Functional strength training certainly has been a hot topic in the late 90s. As with any topic of great interest, there seems to be quite a few differing opinions on what defines a functional movement pattern or exercise. The purpose of this article is to help increase your understanding of functional training and elaborate on biasing the upper body through pushing movements. I hope to help you look through different lenses when choosing exercises. It must be understood that functional training does not focus on developing aesthetically pleasing muscles, but rather on movement training that will help your clients be better prepared for the demands of daily life activities, on the job activities, and sports performance.
A pioneer of functional training is Vern Gambetta. He says that to create functional exercises, our minds need to think of training movements not muscles, of integrating not isolating. Stated differently, we need to incorporate as much multi-joint involvement and multi-plane involvement if applicable to create muscular and joint interdependency. Exercises such as knee extensions, leg curls, bicep curls, tricep extensions, and floor based torso curls, are considered isolation exercises performed in one plane of movement and are the furthest thing away from functional exercises.
These exercises will certainly develop strength and hypertrophy in the muscles involved if proper program design principles are adhered to. The only problem is that our central nervous system (CNS) is not programmed to think in terms of isolated muscle function. The CNS is programmed for integrated kinetic chain movement that involves synergists, stabilizers, neutralizers, and antagonists all working together to reproduce efficient movement (intermuscular coordination). Each joint action can be thought of as a different musical instrument. To perform a movement like throwing a ball, a concert is being performed within the body, as each instrument must sound off in a synchronized manner to accomplish the desired outcome. If one were to only flex and extend the elbow joint to produce the throwing motion, an isolated joint action, little power would be exhibited. Throwing a ball optimally is an integrated movement that incorporates the legs, hips, trunk, and shoulder girdle along with the elbow/wrist.
Now that we are thinking in terms of integrated multi-joint movements we must consider a few other criteria that have to be met for an exercise to be considered highly functional. We must think of ways to challenge the body with movements that are proprioceptively enriched, in an unstable environment, and that excite the nervous system. The opposite of this is sedating the nervous system by lying on a bench, or sitting on a bench with the torso or back supported. This sounds a lot like the environment in which many machine exercises are performed doesn’t it. We must also choose exercises that engage the spinal stabilizers to a high degree along with shoulder girdle and or hip, knee, and ankle joint stabilizers and neutralizers. We lastly need to challenge one’s base of support and the need to maintain ideal posture. If these criteria are met, the body has to work as a functional unit with a strong stable core.
To help us further think in terms of training functionally, we must look to the work of Paul Chek. He has broken down human movement to what he calls the 7 primal patterns. They consist of the following movements: gait, lunge, squat, push, pull, rotate/twist, and bend. These are the key movements that we need to perform to survive and function in life. What needs to be mentioned is that all of the movements are performed in the standing position.
Let’s now take a look at functional integrated strength training as it applies to the pushing pattern. There are a tremendous amount of options available when selecting a pushing exercise. A very common pushing pattern that we see is performed while sitting upright on a traditional chest press machine. Although this is clearly a pushing pattern, it is not a proprioceptively enriched movement, nor is it performed in an unstable environment, or stimulating to the nervous system. Furthermore, there is little activation of the spinal or shoulder girdle stabilizers and neutralizers due to the seated position and fixed path of movement. Also, there is no challenge to the base of support and minimal need for the postural stabilizers to perform their job to maintain ideal posture.
You may be thinking, boy am I glad I don’t use machines much for pressing exercises. Although this is a step in the right direction, your free weight exercises options may be low on the functional continuum also. For example, you may prescribe dumbbell and barbell exercises for your clients that involve lying supine on a bench. In performing these options, the exerciser is exciting the nervous system to a higher degree and the shoulder girdle stabilizers and neutralizers certainly are awakened. Remember that our goal is to meet all of the criteria to create a highly functional exercise.
A more appropriate push pattern if in the supine position would be performing a dumbbell chest press on a stability ball in the bridge position. Now we have definitely produced a proprioceptively enriched atmosphere and the nervous system is on red alert so that we don’t fall off the ball. The spinal and hip stabilizers are certainly activated, as we must maintain the bridge position without allowing the spine and pelvis to shift laterally, rotate, or flex. The shoulder girdle stabilizers and neutralizers are engaged significantly on the spherical surface, as we must keep the dumbbells traveling along the proper path without allowing inappropriate frontal, sagital, or transverse planes of movement. Maintaining the base of support is especially challenged as the quads, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, obliques, and associated postural stabilizing muscles must activate to maintain the bridge position. This exercise may be progressed to further increase the above qualities by performing the exercise in an alternating arm fashion or with only one dumbbell.
|Alternate Arm DB Chest Press
||2 Arm DB Chest Press
||1 Arm DB Chest Press
Another great exercise that is excluded in base conditioning programs is the pushup. In my functional strength assessment, I use the barbell pushup, which can be performed using a smith machine, squat rack, or power cage. For those individuals with poor levels of strength, I recommend placing the bar between the belly button and sternum when in a standing position. This closed chain exercise gives the trainer a good idea of the clients pushing strength, core control, and shoulder girdle stabilization ability.
In moving along the functional continuum we need to perform the push pattern in a standing position. The cable single arm chest press performed in a staggered stance challenges the entire body to work as a functional unit with a strong stable core. This exercise has a high functional carryover for many sports, especially boxing, throwing, and striking activities. Integrating trunk rotation with the pushing pattern is the key here as the need for dynamic trunk stabilization is required eccentrically and dynamic strength concentrically. The shoulder girdle stabilizers and neutralizers have to work overtime eccentrically with this open chain exercise to prevent external shoulder rotation and excessive extension and or abduction. The deep abdominal wall and inner unit, obliques, and contralateral quadratus lumborum have to work in a synchronized manner to accelerate and decelerate the torso along with the arm action. It’s obvious that all of the criteria are met here to create a very highly functional exercise as the core links the upper body to the lower body.
Cable 1 Arm Chest Press
In summary, I hope you can now see the many benefits to training in an integrated fashion. If you still find the need for a machine exercise fix, perform those exercises after the highly functional movements. Your mind will still be satisfied and your body will thank you when it has to respond during real life activities.