Functional matters !
One of the buzzwords constantly cropping up in the world of fitness over the last decade is ‘functional’. What does it mean and how does it apply to you? Read on to find out.
What do we mean by functional movement?
As human beings we are designed to move. The individual parts of our bodies are wonderfully engineered to work together to create a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. A body that allows us to get up from the floor, keep us upright and then propel us forwards through space one foot in front of the other. It is designed to do this and many other intricate movements like it, from almost the day we are born to the day we die. Along the way we need to be able to perform myriad elaborate combinations of movements as we navigate our way through life and its challenges.
The movements that the body needs to make to accomplish its tasks are often complex, involving multiple joints at the same time, and moving in multiple planes. Functional movement describes those movement patterns that are based on such real-world biomechanics and which are key to normal function.
So what then do we mean by movement patterns? A movement pattern is simply a way of categorising movement based on their biomechanical demands. The principal human body movements can be grouped into seven basic patterns. A strong and efficient core is essential for the correct execution of all of these movements. It is the practise and correct execution of movements incorporating these fundamental patterns that forms the basis of functional exercise.
The seven basic functional movement patterns
Today movement specialists generally consider that the human body has seven basic movement patterns: squat, lunge, push, pull, twist, bend and gait. All of the whole-body movements that we need to make consist of these movements, or variations on and combinations of them. Because they are so intrinsically ‘human’ they are sometimes known as primitive or primal movement patterns.
Please note that the information in the chart below describes what each movement pattern is in its simplest form; it is not a technique guide. There are many variations on these patterns that are commonly found as exercises.
Proper technique for these exercises should be learnt with a qualified instructor.
Squatting involves the ability to lower the body from standing, by hinging at the hips and bending at the knees, keeping the back straight.
The squatting pattern is used when we sit or when we lift from the floor. Squatting is a very important movement pattern for strength and flexibility, which is why it is one of the foremost exercises seen in weight-lifting.
A lunge typically involves stepping forward with one leg, then lowering the bodyweight by bending the rear leg. There are variations, such as stepping backwards or to the side; the key being that bodyweight is lowered through the bending leg.
Examples of the lunge pattern include climbing steps, some throwing movements, or lunging sideways for a ball in racquet sports.
A push can be moving weight away from the body, or moving the body away from a surface by pushing against it.
Examples of a push include a push-up (press-up), or lifting a box overhead.
A pull is the opposite of a push; moving weight in towards the body, or pulling the body towards a stationary surface.
Pulling examples include the arm action in rowing, or a pull-up.
Twisting involves rotation of the upper body in relation to the lower body.
A golf swing or the horizontal swing of an axe are examples of twisting movements.
Also known as the ‘hip hinge’, bending involves hinging at the hips to move the torso forwards with the back straight. The ability to bend properly is an indicator of healthy lumbar-pelvic rhythm.
It is frequently used, for example when picking up objects from the ground. But is also a very common source of injury when done with a rounded back, or in combination with a twisting movement.
Gait is the pattern we employ to walk or run. This complex movement is one of our most frequently used patterns, and the last to be learnt as a child.
Ever since the industrial revolution humanity has been finding ways to make life easier. We have moved further and further away from our primaeval roots. In the western world we do less and less physical work. As adults most of us drop the ‘play’ we did as children; running, jumping, skipping, crawling and climbing. We lose the huge benefits that all of those activities bring to mobility, stability, strength and flexibility. Our environment, particularly in the western world, gives us aids to move around, automation to save us work and footwear that puts style before function. All of these factors contribute to a critical inability to function as we were designed. Add to that the advances in modern medicine and improved standards of living that mean that we are living longer, and the problem is made worse.
Exercising in a functional way means that we are practising and training the movement patterns that are most beneficial to our daily lives. From the young to the elderly, practising our natural movement patterns well and using them regularly means that we have the potential to stay fit, healthy and mobile long into old age. Classes like my body conditioning are specifically designed to put these good movements patterns into practise.
A cautionary note
One of the possible pitfalls in embarking on an exercise program of any sort, especially as we get older, is the presence of poor habits and bodily imbalances that have developed throughout life. Work, hobbies, lifestyle, sports and sometimes illness or injury can easily conspire to upset the efficient and effective human movement that most of us are born with the potential for.
This manifests itself in imbalances in muscle strength and length, creating issues at the joints which in time can cause pain and a higher predisposition to injury. That in turn can lead to compensatory strategies where we use muscles meant for one job to do another, and this too stores up a whole new set of issues ready to cause problems later. These imbalances should really be addressed before embarking upon an exercise programme. An ideal way to identify such issues is to have a functional movement screen.