the same route, yes, you're doing better than nothing. But you're not challenging your systems. Your body will adapt to the forces you put on it. So walk faster or farther, but at some point, you'll reach the max of what you can do to progress with walking. Who has the time to walk 6 miles in two hours every day?


Not to mention the fact that you're not getting a full body workout. With walking (but also running and cycling), your arms and legs are strictly moving back and forth and there will be minimal rotation through your trunk with your stride. Your hip flexors might get tight, and you certainly aren't utilizing the muscles that stabilize on the sides of your hips which can lead to low back, hip and knee pain.


The ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) and the CDC (you've heard of it, Thanks, COVID) recommend moderate to vigorous aerobic exercises 3-5 days per week, as well as activities that 'maintain or increase muscular strength or endurance' 2 days per week.


Here's a break down of the 5 functional movements that you should be working on to build your strength.


Squat


How many squats do you think you do in a day?


Any idea?


Every time you sit down in a chair (or stand up). Squat. Every time you sit on the toilet. Squat. Every time you go down a step. Single leg squat. Every time you have to look in your lower cupboards. You guessed it, squat.


Squatting is a super functional movement pattern, and one that you can easily strengthen. Maybe hitting the gym and loading up a barbell and performing 3 sets of 8 repetitions of ass-to-grass squats isn't for you. That's fine. Body weight squats, goblet squats, and sumo squats are all reasonable variations. Front loaded and back squats are great progressions of those, but you should master the form prior to loading up a barbell.


Tempo Body Weight Squats



Goblet Squats



Sumo Goblet Squats


Hinge


Mastering the hinge movement is essential to protecting your low back from injury - yet most people have lost the ability to perform a hinge well. Hinging requires strength from your hamstrings, glutes and low back extensor muscle groups which are all notoriously undertrained - which is likely at least part of why it's so common to hear about people 'throwing their back out' with something as common place as picking up a sock off the floor.


Does 'lift with your legs and not with your back' sound familiar? But then how often do you bend over to pick things up?


The deadlift is typically what people think of when training 'hinge,' but deadlifting is a pretty complex pattern and there are several movements that should be mastered prior to jumping into a straight bar deadlift or even a kettlebell swing.


Try this progression to strengthen into your hinge:

  • Bridges

  • Quadruped Bird Dogs

  • RDL (Romanian Deadlift)


"Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength." – Arnold Schwarzenegger


Bridge




Bird Dog


Dumbbell RDL


Push


Pushing is the equivalent of the upper body squat and is an excellent way to work on stabilizing the shoulder joint - Think push ups (closed chain - you're pushing your body away from anchored hands on the floor) or a bench press (open chain - your body is stabilized and you're pushing unanchored hands away from you).



Incline Push Up



Alternating Floor Press


Given appropriate shoulder and core stability, working a push in a vertical plane (such as with an overhead press or thruster) is also important. Being able to stabilize through the core while transferring power up through the arms is essential for any overhead activity.



Overhead Press



Squat Thruster


Pull


Just as the push is the upper body equivalent of a squat, the pull is the hinge of the upper body. This series of movements (lat pull downs and pull ups or rowing motions) work to strengthen the middle and upper back as well as the triceps and assist with shoulder stabilization.



Banded Lat Pull Downs



Bent Over Dumbbell Rows


Carry


And finally, we come to the carry. The ultimate test of whole body strength is being able to control one's body through their environment. Walking, running and the long-axis strokes of swimming (freestyle and backstroke) include the alternating and reciprocal use of both the arms and legs, transferring power and momentum through the core. When adding resistance (in the form of a suitcase carry, farmers carry or overhead carry), being able to stabilize through the trunk but also shoulders and hips becomes paramount.



Listen, the take home message here is that there's no one thing that you can do that will help you maintain your fitness or prevent injury. You need a variety of different things, and your body needs a challenge to grow. That will look different for everyone, and yes, something is better than nothing, but consider mixing up your routine. Once mastering the basics of all of the above movement patterns, there is a while world of variations including single leg or arm work, progression to side-to-side exercises, or anti-rotational work.


If you're not sure where to start, shoot us your information and we'll be in touch.

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